In 1656, the Hartford controversy cost Rev. John Russell his job.
During the 1650s the church at Hartford, Conn., was one of the most prominent congregations in the colonies. Built by Rev. Thomas Hooker, today regarded as the Father of Connecticut, the church was largely peaceful.
Upon Hooker’s death in 1647, controversy began rattling the church. Hooker’s successor began toying with the idea of opening up church membership to more people.
The Hartford Controversy
Historian and author Rev. Cotton Mather wrote in his histories of America that the exact details of the Hartford Controversy were hard to tease out even at the time they were ongoing. Personal animus had overwhelmed the substance of the debate. But essentially it boiled down to whether the church should offer baptism to non-church members.
Prior to the Hartford controversy, a child was eligible to be baptized if his or her parents were deemed “in full communion” with the church. In other words, accepting of all major church doctrines.
A progressive movement developed that would allow a child to be baptized if the parents were merely upright, non-scandalous citizens. The church in Boston embraced the idea in 1657.
For conservatives, such as Hartford church elder John Goodwin, the idea was blasphemous.
Goodwin v. Stone
This set Goodwin against Rev. Samuel Stone, who had arrived in Hartford from England with Hooker. Stone had attempted to embrace the new, looser rules regarding Baptism. He had the support of a strong but vocal minority in his congregation.
The difficulty boiled over when Stone was accused of improperly baptizing some children. Stone sought to leave Hartford with his supporters and join the church at Wethersfield. The government denied this request.
Nevertheless, Stone’s philosophy was influential in Wethersfield. In fact, churches throughout Connecticut became embroiled, to a greater or lesser degree, in debating the “Hartford controversy.”
In Wethersfield, Rev. John Russell had assumed the leadership of the church following the death in 1648 of Rev. Henry Smith, its first leader.
Russell and Stone agreed on theology. But Russell failed to convince his congregation.
Russell had already been at odds with one of the leaders of his church, Lt. John Hollister. Russell had testified in a civil matter against Hollister.
The Hartford Controversy Fades, Finally
In 1656, their disagreements became a scandal that enveloped the entire town. Russell, with little explanation, excommunicated Hollister from the church. The decision probably related to the hotly debated Hartford controversy.
Hollister was a powerful man, however. He was the son-in-law of Richard Treat, who owned extensive lands and was well-connected in the Connecticut government.
With Treat’s support, Hollister gathered up signatures for a petition to the Connecticut government that was submitted in 1658. The petition excoriated Russell.
He was “rash and sinful.” They pleaded with the government for approval to hire a new minister and replace Russell.
“We . . . are afraid to venture our souls under his ministry.”
The Connecticut General Assembly did not authorize a new minister, but it did direct Russell to present his charges against Hollister. It’s not clear how the feud was resolved, but it is clear who lost. Russell sought and received a grant of land from Massachusetts and formed a new town, Hadley, with other church dissenters. The Hartford controversy faded away.
Another of Russell’s contributions to history was his decision to shelter two judges who had tried and condemned King Charles I of England. The Regicides were driven from England when the monarchy was restored. They hid with Russell until they died.
Thanks to: The History of Connecticut: From the First Settlement of the Colony by Gideon Hiram Hollister and The Hollister Family of America by Lafayette Wallace Case. This story updated in 2022.