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sion is accounted for by some of the letters as arising from too much concern in political matters, being about the commencement of the Revolution. Others ascribed it to their dissensions about principles, etc. Both doubtless had their weight.” This increase of nearly one-fifth in the number of Separate churches since the May meeting of 1775, does not seem to an outsider to mark either coldness or declension. There must have been between ninety and one hundred Baptist congregations, organized and unorganized, in existence at this time in Virginia. But it does not appear that the Separates took any organic action in behalf of further religious liberty at this meeting of the Association, or at other meetings held in this same year and in 1777. Not indeed until 1778, as far as the records seem to show, did the Association again petition the Legislature. The dissensions among the Baptists themselves were sharp. “This was an exceedingly sorrowful time,” says Semple.
The Separate Association did not act, but the churches as congregations or as individual members did act, if we can attribute to the Baptists a share in the various petitions presented in the fall of 1776. The Journal of the House of Delegates often does not show from what denomination of dissenters the petitions came; it generally does show if the petition came from any representative body. The Baptists were now numerous, probably the most numerous body of dissenters in Virginia. They had in all probability already adopted the custom, afterwards used by them, of sending in petitions by counties so as to make the stronger impression on the legislature. It seems reasonable, therefore, to give them credit for a share in these petitions not otherwise accounted for. Accordingly in the pages following, such petitions are mentioned as if emanating from Baptist sources. This
may be allowed the more readily because from this time on the Baptists worked with others for religious freedom and against the Establishment; that is to say, the Baptists were one element in a large and compli
cated movement. The parts played by others in influencing legislative action will be set forth in due order."
The first General Assembly of the State of Virginia met in Williamsburg on Monday, October 7, 1776. Among its early enactments was a bill which swept away all existing parliamentary laws restricting liberty of religious opinion and worship. This was done in part in response to the public demand as shown in petitions from many sources. The petitions probably or certainly from Baptist or partly Baptist sources are here given.
October 11, 1776. “A petition of sundry inhabitants of Prince Edward ... that, without delay, all church establishments might be pulled down, and every tax upon conscience and private judgment abolished, and each individual left to rise or sink by his own merit and the general law of the land.”—Referred to Committee for Religion.
October 16, 1776. “A petition of dissenters ... that having long groaned under the burthen of an ecclesiastical establishment, they pray that this, as well as every other yoke, may be broken, and that the oppressed may go free, that so, every religious denomination being on a level, animosities may cease,” etc—Referred, etc.'
October 22, 1776. “Two petitions from dissenters from the Church of England in the counties of Albemarle, Amherst, and Buckingham ... praying that every religious denomination may be put upon an equal footing."-Referred, etc.
** Cf. Fristoe, p. 90-91.
These petitions exist in their original manuscript form in the State Library at Richmond, Virginia; but, owing to their chaotic condition, they are inaccessible. Not only the Baptists, but all those interested in the preservation of the sources of Virginia history should unite in an effort to secure an appropriation from the Virginia Legislature providing for the speedy cataloguing and publication of these valuable records. They would throw great light upon the genealogies as well as upon the social and political history of the State.
Journal of House of Delegates, Oct. II, 1776.
Ibid., Oct. 22.
October 25, 1776. "Two petitions from dissenters . praying that the ecclesiastical establishment may be suspended or laid aside."-Referred, etc. 10
November 1, 1776. “Petition from dissenters ... in the counties of Albemarle and Amherst
· · praying that every religious denomination may be put upon an equal footing, independent of another."-Referred, etc.14
On November 9, 1776, it was “ Ordered, That the Committee for Religion be discharged from proceeding on the petitions of several religious societies, and that the same be referred to the Committee of the whole House upon the state of the country.” 109
On November 19, the Committee of the Whole reported the following series of resolutions to the House: “Resolved, As the opinion of this Committee, that all and every act or statute, either of the parliament of England or of Great Britain, by whatever title known or distinguished, which renders criminal the maintaining any opinions in matters of religion, forbearing to repair to church, or the exercising any mode of worship whatsoever, or which prescribes punishment for the same, ought to be declared henceforth of no validity or force within this Commonwealth.
“Resolved, That so much of the petitions of the several dissenters from the church established by law within this Commonwealth, as desires an exemption from all taxes and contributions whatever towards supporting the said church and the ministers thereof, or towards the support of their respective religious societies in any other way than themselves shall voluntarily agree is reasonable.
“Resolved, That though the maintaining any opinions in matters of religion ought not to be restrained, yet that public assemblies of societies for divine worship ought to be regulated, and that proper provision should be made for
103 Journal House of Delegates, Oct. 25, 1776.
Ibid., Nov. 1.
105 Ibid., Nov. 9.
continuing the succession of the clergy, and superintending their conduct.
“Resolved, That the several acts of Assembly, making provision for the support of the clergy, ought to be repealed, securing to the present incumbents all arrears of salary, and to the vestries a power of levying for performance of their contracts.
"Resolved, That a reservation ought to be made to the use of the said church, in all time coming, of the several tracts of glebe lands already purchased, the churches and chapels already built for the use of the several parishes, and of all plate belonging to or appropriated to the use of the said church, and all arrears of money or tobacco arising from former assessments; and that there should be reserved to such parishes as have received private donations, for the support of the said church and its ministers, the perpetual benefit of such donations."
The resolutions were adopted and it was "Ordered, That Mr. Starke, Mr. Treasurer (Robt. C. Nicholas), Mr. Jefferson, Mr. Bullitt, Mr. Tazewell, Mr. Mason, Mr. Madison, Mr. McDowell, Mr. Gordon, Mr. Zane, Mr. Fleming, Mr. Henry, Mr. Griffin, Mr. Lewis, Mr. Simpson, Mr. Read, and Mr. Johnson, do prepare and bring in a bill persuant to the said resolutions." 108 This was a notable committee.
On November 30, it was Resolved, That the committee appointed to prepare and bring in a bill pursuant to the resolution of the whole House on the petitions of the several dissenters be discharged therefrom, except as to so much of the third resolution as relates to exempting the several dissenters from the established church from contributing to its support, so much of the fifth as saves all arrears of salary to incumbents, and empowers vestries to comply with their contracts, excepting also the sixth resolution; and that it be an instruction to the said committee to receive a clause, or clauses, to make provision for the
106 Journal of House of Delegates, Nov. 19, 1776.
poor of the several parishes, to regulate the provision made for the clergy, and to empower the several county courts to appoint some of their members to take lists of tithables where the same hath not been already done.'
On the same day "Mr. Starke, from the committee appointed, presented, according to order, a bill ‘For exempting the different societies of dissenters from contributing to the support and maintenance of the church as by law established, and its ministers, and for other purposes therein mentioned'; which was read the first time, and ordered to be read a second time.” 108 On December 2, the bill was read a second time and ordered to be committed to a committee of the whole House. On December 3 and 4 the bill was considered and amended and ordered to be engrossed and read a third time. On December 5 the bill was passed and carried to the Senate by Mr. Starke; and on December 9 the bill came back from the Senate with amendments; the House adopted the amendments, and the bill became a law."
Mr. Jefferson thus records his recollection of this matter: “By the time of the Revolution, a majority of the inhabitants had become dissenters from the Established Church, but were still obliged to pay contributions to support the pastors of the minority. This unrighteous compulsion, to maintain teachers of what they deemed religious error, was grievously felt during the regal government, and without hope of relief. But the first republican legislature, which met in 1776, was crowded with petitions to abolish this spiritual tyranny. These brought on the severest contests in which I have ever been engaged. Our great opponents were Mr. Pendleton and Robert Carter Nicholas; honest men, but zealous churchmen. The petitions were referred to the Committee of the whole House on the state of the country; and after desperate contests in
107 Journal House of Delegates, Nov. 30. Journal of House, passim.