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Religious Equality.

Being a Notice of Certain Movements for Particular Rights, Lately Developed in Various Quarters in the United States.

If freedom means anything, it is the inobstructible right of the individual to pursue whatever seems best in his eyes, with the sole limitation that he does not thereby violate the rights of others. So that if I do not inflict any injury by word or deed on my neighbour, he has no concern with what I occupy myself for my pleasure, or in the pursuit of my lawful calling. This does not prevent him from offering me his advice and counsel, to persuade me to adopt his mode of thinking, and to act as he does, only that he cannot employ coercive means to effect his purpose. From this definition it follows, that in a republic, liberty of conscience is not a mere legislative grant, but an absolute, integral part of the freedom which all the people have an absolute right to enjoy; and from this prerogative, not even felons and slaves can be excluded, though the former are held in durance for their crimes, and the latter are not at liberty to choose an employment, being bound to the will of others.

Religion, though forming the highest good of man, and the ar<<500>>biter of his immortal destiny, does not come in contact with civil and moral obligations as such, and therefore is no matter of concernment to the state at large, or its composing individuals in particular. My opinions may be the most obnoxious to all my neighbours; my private religious acts may be absolutely shocking to them; but whilst I do not infringe any civil law, or injure any one by my acts, they have no right to complain, or coerce me to think and act otherwise. I have, however, no right to establish a nuisance on my premises, or to constitute myself as one, by outrageous behaviour of any sort; but even this is a delicate matter to decide, and to prove the existence of such a nuisance, which ought of right to be abated, is not easily effected.

Notwithstanding these evident propositions, there are always many who fancy that their ideas are of such paramount importance, that they have a sort of right to force them upon the community. Not content with being unmolested and perfectly free themselves to act in accordance with their views, they look around to discover where there is any possibility to make them acquiesced in by others; and they seize upon some generally admitted principles to carry their measures, which, were it not for the colouring they give to them, would not be tolerated for one moment. So there are many honest men and women, we will concede them good intentions, who have fancied that the United States form a Christian country, and that therefore Christianity has peculiar rights which appertain not to other religious persuasions.

But there is one great error in this proposition; it is this, that though Christians live in this country, it is not essentially a Christian country, any more than it is that of a particular political opinion, because there are many who profess to belong to that party. The only evidence of the existence of Christianity as a religion of the state, granted that it be so, would have to be discovered in the Constitution, as the evidence of the compact under which the confederation was formed. But this is absolutely silent as to any religious opinions, and prohibits, especially, any tests of this nature ever being established. If, then, any especial religion is not established or recognised as existing in the federal charter, it is evident that no society, however numerous, can claim any particular privilege for their peculiar institutions. Once open the door to the most innocent admission of any especial prerogative, and it will not be long before more and more concessions will be asked, and at length demanded and exacted by main force, by the power which the majority has to pass laws. It may be urged, that the courts of law would interfere, and declare all such laws unconstitutional. But whilst this is admitted, the individual resisting will render himself obnoxious, first to <<501>>public animadversion, and then to be arraigned as a criminal for violating a statute which has its origin, not in the necessity of moral, and therefore civil government, but in the religious persuasion of a part of the inhabitants of the country, which therefore has, of right, no binding force on his own conscience. And besides, to carry a process to the highest court of any state, to which constitutional questions must always be referred, is expensive, and every one is not able to bear the outlay required, and is, moreover, very tedious, taking perhaps years, before a decision can be made; and then, is it not always certain that the judges themselves, being themselves, probably, of the majority, and creatures of the same, living solely by the popular breath, may not be strongly warped in their opinion, and decide thus, not according to the strict letter of the original laws, but accommodate their judgment to some technical or legal quibble in any particular act before them, so as to avoid coming to a direct decision on the original merits of the question; confirming in this way an unjust and unconstitutional law, which any common sense can discover to be so, and thereby perpetuating the assumption of power and particular privilege by a certain class or sect, whereas the same rights belong to all shades of opinion living under the broad folds of the banner of general laws.

We were led to make the above observations by the various attempts openly made of late years, to induce the community to acknowledge Christianity in some shape or other, as the law of the land, and having heard that even judges had sanctioned the idea, because the common law of England acknowledges it to be the law of Great Britain, and since the lex non scripta, is also the law of the United States of America. We confess our actual ignorance of law in every shape; our pursuits have led us into quite another direction, and hence we are almost afraid that we are venturing on dangerous ground. But of this much we are certain, that the Judges of the Supreme Court of the United States have never pronounced such a judgment, and till they have sanctioned such an absurdity, one contradicted by the plain meaning of the words of the Constitution, we think there is no danger, as yet, to this free land, of being cursed by a state religion, to act or think against which, is a crime, if not by statute, at least by popular clamour, on account of its superior sanctity. Common law may be good law, where it does not come in conflict with the declared charter of the liberties of this country; but it is evident that it cannot be so, where it is in direct contradiction to a common sense interpretation of a few plain words, which every child can understand.

In England there is a Protestant church, as by law established, with its hierarchy and magnificent cathedrals, <<502>>and extravagant endowments. But here there exists not a particle of any such power, and still this is said to be a Christian country by analogy with English laws, written or unwritten. We would be glad if some of our friends learned in the law of the land, and we number many among our readers, would have the goodness to favour us with a series of essays on the subject, one which would be eminently interesting to all. But in the mean time, we must endeavour to do what we can in the premises, and not to pass by in silence the evident tokens of agitation which we see around us; and will, in the mean time, call attention to a pamphlet bearing the name “The Substance of an Argument Against the Indiscriminate Incorporation of Churches and Religious Societies, delivered before the Committee of Counts of Justice of the House of Delegates of Virginia, on the evening of the 8th of January, 1846, and on subsequent evenings, in reply to James Lyons and William H. Macfarland, Esqs. By William S. Plumer. Baltimore: 1847.” pp. 82. Perhaps our readers are not generally aware, that in Virginia, no act of incorporation has been passed since the establishment of the commonwealth, if we are not mistaken, for the incorporation of any religious societies or churches. But there exists a law which allows property to be vested in trustees, for the use of any religious congregation, as and for a place of public worship, to be held by said trustees for the purposes of the trust, and not otherwise. And the church property is limited at any one time to a tract of land in the country, not exceeding thirty acres, or in any incorporated town, exceeding two acres, nor shall such real property be held by the trustees for any other use than as a place for public worship, religious or other instruction, burial ground and residence of their minister. We omit the details of the act contained in Dr. Plumer’s pamphlet, as not material to our purposes.

Thus matters stood for many years, when, at length, several members of the Episcopal denomination thought that the churches required more protection than a general law of the above nature granted them. Whilst most other persuasions in the state protested against the measure, the Episcopalian presented a memorial to the Legislature in the winter of ’45-’46, asking for such legislative aid as they thought was necessary. The petition was, as usual, referred to the Committee of Courts of Justice of the House of Delegates as a judicial matter, and Messrs. Lyons and Macfarland, of the above denomination, both lawyers of eminence, appeared before the committee as defenders of the concession asked for. This unwarranted asking of special favours, for a particular class, which we believe was not allowed by the General Assembly, called up, as may be easily imagined from the <<503>>character of the Virginians, active opposition, and though unsolicited, the Rev. Dr. Plumer, of the Presbyterian society, stepped voluntarily forward to break a lance with the learned gentlemen named above, whose arguments we have not before us, any farther than they appear from Dr. P.’s pamphlet. It would then seem, that they had based their proofs upon, and intended the provisions of the law they wished to carry, by mentioning only Christian sects. But this conceded, would have exhibited Virginia as admitting the system of Christianity, under the various phases in which it exists, as the sole religion of the state. To be sure, it is almost impossible for any one, even the most astute theologian, to state what Christianity precisely is, whether it is the mere belief in the mission of a man, as the Unitarians have it, or the acquiescence in the truth of all which the ancient councils have decreed, or the full belief in the regular apostolical succession of supreme power in the Roman popes, and the truth of all they have decreed, their judgment being infallible. After establishing Christianity thus, as the law of the land, it would surely require the decision of the courts to say “What it is;” but in the mean time, the sectarians of all kinds would take especial care to exclude from any privilege those who would rest under the ban of not being Christians. The danger of so treating and abusing the citizens of one commonwealth, demanded the attention of the champion of unrestricted freedom, in the following words:

Sects in Virginia.—Now let us look to the condition of the Commonwealth. In Virginia we have Baptists, Episcopal Methodists, Presbyterians, Protestant Episcopalians, Protestant Methodists,  Reformers, New School Presbyterians, Associate Presbyterians, German Reformed, German Lutherans, Mennonists, Friends, Winebrenarians, Universalists, Roman Catholics, Swedenborgians, and perhaps a few of other names. These constitute a large body of adult persons, probably not less in number than one hundred and sixty thousand, with a large number of congregations, variously estimated from fifteen hundred to two thousand. The latter is probably not far from the truth. Besides these, there are amongst us several congregations of Jews, a few Fourierites, perhaps a number of infidels, possibly some atheists, and certainly a large number of persons who make no profession of religion, and are supposed to have no preferences to any denomination. Without intending the slightest disrespect, and solely for the want of a better name, I may call them Nothingarians. The sect of the Nothingarians is perhaps the largest in the Commonwealth. It has no churches, no discipline, but a very large number of members. It <<504>>boasts of great antiquity. It was founded in the first century in Achaia by one Gallio, of whom it is said: “He cared for none of these things.”

“It is remarkable, that in all I have seen and heard from persons favouring the petition before you, I have not noticed any provision of law proposed for any but Christian sects. The seed of Abraham, unbelievers in divine revelation, and the great mass of men indifferent to all forms of religion, seem not to have been thought of.

“A great object of laws, fundamental and municipal, is to protect the weak against the strong, the few against the many. The reason is, that the many in free governments, and the strong in all governments, can protect themselves. Are you to favour the strong sects among the Christians? By no means, say the petitioners; so say we all. Are you to give corporate powers to Romanists? Do the Protestants of this state desire to see the Papacy have such a power amongst us? Do Papists desire to see Protestantism well fenced in and well fed by corporate property? The Fourierites, and the infidels, and atheists, would surely desire something. Is it best to enable them by law to take, hold and transmit property? If you exalt one, or three, or four influential denominations, will not the rest be oppressed? If the Legislature enter largely upon this work of granting corporate powers, they must either do it blindly, or a large part of their time will be consumed in inquiries into the nature and merits of the religious opinions and practices of the people of the state. And is any man prepared to submit his creed or his views of church government to the inquisition of a legislative committee? No, is the universal answer. Then, I say, the General Assembly must act indiscriminately, and treat good and bad, Protestant and Romanist, Jew and Gentile, infidel and atheist, all alike.

“However evil the practice and corrupt the doctrines of many in the state, they are yet citizens, and so long as obedient to the laws, they are entitled to every blessing or privilege which legislation can confer, in common with the most orthodox and pious.”

We must relinquish the farther discussion this month, and return to Dr. P.’s pamphlet probably in our next, because we cannot let a matter of so much importance drop by a mere casual reference, and it will give us sincere pleasure to endorse, by our approval, little though this may be worth, many of the ideas advanced by Dr. P.