Sunday Feature: A Brief History of the College’s Connection to the Episcopal Church

3 min read

Kip Lynch ’22

Executive Editor

Trinity College owes a tremendous debt to the Episcopal Church, first and foremost for its very existence. While the passing of the Constitution prevented the establishment of a state church or religion by the federal government, it did not apply to individual states. Connecticut continued to support the Congregational church with state taxes to the detriment of other denominations, including Episcopalians.

This issue was notably brought to the attention of President Thomas Jefferson by the Danbury Baptists, who were dissatisfied with the lack of religious liberty. Jefferson while avoiding any explicit opinion on the matter at hand expressed support for religious freedom, stating “religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship…I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature would ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”

The laws that used state taxes for the support of the Congregational churches were known as “Standing Orders,” which were abandoned with the passage of a new state Constitution in 1818. Following the revocation of the Congregational church’s status as the state church, Episcopalians still lacked an institution to instruct their own with Yale College continuing to be dominated by Congregationalists.

Enter the Rt. Rev. Thomas Church Brownell, who besides serving as the first president of what was then called Washington College, served as Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut and later as the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. As Peter Knapp notes in Trinity College in the Twentieth Century: A History,​ “Brownell saw his new college as a means of offering the full advantages of higher learning to Connecticut Epsicopalians and others who were then the victims of Yale’s Congregational exclusiveness. Accordingly, Brownell was careful to stipulate in the College’s charter that the institution would forever forbid the imposition of a religious test upon any student, professor, or member of the Board of Trustees.”

Trinity College would continue to be served by Episcopalian clergy through the twentieth century. Secularization was first introduced by the Rev. George Williamson Smith, who “felt that the College’s ties with the Episcopal Church impeded progress and deterred students from seeking admission. Gradually he lessened and deemphasized the ties, amending the charter to eliminate the Bishop of Connecticut’s involvement with Trinity as ​ex officio​ chancellor and chairman of the Board of Trustees.”

However, this “resulted in the substantial loss of financial support from the Episcopal constituency, and Smith was unable to find new resources in the Hartford community. When he proposed in desperation that Trinity become a state-supported institution, the indignant Trustees placed Smith on terminal leave.”

Still, even at the turn of the century, the College remained close to the Episcopal heritage. We shall turn in the coming weeks to the Episcopal identity of the institution at the start of the twentieth century and how those connections continue to be maintained in the College’s Chapel today.

This is Part I of a Tripod survey into Trinity and its historic connections to the Episcopal Church. For Part II, see the Mar. 28 Sunday Feature “A Brief History of Trinity and the Episcopal Church in the 20th Century.”


Brendan W. Clark '21 is the current Editor-in-Chief of the Trinity Tripod, Trinity College's student newspaper.

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