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The Baptists and the American Constitution
By John T. Christian


The Constitution — The Ratification — Two Objections to the Constitution — Liberty not Sufficiently Guarded — Massachusetts — James Manning — Virginia — James Madison and John Leland — J. S. Barbour — Governor Briggs on Leland — Patrick Henry Against the Constitution — John Adams — and Religious Liberty — Thomas Jefferson — First Amendment to the Constitution — The Baptists of Virginia Propose the Amendment — The Forces Working for Liberty — Leonard Bacon — Ruffini

     At the close of the war a congress of representatives from the States was called to draft a Constitution for the United States. The new Constitution was submitted for ratification by the various States September 17, 1787. There was much opposition to the proposed Constitution, especially as it determined that there should be no religious tests. For a long time it seemed doubtful if the Constitution would be ratified. The issue hung upon the action of two States, Massachusetts and Virginia. In each of these States the Baptists held the balance of power.

     There were two currents of thought against the article on religion, the one finding it excessive and dangerous, the other insufficient and maimed. It was feared by some of the opponents of the articles that the power might pass into the hands of the Roman Catholics, the Jews or infidels; "even the Pope of Rome," one horrified delegate exclaimed, "might become President of the United States." The opposition was particularly strong in Massachusetts, where the liberal ideas were combated by the legislature. Other States were unable to find in the article a sufficiently wide and certain guarantee of religious liberty, and therefore they proposed amendments.

     January 9, 1788, a convention of delegates assembled in Boston, Massachusetts, from all parts of the State. The debate was long; and the issue uncertain. Some of the Baptists looked upon the Constitution with suspicion as not giving full guarantee of freedom. James Manning, President of Rhode Island College, was an earnest advocate of the adoption of the Constitution and he had much influence in the body. He fully believed that on the adoption of that measure the future well-being of the country was suspended. Being aware that several Baptist ministers were members of the convention, and that they generally looked upon the proposed Constitution with a jealous eye, he went to Boston with a view to exert whatever influence he could to disarm his brethren of their prejudices, and to bring them to act as he fully believed the interest of the nation required. In this effort he was seconded by his intimate friend, Dr. Samuel Stillman, who was himself a member of the body, with two or three other very influential ministers. The question of ratifica­tion was finally carried by a majority of nineteen. Just before the final vote, Governor Hancock, the President of the Conven­tion, called upon Dr. Manning to pray; and, though the request took him by surprise, he fell upon his knees, and offered a prayer in which patriotism and piety were most delightfully blended, and which left an extraordinary impression upon the whole as­sembly. On his return to Providence, after the Convention had closed its sessions, he met his friends with the warmest congratulations, and could scarcely find language strong enough to ex­press his sense of the importance of the result which had been reached (Sprague, VI.).

     The opposition to the Constitution in Virginia was led by strong and popular men. The people were about equally divided on the measure. The Convention met in Richmond, in June, 1788. The Baptists in Williams meeting house, Goochland county, March 7, had canvassed the Constitution and reached the following conclusion:

Whether the new Federal Constitution, which had now lately made its appearance in public, made sufficient provision for the secure enjoyment of religious liberty; on which, it was agreed unanimously that, in the opinion of the General Committee, it did not (Semple).

     The leader in favor of the Constitution was James Madison, and opposed to it was Patrick Henry. Madison had been absent in Philadelphia, and the candidate for Orange county was John Leland. It was a great Baptist county and the probabilities were that Leland would be elected. Madison called on Leland, spent half a day with him, and Leland came down from the race and supported Madison. He believed Madison would properly represent the cause.

     The celebrated lawyer, J. S. Barbour, in an eulogy upon Madison, said that

"the credit of adopting the Constitution of the United States properly belonged to a Baptist clergyman, formerly of Virginia, by the name of Leland; and he reached his conclusion in this way — he said that if Madison had not been in the. Virginia Convention, the Constitution would not have been ratified by that State; and, as the approval of nine States was required to give effect to this instrument, and as Virginia was the ninth State, if it had been rejected by her, the Constitution would have failed; and that it was by Elder Leland's influence that Madison was elected to the Convention."
     Governor Briggs, of Massachusetts, who was a great friend of Leland, gives the following account of the affair:
Soon after the Convention, which framed the Constitution of the United States, had finished their work, and submitted it to the people for their action, two strong and active parties were formed in the State of Virginia, on the subject of its adoption. The State was nearly equally divided. One party was opposed to its adoption, unless certain amendments, which they maintained that the safety of the people required, should be incorporated into it, before it was ratified by them. At the head of this great party stood Patrick Henry, the Orator of the Revolution, and one of Virginia's favorite sons. The other party agreed with their opponents said as to the character and necessity of the amendments proposed, but they contended that the people should have the power, and could as well incorporate these amendments into the Constitution after its adoption as before; that it was a great crisis in the affairs of the country, and if the Constitution, then presented to the people by the Convention, should be rejected by them, such would be the state of the public mind, that there was little or no reason to believe that another would be agreed upon by a future Convention; and, in such an event, — so much to be dreaded, — the hopes of constitutional liberty and a confederated and free Republic would be lost. At the head of this party stood James Madison. The strength of the two parties was to be tested by the election of County Delegates to the State Convention. That Convention would have to adopt or reject the Constitution. Mr. Madison was named as the candidate in favor of its adoption for the County of Orange, in which he resided. Elder Leland, also, at that time, lived in the County of Orange, and his sympathies, he said, were with Henry and his party. He was named as the candidate opposed to adoption, and in opposition to Mr. Madison. Orange was a strong Baptist county; and his friends had an undoubted confidence in his election. Though reluctant to be a candidate, he yielded to the solicitations of the opponents of the Constitution, and accepted the nomination.
     For three months after the members of the Convention at Philadelphia had completed their labors, and returned to their homes, Mr. Madison, with John Jay and Alexander Hamilton, had remained in that city for the purpose of preparing those political articles that now constitute The Federalist. This gave the party opposed to Madison, with Henry at their head, the start of him, in canvassing the State in his absence. At length, when Mr. Madison was about ready to return to Virginia, a public meeting was appointed in the County of Orange, at which the candidates for the Convention, — Madison on the one side, and Leland on the other, — were to address the people from the stump. Up to that time he had but a partial acquaintance with Mr. Madison, but he had a high respect for his talents, his candor, and the uprightness and purity of his private character. On his way home from Philadelphia, Mr. Madison went some distance out of his direct road to call upon him. After the ordinary salutations, Mr. Madison began to apologize for troubling him with a call at that time; but he assured Mr. M. that no apology was necessary — "I know your errand here," said he, "it is to talk with me about the Constitution. I am glad to see you, and to have an opportunity of hearing your views on the subject." Mr. Madison spent half a day with him, and fully and unreservedly communicated to him his opinions upon the great matters which were then agitating the people of the State and Confederacy.

     Then they separated to meet again very soon, as opposing candidates before the electors, on the stump. The day came, and they met, and with them nearly all the voters of the County of Orange, to hear their candidates respectively discuss the important questions upon which the people of Virginia were so soon to act. "Mr. Madison," said the venerable man, "first took the stump, which was a hogshead of tobacco, standing on one end. For two hours, he addressed his fellow citizens in a calm, candid and statesman-like manner, arguing his side of the case, and fairly meeting and replying to the arguments which had been put forth by his opponents, in the general canvass of the State. Though Mr. Madison was not particularly a pleasing or eloquent speaker, the people listened with respectful attention. He left the hogshead, and my friends called on me. I took it — and went in for Mr. Madison; and he was elected without difficulty." "This," said he, "is, I suppose, what Mr. Barbour alluded to." A noble Christian patriot! That single act, with the motives which prompted it, entitled him to the respect of mankind (Sprague, VI).

     When the Convention assembled, Patrick Henry spoke against the Constitution with a vehemence never surpassed by himself on any occasion in his whole life, and with a power that sometimes was overwhelming. Once, while this matchless orator was addressing the Convention, a wild storm broke over Richmond; the heavens were ablaze with lightning, the thunder roared, and the rain came down in torrents; at this moment Henry seemed to see the anger of heaven threatening the State, if it should consummate the guilty act of adopting the Constitution, and he invoked celestial witnesses to view and compassionate his distracted country in this grand crisis of its history. And such was the effect of his speech on the occasion; that the Convention immediately dispersed (Howison, II).

     But Madison and his party prevailed. The Convention, when the final vote of ratification was taken, only gave a majority of ten in favor of the Constitution. Eighty-nine cast their votes for it, and seventy-nine against it (Howe, Virginia Historical Collections, 124. Charleston, 1846).

     In this manner the Constitution of the United States was adopted. Already, it has been seen that the Baptists did not think that the Constitution secured religious liberty. Imperfect as it was considered, through Mr. Madison and the Baptists, the Constitution had been ratified. There was large opposition to any amendments. Many noble men were in favor of the union of Church and State. Massachusetts was wedded to an establishment. John Adams, her favorite son and afterwards President of the United States, was indignant that the Baptists addressed the Congress in Philadelphia praying for religious liberty. He wrote as follows to Benjamin Kent:

I am for the most liberal toleration of all denominations, but I hope Congress will never meddle with religion further than to say their own prayers. . . Let every Colony have its own religion without molestation (Adams, Works by Charles Francis Adams, IX.).
     As late as the beginning of the nineteenth century there was a dream of a State Church. Thomas Jefferson, writing to Benjamin Rush, says:
The successful experiment made under the prevalence of that delusion (of a State Church) on the clause of the Constitution, which, while it secures the freedom of the press, covered also the freedom of religion, had given to the clergy a very favorable hope of obtaining an establishment of a particular form of Christianity through the United States; and as every met believes its own form the true one, every one perhaps hoped for his own, but especially the Episcopalians and the Congregationalists. The returning good sense of our country threatens abortion to their hopes, and they believe that any portion of power confided to me, will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly; for I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the minds of men (Jefferson, Writings, X, 174, 175. Washington, 1904).

     Massachusetts did not ratify the first amendment to the Constitution of the United States (Backus, II). The suggested amendment came from the Baptists. "Denominationally," says Cathcart,

"no community asked for this change in the Constitution but the Baptists. The Quakers probably would have petitioned it, if they had thought of it, but they did not. John Adams and the Congregationalists did not desire it; the Episco­palians did not wish it; it went too far for most Presbyterians in Revolutionary times, or in our days, when we hear so much about putting the divine name in the Constitution. The Baptists asked it through Washington; the request commended itself to his judgment and to the generous soul of Madison; and to the Bap­tists, beyond a doubt, belongs the glory of engrafting its best articles on the noblest Constitution ever framed for the govern­ment of mankind" (Cathcart, Centennial Offering).
     On account of his well-known views there was much opposi­tion to Madison in Virginia. Through the influence of Patrick Henry he was defeated for the United States Senate. The Con­gressional Districts were so gerrymandered that it was thought he could not be elected to the House of Representatives. Here again, the Baptists, believing in his integrity, threw their influence to him and he was elected to Congress.

     On the general subject of amendments to the Constitution Madison, in a speech delivered June 8, 1789, said:

I will state my reasons why I think it proper to propose amendments, and state the amendments themselves, so far as I think they ought to be proposed. If I thought I could fulfill the duty I owe to myself and my constituents, to let the subject pass over in silence, I would most certainly not trespass on the indulgence of the House. But I cannot do this, and am, therefore, compelled to beg a patient hearing to what I have to lay before you. . . It appears to me that this House is bound by every motive of prudence not to let the first session pass over without proposing to the State Legislature some things to be incorporated into the Constitution that will render it acceptable to the whole people of the United States as it has been found acceptable to a majority of them. I wish, among other reasons why something should be done, that those who have been friendly to the adoption of the Constitution may have the opportunity of proving to those who were opposed to it that they were as sincerely devoted to liberty and a republican government as those who charged them with wishing the adoption of this Constitution in order to lay the foundation of an aristocracy or despotism. It will be a desirable thing to extinguish from the bosom of every member of the community any apprehensions that there are those among his countrymen who wish to deprive them of the liberty for which they valiantly fought and honorably bled. And if there are amendments desired of such a nature as will not injure the Constitution, and they can be engrafted so as to give satisfaction to the doubting part of our fellow citizens, the friends of the Federal Government will evince the spirit of deference and concession for which they have been hitherto distinguished. . . It cannot be a secret to the gentlemen of this House that, notwithstanding the ratification of this system of government by eleven of the thirteen United States, in some cases unanimously, in others by large majorities, yet still there is a great number of our constituents who are dissatisfied with it, among whom are many respectable for their talents and patriotism, and respectable for the jealousy they have for their liberty, which, though mistaken in its object, is laudable in its motive. There is a great body of the people falling under this description, who at present feel much inclined to, join their support to the cause of Federalism, if they were satisfied on this point... But perhaps there is a stronger motive than this for one going into a consideration of the subject. It is to provide those securities for liberty which are required by a part of the community. I allude in a particular manner to those two States (Rhode Island and North Carolina) that have not thought fit to throw themselves into the bosom of the confederacy. It is a desirable thing, on our part as well as theirs, that a reunion should take place as soon as possible... But I will candidly acknowledge that, over and above all of these considerations, I do conceive that the Constitution may be amended; that is to say, if all powers of the general Government may be guarded against in a more secure manner than it is now done, while no one advantage arising from the exercise of that power shall be damaged or endangered by it. We have in this way something to gain; and, if we proceed with caution, nothing to lose (Annals of Congress, I).

      Upon the advice of Madison the subject was presented to Washington. The petition was prepared by John Leland and is as follows:

Address of the Committee of the United Baptist Churches of Virginia, assembled in the city of Richmond, August 8, 1789, to the President of the United States of America:
Sir, — Among the many shouts of congratulation that you receive from cities, societies, States and the whole world, we wish to take an active part in the universal chows, in expressing our great satisfaction in your appointment to the first office in the nation. When America, on a former occasion, was reduced to the necessity of appealing to arms to defend her natural and civil rights, a Washington was found fully adequate to the exigencies of the dangerous attempt; who, by the philanthropy of his heart and the prudence of his head, led forth her untutored troops into the field of battle, and, by the skillfulness of his hands, baffled the projects of the insulting foe and pointed out the road to independence, even at a time when the energy of the Cabinet was not sufficient to bring into action the natural aid of the confederation, from its respective sources.

The grand object being obtained, the independence of the States acknowledged, free from ambition, devoid of the thirst of blood, our hero returned, with those he commanded, and laid down the sword at the feet of those who gave it to him. "Such an example to the world is new." Like other nations, we experienced that it requires as great valor and wisdom to make an advantage of a conquest as to gain one.

The want of efficiency in the confederation, the redundancy of laws, and their partial administration in the States, called aloud for a new arrangement in our systems. The wisdom of the States for that purpose was collected in a grand convention, over which you, sir, had the honor to preside. A national government, in all its parts, was recommended as the only preservation of the Union, which plan of government is now in actual operation.

When the constitution first made its appearance in Virginia, we, as a society, had unusual struggles of mind, fearing that the liberty of conscience, dearer to us than property or life, was not sufficiently secured. Perhaps our jealousies were heightened by the usage we received in Virginia under the regal government, when mobs, fines, bonds, and prisons were our frequent repast.

Convinced, on the one hand, that without an effective national government the States would fall into disunion and all the consequent evils, and on the other hand, fearing that we would be accessory to some religious oppression, should any one society in the union predominate over the rest; amidst all these inquietudes of mind our consolation arose from this consideration, via.: the plan must be good, for it has the signature of a tried, trusty friend, and if religious liberty is rather insecure in the Constitution, "the Administration will certainly prevent all oppressions, for a Washington will preside." According to our wishes, the unanimous voice of the Union has called you, sir, from your beloved retreat, to launch forth again into the faithless seas of human affairs, to guide the helm of States. May the divine munificence which covered your head in battle make you yet a greater blessing to your admiring country in time of peace! Should the horrid evils that have been so pestiferous in Asia and Europe — faction, ambition, war, perfidy, fraud and persecution for conscience sake, ever approach the borders of our happy nation, may the name and administration of our beloved President, like the radiant source of day, scatter all those dark clouds from the American hemisphere.

And, while we speak freely the language of our hearts, we are satisfied that we express the sentiments of our brethren whom we represent. The very name of Washington is music in our ears, and, although the great evil in the States, is the want of mutual confidence between the rulers and the people, yet we have the utmost confidence in the President of the States; and it is our fervent prayer to Almighty God that the Federal Government, and the governments of the respective States, without rivalship, may cooperate together as to make the numerous people over which you preside the happiest nation on earth, and you, sir, the happiest man, in seeing the people whom, by the smiles of Providence, you saved from vassalage by your valor and made wise by your maxims, sitting securely under their vines and fig trees, enjoying the perfection of human felicity. May God long preserve your life and health for a blessing to the world in general, and the United States in particular; and when, like the sun, you have finished your course of great and unparalleled services, and go the way of all the earth, may the Divine Being, who will reward every man according to his works, grant unto you a glorious admission into the everlasting kingdom, through Jesus Christ. This, sir, is the prayer of your happy admirers.
     By order of the Committee.

Samuel Harris, Chairman
Reuben Ford, Clerk
(Leland, Works).
     Washington made the following reply:
To the General Committee, Representing the United Baptist Churches in Virginia:
Gentlemen — I request that you will accept my best acknowledgments for your congratulations on my appointment to the first office of the nation. The kind manner in which you mention my past conduct equally claims the expression of my gratitude.

After we had, by the smiles of Divine Providence on our exertions, obtained the object for which we contended, I retired at the conclusion of the war, with the idea that my country could have no further occasion for my services, and with the intention of never again entering public life. But when the exigencies of my country seemed to require me once more to engage in public affairs, my honest conviction of duty superceded my former resolution, and became my apology for deviating from the happy plan which I had adopted.

If I could have entertained the slightest apprehension that the Constitution framed by the Convention, where I had the honor to preside, might possibly endanger the religious rights of any ecclesiastical society, certainly I would never have placed my signature to it; and if I could now conceive that the general government might be so administered as to render the liberty of conscience insecure, I beg you that none will be persuaded, that none will be more zealous than myself to establish effective barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny and every species of religious persecution; for you doubtless remember I have often expressed my sentiments, that any man, conducting himself as a good citizen, and being accountable to God alone for his religious opinions, ought to be protected in worshipping the Deity according to the dictates of his oven conscience.

While I recollect with satisfaction that the religious society of which you are members, throughout America, uniformly and almost unanimously were the firm friends of civil liberty, and the persevering promoters of our glorious revolution, I cannot hesitate to believe that they will be the faithful supporters of a free, yet efficient, general government. Under this pleasing expectation, I rejoice to assure them that they may rely upon my beat wishes and endeavors to promote their prosperity.

In the meantime, be assured, gentlemen, that I entertain a proper sense of your fervent supplications to God for my temporal and eternal happiness.
I am, Gentlemen, your most obedient servant,

George Washington.

(Sparks, Writings of Washington, XII).

     One of the first things Madison proposed on entering Congress, June 8, 1789, was the following amendment to the Constitution of the United States:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for a redress of grievances.
      The Baptists felt secure under this new provision of the Constitution. Long afterwards, March 2, 1819, Madison wrote to Robert Walsh, from Montpelier, as follows:
It was the universal opinion of the century preceding the last that civil government could not stand without the prop of a religious establishment, and that the Christian religion itself would perish, if not supported by a legal provision for its clergy. The experience of Virginia conspicuously corroborates the disproof of both opinions. The civil government, though bereft of everything like an associated hierarchy, possesses the requisite stability and performs its functions with complete success; whilst the number, the industry, and the morality of the priesthood, and the devotion of the people, have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the Church from the State.

      The forces which worked for liberty have thus been summed up by Bacon:

"In the establishment of the American principle of the non-interference of the State with religion, and the equality of all religious communions before the law, much was due, no doubt, to the mutual jealousies of the sects, no one or two of which were strong enough to maintain exceptional pretensions over the rest combined. Much also is to be imputed to the indifferentism and sometimes the anti-religious sentiment of an important and numerous class of doctrinaire politicians of which Jefferson may be taken as a type. So far as this work was a work of intelligent conviction and religious faith, the chief honor of it must be given to the Baptists. Other sects, notably the Presbyterians, had been energetic and efficient in demanding their own liberties; the Friends and Baptists agreed in demanding liberty of conscience and worship, and equality before the law, for all alike. But the active labor in this cause was mainly done by the Baptists. It is to their consistency and constancy in the warfare against the privileges of the powerful 'Standing Order' of New England, and of the moribund establishments in the South, that we are chiefly indebted for the final triumph, in this country, of that principle of the separation of church and state, which is one of the largest contributions of the New World to civilization and the church universal" (Bacon, A History of American Christianity).
     Ruffini has summed up the provisions of this amendment in the following discriminating manner:
"By this the United States solemnly promised that they would never elevate any one form of belief to the rank of the official religion of the Confederation, but that, on the contrary, equal liberty would be conceded to all the churches. It was, therefore, the most absolute separation of the two powers which the United States, at the moment of constituting themselves into a Republic, placed at the basis of their relations with Churches, and to that separation they entrusted the guarantee of the fullest religious liberty.

"There is, however, one thing that must be especially noted. The Constitution of the United States did not abolish the union between the State and the Church within those particular States in which the separation had not already taken place. Now, no separation had been effected, nor was it realized for a whole century, in the New England States. Again, the Constitution did not guarantee full religious liberty except in federal relationships, and it did not remove those restrictions in the internal relations of single States... Some of them (the States), however, still remained intolerant in spite of and after the Federal Constitution" (Ruffini).

     Books for further reference:
The Writings of Thomas Jefferson containing his Autobiography, Notes on Virginia, Parliamentary Manual, Official Papers, Messages and Addresses, and other Writings Official and Private. Andrew A. Lipscomb, Editor in Chief, Albert Ellery Bergh, Managing Editor. 18 volumes.
The Writings of George Washington being the Correspondence, Addresses, Messages and other Papers, Official and Private by Jared Sparks, Boston, 1838. 12 volume.
J. T. Smith, "Life and Times of Rev. John Leland," The Baptist Quarterly, V, 230-256. Philadelphia, 1871.
Reuben A. Guild, "The Denominational Work of President Manning," The Baptist Review, III, 74-85. Cincinnati, 1881.
John T. Christian, "The Religion of Thomas Jefferson," The Review and Expositor, XVI, 295-307. Louisville, 1919.

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[John T. Christian, A History of the Baptists, 1926; rpt., pp. 241-252. — Jim Duvall]



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