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In 1674 the Connecticut Rogerenes Test the Limits of Religious Freedom

The Rogerenes were an unusual group of religious dissenters formed in New London, Conn. in the late 1600s. They were named for their founder, John Rogers Jr., who was from a well-to-do New London family.

The story most often told about the Rogerenes involves Gurdon Saltonstall, a New London minister who would later become governor of Connecticut.

Saltonstall, as minister in New London, was the most common target of the Rogerenes. The sect was discourteous and abusive toward the established church, while simultaneously maintaining a sympathetic following in town.

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Governor Gurdon Saltonstall (1666-1724) from Yale Collections

As the story goes, a man and woman came to visit Saltonstall while he was trying to dine. They announced to him that they were married in the Rogerene tradition, outside the church and outside the control of civil authorities. Faced with this deliberate flaunting of authority, what did Saltonstall intend to do about it, they demanded to know?

Saltonstall’s answer was simple. Using his powers under the state and church, he declared them legally man and wife and went back to eating. It’s difficult for historians to nail down the details of the story. It’s been told many times and with minor changes in the specifics. But it seems to perfectly capture the relationship between the official New London church and its chief critic, John Rogers and his Rogerenes.

Birth of the Rogerenes

Rogers was born in 1648. As a young man, his family began to flirt with the Baptist faith. By 1674, Rogers had become a staunch opponent the Congregational Church and launched his own career as a minister. The Rogerenes had a collection of beliefs culled from other faiths. Like Quakers, they believed in silent worship and prayer. Like Baptists, they believed in adult baptism by immersion and celebrating communion in the evening.

The Rogerenes also believed that while worship on Sunday was appropriate, work need not be postponed for the entire day. And they believed they should not have to pay taxes to support the Congregational Church.

Unlike some other dissenting faiths, however, the Rogerenes went out of their way to provoke the church. Rogers’ followers, which included a small group of his family and friends, would march through New London on Sunday, noisily proclaiming that they were working on the Sabbath. They would attend meeting at the church and disrupt the services and argue theology with the minister, Saltonstall.

For their protests, Rogers and his followers were frequently hauled before the courts. They were fined repeatedly and imprisoned. In 1695, Rogers was tried at Hartford for disrupting a Sunday meeting by entering the meeting house with a wheelbarrow. At another time, he placed his hand on his heart and stated: ‘This is the humane body of Christ.”

His sentence was to stand on a gallows with a noose around his neck for 15 minutes and pay a 5 pound fine. Further, he had to post bond of 50 pounds to guarantee his future good behavior.

No sooner had the trial concluded than the meeting house in New London burned to the ground. Further, someone had desecrated a meeting house in nearby Stonington. Rogers; his aunt, Bathsheba Fox; and his father’s servant William Wright were charged with the crimes and convicted. Rogers would spend nearly four years in prison. This was just the beginning of his legal troubles.

Rogers faced punishment for entertaining Quakers in his home, helping a young man escape from prison, marrying his maid (she was his second wife and he was not lawfully divorced from his first). The list of offenses grew, as did Rogers’ time in prison.

After Saltonstall was elevated to governor in 1708, he had Rogers declared insane. As a result, the windows of the jail cell Rogers was inhabiting were blacked out (treatment for insanity at the time). But Rogers’ friends rioted and had the boards removed.

When another Rogerene was imprisoned for failing to keep the Sabbath, her supporters removed he doors from the New London jail. All the while the Rogerenes continued baptizing people and being condemned by the church for it.

In 1721, the Rogerenes occupied the New London Meeting House in protest over having been taxed to pay for it, but Saltonstall stayed away. When Saltonstall returned, however, the group repeated the protest, resulting in fresh charges against them.

Along the way, the Rogerenes had begun embracing a belief in faith healing. When he learned of a 1721 outbreak of Small Pox in Boston, Rogers went to the city to visit the sick. Upon his return to Connecticut he developed the disease and died.

The Rogerenes did not die with John Rogers, however. The sect persisted. Saltonstall died in 1724, and the Rogerenes gradually became less of a thorn in the side of the Connecticut government. One group of Rogerenes resettled in New Jersey and started a religious community there. Others took up Quakerism.

The faith was active well into the 1800s. Later Rogerenes were less confrontational in relation to other churches, but they stayed true to their rabble-rousing roots. Rogerenes were among the early opponents of slavery and proponents of women’s rights.

Thanks to The Rogerenes; some hitherto unpublished annals belonging to the colonial history of Connecticut by John Rogers Bolles and Anna Bolles Williams.

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