Many states were as explicit about the need for a thriving religion as Congress was in its thanksgiving and fast day proclamations. The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 declared, for example, that "the happiness of a people, and the good order and preservation of civil government, essentially depend on piety, religion and morality." The states were in a stronger position to act upon this conviction because they were considered to possess "general" powers as opposed to the limited, specifically enumerated powers of Congress.

Congregationalists and Anglicans who, before 1776, had received public financial support, called their state benefactors "nursing fathers" (Isaiah 49:23). After independence they urged the state governments, as "nursing fathers," to continue succoring them. Knowing that in the egalitarian, post-independence era, the public would no longer permit single denominations to monopolize state support, legislators devised "general assessment schemes." Religious taxes were laid on all citizens, each of whom was given the option of designating his share to the church of his choice. Such laws took effect in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire and were passed but not implemented in Maryland and Georgia.

After a general assessment scheme was defeated in Virginia, an incongruous coalition of Baptists and theological liberals united to sunder state from church. However, the outcome in Virginia of the state-church debate did not, it should be remembered, represent the views of the majority of American states that wrestled with this issue in the 1780s.

"Nursing Fathers" of the Church

During the debates in the 1780s about the propriety of providing financial support to the churches, those who favored state patronage of religion urged their legislators, in the words of petitioners from Amherst County, Virginia, in 1783, not "to think it beneath your Dignity to become Nursing Fathers of the Church." This idea was an old one, stretching back to the dawn of the Reformation. The term itself was drawn from Isaiah 49:23, in which the prophet commanded that "kings shall be thy nursing fathers, and their queens thy nursing mothers." The responsibilities of the state were understood in an early work like Bishop John Jewel's Apologie of the Church of England (1562) to be comprehensive, including imposing the church's doctrine on society. The term "nursing father" was used in all American colonies with established churches. It appeared in the Cambridge Platform of 1648, the "creed" of New England Congregationalism; in numerous Anglican writings; and in the Presbyterian Westminster Confession. By the time of the American Revolution, the state was no longer expected to maintain religious uniformity in its jurisdiction, but it was expected to use its resources for the churches' benefit.

Queen Elizabeth I as Nursing Mother to the Church

John Jewel, Bishop of Salisbury (1522-1571), has been called the "father of the Church of England," because his tract, The Apologie of the Church of England (London, 1562), was "the first methodical statement of the position of the Church of England against the Church of Rome." Jewel's Apologie was attacked by Catholic spokesmen, eliciting from him the Defense of his original publication, seen here, in which he saluted Queen Elizabeth, using Isaiah's metaphor, as the "Nource" of the church.

A Defense of the Apologie of the Churche of Englande. John Jewel , London: Henry Wykes, 1570. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (121)

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The Westminster Confession of Faith

The Westminster Confession of Faith, the "creed" of the Presbyterian Church in Scotland and the American colonies, was drafted by a convention of ministers summoned by the Long Parliament in 1643. In the revised creed, adopted by the Presbyterian Church in the United States in 1788, "nursing fathers" was elevated from an explanatory footnote--(note f), as it appears here, to the body of the text in the section on the duties of the civil magistrate. The concept of the state as a nursing father provided the theological justification for some American Presbyterians to approve the idea of state financial support for religion.

The Humble Advice of the Assembly of Divines by Authority of Parliament sitting at Westminster; Concerning a Confession of Faith. London: S. Griffin, 1658. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (122)

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Civil Rulers as Nursing Fathers

This is one of the many public statements in New England of the "nursing fathers" concept. After independence the phrase was sometimes modified to "political fathers."

The Duty of Civil Rulers, to be nursing Fathers to the Church of Christ. A Sermon. . . . Edward Dorr, Hartford: Thomas Green, 1765. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (123)

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British Government as Nursing Fathers

In this proclamation, the British government was reproved for not supporting the church in Massachusetts: "those who should be Nursing Fathers become its Persecutors."

Fast Day Proclamation, April 15, 1775. Massachusetts Provincial Congress, Broadside. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (124)

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The Virginia Assembly as Nursing Fathers

This petition asks that members of the Virginia Assembly play their traditional role as "Nursing Fathers" of the church.

Petition to the Virginia Assembly from Amherst County, Virginia, November 27, 1783. [page one] - [page two] - [page three] - [page four] The Library of Virginia (125)

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The Church-State Debate: Massachusetts

After independence the American states were obliged to write constitutions establishing how each would be governed. In no place was the process more difficult than in Massachusetts. For three years, from 1778 to 1780, the political energies of the state were absorbed in drafting a charter of government that the voters would accept. A constitution prepared in 1778 was decisively defeated in a public referendum. A new convention convened in 1779 to make another attempt at writing an acceptable draft.

One of the most contentious issues was whether the state would support religion financially. Advocating such a policy--on the grounds that religion was necessary for public happiness, prosperity, and order--were the ministers and most members of the Congregational Church, which had been established, and hence had received public financial support, during the colonial period. The Baptists, who had grown strong since the Great Awakening, tenaciously adhered to their ancient conviction that churches should receive no support from the state. They believed that the Divine Truth, having been freely received, should be freely given by Gospel ministers.

The Constitutional Convention chose to act as nursing fathers of the church and included in the draft constitution submitted to the voters the famous Article Three, which authorized a general religious tax to be directed to the church of a taxpayers' choice. Despite substantial doubt that Article Three had been approved by the required two thirds of the voters, in 1780 Massachusetts authorities declared it and the rest of the state constitution to have been duly adopted.

For Tax-Supported Religion

Phillips Payson (1736-1801), Congregational minister at Chelsea, was a pillar of the established church in Massachusetts. Payson was widely admired for leading an armed group of parishioners into battle at Lexington in 1775. In this Election Sermon, Payson used an argument that was a staple of the Massachusetts advocates of state support of religion, insisting that "the importance of religion to civil society and government is great indeed . . . the fear and reverence of God and the terrors of eternity, are the most powerful restraints on the minds of men . . . let the restraints of religion once be broken down . . . and one might well defy all human wisdom and power to support and preserve order and government in the state."

A sermon preached before the honorable Council, and the honorable House of Representatives, of the State of Massachusetts-Bay, in New-England, at Boston, May 27, 1778. Phillips Payson, Boston: John Gill, 1778. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (126)

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Against Tax-Supported Religion

Isaac Backus (1724-1806) was the leader of the New England Baptists. In this response to Payson's Election Sermon, Backus forcefully states the Baptists' opposition to state support of the churches. This opposition was grounded in the Baptists' reading of the New Testament and also of ecclesiastical history which demonstrated, that state support of religion inevitably corrupted the churches. Backus and other Baptist leaders agreed with their clerical adversaries in believing that religion was necessary for social prosperity and happiness but they believed that the best way for the state to assure the health of religion was to leave it alone and let it take its own course, which, the Baptists were convinced, would result in vital, evangelical religion covering the land.

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  • Government and Liberty Described and Ecclesiastical Tyranny Exposed. Isaac Backus, Boston: Powars and Willis, 1778. Courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University (127)

  • Rev. Isaac Baccus, AM. Trask Library, Andover Theological Seminary, Newton Centre, Massachusetts (128)

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Another Advocate of Tax-Supported Religion

In Massachusetts, a newspaper war raged for years over state support of religion. One of the most indefatigable combatants on the side of state support was Samuel West (1730-1807), Congregational minister at Dartmouth, Massachusetts, who performed valuable code-breaking services for the American Army during the Revolutionary War. Here West, writing as "Irenaeus," uses the familiar argument that religion with its "doctrine of a future state of reward and punishment" provides a greater inducement to obedience to the law than civil punishments. It is, as a result, so indispensable for the maintenance of social order that its support must be assured by the state, not left to private initiative.

The Boston Gazette and the Country Journal, November 27, 1780. "Irenaeus." Serial and Government Publications Division, Library of Congress (129)

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Massachusetts Constitution of 1780

Article Three of the Bill of Rights of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 asserted that "the happiness of a people, and the good order and preservation of civil government, essentially depend on piety, religion and morality."

A Declaration of the Rights of the Inhabitants of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts from Account of Frame of Government agreed upon by the Delegates of the People. . . . [left page] - [right page] Boston: Benjamin Edes & Sons, 1780. Copyprints. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (130-130a)

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An Appeal for Tax-Supported Religion in Maryland

An example of the influence of Article Three of the Massachusetts Constitution is this broadside issued by the Maryland House of Delegates in 1785 as part of a campaign to win public support for a general religious tax. The first sentence of this broadside paraphrases Article Three.

Proposed Resolution of the Maryland House of Delegates. Broadside, January 12, 1785. Broadside Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (131)

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The Church-State Debate: Virginia

In 1779 the Virginia Assembly deprived Church of England ministers of tax support. Patrick Henry sponsored a bill for a general religious assessment in 1784. He appeared to be on the verge of securing its passage when his opponents neutralized his political influence by electing him governor. As a result, legislative consideration of Henry's bill was postponed until the fall of 1785, giving its adversaries an opportunity to mobilize public opposition to it.

Arguments used in Virginia were similar to those that had been employed in Massachusetts a few years earlier. Proponents of a general religious tax, principally Anglicans, urged that it should be supported on "Principles of Public Utility" because Christianity offered the "best means of promoting Virtue, Peace, and Prosperity." Opponents were led by Baptists, supported by Presbyterians (some of whom vacillated on the issue), and theological liberals. As in Massachusetts, they argued that government support of religion corrupted it. Virginians also made a strong libertarian case that government involvement in religion violated a people's civil and natural rights.

James Madison, the leading opponent of government-supported religion, combined both arguments in his celebrated Memorial and Remonstrance. In the fall of 1785, Madison marshaled sufficient legislative support to administer a decisive defeat to the effort to levy religious taxes. In place of Henry's bill, Madison and his allies passed in January 1786 Thomas Jefferson's famous Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, which brought the debate in Virginia to a close by severing, once and for all, the links between government and religion.

A Proposal for Tax-Supported Religion for Virginia

This broadside contains (at the bottom) the opening sections of Patrick Henry's general assessment bill, one similar to those passed in the New England states. The bill levied a tax for the support of religion but permitted individuals to earmark their taxes for the church of their choice. At the top of the broadside are the results of a vote in the Virginia General Assembly to postpone consideration of the bill until the fall 1785 session of the legislature. Postponing the bill allowed opponents to mobilize and defeat it. Leading the forces for postponement was James Madison. Voting against postponement and, therefore, in support of a general tax for religion was the future Chief Justice of the United States, John Marshall.

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George Washington in Support of Tax-Supported Religion

In this letter George Washington informs his friend and neighbor, George Mason, in the midst of the public agitation over Patrick Henry's general assessment bill, that he does not, in principle, oppose "making people pay towards the support of that which they profess," although he considers it "impolitic" to pass a measure that will disturb public tranquility.

George Washington to George Mason, October 3, 1785. Manuscript copy, Letterbook 1785-1786. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (137)

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Another Supporter of Tax-Supported Religion

Richard Henry Lee, who moved in the Continental Congress, June 7, 1776, that the United States declare its independence from Britain, supported Patrick Henry's bill because he believed that the influence of religion was the surest means of creating the virtuous citizens needed to make a republican government work. His remark that "refiners may weave as fine a web of reason as they please, but the experience of all times shows religion to be the guardian of morals" appears to be aimed at Thomas Jefferson who, at this point in his career, was thought by other Virginians to believe that sufficient republican morality could be instilled in the citizenry by instructing it solely in history and the classics.

Richard Henry Lee to James Madison, November 26, 1784. [page one] - [page two] - [page three] - [page four] Manuscript letter. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (143)

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An Appeal for Tax-Supported Religion

The debate in Virginia in 1785 over religious taxation produced an unprecedented outpouring of petitions to the General Assembly. This petition from supporters of Patrick Henry's bill in Surry County declares that "the Christian Religion is conducive to the happiness of Societies." They assert that "True Religion is most friendly to social and political Happiness--That a conscientious Regard to the approbation of Almighty God lays the most effectual restraint on the vicious passions of Mankind affords the most powerful incentive to the faithful discharge of every social Duty and is consequently the most solid Basis of private and public Virtue is a truth which has in some measure been acknowledged at every Period of Time and in every Corner of the Globe."

Petition to the Virginia General Assembly, from Surry County, Virginia, November 14, 1785. [page one] - [page two] - [page three] - [page four] - [page five] Manuscript. The Library of Virginia (138)

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Persecution in Virginia

In Virginia, religious persecution, directed at Baptists and, to a lesser degree, at Presbyterians, continued after the Declaration of Independence. The perpetrators were members of the Church of England, sometimes acting as vigilantes but often operating in tandem with local authorities. Physical violence was usually reserved for Baptists, against whom there was social as well as theological animosity. A notorious instance of abuse in 1771 of a well-known Baptist preacher, "Swearin Jack" Waller, was described by the victim: "The Parson of the Parish [accompanied by the local sheriff] would keep running the end of his horsewhip in [Waller's] mouth, laying his whip across the hymn book, etc. When done singing [Waller] proceeded to prayer. In it he was violently jerked off the stage; they caught him by the back part of his neck, beat his head against the ground, sometimes up and sometimes down, they carried him through the gate . . . where a gentleman [the sheriff] gave him . . . twenty lashes with his horsewhip."

The persecution of Baptists made a strong, negative impression on many patriot leaders, whose loyalty to principles of civil liberty exceeded their loyalty to the Church of England in which they were raised. James Madison was not the only patriot to despair, as he did in 1774, that the "diabolical Hell conceived principle of persecution rages" in his native colony. Accordingly, civil libertarians like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson joined Baptists and Presbyterians to defeat the campaign for state financial involvement in religion in Virginia.

Unlawful Preaching

Many Baptist ministers refused on principle to apply to local authorities for a license to preach, as Virginia law required, for they considered it intolerable to ask another man's permission to preach the Gospel. As a result, they exposed themselves to arrest for "unlawfull Preaching," as Nathaniel Saunders (1735-1808) allegedly had done. Saunders, at this time, was the minister of the Mountain Run Baptist Church in Orange County, Virginia.

Summons to Nathaniel Saunders, August 22, 1772. [cover] - [summons] Manuscript. Virginia Baptist Historical Society (140)

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Dunking of Baptist Ministers

David Barrow was pastor of the Mill Swamp Baptist Church in the Portsmouth, Virginia, area. He and a "ministering brother," Edward Mintz, were conducting a service in 1778, when they were attacked. "As soon as the hymn was given out, a gang of well-dressed men came up to the stage . . . and sang one of their obscene songs. Then they took to plunge both of the preachers. They plunged Mr. Barrow twice, pressing him into the mud, holding him down, nearly succeeding in drowning him . . . His companion was plunged but once . . . Before these persecuted men could change their clothes they were dragged from the house, and driven off by these enraged churchmen."

The Dunking of David Barrow and Edward Mintz in the Nansemond River, 1778. Oil on canvas by Sidney King, 1990. Virginia Baptist Historical Society (141)

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Petition Against Religious Taxation

This anti-religious tax petition (below), composed, scholars have assumed, by a Baptist and clearly stating the Baptist point of view, was printed in large numbers and circulated throughout central and southern Virginia. It was signed by more citizens than any other document opposing Patrick Henry's bill, including James Madison's more famous Memorial and Remonstrance. What distinguished this petition from others was its strong evangelical flavor. It argued that deism, which many of the temporary allies of the Baptists espoused, could be "put to open shame" by the exertions of preachers who were "inwardly moved by the Holy Ghost." It also presented the Baptist reading of history, namely, that the state ruined, rather than helped, religion by supporting it.

Petition to the Virginia General Assembly, Westmoreland County, Virginia, November 27, 1785. [left page] - [right page] The Library of Virginia (139)

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Madison's Memorial and Remonstrance

Madison's principal written contribution to the contest over Henry's general assessment bill was his Memorial and Remonstrance. Madison's petition has grown in stature over time and is now regarded as one of the most significant American statements on the issue of the relationship of government to religion. Madison grounded his objection to Henry's bill on the civil libertarian argument that it violated the citizen's "unalienable" natural right to freedom of religion and on the practical argument that government's embrace of religion had inevitably harmed it. Thus, he combined and integrated the two principal arguments used by opponents of Henry's bill.

To the Honorable the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia: A Memorial and Remonstrance. Holograph manuscript, June 1785. James Madison. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (142)

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Jefferson's Act for Establishing Religious Freedom

This act, the title of which Jefferson directed to be inscribed on his tombstone as comparable in importance to the Declaration of Independence, does not exist in a handwritten copy. The version shown here was printed as a broadside in London in 1786 by the great civil libertarian and friend of America, Dr. Richard Price, who wrote the introduction and made changes in the text. Jefferson evidently wrote the Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in 1777 as a part of his project to revise the laws of his state. The Bill was debated in the General Assembly in 1779 and was postponed after passing a second reading. Madison revived it as an alternative to Henry's general assessment bill and guided it to passage in the Virginia Assembly in January 1786.

An Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, January 1786. Thomas Jefferson, Laidler, July 1786. Broadside. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (144)

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