IX. The Battle for Religious Liberty Continues, 1784-1785; Baptists Uncompromising in Their Stand for Religious Liberty; Presbyterians Take a Middle Ground to Which Madison Takes Issue


A Publication of Separation of Church and State Law Ministry



Jerald Finney
Copyright © March 3, 2018


After the Revolution, numerous petitions and memorials were presented to the House of Delegates in 1784 and 1785 by the above-mentioned denominations in support of their positions.[1] The Episcopalians sought to recover lost ground. “In the late spring of 1784, a resolution was introduced in the Virginia Assembly seeking official recognition for the Episcopal Church. The resolution was debated for two days, with notable opposition from Baptists and Presbyterians.”[2] Madison, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson dated July 3, 1784, wrote concerning this resolution:

  • “The Episcopal clergy introduced a notable project for re-establishing their independence of laity. The foundation of it was that the whole body should be legally incorporated, invested with the present property of the Church, made capable of acquiring indefinitely—empowered to make canons and by-laws not contrary to the laws of the land, and incumbents when once chosen by vestries, to be immovable otherwise than by sentence of the Convocation.”[3]

The Baptists continued their uncompromising stand against any vestige of union of church and state. They gave their reasons for their position against a general assessment:

  • “First, it was contrary to their principles and avowed sentiments, the making provision for the support of religion by law; that the distinction between civil and ecclesiastical governments ought to be kept up without blending them together; that Christ Jesus hath given laws for the government of his kingdom and direction of his subjects, and gave instruction concerning collections for the various purposes of religion, and therefore needs not legislative interference.
  • “Secondly, should a legislative body undertake to pass laws for the government of the church, for them to say what doctrines shall be believed, in what mode worship shall be performed, and what the sum collected shall be, what a dreadful precedent it would establish; for when such a right is claimed by a legislature, and given up by the people, by the same rule that they decide in one instance they may in every instance. Religion is like the press; if government limits the press, and says this shall be printed and that shall not, in the event it will destroy the freedom of the press; so when legislatures undertake to pass laws about religion, religion loses its form, and Christianity is reduced to a system of worldly policy.
  • “Thirdly, it has been believed by us that that Almighty Power that instituted religion will support his own cause; that in the course of divine Providence events will be overruled, and the influence of grace on the hearts of the Lord’s people will incline them to afford and contribute what is necessary for the support of religion, and therefore there is no need for compulsory measures.
  • “Fourthly, it would give an opportunity to the party that were numerous (and, of course, possessed the ruling power) to use their influence and exercise their art and cunning, and multiply signers to their own favorite party. And last, the most deserving, the faithful preacher, who in a pointed manner reproved sin and bore testimony against every species of vice and dissipation, would in all possibility, have been profited very little by such a law, while men-pleasers, the gay and the fashionable, who can wink at sin and daub his hearers with untempered mortar, saying, ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace, who can lay out his oratory in dealing out smooth things mingled with deception, the wicked, it is clear, would like to have it so; and it follows the irreligious and carnal part of the people would richly reward them for their flattery, and the undeserving go off with the gain.”[4]

The Presbyterians took “a sort of middle ground, which caused confusion in their own ranks and compromised them in the estimation of others.” It appears that the Presbyterian clergy advocated a plan of general assessment supporting all denominations who believed in union of church and state, but not those who believed in religious liberty and absolute freedom of conscience. James Madison commented on the position of the Presbyterians:

  • “The laity of the other sects (other than Episcopalian) are generally unanimous [against the general assessment]. So are all the clergy, except the Presbyterian, who seem as ready to set up an establishment which is to take them in as they were to pull down that which shut them out. I do not know a more shameful contrast than might be found between their memorials on the latter and former occasions. Rives, I., 630.” [Quoting a letter to James Monroe, April 12, 1775][5]

Endnotes

[1] Charles F. James, Documentary History of the Struggle for Religious Liberty in Virginia (Harrisonburg, VA.: Sprinkle Publications, 2007; First Published Lynchburg, VA.: J. P. Bell Company, 1900), pp. 122-133.

[2] Norman Cousins, In God We Trust (Kingsport, Tennessee: Kingsport Press, Inc., 1958), p. 301.

[3] Ibid., p. 302; Brenner, pp. 60-61.

[4] James, pp. 132-133, citing William Fristoe, “History of the Ketocton Association.”

[5] Ibid., p. 130; Cousins, p. 306.

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