A Sermon Addressed to the Legislature of the State of Connecticut at the Annual Election in Hartford, May 7th, 1823

Maura Jane Farrelly

Professor Maura Jane Farrelly, Brandeis University

Nathaniel Taylor was the first professor hired to teach in Yale’s Divinity School, which was founded in 1822. He was influential in the creation and perpetuation of what was known as the “New Haven Theology,” an approach to Calvinism that downplayed pre-destination and emphasized the ability of people to chart their own destinies through the pious use of their reason.

This ability of people to use their reason to shape their souls’ salvation made the influence that Christianity could have on society a particularly important issue for Taylor.  He deeply believed that Christian faith could turn people into law-abiding citizens and good fathers, sons, mothers, and daughters.  The state, therefore, had an obligation to itself and to its citizens to encourage people to embrace the tenets of Christianity.

Taylor delivered this sermon less than five years after Connecticut’s lawmakers had voted to disestablish the Congregational Church in that state. One of the ironies of history is that the least religious part of the United States today (judging from how often people say they pray or attend worship services, how important they say religion is to them, and whether they profess to believe in God) was actually the region that held onto its state-supported churches for the longest period of time.  Decades after lawmakers in every other state had abandoned the idea of financially supporting churches and ministers, four of New England’s five states (Maine was a part of Massachusetts until 1820…) still mandated some form of religious establishment.

In Connecticut, the state collected taxes to support the Congregational Church until 1818, when lawmakers there – recognizing that the state had become home to many Baptists, Methodists, and Episcopalians – voted to get rid of religious taxes.

The last state to stop financially supporting religion was Massachusetts, in 1833.  The reason states could have established churches, in spite of the First Amendment to the Constitution, is that the Bill or Rights did not apply to the states until 1947, when the Supreme Court ruled that provisions in the 14th Amendment, passed in 1865, required state governments to adhere to the mandates of the U.S. Constitution.

 

Questions to consider in this reading:

  • What, for Taylor, is the proper end of good government? What is the proper relationship between the Church and the State?
  • Do you think Taylor approved or disapproved of disestablishment?
  • What, for Taylor, are the limits of the “rights on conscience”?

A Sermon Addressed to the Legislature of the State of Connecticut at the Annual Election in Hartford, May 7th, 1823

Nathaniel Taylor

1823

Laying aside, then, our party contests together with their jealousies and suspicions, let our hearts be united in a common interest.  Let us remember that submission to the powers that be, which are ordained of God, is a duty which can scarcely need qualification in this community.  Let it be remembered, that injustice and oppression on the part of government are seldom prevented, but often provoked, by party contests.  Let the political oracle who is loud in the cry for improvement and change, be counted as he is, a political maniac; and the party zealot be eyed and scorned, as the enemy of his country.

In the character of Christians we have solemn duties to perform, in regard to the peace and welfare of the State.  We have already adverted[1] to the dangers and evils in this respect, of sectarian zeal and sectarian conflicts, when connected with political contests.  Such dangers and evils are not fictitious; and they summon Christians of every denomination, under solemn responsibilities, to union.

Every denomination of Christians should depend simply, for the maintenance of its numbers and its influence, on the purity of its doctrines, the sanctity of its morals, and the zeal and labors of its ministry.

Here, Taylor seems to be suggesting that he supports the disestablishment of the Congregational Church in Connecticut…

It always has been, and it always will be, an ultimate curse to any religious denomination, to strengthen and build up itself by political patronage.

Roger Williams was concerned about the corrupting influence the State could have on the Church; Thomas Jefferson was concerned about the corrupting influence the Church could have on the State. Which man’s concerns does Taylor seem to echo here?

If Christians are to be less concerned for the cause of God and of souls than for the success of their religious party; if sect is to clash with sect; if to augment their secular influence, and to pervert it to build up their cause, they are to become political factions; and if the community are to witness only their mutual hostility and contests, the most fearful results may be foretold with the certainty of prophecy.  Nothing, nothing can atone for “the broken unity, the blighted peace, the tarnished beauty, the prostrate energy, and the humbled honor of the church of God.”  Every barrier between the church and the world would be swept away; ignorance of God and of duty would thicken apace, and the broadest sunshine of the gospel be eclipsed by the spreading darkness.  Moral influence, the only safeguard of social order and social happiness, would cease from the community; and when God should come to make inquisition for blood, the death of whole generations would be found at the door of this disgraceful, guilty strife among brethren.

Let Christians, then, bury in oblivion their sectarian contests, with all those

Recall that the impetus for getting rid of the established church in Connecticut was that the state had become more denominationally diverse…

animosities, jealousies, and suspicions, which mar their intercourse.  Without a pretence of differing on essential truths, or that each sect has not every desirable means of promoting the cause of God, what can justify alienation and mutual competitions?  When by union and concert we might do so much to uphold and extend that influence which the wisdom of God has appointed to bless men, in time and eternity, what can justify us in wasting our strength in the work of proselytism, and for the purpose of merging the Christian in the sectarian, and the sectarian in political partizan?  Ah!  Brethren, we want more of the sacred fire that glowed in the breasts of the early Christians; more the spirit of Heaven;

This suggests that there may have been some limits to how non-sectarian Taylor was willing to be. Recall that most Protestants believed the Catholic Church had perverted Christianity, and they sought a return to the early, “primitive” Church as a way of avoiding that corruption.  An endorsement of how “early Christians” did things was, implicitly, a rejection of how Catholics did things.

more fellowship with angels, with God and his Son, in the work of bringing men to repentance and to salvation… Let us then open our hearts to higher and nobler inspirations.  Let us strike our hands in a covenant of love… Then shall the church be one, and secure, from the most profane, the acknowledgment of her divinity, in the blessings she bestows on our land.  Then, in firm encounter, her sons shall meet the legions of error and death, and go on to new triumphs, till earth shall hear and welcome the salvation of God.

As members of the community, and especially as those who have authority and influence, we are called to counteract vice, and to uphold the institutions of religion…

One interesting bit of historical context is that the other New England states that had religious establishments did not support one, specific denomination, the way Connecticut did. In Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts/Maine, taxpayers were able to direct their taxes toward a church of their choice. Granted, they were not at liberty NOT to pay the religious tax – and if they didn’t designate a denomination, the money from their taxes went to the Congregational Church. But does this context – in combination with the highlighted sentence here – change our understanding of how Taylor felt about the decision of Connecticut’s lawmakers to disestablish the Congregational Church?

I know that every plan of moral improvement is met by the paralyzing prediction, that nothing can be done.  I know, too, there is a point of moral degeneracy from which a people will not choose to rise, and from which God will not choose to raise them.  But heaven forbid that we should have reached this place of despair and woe!  Nor do we believe, that there are no existing laws which can be executed, and especially that no laws can be formed, which can be executed, for the suppression of Sabbath-breaking and drunkenness.  Which is the town in this state, a majority of whose freemen, would not approve and support decisive measures for such purpose?  There is yet left a correctness of moral sentiment, which would uphold any legislature, who should strenuously bring the power of its provisions to bear on these evils.  Nay, there are friends of good order and good government enough to create a sound public opinion, that shall secure an active co-operation with legislative efforts, which neither the sectarian nor political partizan can withstand.  Criminals, and the abettors of crime, are cowards.  Conscience and God are both against them.  And let the civil statute, and public opinion, be arrayed against them, and their defeat is certain.  At any rate, let the experiment be tried; and let us have the appalling decision that nothing can be done, if at all, as the result of thorough experiment.  Look at the ravages of the single crime of drunkenness, in families, in neighborhoods – go to your poor-houses and prisons, and see the prostration of moral principle, what desolations of domestic peace, what crimes, and woes, and death, it spreads through the land!  What a tax every sober and industrious member of the community has to pay for the support of this soul-destroying sin!  More than nine-tenths of the poor-tax of our country result from this single cause.  Think of nearly fifty millions of dollars of annual expenditure in this nation, for strong drink.  See how this crime associates with it every crime and every woe; — Sabbath breaking, profanity, idleness, lying, fraud, the extinction of natural affection, theft and murder, and sorrows, griefs and broken hearts, ruined parents, and a ruined offspring… Shall sectarian and party zeal, to secure the auspicious patronage and support of drunkards, consent to defeat this cause of humanity, and every heart be cold, and every hand be idle, as if panic struck by the fear of popular odium[2]?  Then, a few generations passed, and we are a ruined people.  Liberty and religion will here mingle their tears of despair over all that man holds dear and God counts holy…

Not less imperious is the duty of upholding the institutions of religion.  Our argument on this point is not now drawn from the interests of eternity.  It is simply an appeal to patriotism.  If men had no souls; were there no judgment day; no preparation requisite for the immortal state; the well-being of society in time demands the support of Christian institutions.

Here, Taylor is insisting that people with authority and influence (And what exactly does that mean? See the highlighted statement above…) have an obligation to support religious institutions, not because religion has an impact of the condition of people’s souls, but because it has an impact on the condition of society.

These are the institutions which divine wisdom and mercy have appointed to bless man on earth.  Without them, the laws of civil government, salutary and indispensable as they may be, are but a cobweb provision.  The great ends of government must fail in every nation, without national morality.  This is well understood by the friends of revolution, in every Christian country.  When they would corrupt, and overturn, and destroy, their first and most sanguinary measures have been directed against Christian ministers and Christian institutions.

Here, Taylor is almost certainly thinking of the anti-clericalism of the French Revolution… which is interesting, given that the clergy Robespierre and his partners went after were all Catholic.

Change, innovation, revolution in a community, where religious institutions exert their proper influence, are hopeless.

Interesting that it hasn’t even been 50 years since the start of the American Revolution, and look at how Taylor is speaking of revolutionary change in a society…

– These must first be brought into contempt; and when this is done, the work of ruin is complete.  Even the wise heathens knew this, and defended their religious rites with a spirit and a wisdom with disgrace many in this enlightened country.  Let then the friends of their country, and of social happiness, be as wise as their enemies.  Why should they not understand where their strength lies, and be as solicitous to preserve it, as the invaders of national happiness and prosperity are to destroy it?  Why should not legislators, judges, magistrates or every description, with every friend of his country, uphold these institutions, which are its strength and glory?

Hm… are we starting to get a sense of who Taylor means by people “with authority and influence”? Note who makes it onto his list…

May not institutions, which the wisdom and goodness of God have appointed to bless man in time as well as in eternity, be upheld without intolerance and persecution?  Are we thus prepared to libel their Author, and for the sake of liberality and charity to men, are we to have no charity for the living God; and to show that we have none, by laying aside his ordinances as useless?  Shall clamors, about the rights of conscience induce us to throw away Heaven’s richest legacy to earth?  Shall the murderer plead the rights of conscience for the privilege to kill, and the incendiary for the privilege to burn?  Has any man rights of conscience which interfere with a nation’s happiness?

Here, Taylor is touching upon one of the reasons the proper relationship between the Church and the State is still debated in this country, all these years later: both religion and law are interested in what is right, good, and just.  How, then – and to what end – are we to keep them separate?

Or is it yet to be made a question, whether Christianity be not a wretched imposture[3]; whether it have a salutary influence on civil society?  Have we, in this land, to hold this point as yet in debate?  Can we decide that theft, and robbery, and murder are evils, and yet not decide whether the influence of the gospel of God be to bless or to curse those who feel it?  Is it right to punish crimes which invade social peace?  Does the public welfare demand it?  And yet is it persecution so to bring the light and influence of moral truth to bear on the mind of man, as to prevent these crimes?  But you will make men Christians.  And what if we do?  The sin is not unpardonable.  Besides, is it not as truly an act of kindness to make men Christians, by the exhibition of duty and is sanctions, in the light of God’s truth, as it is to make men infidels and atheists, by means of falsehood and sin?  But you will make sectarians.  God forbid.  We plead for no such influence.  We only ask for those provisions of law, and that patronage from every member of the community, in behalf of a common Christianity, which are its due as a nation’s

What might Taylor mean by this term? What does he probably NOT mean?

strength and glory.  In this country, and pre-eminently in this State, the unity of our councils, the vigor of our government, our laws, our habits, have resulted from the moral influence of Christianity.  Annihilate this influence, and you bid the soul depart, and prepare a grave for our liberties, our religion, our morals, and our happiness.  And who would put his hand to this work?  Who are the men that would empty our sanctuaries and our pulpits; break down the Sabbath, and all the institutions of Christianity; and exclude its influence from their own minds, and the minds of their fellow beings?  They are men who would extinguish the idea of Jehovah in the mind of man, as if that were the most painful to human contemplation, and the most destructive to human happiness!  Great God!  What deeds of horror have these men to perpetuate, that makes them thus dread thine inspection?  Unhappy, wretched men!  The presence that enraptures Heaven is their chiefest torture; nor can they find relief but in the persuasion that the world is forsaken of its God! – Are these men to be listened to?  No – brethren; they are the enemies of God and man, and ought to be accounted.

Let us then remember that the safety and welfare of nations is not to be chiefly sought either in arts or in arms – and that the utmost barbarity may be united with the highest refinement.  We may dream of a philosophical millennium, and banish the fear of God and dependence on his mercy; but he who ruleth among the nations has fixed the laws of national prosperity.  By his resistless decree, no vigor of the body politic can long survive the decay of religious institutions.  No wisdom or policy, that despises the power of his Gospel, can withstand that wrath of the Almighty by which he avenges his abused goodness.  Let then every friend to his country do what he can to secure to Christian institutions their place and influence in that system of means which God has appointed to bless humanity in time.  Let the being of God, as the ever present Ruler and final Judge of men, be recognized.  Let the Saviour’s name be adored and trusted… Let the family and the school be the nursery of youthful piety.  Let the magistracy of our land by a faithful execution of the laws, become a terror to evil doers, and the praise of them do well.  In a word, let all those institutions be upheld, by which God would bless, and we shall be blessed.  Angels on embassies of love will visit our land, and minister to the heirs of salvation: the spirit of grace will still breathe on the dry bones of the valley and quicken to immortal life: the Saviour will be satisfied with the trophies of his mercy: the sun or our nation’s prosperity will rapidly rise to is meridian, and the voice of a reigning God command it to stand still in fullest splendors.


  1. “adverted” = called attention to (archaic)
  2. “odium” = disgust
  3. “imposture” = an act of deception

License

Collaborative Curriculum: Bill of Rights Copyright © by Maura Jane Farrelly. All Rights Reserved.

Share This Book