Thursday, January 17, 2008

Religious Freedom

I may be a bit of a Johnny-come-lately, but yesterday was our country’s Religious Freedom Day. I’m fairly savvy about these things, but frankly I wasn’t aware of such a thing. January 16 is a good day for sipping hot chocolate by the fire (at least for the part of the country I live in). There’s even a website for the day, complete with all kinds of tshirts, coffee mugs and backpacks to help with promotion.

It seems the day was designated in 2003 by Senate Joint Resolution 154 and is a commemoration of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, written in 1779 by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. In 1786, the Virginia General Assembly enacted the statute into the state's law.

Of course, the real story behind Jefferson, Madison, Virginia, the First Amendment and Religious Freedom are Baptist preachers, particularly one named John Leland. Leland left his native Massachusetts in 1775 to help Baptists contend with the established Episcopalian church in Virginia.

As early as 1768, five Baptist preachers (John Waller, Lewis Craig, James Childs, James Reed, and William Marsh) were arrested in Fredericksburg for “preaching contrary to the law.” The Spotsylvania County prosecutor argued to the Virginia magistrates that the defendants “cannot meet a man upon the road, but they must ram a text of Scripture down his throat.” They were offered parole if they would agree to preach no more in the county for one year, and after refusing the offer, the Baptists were held 43 days in jail.

By the time Leland arrived, Baptist civil disobedience was strong and united. Leland thrived and help organize their resistance into political clout. Near the end of his life, he stated: “Next to the salvation of the soul, the civil and religious rights of men have summoned my attention more than the acquisition of wealth or seats of honor.”

Leland was so effective, that he influenced the history of the United States. When the Constitution was presented for ratification, Baptist opposition was fierce. The author of the U.S. Constitution was the Virginia James Madison, who was in New York City. But with Baptist opposition, particularly in John Leland’s home turf of Orange County, Madison’s election as a Virginian delegate to the ratifying Congress was in jeopardy and without the author’s presence, particularly in counteracting the eloquence of Patrick Henry who was opposed to ratification, the Constitution was doomed to failure.

Madison’s father wrote his son: “The sentiments of the people of Orange are much divided the best men in my judgment are for the constitution but several of those who have much weight with the people are opposed, Parson Bledsoe & Leeland with Colo. Z. Burnley. Upon the whole I think it is incumbent on you without delay, to repair to this state, as the loss of the constitution in this state may involve consequences the most alarming to every citizen in America.”

Well, Madison beat it home and had several private discussions with John Leland, who secured Madison’s commitment to present a Bill of Rights protecting religious freedom and eventually threw his support behind Madison’s election.

While religious freedom belongs to everyone, Baptists particularly have reason to celebrate its presence in American history. The English historian, Skeats wrote, “It is the singular and distinguished honor of the Baptists to have repudiated from their earliest history all coercive power over the consciences and actions of men with reference to religion. They were the proto-evangelists of the voluntary principle.”

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Trivia: Thomas Jefferson requested the Statute for Religious Freedom be one of three of his accomplishments named on his epitaph. What were the other two? (check back tomorrow). here and here. Which sounds more spiritual? Surprised?

Also, the text of Jefferson’s Statute is below:


[Sec. 1] Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free; 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 our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as it was in his Almighty power to do; 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 endeavouring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world, and through all time; that to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, 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 our opinions in physics or geometry; that therefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or 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 only to corrupt the principles of that religion it is meant to encourage, by bribing with a monopoly of worldly honours and emoluments, those who will externally profess and conform to it; that though indeed these are criminal who do not withstand such temptation, yet neither are those innocent who lay the bait in their way; 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:

[Sec. 2] Be it enacted by the General Assembly, 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 opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

[Sec. 3] 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 to be 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 shall be an infringement of natural right.

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