The Practical Idealist

I have a Dream

Johnson Introduction to Philosophy opening paragraph

I have a dream: the Anglican Emancipation 0f 1818

By Neil C. Olsen.


Today is the fiftieth university of the August 28, 1963 March on Washington where the Rev. Martin Luther King gave his famous “I have a dream” speech. It was a sort of non-denominational sermon based on the “American Scripture” of the Declaration of Independence, which he claimed was as a “promissory note” guaranteeing the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Rather than look into prejudice based on race, and how King through a sort of aggressive non-violence progressed the cause of legal and social emancipation, it might be interesting to recall another time in American history were bigotry was successfully opposed – also by an appeal to the Happiness. The emancipation of the Anglicans in Connecticut was the dream pursued by the Rev. Dr. Samuel Johnson (1696–1772) and his son Dr. William Samuel Johnson (1727–1819).

The disestablishment clause of the first Amendment to the American constitution is so firmly fixed in our minds that it is hard to believe there was a time when it was illegal to belong to a decent church in most of America. Everyone knows that the Puritans in New England fled England for America to pursue the practice of their religion free from the established Church of England “Anglicans”. What many have forgotten is that once settled in Massachusetts and Connecticut, they set up their own established Church and prosecuted dissents (including Anglicans) more fiercely than the homeland did, and much longer: the Congregational Church was legally established in Connecticut until 1818, nearly 160 years after King Charles II was restored to the throne and official toleration replaced the bitter denominational battles of the English Civil War.

Though founded by the great Rev. Thomas Hooker, who instituted a sort of “democratic theocracy” in the state where all men were allowed to vote, the state government was wholly controlled by Congregationalists. Though it was a colony of an empire led by a monarch whose title included “Defender of the Faith”, and who was the head of the Church of England, there was no Anglican parish in Connecticut until one was formed in 1707.

In 1722, the Rev. Samuel Johnson of the West Haven, Connecticut Congregationalist church converted to “the Episcopacy”. After traveling to England for ordination, he was appointed by the Venerable Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts to run the single parish in the state. When he arrived, the missionary priest Johnson found only 30 or 40 very poor Anglican families in a town whose 3,000 other citizens feared and loathed him, not only as an Anglican, but as a turncoat. He was sneered and spat at. He was shunned. He was denounced in the pulpit and the street. He said in his autobiography that he was surrounded by “bitter enemies”. He was even boycotted: he had to sail over the sound to Anglican towns in Long Island to purchase provisions.

His reaction to this harassment was to preserve “a cheerful and benevolent state of mind.” To his Puritan neighbors, he returned contempt with humor, and spite with politeness. To expand his church he preached and converted the neglected members of the community: Indians, Negros, and “heathen whites”. He took quarterly tours of the state, and preached in neighboring towns. He converted Yale students, and placed them first as teachers, then as ministers all through the state. In 1724, he built his first church in Stratford. By 1752, when he left the state to found King’s College (now Columbia University) in New York City, he had founded 25 Churches in Connecticut. By the time of his death, he and his disciples had founded a total of 43.

Johnson became the leader of the Anglicans in New England and much of New York and New Jersey. While he never led a march on Hartford, he launched dozens of pamphlets and letters.  In a series of polemical pamphlets in the 1730s and 40s he defended his faith far better than the trio of King George’s ever did, despite their title of “Def. Fid.” He corresponded with Bishops, Archbishops, Governors, and ministers, and let the Connecticut politicians and clergy know it. He threatened to have Connecticut’s charter revoked unless the state government freed its Anglican citizens from paying the hated church tax. Step by slow and forced step the state retreated, but did not surrender. Though Johnson never halted his mission of the emancipation of the Anglicans, by the time of his death in 1772, he had not succeeded in overcoming the established church-state government.

He also had a second mission of educational reform. He had been the senior Tutor at Yale from 1716 to 1719, and had introduced the Enlightenment into its curriculum. He was the first to teach algebra, Locke, and Newton. Like Galileo he promoted the Copernican System, and like Galileo he suffered for it: he had been fired from Yale in 1719 . He was a martyr to algebra and astronomy, the American Galileo. But he loved Yale, and secured donations for it. He sent his two step-sons to Yale. He co-administered scholarships with the devious Rector Williams, even while Williams schemed unsuccessfully to get Johnson’s fired in the 1730s.

In 1740, he took his own son William Samuel Johnson by the hand and together they entered the Puritan Yale College Hall. His son was precocious: he was not yet thirteen. His father had taught him Latin and Greek so well, that there was nothing further he could learn of them in his seven years at Yale.

The Connecticut Puritans loathed Anglicans with a passion that can be compared with the prejudice whites in the 1940s held against blacks. It took courage and moral guidance for a 12 year old boy to enter Yale’s dormitory among older Puritan students at a time when bullying was endemic, and Anglicans were officially discouraged by law in Connecticut.  It also took physical courage. Thirteen years later, in 1753, an aged Anglican named John Pitt would be publicly whipped on the New Haven Green just across from the Yale campus for walking by a Congregationalist church to attend an Anglican service instead.

Two hundred years later another reverend, Dr. Martin Luther King Sr. would send his own precocious fifteen year old son and namesake to the largely black Morehouse College. When the Rev. Dr. Samuel Johnson walked his son onto the Yale campus in 1740, it was as if the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Sr., had walked his son onto, say, the College of William and Mary campus in 1944 instead of the more friendly black college of Morehouse.

In such a situation, some fathers might give advice on bullying. Some on keeping your faith. Some on making friends and returning spite with calm humor.

William Samuel’s  father instead wrote a textbook on moral philosophy. Johnson advocated replacing theology with a non-denominational course in moral philosophy that taught what was common to all men, based on tenants derived from a “religion of nature” or Natural Religion. The core of Johnson’s “pursuit of Happiness” philosophy is given in the opening paragraph of his Introduction to Philosophy, and is reproduced in the image above.  For Johnson, learning, philosophy, and theology all began with the pursuit of Happiness.

It turned out that young William Samuel’s time at Yale would indeed be happy. The Johnsons found an unexpected ally at Yale. The new Rector was the Rev. Thomas Clap of Windom, Connecticut. Though he had, and has, a reputation as a fierce authoritarian and a hyper-orthodox Puritan, he actually was personally tolerant of Anglicans. He passionately loved science, math, and astronomy. He was weak on philosophy, languages, and literature. So Clap and Johnson created a secret partnership – secret because the Assembly that partially funded Yale was entirely Puritan and loathed the turncoat minister in Stratford. Clap took up Johnson’s textbook on moral philosophy, published it and taught it at Yale. He also befriended the young William Samuel, whose native genius for getting along with all sides first flowered in the packed dormitory of Yale Hall.

Young William Samuel Johnson went on to obtain master’s degrees from Yale and Harvard, become a well-known lawyer, and an Assemblyman in a state that still legally discriminated against his religion. He would eventually become the first Anglican appointed to Connecticut Governing Council. When the Stamp Act crises hit America in 1765, he was appointed as a delegate to the Stamp Act Congress. Tasked to write up the framework for the debate, he introduced the then novel and largely unknown idea of “natural rights” into the Congress, and won the debate to include natural rights and an appeal to “happiness” as just authorities for the Congress’s declaration and petitions.

Over the next decade, the all American colonials began to perceive that they were citizens, not just subjects, with certain unalienable rights. Johnson became a Colonial Agent in London, and alongside his father’s friend Dr. Benjamin Franklin, he argued that the people of American had equal rights to English subjects – argued vainly as the Whig-Oligarchy that ruled Great Britain was not about to acknowledge the Colonials had any rights. After the war, William Samuel Johnson joined the Continental Congress and the Federal Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, where he chaired the Committee of Style: Johnson basically wrote the final draft of the U.S. Constitution.

But in Connecticut he was a second-class citizen. William Samuel Johnson lived to be the founding father who lived to the oldest age; he was 91 and nearly blind in 1818, when a newly formed “Toleration party” that included his own son Samuel William Johnson was elected in Connecticut. The Rev. Harry Croswell led a march in Hartford to deliver an strong and influential “Anniversary Election Sermon” insisting on the separation of church and state. The Assembly voted by a one-vote majority to overthrow the theocratic Charter and codify in a new Connecticut Constitution the right to religious freedom.

It took two Johnsons, father and son, a textbook on moral philosophy, a march, and a sermon, to emancipate Anglicans in America.

For more on the dramatic events in the long struggle to emancipate Anglicans in Connecticut and separate church and state, see The End of Theocracy in America, by Neil C. Olsen.



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