Separation of church and state
The Connecticut Constitution of 1818 is celebrating its bicentennial this year. Given that the two separate colonies that united in 1665 to create what became the state of Connecticut in 1776 were both founded to establish ideal Puritan polities, the 1818 constitution’s most significant impact on the history of Connecticut is almost certainly the separation of church and state that it mandated.
The River Colony of Hartford, Wethersfield, and Windsor was planted in 1636. The Fundamental Orders of 1639 that served as the River Colony’s constitution were designed to establish a civil government to preserve the Congregational churches: there was no toleration of any religion except Puritanism.
The New Haven Colony was planted in 1638 for the same reason as the River Colony: to create a Puritan theocracy. The late Perry Miller, the most celebrated of the intellectual historians of American Puritanism, famously characterized New Haven as “the Bible Commonwealth and nothing else.”
When the River Colony and the New Haven Colony joined in 1665 to form a unified Connecticut Colony, New Haven’s formal act of submission emphasized the animating principle of Puritan Congregationalism shared by the formerly separate colonies. From that date forward New Haven became a part of the Connecticut Colony and was subject to the laws of Connecticut, including the dictates of the 1662 charter. Significantly, although the Connecticut Charter of 1662 superseded the Fundamental Orders of 1639 as Connecticut’s colonial constitution, the colony’s animating principle remained Puritan Congregationalism, which was decreed to be “the only and principal End of this Plantation.”
Scholars of Connecticut’s history disagree about what led to the demise of Connecticut’s animating principle of Puritan Congregationalism in the Connecticut Constitution of 1818. The prevailing view seems to be that a simmering stew of religious, economic, political, and social ingredients led to it. A constitution is law, however, and a strong argument can be made that as the statutory law and common law in Connecticut between 1665 and 1818 became more accommodating to denominations other than the governmentally sanctioned Puritan one, it was the law itself that was largely responsible for transforming Connecticut from a theocracy to a democracy. It is true that the law in Connecticut only gradually became more tolerant of non-established denominations—for example, the 1708 law permitting “sober dissent” was unevenly applied and repealed at one point—but once the law sparked religious freedom’s flame in Connecticut it could never be truly extinguished.