The year was 1784. In the aftermath of the Revolution, as morality and public order appeared to be crumbling on all sides, the Virginia General Assembly proposed to shore them up with a new tax, designed to support the “teachers of religion.” Any religion you want – the taxpayer got to choose.
During the summer recess James Madison (painted here by Gilbert Stuart), who had formerly defended imprisoned Baptists, wrote and circulated his “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments.” It was a powerful, closely reasoned document, arguing that religion is by its very nature “wholly exempt” from the authority of the state. When the Assembly returned from its recess, it found itself buried under petitions for and against the bill. On the pro side there were 11 petitions, with a total of 1,000 signatures. On the anti side there were 80 petitions, with a total of 10,000. Madison and the Baptists had been busy, and the Baptists were much, much better organized.
The authors of the pro-tax petition from Southampton County describe themselves as “the most respectable part of [the county], if property or liberality of sentiments can make it deserve that appellation.” They address the Assembly in the ceremonious, deferential language they would formerly have used to address the King. They speak of duty and social harmony, and predict the destruction of all faith and morality should the Baptist petitions be successful.
The anti-tax petition, identical to dozens of others from different counties, speaks of rights, in the vigorous language of the new Republic. Its language echoes the ringing cadences of a Baptist sermon. It closes with a confident assertion: “…[I]f such Tax is against the Spirit of the Gospel…and if against the [Virginia] Bill of Rights; which your petitioners believe: they Trust the Wisdom and Uprightness of your honorable House, will leave them entirely free in Matters of Religion, & the Manner of Supporting its Ministers.” The Baptists were not simply objecting to being forced to support another sect – they were objecting to any sort of government support of their own.
The proposed bill was withdrawn. In its place, Madison secured the passage of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, drafted by Jefferson six years earlier and providing in part, 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 no wise diminish, enlarge of effect their civil capacities.” That statute is one of the precursors to the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, a cornerstone of American freedom. The Baptists had won.
Further reading: Rhys Isaac, The Transformation of Virginia, brilliantly chronicles the religious and social revolution of which this episode was a part.