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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.144
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 destroyed 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.148 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”; 19; November 5, from King and Queen; November 7, from Pittsylvania; November 9, from Mecklenburg,
Hening, xii, 27.
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.
198 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.
With the passage of the “Act of 1785," as it is generally known, the real struggle for religious freedom was over. Religious strife was not at an end, unhappily. But the struggle that followed was no longer that of the people ris
This famous law is here given in the form in which it was reported to the General Assembly by Jefferson, Wythe, and Pendleton in 1779:
' Report of Committee of Revisors appointed by the General Assembly of Virginia in 1776.
Published by order of the General Assembly, June 1, 1784.
CHAPTER LXXXII. BILL FOR ESTABLISHING RELIGIOUS FREEDOM. SECTION I. Well aware that the opinions and beliefs of men depend not on their own will, but follow involuntarily the evidence proposed to their minds; that Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested his supreme will that it shall remain by making it altogether insusceptible of restraints; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments, or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the holy author of religion, who being lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercion on either, as was in his Almighty power to do, but to extend it by its influence on reason alone; that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all times; that to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness; and is withdrawing from the ministry those temporary rewards, which proceeding from an approbation of their personal conduct, are an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labours for the instruction of mankind; that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than on opinions in physics or geometry; that therefore the prescribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and
ing to demand their rights; it was rather of the kind which has so often verified the poet's caustic saying that “New Presbyter is but old Priest writ large."
The next General Committee, August 5, 1786, learned
emolument, unless he professor renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages to which, in common with his fellow-citizens, he has a natural right; that it tends also to corrupt the principles of that very religion it is meant to encourage, by bribing with a monopoly of worldly honors and emoluments those who will externally profess and conform to it; that though indeed those are criminal who do not withstand such temptations, yet neither are those innocent who lay the bait in their way; that the opinions of men are not the object of civil government, nor under its jurisdiction; that to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency is a dangerous fallacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty, because he being of course judge of that tendency will make his opinions the rule of judgment, and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or differ from his own; that it is time enough for the rightful purposes of Civil Government for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order; and, finally, that truth is great and will prevail if left to herself, that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate; errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.
SECTION II. We, the General Assembly of Virginia do enact that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.
SECTION III. And though we well know that this Assembly, elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts of succeeding Assemblies, constituted with powers equal to our own, and that, therefore, to declare this act irrevocable would be of no effect in law; yet we are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right.”