Posted by: Democratic Thinker | September 8, 2010

Samuel Williams: State of Society (Religion)

Freedom of Religion

The Reverend Samuel Williams, a Congregational minister, Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy at Harvard, and a founder of the University of Vermont, writes in 1809 on religion and the current state of society following the Revolution.

The most pure and benevolent system of religion, which has ever prevailed among men, is that of Christianity. This religion founded in truth, and adapted to the nature and state of man, has proposed for its end and aim, that which is of the highest importance to men and to society, universal benevolence, the love of God and man, or universal virtue.

The Natural and Civil History of Vermont.
Chapter X.


STATE OF SOCIETY. Religion: Importance of the Principle, Danger of any Control in it, Equality of all Denominations, Effect of this Equality, Grants and Lawt for the Support of Religion, Extent of Religious Liberty, Connexion of Religion with Science and Education.

RELIGION is one of those concerns, which will always have great influence upon the state of society. In our original frame and constitution, the Benevolent Author of our Natures, has made us rational and accountable creatures: Accountable to ourselves, to our fellow men, and to our God. By putting within us various appetites, affections, and passions, our creator has made us animals: By inserting in our natures the moral principles of reason, conscience, and a sense of the Deity, he has made us men; that is, rational, moral, and accountable beings. These foundations of religion, are so strong and universal, that they will not fail to have an effect upon the conduct of every one: And while they thus enter into the feelings and conduct of all the members, they will unavoidably have a great influence upon the state and conduct of society. Nor can society either set them aside, or carry on the public business without them. Instead of this, in one form or another, society will be perpetually calling in the aids of religion. When human declarations and evidence are to receive their highest force, and most solemn form, or when the most important transactions are to be performed, and offices of the highest trust and consequence are committed to men, the last appeal will be to religion, in the form of solemn affirmation or oath.

The most pure and benevolent system of religion, which has ever prevailed among men, is that of Christianity. This religion founded in truth, and adapted to the nature and state of man, has proposed for its end and aim, that which is of the highest importance to men and to society, universal benevolence, the love of God and man, or universal virtue. But neither this, nor any other system of moral truth, can impart infallibility to men. Whatever infallibility there may be in moral, in mathematical, or in revealed truths, men may greatly mistake when they come to explain, and apply them: And instead of being above all possibility of error, they will find that infallibility belongs only to the government of God; and that it certainly is not entailed upon any parties or denominations of men. Nothing therefore could be more dangerous, than to allow to any of these denominations the power to make laws to bind the rest, in matters of religion. The ruling party would vote themselves to be the only pure denomination, they would make the rest contribute to their support, and establish their own sentiments and practice, as the perfection of knowledge, wisdom, and religion; and in this way adopt measures, which tend to entail all their imperfections and errors, upon future ages. The dominion of one party over another in matters of religion, has always had this effect: It has operated to confirm error, oppress the minority, prevent the spirit of free inquiry and investigation; and subjected men to the most unrelenting of all persecutions, the persecution of priests and zealots, pleading principle to justify their vilest actions. At the same time, every good man feels himself bound not to reverence or admit any such authority in matters of religion. The obligations of religion are antecedent to, find more strong than any obligations derived from the laws of society. The first and the most important obligation any man can feel, is to obey his Maker, and the dictates of his own heart. The peace of our minds depends more essentially upon this, than any other circumstance in the course of human life. What then has society to do in matters of religion, but simply to follow the laws of nature: To adopt these, and no other; and to leave to every man a full and perfect liberty to follow the dictates of his own conscience, in all his transactions with his Maker?

The people of Vermont have adopted this principle, in its fullest extent. Some of them are episcopalians, others are congregationalists, others are of the presbyterian, and others are of the baptist persuasion; and some are quakers. All of them find their need of the assistance of each other, in the common concerns and business of life; and all of them are persuaded, that the government has nothing to do with their particular and distinguishing tenets. It is not barely toleration, but equality, which the people aim at. Toleration implies either a power or a right in one party, to bear with the other; and seems to suppose, that the governing party are in possession of the truth, and that all the others are full of errors. Such a toleration is the most that can be obtained by the minority, in any nation, where the majority assume the right and the power, to bind society, by established laws and forms in religion. The body of the people in this commonwealth, carry their ideas of religious liberty much further than this; that no party shall have any power to make laws or forms to oblige another; that each denomination may lay themselves under what civil contracts and obligations they please; but that government shall not make any distinctions between them; that all denominations shall enjoy equal liberty, without any legal distinction or preeminence whatever.

The effect of this religious freedom, is peace, quietness, and prosperity to the state. No man is chosen to, or excluded from civil offices, on account of his particular religious sentiments. The clergy of the several denominations, have no chance to assume any powers, but among their own party. The people are under no obligation to support any teachers, but what they choose to lay themselves under. And no civil advantages are to be gained, or lost, by belonging to one denomination, rather than to another. The causes and the motives to contention being thus taken away, there is scarcely any thing left to influence men to join one denomination rather than another, but, belief, sentiment, and conscience. In this equality of all parties, religious professions become what they always ought to be; not matters of gain, profit, or civil distinctions; but matters of opinion, persuasion, and conscience: Sentiments and faith respecting the Deity, in which none expect to find the power of oppressing or ruling over others; but the same protection and benefit from the government, which they are at equal expense in supporting.

The settlement and support of the ministers of religion, has been encouraged and assisted by the government. The earliest grants of land in this state, were made by Benning Wentworth, governor of New Hampshire. This gentleman was of the communion of the church of England. In the grants of land that were made by him, there were three rights in each township reserved for religious purposes: One to the society for propagating the gospel in foreign parts; one for a glebe, designed for the use of an episcopal clergy; a third for the first settled minister, intended for his private property, to encourage the settlement of a minister in the new plantations. In the grants of townships which have been made by the government of Vermont, two rights have been reserved for the support of the clergy: One for a parsonage, designed for the support of a minister, and unalienable from that purpose; another to become the property, and designed to encourage the settlement of the first minister. This right accrues to the first clergyman who is settled in the town, of whatever denomination he may be. The salary of the minister ariseth wholly front the contract which the people may make with him. These contracts are altogether voluntary: But when made, by a law passed October 18, 1787, are considered as being of equal force and obligation as any other contracts; but no persons of a different denomination are obliged by them; The law has no reference to any particular denomination, but considers them all as having a right to make what contracts they please, with the minister they choose; and being of course bound by their own act, to fulfil their contract. A law designed to confirm the equal rights of all, is not subject to the exceptions or complaints of any party.

No embarrassments have attended any of the grants of land, which have been made for religious purposes, but those designed for a glebe, and those made to the society for propagating the gospel in foreign parts. In most of the towns there are not any persons of the episcopal persuasion; nor any incumbent to have the care of the glebe lots. The society for propagating the gospel in foreign parts, have not concerned themselves about the lands, which were granted to them. Both these rights have remained unimproved and uncultivated, except where individuals have gained possession of them; and it has been a disadvantage to the state, to have such tracts of land lying wastes It has been repeatedly a matter of consideration in the general assembly, what ought to be done with these lands. Instead of coming to any decision upon the matter, in October, 1787, the general assembly passed an act, authorising the selectmen of the several towns, to take care of and improve the glebe and society lands, for the space of seven years; and to apply the incomes to the improvements of the lands, those excecpted, which were in the possession of an episcopal minister. This law has been but little attended to, and is not at all competent to the improvement of the lands, or to render them beneficial to the state, or to any valuable purpose. In any view of the matter, these lands ought not to be suffered to remain useless, and detrimental to the state. If the society for propagating the gospel in foreign parts, had made such an assignation of them, as would have served to promote religious instruction and knowledge, the people would have had the benefit that was intended by. the grantor. If this be neglected an unreasonable time, it becomes the duty of the legislature, to prevent their remaining a public disadvantage to the state, by continuing uncultivated and useless. By exempting these lands from all rates and taxes, and at times passing laws to appropriate them to their own benefit and advantage, the legislature of Vermont have preserved them in a state of uselessness and litigation. Had the state done nothing with them, but left them untouched, and without an exemption from taxes, to which they justly are, and ought to be subject, all difficulties and controversies about them would have long ago ceased; they would have been employed for the purpose, for which they were originally granted, or been in a situation, like other lands, to bear part of the burdens of the state. At present, they are of no use to any body; and the assembly are frequently passing laws about them, which the federal courts with great justice and equity, declare to be unconstitutional and illegal.

The principles of religious liberty, are asserted in their fullest extent, in the constitution of Vermont. In the declaration of rights, there is a clause which seems to be adequate to the subject, and clearly expresses the religious rights of the people. “Nor can any man be justly deprived or abridged of any civil right as a citizen, on account of his religious sentiments, or peculiar mode of religious worship; and no authority can, or ought to be vested in, or assumed by any power whatever, that shall in any case interfere with, or in any manner control the rights of conscience, in the free exercise of religious worship.” In the plan of government formed in 1778, and revised in 1786, a religious test was imposed upon the members of the assembly, inconsistent with the above declaration: In the late revisal of the constitution (1792) this imperfection has been done away; and religious liberty has acquired a complete establishment, by a declaration that “no religious test shall be required of any member of the legislature.”

A greater attention to the liberal arts and sciences, would be of great advantage to the religious and civil interests of the state. The people of Vermont have not the advantages for the education of their youth, or the improvement of knowledge, which the people in the other states have. The disadvantages and dangers, which arise for want of literary institutions, are greater than they were aware of. The religion of ignorance, will either be, infidelity, or superstition; and it often produces an unnatural mixture of both, greatly unfavorable to the moral, and civil interests of men. When folly, in its own view, is become infallible and sacred, it opposes with obstinacy, all improvements in society; and requires, with a peculiar insolence the submission of all other men, to its own weakness and bigotry. The only remedy for the difficulties which arise in society, from this cause, is the increase of knowledge and education. And where society is destitute of the means and institutions, which are requisite to promote knowledge, it is without one of its most essential advantages; the means of her own cultivation, and improvement.

The education of children for the common business of life, is well attended to. But the customary methods of education for the professions of divinity, law, or physic, are extremely deficient; and do not promise either eminence, or improvement. The body of the people seem to be more sensible of this defect, than professional men themselves. From the first assumption of the powers of government, the assembly had in contemplation, the establishment of an university in the state; and with this view, reserved one right of land in all the townships, which they granted, for the use of such a seminary. In November, 1791, the legislature passed an act establishing the university at Burlington, upon a liberal, catholic, and judicious foundation. It has not, as yet, entered upon the business of instruction. If it should be furnished with able and judicious instructors, by extending the benefits of education, and promoting an attention to the arts and sciences, it would greatly assist the intellectual and moral improvement of the people: These improvements are of essential importance to men; in every stage of society; but most of all necessary, when they are forming a new state.

In the year 1800 a college was also established at Middlebury in this state, an account of which was given in the political proceedings of that year. Both of these colleges have now a president, tutor, and other instructors. They have also laid the foundations of a library and philosophical apparatus. Several young gentlemen have been already educated at these colleges, and the number of students have been increasing. The same books, course, and method of instruction, have been adopted in these seminaries, as are in use in the other New England colleges.

There are also three medical societies, established by law, in the state. The members consist of the most judicious and able practitioners of the profession; the business of their meetings is to improve themselves, their profession, and the methods of medical education.

The time however is not come, when science is to appear in her highest dignity and glory. She is not yet seen in Vermont, pursuing her inquiries by astronomical and philosophical observations, by physical experiments, chymical processes, botanical collections, or anatomical dissections. Serious attempts are not yet made to introduce the substantial aids and ornaments of an astronomical observatory, a chamber of experimental philosophy, a museum of natural history, a botanic garden, or medical schools for anatomy, surgery, chemistry, or the materia medica. With the increasing wealth, population, and improvement of the state, we may rationally expect that science will put on a more dignified and lovely aspect.