“Early 1800s: Troubled Waters”
By Joe Pankowski, Church Historian
(This is the eighth of twelve notes which will run on the first Sunday of each month in honor of the 275th anniversary of the ordination of our first settled pastor, Moses Mather, in 1744)
Last month, our story left off with the burial of Rev. Moses Mather in Rowayton’s Old Five Mile River Cemetery in 1806. While the church reeled from the loss of our beloved pastor of more than six decades, we were on sure financial footing. This was due, in part, to the fact that we were still receiving state aid, as were other Congregational churches, and would do so until the enactment of the Connecticut Constitution in 1818. Article First, Section 4, of this document stated that: “No preference shall be given by law to any Christian sect or mode of worship.” This provision isn’t surprising, but the timing certainly is. Why did it take Connecticut nearly 30 years to follow the separation of church and state language found in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution? One can only assume that Congregational churches wielded plenty of power in the Nutmeg State in the years following the American Revolution.
While the Stewards worried about how to fund the church without Hartford’s help, the Deacons had their hands full with what became known as the “Unitarian Controversy.” The crux of this early 19th Century debate was whether God is just God (Unitarian) or do the Father, Son and Holy Spirit form Three Persons in God (Trinitarian)? Congregations throughout New England fought over issues such as:
Is Jesus the divine Son of God or was he just a nice rabbi who taught good things?
Should the Holy Spirit be seen as a Person within the Godhead or was the “Spirit” just a description of how God moved in the world?
Today, a poll of our congregation would find folks all over the map on such matters and we’re cool with that. People are welcome wherever they are in their spiritual journey. Back then, though? This was the kind of thing that split churches wide-open. Unitarians wanted to still read scripture, but no longer desired to worship Jesus. Trinitarians thought these Unitarians had lost their faith and wanted them shown the door.
Our church braved this contentious debate and stayed Trinitarian. The flip-side is found in the church where I got married, the First Parish Church in Weston, Massachusetts. Founded in 1698 as a Trinitarian church, Unitarian worship services started in 1830. Meanwhile, in Stamford you can still see evidence of the Unitarian Controversy. Within a rock’s throw of the downtown Congregational church, you’ll find a Unitarian church. Yes, the break-away folks decided to build their own house of prayer where the Trinitarians could see it each Sunday. Nice.
Next month: the construction of our current meetinghouse and our church’s role in the Underground Railroad and Civil War