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Just say “amen”

On September 12, 1722, a large audience sat tensely through the commencement ceremony at Yale, hanging on every word uttered by the highest officer of the college. By the 1720s the Yale commencement service, held in the fall in that era, had become one of the great public events of the year in the colony of New Haven—but this year’s service attracted particularly intense interest. Rumors had spread that Timothy Cutler, the rector (equivalent to today’s president), planned to declare himself an apostate.

And at the very end of the service, he did. Cutler concluded his prayer with the words “And let all the people say, Amen.” The simple phrase, an Anglican blessing, amounted to a proclamation that the rector of Yale—leader of a Congregationalist institution and pillar of a Congregationalist town—was renouncing his faith and joining the Church of England.


Until that moment, Connecticut had been the last bastion of puritanism.

Until that moment, Connecticut had been the last bastion of puritanism: the only New England colony that consistently rejected Anglican influence. The first Anglican missionaries had been sent to the state in 1702, but 20 years later, they still had not established a congregation. Indeed, in Cutler’s day, historian Richard Warch '64BD, '68PhD, has written, Connecticut viewed members of the Church of England as “religious deviates.” The rector’s “Amen” was the first public step toward making Anglicanism an accepted part of Connecticut’s religious landscape.

Cutler had several brothers in apostasy. The cabal included five ministers of other Connecticut towns, as well as the Yale tutor, Daniel Browne. All were Yale graduates. One of them, Samuel Johnson '14, was the minister of West Haven, a former tutor at Yale, and the future founding president of Columbia University.

The next day, the seven Anglicans-to-be were summoned to an urgent meeting with the Yale Corporation, including Governor Saltonstall. The meeting was held in the college library—repository, as the trustees would soon learn, of many of the books that had challenged the Yale scholars' belief in strict Calvinism. The seeds had been planted long before, however: Cutler was a Harvard graduate and native of the Boston area who had been exposed to Anglican views there. He had long had his doubts about Congregationalism, and when he became rector of Yale in 1719, he soon found other like-minded dissenters.

“The Great Apostasy” was a major scandal in the region. Boston’s New England Courant, a newspaper published by Benjamin Franklin and his older brother James, devoted a steady stream of news flashes, editorials, letters to the editor, and satirical poetry to the event and its aftermath. One article, signed “Jethro Standfast of Nuhaven” and written in a phonetic vernacular possibly intended to convey Boston’s opinion of New Haven bumpkins, declared: “There has been a most grievous rout and hurle-burle among us, ever sense the nine Ministers are turn'd Hi-Churchmen: Fokes sa, they have drawn up a riting and sind it, wherin they declar, that all our Churches are no Churches, and our Ministers no Ministers, and that tha have no more Authoriti to administer the ordinances thun so many Porters or Plow-Ioggurs: Sum of our Pepel danse ater thare Pipe, and tel us that our Ministers formuli were ordan'd by Midwives and Coblurs; but others that this is a false Doktrin and belongs to the Church of Rome: . all the pepel are runnin mad.”

Still more shocking than the revelation of the Yale men’s intent to be ordained Anglican ministers was the implication that their Congregational ordination was invalid. On October 29, the Courant concluded: “But there is one thing more which lies very much upon the minds of some judicious men, and most old women; and that is, what should those Persons do who have been christened, alias couzened, in plain English, cheated by these Ministry, who had no commission to baptize?” Daniel Browne, Samuel Johnson, and one other member of the Yale group sent a letter to the editor (which was published as “for the entertainment of the week”), defending their actions and affirming that there was still salvation for non-Anglicans despite the change in their personal convictions. The general disillusion that tarnished the image of New Haven as the City of God, stronghold of orthodoxy, was summed up in this quatrain from the Courant:

Strange Aspects in New Haven late were seen
Of Heavenly Bodies which 'twas thought had been
Stars of the highest Orb, fix'd in their Sphere,
But now at last but wandering stars appear.


The reputation of Yale College was shaken by Cutler’s dismissal.

Before the apostasy, Yale College had appeared to be entering a golden age under Cutler. Ezra Stiles, who would later become Yale’s president, characterized his predecessor as “a grand figure at the Head of a College,” a man possessed of a “high, lofty, and despotic mien,” capable of keeping unruly students in line. In addition, thanks to Elihu Yale’s and Jeremiah Dummer’s donations of books from England, Cutler was able to enrich the curriculum and introduce the study of Newton and Locke. (Among the English volumes were the many religious books that influenced Cutler’s thinking.)

Despite Governor Saltonstall’s attempts to heal the breach, the trustees “excused Cutler from all further service” and accepted Browne’s resignation. They also decided that in the future the rectors would have to swear to the Confession of Faith of the Saybrook Platform.

Cutler, Browne, and Johnson sailed for England. Browne died of smallpox, but Cutler was ordained and received doctor of divinity degrees in 1723 from both Oxford and Cambridge. He became rector of Christ Church in Boston and served for more than 40 years, until his death in 1765.

The reputation of Yale College was shaken by Cutler’s dismissal. It is not known how many students were influenced by the apostasy, but at least two undergraduates transferred to Harvard. Over the next four years the trustees offered the presidency to five ministers—all of whom declined to serve. Their sixth choice, Elisha Williams, took office in 1726, after swearing to the Saybrook Confession of Faith. The books that helped sway the Cutler cabal remained in the library.  the end


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