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Convention: A Daily Journal

Center for Civics Education

Convention: A Daily Journal

Convention: A Daily Journal is a day-by-day journal of the 1787 Constitutional Convention convened by twelve of the original thirteen states to amend the Articles of Confederation and create a “more perfect union.” It chronicles the daily activities of the Convention, profiles the delegates and their interactions with each other, and looks back to life in America in the 1780s. Writing in the first person, the story is told from an “observer” hearing events as told in contemporary newspaper accounts and delegates’ personal notes and letters.

Sunday, July 29, 1787

July 29, 2020 - 5 minute read

Paul Revere's Church Bell

Paul Revere’s midnight ride through the Massachusetts countryside to warn the colonial militia that “the British are coming” was memorialized in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem Paul Revere’s Ride. However, for many years after the Revolutionary War, Revere was known for making bells. When the church he attended, New Brick Church in Boston, needed a new bell for its tower, Revere opened a bell foundry, eventually casting more than one hundred bells before his death many years later.

From the earliest colonial times bells have served as an essential form of communication, summoning lawmakers to legislative sessions, alerting citizens to proclamations, calling people to public meetings, sounding alarms, and celebrating civic events. On Sunday mornings, throughout America the sounds of church bells are as familiar and regular as any other notable event, inviting the faithful to worship or to signal the start of a mass or other worship service.

In 1775, at least nine of the thirteen colonies had established churches and required all officeholders to be Christians. Although members of denominations other than the official church were generally tolerated, only the established church received financial support from colonial governments. Congregationalists and Anglicans called their state benefactors “nursing fathers,” a concept dating from the Reformation. The term itself derives from Isaiah 49:23 in the Old Testament when the prophet commanded that “kings shall be thy nursing fathers, and their queens thy nursing mothers.” It was a commonly understood concept.

After independence from Great Britain, most States disestablished their official churches but some imposed “general assessments,” religious taxes laid on all citizens, each of whom could designate his share to the church of his choice. Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Connecticut enacted and enforced such laws. Maryland and Georgia passed similar legislation but did not implement them.

At times, opposition to general assessments created strange bedfellows. For instance, in Virginia, Baptists and theological liberals worked together to oppose all state funding of religion.  In 1779, still in the throes of the Revolutionary War, Virginia withdrew tax support of ministers of the established church, the Church of England (Anglican Church). Five years later, in 1784, Patrick Henry proposed a general assessment bill. Supporters of the bill, including the Anglican Church, argued that supporting Christianity is the “best means of promoting peace, virtue and prosperity.” In fact, the 1780 Constitution of Massachusetts declared that “the happiness of a people, and the good order and preservation of civil government, essentially depend on piety, religion and morality.” This argument was not only widespread, but there was much truth to it, as attested by some of Virginia’s respected leaders, including Richard Henry Lee who had made the motion to declare independence in 1776. Lee remarked, “the experience of all times shows religion to be the guardian of morals.” Future Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall also supported the bill.

In October 1785, as Henry’s bill was before the General Assembly, Virginia’s leading citizen, George Washington, wrote to his friend and neighbor George Mason, that he was “not alarmed at the thoughts of making people pay towards the support of that which they profess, if of the denominations of Christians, Jews, Mahomitans or otherwise.” However, he also wished the assessment “had never been agitated,” preferring that it “die an easy death” because it was controversial and “impolitic.”

Opponents of the bill, led largely by Baptists, asserted that government support of religion actually corrupts religion. However, Baptists, Presbyterians, and other religious minorities had another reason for opposing state funding of religion – persecution. Often perpetrated by members of the Church of England, even after independence, violence against Baptists was especially egregious as preachers were dragged from the pulpit, whip lashed, and often beaten. In one instance, David Barrow, pastor of the Mill Swamp Baptist Church in Portsmouth, Virginia, and a “ministering brother” were dragged from the pulpit by a “gang of well-dressed men” and forcibly dunked into a nearby pond. “They plunged Mr. Barrow twice, pressing him into the mud, holding him down, nearly succeeding in drowning him. His companion was plunged but once.” Making matters worse, peaching required a license.

The leading opponent of Henry’s bill and government-subsidized religion was James Madison. In response to the bill, he wrote his celebrated Memorial and Remonstrance which was circulated throughout Virginia in petition form by George Mason. The Remonstrance began by claiming as a “fundamental and undeniable truth ‘that religion or the duty we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence’” Religion, he continued, “must be left to the to the conviction and conscience of every man” without the interference of government. 

As the bill was being considered in the Virginia General Assembly, Henry was elected Governor and opponents of the general assessment bill managed to have it postponed until later in 1785. Petitions flowed into the legislature from both sides, but heavily weighed against the bill. In January 1786, Henry’s general assessment bill not only failed, but was replaced with Thomas Jefferson’s famous Act for Establishing Religious Freedom. Originally proposed in 1777 as part of Jefferson’s effort to reorganize the laws of newly independent Virginia, the bill had languished, in part because many in the legislature supported the Anglican Church. 

By 1786, momentum had shifted, hastened by an intense lobbying campaign against Henry’s bill, and the Virginia General Assembly voted “that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be forced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; that all men shall be free to profess on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in nowise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capabilities.” 

For Jefferson, religious freedom is a natural right The Act closed with the admonition that “we are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted are the natural rights mankind.” When the bill passed, Jefferson was representing the Unites States in France.

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