QUERY XVII
 
        _The different religions received into that state?_

        Religion
        The first settlers in this country were emigrants from England,
of the English church, just at a point of time when it was flushed
with complete victory over the religious of all other persuasions.
Possessed, as they became, of the powers of making, administering,
and executing the laws, they shewed equal intolerance in this country
with their Presbyterian brethren, who had emigrated to the northern
government.  The poor Quakers were flying from persecution in
England.  They cast their eyes on these new countries as asylums of
civil and religious freedom; but they found them free only for the
reigning sect.  Several acts of the Virginia assembly of 1659, 1662,
and 1693, had made it penal in parents to refuse to have their
children baptized; had prohibited the unlawful assembling of Quakers;
had made it penal for any master of a vessel to bring a Quaker into
the state; had ordered those already here, and such as should come
thereafter, to be imprisoned till they should abjure the country;
provided a milder punishment for their first and second return, but
death for their third; had inhibited all persons from suffering their
meetings in or near their houses, entertaining them individually, or
disposing of books which supported their tenets.  If no capital
execution took place here, as did in New-England, it was not owing to
the moderation of the church, or spirit of the legislature, as may be
inferred from the law itself; but to historical circumstances which
have not been handed down to us.  The Anglicans retained full
possession of the country about a century.  Other opinions began then
to creep in, and the great care of the government to support their
own church, having begotten an equal degree of indolence in its
clergy, two-thirds of the people had become dissenters at the
commencement of the present revolution.  The laws indeed were still
oppressive on them, but the spirit of the one party had subsided into
moderation, and of the other had risen to a degree of determination
which commanded respect.

        The present state of our laws on the subject of religion is
this.  The convention of May 1776, in their declaration of rights,
declared it to be a truth, and a natural right, that the exercise of
religion should be free; but when they proceeded to form on that
declaration the ordinance of government, instead of taking up every
principle declared in the bill of rights, and guarding it by
legislative sanction, they passed over that which asserted our
religious rights, leaving them as they found them.  The same
convention, however, when they met as a member of the general
assembly in October 1776, repealed all _acts of parliament_ which had
rendered criminal the maintaining any opinions in matters of
religion, the forbearing to repair to church, and the exercising any
mode of worship; and suspended the laws giving salaries to the
clergy, which suspension was made perpetual in October 1779.
Statutory oppressions in religion being thus wiped away, we remain at
present under those only imposed by the common law, or by our own
acts of assembly.  At the common law, _heresy_ was a capital offence,
punishable by burning.  Its definition was left to the ecclesiastical
judges, before whom the conviction was, till the statute of the 1 El.
c. 1. circumscribed it, by declaring, that nothing should be deemed
heresy, but what had been so determined by authority of the canonical
scriptures, or by one of the four first general councils, or by some
other council having for the grounds of their declaration the express
and plain words of the scriptures.  Heresy, thus circumscribed, being
an offence at the common law, our act of assembly of October 1777, c.
17. gives cognizance of it to the general court, by declaring, that
the jurisdiction of that court shall be general in all matters at the
common law.  The execution is by the writ _De haeretico comburendo_.
By our own act of assembly of 1705, c. 30, if a person brought up in
the Christian religion denies the being of a God, or the Trinity, or
asserts there are more Gods than one, or denies the Christian
religion to be true, or the scriptures to be of divine authority, he
is punishable on the first offence by incapacity to hold any office
or employment ecclesiastical, civil, or military; on the second by
disability to sue, to take any gift or legacy, to be guardian,
executor, or administrator, and by three years imprisonment, without
bail.  A father's right to the custody of his own children being
founded in law on his right of guardianship, this being taken away,
they may of course be severed from him, and put, by the authority of
a court, into more orthodox hands.  This is a summary view of that
religious slavery, under which a people have been willing to remain,
who have lavished their lives and fortunes for the establishment of
their civil freedom. (*) The error seems not sufficiently eradicated,
that the operations of the mind, as well as the acts of the body, are
subject to the coercion of the laws.  But our rulers can have
authority over such natural rights only as we have submitted to them.
The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit.  We
are answerable for them to our God.  The legitimate powers of
government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others.  But
it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods,
or no god.  It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.  If it be
said, his testimony in a court of justice cannot be relied on, reject
it then, and be the stigma on him.  Constraint may make him worse by
making him a hypocrite, but it will never make him a truer man.  It
may fix him obstinately in his errors, but will not cure them.
Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error.
Give a loose to them, they will support the true religion, by
bringing every false one to their tribunal, to the test of their
investigation.  They are the natural enemies of error, and of error
only.  Had not the Roman government permitted free enquiry,
Christianity could never have been introduced.  Had not free enquiry
been indulged, at the aera of the reformation, the corruptions of
Christianity could not have been purged away.  If it be restrained
now, the present corruptions will be protected, and new ones
encouraged.  Was the government to prescribe to us our medicine and
diet, our bodies would be in such keeping as our souls are now.  Thus
in France the emetic was once forbidden as a medicine, and the
potatoe as an article of food.  Government is just as infallible too
when it fixes systems in physics.  Galileo was sent to the
inquisition for affirming that the earth was a sphere: the government
had declared it to be as flat as a trencher, and Galileo was obliged
to abjure his error.  This error however at length prevailed, the
earth became a globe, and Descartes declared it was whirled round its
axis by a vortex.  The government in which he lived was wise enough
to see that this was no question of civil jurisdiction, or we should
all have been involved by authority in vortices.  In fact, the
vortices have been exploded, and the Newtonian principle of
gravitation is now more firmly established, on the basis of reason,
than it would be were the government to step in, and to make it an
article of necessary faith.  Reason and experiment have been
indulged, and error has fled before them.  It is error alone which
needs the support of government.  Truth can stand by itself.  Subject
opinion to coercion: whom will you make your inquisitors?  Fallible
men; men governed by bad passions, by private as well as public
reasons.  And why subject it to coercion?  To produce uniformity.
But is uniformity of opinion desireable?  No more than of face and
stature.  Introduce the bed of Procrustes then, and as there is
danger that the large men may beat the small, make us all of a size,
by lopping the former and stretching the latter.  Difference of
opinion is advantageous in religion.  The several sects perform the
office of a Censor morum over each other.  Is uniformity attainable?
Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction
of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we
have not advanced one inch towards uniformity.  What has been the
effect of coercion?  To make one half the world fools, and the other
half hypocrites.  To support roguery and error all over the earth.
Let us reflect that it is inhabited by a thousand millions of people.
That these profess probably a thousand different systems of religion.
That ours is but one of that thousand.  That if there be but one
right, and ours that one, we should wish to see the 999 wandering
sects gathered into the fold of truth.  But against such a majority
we cannot effect this by force.  Reason and persuasion are the only
practicable instruments.  To make way for these, free enquiry must be
indulged; and how can we wish others to indulge it while we refuse it
ourselves.  But every state, says an inquisitor, has established some
religion.  No two, say I, have established the same.  Is this a proof
of the infallibility of establishments?  Our sister states of
Pennsylvania and New York, however, have long subsisted without any
establishment at all.  The experiment was new and doubtful when they
made it.  It has answered beyond conception.  They flourish
infinitely.  Religion is well supported; of various kinds, indeed,
but all good enough; all sufficient to preserve peace and order: or
if a sect arises, whose tenets would subvert morals, good sense has
fair play, and reasons and laughs it out of doors, without suffering
the state to be troubled with it.  They do not hang more malefactors
than we do.  They are not more disturbed with religious dissensions.
On the contrary, their harmony is unparalleled, and can be ascribed
to nothing but their unbounded tolerance, because there is no other
circumstance in which they differ from every nation on earth.  They
have made the happy discovery, that the way to silence religious
disputes, is to take no notice of them.  Let us too give this
experiment fair play, and get rid, while we may, of those tyrannical
laws.  It is true, we are as yet secured against them by the spirit
of the times.  I doubt whether the people of this country would
suffer an execution for heresy, or a three years imprisonment for not
comprehending the mysteries of the Trinity.  But is the spirit of the
people an infallible, a permanent reliance?  Is it government?  Is
this the kind of protection we receive in return for the rights we
give up?  Besides, the spirit of the times may alter, will alter.
Our rulers will become corrupt, our people careless.  A single zealot
may commence persecutor, and better men be his victims.  It can never
be too often repeated, that the time for fixing every essential right
on a legal basis is while our rulers are honest, and ourselves
united.  From the conclusion of this war we shall be going down hill.
It will not then be necessary to resort every moment to the people
for support.  They will be forgotten, therefore, and their rights
disregarded.  They will forget themselves, but in the sole faculty of
making money, and will never think of uniting to effect a due respect
for their rights.  The shackles, therefore, which shall not be
knocked off at the conclusion of this war, will remain on us long,
will be made heavier and heavier, till our rights shall revive or
expire in a convulsion.

        (*) Furneaux passim.