Founded as a Puritan colony in 1636, Hartford, Connecticut is today home to over ten Buddhist temples, nearly fifteen synagogues, five Islamic centers, two Hindu temples, and one of the nation’s premier centers for Christian-Muslim relations: Hartford Seminary. A Christian seminary with Congregationalist roots, Hartford Seminary has made news in recent decades for becoming the first Christian seminary to name a Muslim to its core faculty. Just a few decades after its establishment in the mid-nineteenth century, Hartford Seminary became interested in Islamic culture as it sought to equip Christian missionaries for global encounters in the field. A century later, the Seminary is home to the Duncan Black MacDonald Center for the Study of Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations and is nationally renowned for its training of Muslim chaplains and for its interfaith programming that attracts students from around the world.
Around the same time the initial vision for the Seminary was taking shape, Jewish immigrants began arriving in the Hartford area. The first congregation, Beth Israel, was formed in 1843, although a synagogue was not built until 1876 and only after the growing Jewish community petitioned for the right to do so. The community continued to grow throughout the early to mid-twentieth century as many Jews fled Russia and Nazi-held Germany and settled in West Hartford, which remains a hub for many of the area’s diverse synagogues and Jewish organizations. Today, Congregation Beth Israel is one of the largest Reform temples in the Northeast, with over 900 member families.
Members of Hartford’s Pagan community have undertaken more recent lobbying efforts. In 2008, a group began petitioning the state legislature to acknowledge and pardon their ancestors who were put to death for practicing witchcraft long before the infamous Salem Witch Trials. These requests for posthumous pardons in Connecticut have largely gone answered. The Connecticut Witch and Pagan Network has been a public voice in this struggle, despite the fact that many Pagan groups, both in Hartford and around the nation, still face concerns over discrimination, often preferring to meet privately and remain unlisted. In February 2013, however, members of the Connecticut Witch and Pagan Network joined more than 40,000 others across the nation in demanding an apology from Tucker Carlson, editor in chief of Fox News’ The Daily Caller, for the disparaging remarks about Wicca that Carlson made on air. A few days later, Carlson issued an apology.
Diversity, both ethnic and religious, has grown exponentially and “bubbled to the surface” in recent decades as newcomers have made their home in Hartford. Vietnamese immigrants established the Hai An Pagoda Buddhist center in 1979. Hartford Karma Thegsum Choling, a center within the Karma Kagyu Tibetan Buddhist lineage, was established in 1997. In 2013, Dae Yen Sa International Buddhist Temple and Meditation Center celebrated its thirtieth anniversary in New Hartford, an event that included the ordination of two Buddhist monks. Hartford is also home to Sun-do Daoist Center and a Spanish-speaking Shin Buddhist community, Asamblea de la Fe Budista.
Bosnian refugees began arriving to the area in the 1990s and, by 2004, had founded the Bosnian-American Islamic Society. That same year, several of the Hartford mosques joined with Muslims in Waterbury and Berlin, Connecticut to form the Muslim Coalition of Connecticut, a non-profit dedicated to providing quality education about Islam, involving youth in the community, promoting social action, and working with communities of different faiths. In 2012, the Coalition hosted an event titled “In the Footsteps of Abraham” in nearby Glastonbury to foster conversation among Christians, Jews, and Muslims.
Today, Hartford’s Puritan founders would no doubt be surprised by the city’s visible religious diversity and shocked by the ways in which Hartford Seminary, a Christian institution and one of the city’s oldest residents, is finding innovative ways to promote understanding between residents and a multireligious and global student body. Perhaps they would find even more striking the ways in which the presence—and leadership—of Buddhist, Jewish, Pagan, and Muslim communities, in particular, are shaping the religious and civic landscape of the city.