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with pleasure “ that the law for assessment did not pass; but on the contrary, an act passed explaining the nature of religious liberty. This law, so much admired for the lucid manner in which it treats of and explains religious liberty, was drawn by the venerable Mr. Thomas Jefferson."
The Baptists had now their full religious liberty. But the Committee were not satisfied. They were aggrieved that the Episcopalians should be incorporated and should hold possession of their glebes and churches. They, therefore, “ Resolved, That petitions ought to be drawn and circulated in the different counties and presented to the next General Assembly, praying for a repeal of the incorporating act, and that the public property which is by that act vested in the Protestant Episcopal Church be sold, and the money applied to the public use, and that Reuben Ford and John Leland attend the next Assembly as agents in behalf of the General Committee.
With the passage of the bill for Religious Freedom, as has already been said, the real struggle was over. But the momentum was too great; the impulse had to expend itself. The course it took was that commonly seen when a great popular party movement falls, so to speak, into the hands of those whom it has hitherto borne along. The part
Semple rather claims for the Baptists the credit of defeating the General Assessment bill. “ The Baptists, we believe, were the only sect who plainly remonstrated. Of some others, it is said that the laity and ministry were at variance upon the subject so as to paralyze their exertions either for or against the bill. These remarks, by the way, apply only to religious societies acting as such. Individuals of all sects and parties joined in the opposition (pp. 72-73). Leland gives a somewhat different impression in his caustic remark on the subject: When the time came, the Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, Methodists, Deists, and Covetous, made such an effort against the bill that it fell through ” (Writings, p. 113). Leland wrote in 1789-1790; Semple wrote in 1809. Deists and Covetous," quoth Leland. The economic principle never stops work.
Semple, 72. It makes a singular impression on us to hear the active, eager, ever-young Jefferson called “the venerable”-as he
played by the Baptists in the struggle for civil and religious liberty from 1774 to 1785 was admirable; the same cannot be said without qualification for their course from 1785 to 1802.
This part of our story can be told quickly, as there is no need to attempt to trace in it any phase of popular agitation.
At the session of 1786, the Assembly yielded to the pressure brought to bear on it, and repealed January 9, 1787, the Act incorporating the Protestant Episcopal Church but provided at the same time that each religious society should be secured in its property and authorized to regulate its own discipline.
During all this period the law-making body regarded the Episcopal Church as the legal successor to the Established Church in the ownership of the property attached to it. Not so the Committee, as we shall see.
The fourth session of the General Committee, August 10, 1787; united the Separate and Regular Baptists under the name of the United Baptist Churches of Christ in Virginia.” They received the report from their legislative committee, Messrs. Ford and Leland, that the incorporation of the Protestant Episcopal Church as a religious society had been repealed, but that the law remained in force
the glebes and churches were concerned. Whereupon, the question was put whether the General Committee viewed the glebes, etc., as public property; . by a majority of one they decided that they were. They did not, however, at this time send any memorial to the General Assembly.' Thus by a majority of one this body of preachers decided a grave question of law as to the ownership of the property of another denomination, and having once made the decision, they followed it with a pertinacity truly ecclesiastical.189
163 Hening, xii, 266.
Semple, 74. The legal aspects of this matter will be discussed in another connection.
“The next General Committee met at Williams's meeting-house, Goochland county, March 7, 1788. They considered whether the new federal constitution, which had now lately made its appearance in public, made sufficient provision for the secure enjoyment of religious liberty, on which it was agreed unanimously that, in the opinion of the General Committee, it did not. Whether a petition shall be offered to the next General Assembly, praying for the sale of the vacant glebes. After much deliberation on this subject, it was finally determined, that petitions should be presented to the next General Assembly, asking the sale of the vacant glebes as being public property; and, accordingly, four persons were chosen from the General Committee to present their memorial, viz., Eli Clay, Reuben Ford, John Waller, and John Willams.” 166
At the meeting in August, 1788, the Committee resolved that the business should be entrusted to the care of Elders Leland, Waller, and Clay, to be left discretionary in them to present a memorial or not, as they may think
The memorial was presented. The next meeting, held in Richmond, August 8, 1789, sent an address prepared by John Leland 15 to Washington, now President of the United States, as to the security of religious liberty under his administration. They received the following reply, worthy of the writer:
“To the General Committee representing the United Baptist Churches in Virginia: Gentlemen—I request that you will accept my best acknowledgements for your congratulation on my appointment to the first office in the nation. The kind manner in which you mention my past conduct equally claims the expression of my gratitude.
Semple, 76-77. Semple adds a note: “ The memorial was presented, and similar memorials and petitions continued to be presented to the legislature from the General Committee until 1799, when they gained their object.” Bitting gives Mr. Clay's name as Eleazer. 167 Semple, 78.
Leland's Works, 52, note.
After we had by the smiles of Divine Providence or our ertions, obtained the object for which we contended, I retired at the conclusion of the war with the idea that my country could have no further occasion for my services, and with the intention of never entering again into public life; but when the exigencies of my country seemed to require me once more to engage in public affairs, an honest conviction of duty superseded my former resolution and became my apology for deviating from the happy plan which I had adopted.
“If I could have entertained the slightest apprehension that the Constitution framed in the convention where I had the honor to preside might possibly endanger the religious rights of any ecclesiastical society, certainly I would never have placed my signature to it; and if I could now conceive that the General Government might ever be so administered as to render the liberty of conscience insecure, I beg you will be persuaded that no one would be more zealous than myself to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny and every species of religious persecution.
“For you doubtless remember I have often expressed my sentiments that every man conducting himself as a good citizen, and being accountable to God alone for his religious opinions, ought to be protected in worshiping the Deity according to the dictates of his own conscience.
“ While I recollect with satisfaction that the religious society of which you are members have been throughout America, uniformly and almost unanimously, the firm friends of civil liberty, and the persevering promoters of our glorious revolution, I cannot hesitate to believe that they will be the faithful supporters of a free yet efficient General Government. Under this pleasing expectation I rejoice to assure them that they may rely upon my best wishes and endeavors to advance their prosperity.
“ In the meantime be assured, gentlemen, that I entertain
a proper sense of your fervent supplication to God for my temporal and eternal happiness. “I am, gentlemen, your most obedient servant,
"George Washington." The minutes of the meeting of the Committee of May 10, 1790, state:
“On a motion, it is desired that our Rev. Brethren who waited on the General Assembly last session, with a memorial and petition from the committee praying for the sale of the glebe lands, that are public property, and the opening of the churches for the different societies, do make their report. Accordingly they reported that, agreeable to their instructions, they waited on the Honorable Assembly; that the petition was presented to the house and received, but that the subject matter prayed for was not granted.”
The Committee decided to present another memorial and petition to the next General Assembly and to recommend
that like petitions be presented from the different counties of the State.” It was also “ agreed to write to the Methodist Conference, to the Presbyterian Presbytery, and to President Smith, acquainting them with our purpose in the said petitions, and soliciting their assistance in obtaining subscribers.” Committees were appointed to deliver these letters.
The Circular Letter to the Ministers of 1790 says: “We have agreed to make a vigorous exertion, for the sale of the glebes, and free occupation of the churches by all religious societies; and recommend it to you to do your endeavors, to get as many subscribers therefor as you can. also solicit contributions for the committee fund to defray the expenses of those who are appointed to wait on the Legislature with our memorial.” 100
With regard to the meeting of the Committee of May 14,
169 Leland and Semple, passim. I give this valuable letter entire, as it is not found in the editions of Washington's writings by Sparks and Ford.
Quoted by Bitting, 23-24.