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that Committee, almost daily from the eleventh of October to the fifth of December, we prevailed so far only, as to repeal the laws which rendered criminal the maintenance of any religious opinions, the forbearance of repairing to church, or the exercises of any mode of worship; and further, to exempt dissenters from contributions to the support of the Established Church; and to suspend only until the next session, levies on the members of that church for the salaries of their own incumbents. For although the majority of our citizens were dissenters, as has been observed, a majority of the Legislature were churchmen. Among these, however, were some reasonable and liberal men, who enabled us, on some points, to obtain feeble majorities. But our opponents carried, in the general resolutions of the committee of November 19, a declaration that religious assemblies ought to be regulated, and that provision ought to be made for continuing the succession of the clergy, and superintending their conduct. And in the bill now passed was inserted an express reservation of the question whether a general assessment should not be established by law on every one to the support of the pastor of his choice; or whether all should be left to voluntary contributions; and on this question, debated at every session from 1776 to 1779 (some of our dissenting allies, having now secured their particular object, going over to the advocates of a general assessment), we could only obtain a suspension from session to session until 1779, when the question against a general assessment was finally carried, and the establishment of the Anglican church entirely put down." 1
Mr. Jefferson minimizes the scope of this Act;" but in fact, to sweep away all restrictions on religious opinion and to exempt dissenters from all taxes for religious purposes, was a victory as decisive as the passage of the religious
section of the Declaration of Rights. It is true that the Act purposely left open the question of a general assessment or of voluntary contribution for the support of the clergy. But from the premises laid down in 1776 to the conclusion reached in the great act of 1785, the process, if slow, was logically inevitable, provided independence were achieved.
As has already been stated," the Baptists took no action as a body, so far as any records that have survived seem to show, at either session of the General Assembly in 1777, though a meeting of one of the Associations was held in April, 1777.
In May, 1778, a general Association was "holden” at Anderson's meeting-house in Buckingham. Thirty-two churches sent letters. “A committee was appointed to enquire whether any grievances existed in the civil laws that were oppressive to the Baptists. In their reports, they represent the marriage law as being partial and oppressive. Upon which it was agreed to present to the next General Assembly a memorial praying for a law affording equal privileges to all ordained ministers of every denomination.” The Association met again this year in October at Dupuy's meeting-house in Powhatan county, thirty-two churches being represented. “A committee of seven members was appointed to take into consideration the civil grievances of the Baptists and make report. (1) They reported ... that should a general assessment take place, that it would be injurious to the dissenters in general. (2) That the clergy of the former established church suppose themselves to have the exclusive right of officiating in marriages, which has subjected dissenters to great inconveniences. (3) They, therefore, recommend that two persons be appointed to wait on the next General Assembly and lay these grievances before them. Jeremiah Walker and Elijah Craig (and in case of the failure of either), John
112 See p. 42.
Williams were appointed to attend the General Assembly.”
At this time it appears that the Association had lost hold on their members for some reason. Semple suggests warm dissensions .. combined with the ravages of
From 60 and 70 churches which usually correspond, they had fallen to about 30 and 40. It seems that some had contracted unfavourable opinions of associations, and wished them to be laid aside." Leland remarks: “ Delegates from the churches assembled in associations once or twice in each year, but so much of the time was taken up in confiding what means had best be used to obtain and preserve equal liberty with other societies, that many of the churches were discouraged in sending delegates." 116
Although this Committee was appointed in October, no petition is noted in the Journal of the House as from a Baptist source, except the petition of Jeremiah Walker, already cited," asking for the refunding of his prison fee, and this was rejected. Whatever the source, however, the House had under consideration the matter of marriages, for on December 5, 1778, a bill “ declaring marriages solemnized by dissenting ministers lawful” was presented and read the first time and was rejected two days later, December 7.18 Evidently, only part of the story is told us by the existing records.
The Association met in May, 1779, in Goochland county. No account of this meeting is found.
At the spring session of the General Assembly in 1779, the committee for the revision of the laws submitted their report; and as this led to most important legislation, Mr. Jefferson's account of it is given here. He is speaking of what led up to the bill for religious freedom.
“Early, therefore, in the session of 1776, to which I returned, I moved and presented a bill for the revision of the
laws; which was passed on the twenty-fourth day of October, and on the fifth of November, Mr. Pendleton, Mr. Wythe, George Mason, Thomas L. Lee and myself were appointed a committee to execute the work. We agreed to meet in Fredericksburg to settle the plan of operation, and to distribute the work. We met there accordingly on the thirteenth of January, 1777.
The first question was whether we should propose to abolish the whole existing system of laws and prepare a new and complete Institute, or preserve the general system, and only modify it to the present state of things. Mr. Pendleton, contrary to his usual disposition in favour of ancient things, was for the former proposition, in which he was joined by Mr. Lee.
... This last was the opinion of Mr. Wythe, Mr. Mason and myself. When we proceeded to the distribution of the work, Mr. Mason excused himself, as, being no lawyer, he felt himself unqualified for the work, and he resigned soon after. Mr. Lee excused himself on the same ground, and died indeed in a short time. The other two gentlemen, therefore, and myself divided the work among us. We were employed in this work from that time to February, 1779, when we met at Williamsburg, that is to say, Mr. Pendleton, Mr. Wythe and myself; and meeting day by day, we examined critically our several parts, sentence by sentence, scrutinizing and amending, until we had agreed on the whole. We then returned home, had fair
opies made of our several parts, which were reported to the General Assembly, June 18, 1779, by Mr. Wythe and myself, Mr. Pendleton's residence being distant, and he having authorized us by letter to declare his approbation. We had in this work brought so much of the common law as it was thought necessary to alter, all the British statutes from Magna Charta to the present day, and all the laws of Virginia, from the establishment of our Legislature, in the 4th of Jae ist (James I) to the present time, which we thought should be retained, within the compass of one hundred and twenty-seven bills, making a printed folio of
ninety pages only. Some bills were taken out, occasionally, from time to time and passed; but the main body of the work was not entered upon by the Legislature, until after the general peace, 1785, when by the unwearied exertions of Mr. Madison, in opposition to the endless quibbles, chicaneries, perversions, vexations and delays of lawyers and demi-lawyers, most of the bills were passed by the Legislature, with little alteration. The bill for establishing religious freedom, the principles of which had, to a certain degree, been enacted before, I had drawn in all the latitude of reason and right. It still met with opposition; but with some mutilations in the preamble, it was finally passed."
On June 4, 1779, Messrs. John Harvie, Mason, and Baker were ordered to prepare and bring in a bill " for religious freedom" and also a bill " for saving the property of the church heretofore by law established.” The bills were read the first time on June 12, and on June 14 both bills were postponed “ till the first day of August next” in order to get the sense of the people. Deep interest was shown in the bills, both for and against them.
At the meeting of the Association at Nottoway meetinghouse, Amelia county, on the second Saturday of October, 1779, “the report by Jeremiah Walker, as delegate to the General Assembly, was highly gratifying upon which the following entry was unanimously agreed to be made:
“On consideration of the bill establishing religious freedom, agreed: That the said bill, in our opinion, puts religious freedom upon its proper basis; prescribes the just limits of the power of the State, with regard to religion, and properly guards against partiality towards any religious denomination; we, therefore, heartily approve of the same, and wish it may pass into a law. Ordered, That this our approbation of the said bill be transmitted to the public printers to be inserted in the Gazettes.'
Jefferson, Works, i, pp. 34 ff.
120 Semple, 65.