Notes on the State of Virginia (1802)/Query 17

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THE different religions received into that ſtate?

The firſt ſettlers in this country were emigrants from England, of the Engliſh church, juſt at a point of time when it was fluſhed with complete victory over the religious of all other perſuaſions. Poſſeſſed, as they became, of the powers of making, adminiſtering, and executing the laws, they ſhewed equal intolerance in this country with their Preſbyterian brethren, who had emigrated to the northern government. The poor Quakers were flying from perſecution in England. They caſt their eyes on theſe new countries as aſylums of civil and religious freedom; but they found them free only for the reigning ſect. Several acts of the Virginia aſſembly of 1659, 1662 and 1693, had made it penal in parents to refuſe to have their children baptized; had prohibited the unlawful aſſembling of Quakers: had made it penal for any maſter of a veſſel to bring a Quaker into the ſtate: had ordered thoſe already here, and ſuch as ſhould come thereafter, to be impriſoned till they ſhould abjure the country; provided a milder puniſhment for their firſt and ſecond return, but death for their third; had inhibited all perſons from ſuffering their meetings in or near their houſes, entertaining them individually, or diſpoſing of books which ſupported their tenets. If no execution took place here, as did in New-England, it was not owing to the moderation of the church, or ſpirit of the legiſlature, as may be inferred from the law itſelf; but to hiſtorical circumſtances which have not been handed down to us. The Anglicans retained full poſſeſſion of the country about a century. Other opinions began then to creep in, and the great care of the government to ſupport their own church, having begotten an equal degree of indolence in its clergy, two-thirds of the people had become diſſenters at the commencement of the preſent revolution. The laws indeed were ſtill oppreſſive on them, but the ſpirit of the one party had ſubſided into moderation, and of the other had riſen to a degree of determination which command reſpect.

The preſent ſtate of our laws on the ſubject of religion is this. The convention of May 1776, in their declaration of rights, declared it to be a truth, and a natural right, that the exerciſe of religion ſhould be free; but when they proceeded to form on that declaration the ordinance of government, inſtead of taking up every principle declared in the bill of rights, and guarding it by legiſlative ſanction, they paſſed over that which aſſerted our religious rights, leaving them as they found them. The ſame convention, however, when they met as a member of the general aſſembly in October, 1776, repealed all act of parliament which had rendered criminal the maintaining any opinions in matters of religion, the forbearing to repair to church, and the exerciſing any mode of worſhip; and ſuſpended the laws giving ſalaries to the clergy, which ſuſpenſion was made perpetual in October 1779. Statutory oppreſſions being thus wiped away, we remain at preſent under thoſe only impoſed by the common law, or by our own acts of aſſembly. At the common law, hereſy was a capital offence, puniſhable by burning. Its definition was left to the eccleaſtical judges, before whom the conviction was, till the ſtatute of the 1 El. c. 1. circumſcribed it, by declaring, that nothing ſhould be deemed hereſy, but what had been ſo determined by authority of the canonical ſcriptures, or by one of the four firſt general councils, or by ſome other council having for the grounds of their declaration the expreſs and plain words of the ſcriptures. Hereſy, thus circumſcribed, being an offence at the common law, our act of aſſembly of October, 1777, c. 17. gives cogniſance of it to the general court, by declaring, that the juriſdiction of that court ſhall be general in all matters at the common law. The execution is by the writ De hæretico cumburendo. By our own act of aſſembly of 1705, c. 30. if a perſon brought up in the Chriſtian religion denies the being of a God, or the Trinity, or averts there are more gods than one, or denies the chriſtian religion to be true, or the ſcriptures to be of divine authority, he is puniſhable on the firſt offence by incapacity to hold any office or employment eccleſiaſtilal, civil, or military; on the ſecond by diſability to ſue, to take any gift or legacy, to be guardian, executor, or adminiſtrator, and by three years impriſonment without bail. A father's right to the cuſtody of his own children being founded in law on the right of guardianſhip, this being taken away, they may of courſe be ſevered from him, and put by the authority of the court, into more orthodox hands. This is a ſummary view of that religious ſlavery, under which a people have been willing to remain, who have laviſhed their lives and fortunes for the eſtabliſhment of their civil freedom. [1]The error ſeems not ſufficiently eradicated, that the operations of the mind, as well as the acts of the body, are ſubject to the coercion of the laws. But our rulers can have no authority over ſuch natural rights only as we have ſubmitted to them. The rights of conſcience we never ſubmitted, we could not ſubmit. We are anſwerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to ſuch acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to ſay there are twenty Gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. If it be ſaid, his teſtimony in a court of juſtice cannot be relied on, reject it then, and be the ſtigma on him. Conſtraint may make him worſe by making him a hypocrite, but it will never make him a truer man. It may fix him obſtinately in his errors, but will not cure them. Reaſon and free inquiry are the only effectual agents againſt error. Give a looſe to them, they will ſupport the true religion, by bringing every falſe one of their tribunal, to the teſt of their inveſtigation. They are the natural enemis of error, and of error only. Had not the Roman government permitted free inquiry, Chriſtianity could never have been introduced.—Had not free inquiery been indulged at the æra of the reformation, the corruptions of Chriſtianity could not have been purged away. If it be reſtrained now, the preſent corruptions will be protected and new ones encouraged. Was the cgovernment to preſcribe to us our medicine and diet, our bodies would be in ſuch keeping as our ſouls are now. Thus in France the emetic was once forbidden as a medicine, and the potatoe as an article of food. Government is juſt as infallible too when it fixes ſyſtems in phyſics. Gallileo was ſent to the inquiſition for affirming that the earth was a ſphere: the government had declared it to be as flat as a trencher, and Galileo was obliged to abjure his error. This error however at length prevailed, the earth become a globe, and Deſcrates declared it was whirled round its axis by a vortex. The government in which he lived was wiſe enough to ſee that this was no queſtion of civil juriſdiction, or we ſhould all have been involved by authority in vortices. In fact, the vortices have been explored, and the Newtonian principle of gravitation is now more firmly eſtabliſhed, on the baſis of reaſon, than it would be were the government to ſtep in, and make it an article of neceſſary faith. Reaſon and experiment have been indulged, and error has fled before them. It is error alone which needs the ſupport of government. Truth can ſtand by itſelf. Subject opinion to coercion: whom will you make your inquiſitors? Fallible men; men governed by bad paſſions, by private as well as public reaſons. And why ſubject it to coercion? To produce uniformity. But is uniformity of opinion deſirable? No more than of face and ſtature. Introduce the bed of Procruſtes then, and as there is danger that the great men may beat the ſmall, make us all of a ſize, by lopping the former and ſtretching the latter. Difference of opinion is advantageous in religion. The ſeveral ſects perform the office of a cenſor morum over each other. Is uniformity attainable? Millions of innocent men, women, and children, ſince the introduction of Chriſtianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, impriſoned; yet we have not advanced one inch toward uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? to make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To ſupport roguery and error all over the earth. Let us reflect that it is inhabited by a thouſand millions of people. That theſe profeſs probably a thouſand different ſyſtems of religion. That ours is but one of that thouſand. That if there be but one right, and ours that one, we ſhould wiſh to ſee the 999 wandering ſects gathered into the fold of truth. But againſt ſuch a majority we cannot effect this by force. Reaſon and perſuaſion are the only practicable inſtruments. To make way for theſe, free inquiry muſt be indulged; how can we wiſh others to indulge it while we refuſe it ourſelves. But every ſtate, ſays an inquiſitor, has eſtabliſhed ſome religion. No two, ſay I, have eſtabliſhed the ſame. Is this a proof of the infallibility of eſtabliſhments? Our ſiſter ſtates of Pennſylvania and New-York, however, have long ſubſiſted without any eſtabliſhment at all. The experiment was new and doubtful when they made it. It has anſwered beyond conception. They flouriſh infinitely. Religion is well ſupported; of various kinds, indeed, but all good enough; all ſufficient to preſerve peace and order: or if a ſect ariſes, whoſe tenets would ſubvert morals, good ſenſe has fair play, and reaſons and laughs it out of doors, without ſuffering the ſtate to be troubled with it. They do not hang more malefactors than we do. They are not more diſturbed with religious diſſenſions than we are. On the contrary, their harmony is unparralleled, and can be aſcribed to nothing but their unbounded tolerance, becauſe there is no other circumſtance in which they differ from every nation on earth. They have made the happy diſcovery, that the way to ſilence religious diſputes, is to take no notice of them. Let us too give this experiment fair play, and get rid, while we may, of thoſe tyrannical laws. It is true, we are as yet ſecured againſt them by the ſpirit of the times. I doubt whether the people of this country would ſuffer an execution for hereſy, or a three years impriſomnent for not comprehending the myſteries of the Trinity. But is the ſpirit of the people an infalliable, a permanent reliance? Is it government? Is this the kind of protection we receive in return for the rights we give up? Beſides, the ſpirit of the times may alter, will alter. Our rulers will become corrupt, our people careleſs. A ſingle zealot may commerce perſecutor, and better men be his victims. It can never be too often repeated, that the time for fixing every eſſential right on a legal baſis is while our rulers are honeſt, and ourſelves united. From the concluſion of this war we ſhall be going down hill. It will not then be neceſſary to reſort every mement to the people for ſupport. They will be forgotten, therefore, and their rights diſregarded. They will forget themſelves, but in the ſole faculty of making money, and will never think of uniting to effect a due reſpect for their rights. The ſhackles, therefore, which ſhall not be nocked off at the concluſion of this war, will remain on us long, will be made heavier and heavier, till our rights ſhall revive or expire in a convulſion.

  1. Furneaux paſſim.