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this Commonwealth which may apply for the same. Bills were ordered accordingly.
On June 25, the bill to incorporate the Protestant Episcopal Church was put off to the second Monday in November.
The General Committee met for the first time on Saturday, October 9, 1784, with delegates from four Associations present. William Webber was appointed Moderator, and Reuben Ford, Clerk, and these positions they held, except for a few sessions, till the dissolution of the Committee in 1799. The important articles of their Constitution were: “1. The General Committee shall be composed of delegates sent from all the district Associations that desire to correspond with each other. 2. No Association shall be represented in the general committee by more than four delegates. 3. The Committee thus composed shall consider all the political grievances of the whole Baptist society in Virginia, and all references from the district Associations respecting matters which concern the Baptist society at large. 4. No petition, memorial, or remonstrance shall be presented to the General Assembly from any association in connexion with the General Committee—all things of that kind shall originate with the General Committee." 140 We have here the usual machinery of political party organization with which our people have been familiar for many generations.
The Committee went vigorously to work. They drew up a memorial to the General Assembly for the repeal of the vestry law and for the modification of the marriage law, which they committed to their Clerk, Rev. Reuben Ford, for presentation; and they determined to oppose the proposed laws for a general assessment and for the incorporation of religious societies. The memorial was presented to
138 Journal of the House, loc. cit. 139 Journal of the House.
Semple, 69-70. Compare this with the note from Thomas cited on p. 32.
the General Assembly, November 11, 1784, and was referred to the Committee for Religion, of which both Madison and Henry were now members. On November 17, the House ordered bills to be brought in regulating the laws as to marriage and the vestries; and ordered also a bill "to incorporate the clergy of the Protestant Episcopal Church." The House adopted the resolution “that acts ought to pass for the incorporation of all societies of the christian religion, which may apply for the same.” Madison voted against it.''
The bill amending acts concerning marriage was read the third time on December 16, and sent to the Senate, and soon after became a law. It enacted" that it shall and may be lawful for any ordained minister of the Gospel in regular communion with any society of Christians, and every such minister is hereby authorized to celebrate the rites of matrimony according to the forms of the Church to which he belongs."14 This put all ministers on the same footing
. before the law.
On December 28, the Senate passed the bill as amended incorporating the Protestant Episcopal Church. By this law each vestry could hold property up to the value of a certain yearly income, could sue and be sued, like any other corporation, and could hold the glebe lands and the churches. This act soon after became an object of bitter attack.
For the present, however, the legislative subject that occupied the Baptists, and others, most engrossingly, was the bill brought in on December 2, read the second time the next day, and re-committed to the Committee of the Whole. It was entitled “A bill establishing a provision for the teachers of the Christian religion.” It provided for a general assessment and that all persons should declare, when giving in their taxes, to what denomination they wished their assessments to go. If no such declaration were made,
then the money so assessed was to go to encourage seminaries of learning in the respective counties. On December 24, by a vote of 45 to 38, the engrossed bill was postponed till the fourth Thursday in November, 1785; and it was resolved that the bill and the ayes and noes thereon should be printed and distributed throughout the State to ascertain the sentiments of the people as to this legislation. This was accordingly done, and resulted in wide-spread discussion and agitation.
At their next meeting, August 13, 1785, the Committee heard with satisfaction from Reuben Ford of the amendments to the marriage law and with alarm of the engrossed bill for a general assessment which had been deferred till the next Assembly for the purpose of getting the sentiment of the people on its provisions. The Committee promptly Resolved, That it be recommended to those counties which have not yet prepared petitions to be presented to the General Assembly against the engrossed bill for the support of the teachers of the Christian religion, to proceed thereon as soon as possible; that it is believed to be repugnant to the spirit of the Gospel for the Legislature thus to proceed in matters of religion, that the holy Author of our religion needs no such compulsive measures for the promotion of His cause; that the Gospel wants not the feeble arm of man for its support; that it has made, and will again, through divine power, make its way against all opposition; and that should the Legislature assume the right of taxing the people for the support of the Gospel, it will be destructive to religious liberty. Therefore, This Committee agrees unanimously that it will be expedient to appoint a delegate to wait on the General Assembly with a remonstrance and petition against such assessment. Accordingly, the Rev. Reuben Ford was appointed.” This meeting of the Committee determined also to adopt for the Baptists the marriage ceremony as found in the Common Prayer book, some omissions being made."
The terms of this resolution show that the Baptists had not waited for the meeting of their General Committee to begin to gird up their loins for the coming fight. The Committee “recommended to those counties which have not yet prepared petitions," runs the resolution, which means that many petitions were ready and waiting to swarm in upon the Assembly. The petitions enumerated below were not all from Baptists; but they are given as showing the state of public feeling.
The General Assembly met on October 17, 1785. Among the early bills passed was the “ Act to provide for the poor of the several counties within this commonwealth.” This act provided for districts in the counties and for overseers of the poor to whom were to be transferred the powers of the churchwardens as to bastards, and also the powers and duties of the vestries. This destroy
" ed the civil power of the vestries, leaving them mere parts of the organization of the Protestant Episcopal Church.
On October 25, 1785, the Committee for Religion was, appointed by the House.* On October 26, petitions against the bill making “provision for the teachers of the Christian religion," or the general assessment bill, as it was called, were presented from Cumberland and Rockingham; on October 27, similar petitions from Caroline, Buckingham, Henry, Pittsylvania, Nansemond, Bedford, Richmond, Campbell, Charlotte; October 28, from Accomac, Isle of Wight, Albemarle, Amherst; October 29, from Louisa; November 2, from Goochland, Westmoreland, Essex, Culpeper, Prince Edward, also the memorial and remonstrance of the Presbyterian Church in Virginia; November 3, from Fairfax, Orange, and also the “ Memorial and Remonstrances of the General Committee of Baptists”;; November 5, from King and Queen; November 7, from Pittsylvania; November 9, from Mecklenburg,
Hening, xii, 27. Journal of House under this date and so following. 147 This noble paper, given by Semple, 435, and too long to print here, is by James Madison. Dr. Hawks says the bill for Religious
Amelia, Brunswick; November 10, from Middlesex; November 14, from Chesterfield, Fairfax; November 15, from Montgomery; November 17, Remonstrance of Baptist Association (Orange, September 17), also from Hanover, Princess Anne; November 18, from Amelia; November 28, from Henrico, Brunswick, Dinwiddie, Northumberland, Prince George, Powhatan, Richmond; November 29, from Spottsylvania, Botetourt, Fauquier, Southampton; December 1, from Lunenburg, Loudoun, Stafford, Henrico; December 10, from Washington, Amherst, Frederick, Halifax -in all, and not counting several petitions herein mentioned and others not mentioned, fifty-five hostile petitions from forty-eight different counties came within the space of a month and a half to remind the Legislators of the opinions of their constituents. Seven counties also sent petitions favorable to the bill, six of them in the list of counties given above and only one county, Surrey, sent a favorable petition and none other. Twenty-two counties out of seventy-one, less than one-third, sent no petitions.
In the presence of this exhibition of public sentiment, it is not surprising that the assessment bill was defeated; that on December 17, the bill for Religious Freedom passed to the Senate by a vote of seventy-four to twenty; that on January 16, 1786, the Senate amendments were agreed to; and that on January 19, 1786, signed by the Speaker of the House as an enrolled bill, the “Bill for establishing Religious Freedom" became the recognized law *** of the land in Virginia, the first government in the world to establish and maintain the absolute divorce of Church and State, the greatest distinctive contribution of America to the sum of Western Christianized Civilization.140
Freedom was preceded by a memorial from the pen of Mr. Madison, which is supposed to have led to the passage of the law." Prot. Ep. Ch. in Va., passim.
Hening, xii, 84. 149 It will be seen that the writer does not share the opinion that religious freedom had already been established in Rhode Island in 1644.