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1791, Semple says: "The memorial against the glebes, etc., was the only business before them," and he also remarks that something "proved fatal to the rising prosperity of the General Committee. For from that session, it began to decline, and so continued until it was finally dissolved in the year 1799.
The Committee evidently did not realize or believe that it was in any danger of declining as the following extract from the Circular Letter to the Minutes of 1791 shows: "We desire you to view us only as your political mouth, to speak in your cause to the State Legislature, to promote the interests of the Baptists at large, and endeavor the removal of every vestige of oppression. In the prosecution of this service, which we know was your original design in sending us here, we are determined to exert every nerve, till the heavy burdens are removed and the oppressed go free."
Of the meeting at Tomahawk meeting-house, Chesterfield county, May 12, 1792, we are told: "The old question respecting the glebes and churches, as it was generally called, of course was taken up and fell into the usual channel." Rippon's Register contains the following notice of this meeting: " The Delegate who waited on the last General Assembly with a memorial and petition, informed the Committee, That agreeable to his appointment, he waited on the Assembly with said memorial; that it was received by the House, but that the prayer of the said petition was rejected. The Committee recommended that a lay member be appointed to wait on the Assembly with a memorial from the General Committee, remonstrating against those laws that have vested the glebe lands in the hands of the Vestry, and their successors, for the sole use of the Episcopal Church." 14
161 Semple, 81. 162 Bitting, loc. cit., 25. Semple, 84. 164 Rippon's Register, vol. i, 1790-1793, pp. 534-5. It is interesting, though it may be purely accidental, that Semple writes upon this
The Minutes of the Meeting, May 15, 1792, add: "The memorial being read and amended, was agreed to; and brother Thomas Burford appointed to wait on the General Assembly with the same, and the Rev. William Webber is directed to give due notice in the public papers.'
This appointment of a layman to represent the General Committee seems significant. The "great revival" was over. It was not wise to press the clerical aspect of the matter too far. Not only was the irreligious tendency of the times to be taken into consideration, but the Virginia Baptists as a class could not have felt in real need of more liberty, however their committee of professional preachers might feel about it. Thus the Rev. Isaac Backus, writing from Middleborough, Massachusetts, July-October, 1789, to Rippon's Register, says of the Virginia Episcopalians
now their power is so gone that Episcopal worshipers are but a small sect in that State and have no power to demand a farthing from any man for the maintenance of their ministers; nor has any tax been gathered by force to support any denomination of Christians for three years past. Equal Liberty of Conscience is established, as fully as words can express it. O! when shall it be so in New England? However, God is working wonders here." 100 And four years later Rev. H. Toler writes to the Register from Westmoreland county, Virginia, April 5, 1793, "Liberty of conscience has been unlimited in this State ever since, or soon after, the Declaration of American Independence; unless
occasion alone (p. 84), "the glebes and churches." Otherwise he invariably writes, as far as I have noticed, "the glebes, etc." The Baptists were not trying only to sell the glebes but also to open by law to other denominations the churches that had belonged to the Establishment. There seems to be nothing to show that the Baptists wanted either to sell or to destroy the churches themselves. That was, however, in many cases the result of their action, and Semple was writing at a time when that result was plainly and painfully evident.
Quoted by Bitting, loc. cit., 26.
Rippon's Register, loc. cit., 94.
the case of the glebes, mentioned in the Minutes of the General Committee, be an exception."
"The General Committee," Semple tells us, " continued to be holden at the usual time of the year, at the following places (which are enumerated down to) 1799 at Waller's meeting-house, Spottsylvania county, where they agreed to dissolve. During this period, an unreasonable jealousy of their exercising too much power was often manifested both by associations and individuals. This added to some other courses, produced a gradual declension in the attendance of members as well as a nerveless languor in the transaction of business. The remonstrance respecting glebes, etc., was the only business which excited no jealousies, and that was the only matter which was ever completed after the year 1792."
The letter from the Dover Association to Rippon's Register under date of October, 1800, states that the Committee, while holding their meeting in Spottsylvania in May, 1799, heard that the prayer of their memorial to the last General Assembly as to glebe lands was granted, and adds: "The Committee, therefore, having secured their object, do not think it expedient to exist any longer. But sufficient praise is not easily to be given to them for their perseverance.
The General Assembly at their meeting in 1798, took up, finally, this matter of the glebes and disposed of it as to the right of ownership in them. On January 24, 1799, an act was passed "to declare the construction of the bill of rights and constitution concerning religion." This act recites that various preceding acts, of 1776, 1779, 1784, etc., “do admit the Church established under the regal government to have continued so, subsequently to the constitution; have bestowed property upon that Church; have asserted a legislative right to establish any religious sect, and have
168 Semple, 85.
167 Rippon's Register, loc. cit., 543.
169 Rippon's Register, vol. 1801-1802, p. 789.
incorporated religious sects, all of which is inconsistent with the principles of the constitution and of religious freedom and manifestly tends to the establishment of a national Church"; it then repeals all these laws. This caused all the property in any way held by Episcopal Church organization to revert to the public fisc, unless for some special reason retained.
Affairs remained in this condition until the session of 1801, when the Legislature returned to the charge and on January 12, 1802, passed a bill directing the overseers of the poor to sell the glebes for the benefit of the public. The preamble to this bill sets forth that "the General Assembly on the twenty-fourth day of January, 1799, by their act of that date, repealed all the laws relative to the late Protestant Episcopal Church, and declared a true exposition of the principles of the bill of rights and constitution respecting the same to be contained in the act entitled 'An act for establishing religious freedom' (Jefferson's law of 1785); thereby recognizing the principle that all property formerly belonging to the said Church, of every description, devolved on the good people of this Commonwealth on the dissolution of the British government here in the same degree in which the right and interest of the said Church was therein derived from them; and that although the General Assembly had the right to authorize the sale of all such property indiscriminately, yet being desirous to reconcile all the good people of this Commonwealth, it was deemed inexpedient at that time to disturb the possession of the present incumbents." The law then enacted that in any county where any glebe was or should become vacant, the overseers of the poor should have full power to sell the same. The proceeds were to be appropriated to the poor of the parish, or to any other object which a majority of freeholders and housekeepers in the parish might by writing direct, provided that nothing should authorize an ap
170 Code of Virginia, cf. Churches.
propriation of it "to any religious purpose whatever." The church buildings, with the property contained in them, and the churchyards were not to be sold under the law, neither were any private donations made before the year 1777 to be sold, if there were any person in being entitled to hold property under the original donor. Gifts of any kind made after the year 1777 were left untouched."
"The warfare," says Dr. Hawks sententiously, “the warfare begun by the Baptists seven-and-twenty years before, was now finished." 172
This selling of the Church property was not the work of the Baptists alone by any means; but both from their numbers and from the continuity of their organized attack, they seem to have been the dominant influence. Year after year from 1786 to 1799, with the possible exception of the year 1787, memorials went in to the General Assembly from the General Committee, demanding the sale of the glebe lands as an act of justice and of public right. During this same period the members of the General Assembly who were themselves Baptists or of Baptist sympathies in the matter must have steadily increased. The "great revival" of 1785 to 1792 was going on. A letter in 1789 from Dr. in New York to Rippon's Register says: "I have the most credible information that nearly one-half the inhabitants of both Virginia and North Carolina are Baptists, or inclining to those sentiments now." And a letter from Baltimore a few months later, February 4, 1790, adds: "A few months since I received a letter from one of the ministers in said State (Virginia), giving an account of between four and five thousand persons added to one association in less than fifteen months' time." 178 These estimates are doubtless exaggerations of fact, but probably not of public belief about the fact. Semple writes of this
171 Code of Virginia, Churches.
172 Hawks, Protestant Episcopal Church in Virginia, 233.
Rippon's Register, vol. 1790-93, 100-101.