Religion in the Colonial Period

During the eighteenth century, as the number of Irish immigrants increased in number, discernable migration patterns began to emerge. The Protestants among the new arrivals tended to settle in the Southern and Middle Atlantic states, while Catholics largely gravitated towards Maryland and New England. This did not mean, however, that Irish Catholics were embraced in Connecticut, or that Irish Protestants did not take up residence in the state. On the contrary, many Catholics experienced the same religious prejudices they had experienced at the hands of the English and as a result until 1830 the state lacked a single Catholic Church. On the other hand, a notable number of Irish Protestants settled in Connecticut, where they were generally better able to blend into the English population than their Catholic compatriots. Despite this fact, bumps along the road were inevitable considering the prejudices many English colonists held towards the Irish of any religion, an example of which having been well documented in Connecticut’s history via the experience of the Reverend Samuel Dorrance of Voluntown.

The Rev. Samuel Dorrance was of Scotch-Irish heritage and was born in 1685. A graduate of Glasgow University, he emigrated to Connecticut with his brothers John, George, and James, circa 1720. In 1722, Rev. Dorrance answered a call from the people of the recently incorporated town of Voluntown, Connecticut for a minister to serve their fledgling parish. A Presbyterian rather than Congregationalist by faith and training, Rev. Dorrance’s selection during this period is somewhat surprising; however, it appears that at least at first his appointment would take place without opposition. Rev. Dorrance preached the gospel on a conditional arrangement from December 1722 through May 1723 and letters were eventually sent to the ministers of New London, Canterbury, Preston, Plainfield, and Killingly announcing his proposed ordination on October 23, 1723.

Upon the time of his formal ordination, however, a local petition was raised by a minority of residents against Rev. Dorrance, this citing a number of objections including his foreign background and the fact that his arrival was accompanied by that of several other Scotch-Irish Presbyterian families. The latter included his brothers John and George, as well as families by the name of Gordon, Campbell, Kasson, Hopkins, Keignwin, Hamilton, and Gibson, who purchased land around the Sterling Hill section of town.23 A history of the Dorrance family notes that, “There were among them men of excellent character, but in the estimation of the older settlers they were foreigners and were regarded with suspicion.”24 Despite the minority opposition against Rev. Dorrance, the people of Voluntown eventually approved his ordination in December 1723. As a result, Rev. Dorrance’s parish became the first, and for an extended period the only, Presbyterian church in the state. The minister married a local woman, Elizabeth Smith, in 1726, and served the town until his retirement in 1771. Rev. Samuel and Elizabeth Dorrance had six children, five sons and one daughter. Three of Rev. Dorrance’s sons served in the Revolutionary War, one, George, rose from the rank of private to Lieutenant Colonel, and served with distinction before being killed on the Pennsylvania frontier on July 4, 1778. Rev. Samuel Dorrance died at the age of 90 in 1775.25

While the Rev. Dorrance met with some hostility due to his Irish background and Presbyterian faith, immigrant Catholics generally faced much greater hostilities. In the New World, Irish Catholics arrived in an environment where the practice of their religion was generally forbidden and appeals for citizenship were denied unless they renounced their faith. Connecticut was by no means exempt from such prejudices. Rather, it has been argued that during the eighteenth century the state was among the most entrenched against any practice diverging from the officially recognized state religion, Congregationalism. “Probably no other colony was so consistently orthodox as was Connecticut, and nowhere else was official authority exercised with so deliberate a desire to preserve orthodoxy unsullied from the world. Probably no other colonists were so tenacious of a single body of doctrine or of a single form of church worship as were the people of Connecticut before the Great Awakening of 1740, which began the break-up of the Puritan system.”26 While the Great Awakening certainly weakened the dominant position of the Congregational Church in Connecticut, the ideas espoused were far from an endorsement of broad religious freedom. The only groups to see modest increases in the ability to practice their faith without persecution were dissenting Protestant groups such as the Baptists and Episcopalians. During the 1770s, philosophical arguments surrounding the American Revolution, these related to concepts of personal liberty and self- determination, certainly helped to further challenge the church-state ties of the Congregationalists, however, this dominance would not be formally broken until the Charter of 1662 was abandoned and a new state constitution adopted in 1818. Despite this fact, the Irish – both Catholic and Protestant – would continue to face significant prejudices due to their status as foreigners, as well as for their religion, until after the Civil War.27

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