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The early history of all those American communities, in which any form of religion whatsoever had been established by law, bore deep imprints of a fierce and narrow bigotry. Nothing else could be expected from men who had been nurtured in the old-world theory that it was the sacred duty of rulers to choose a religion for the people, and to extirpate heresy. No one except a Congregationalist could be a freeman of Massachusetts. No Roman Catholic was suffered to abide within the borders of the colony. Baptists were fined, flogged, and imprisoned; and some of the early Quaker fanatics, both men and women, who courted death and bonds with persistent importunity, were barbarously martyred. King Charles the Second earnestly and repeatedly endeavoured to secure liberty of religion for members of that English Church of which he himself was the Head, and was encountered by the Independents of Massachusetts with a respectful but inflexible refusal. They reminded His Majesty that they were voluntary exiles from their dear native country because they could not read the Word of God as warranting the use of the Common Prayer Book; and to have the same set up in America, (so their quaint phraseology ran,)“would disturb their peace in their present enjoyments.” Bad things were done in those old days, and cruel-minded sermons were preached and applauded; but, as time went on, the tendency of opinion throughout New England was in the direction first of toleration, and then of religious equality. Generations grew up in an atmosphere of responsible self-government, and widely diffused popular education. The sons of the men who had sent Quakers to execution already condemned the deed; and Boston has been repenting of it ever since, in prose and verse, with an emphasis and unanimity of remorse the like of which has been known in no other community. Clerical opinion lagged somewhat in the rear; but the clergy of the Northern colonies could not afford to be left far behind laymen in the march of humanity. They were not priests, invested with
sacerdotal attributes and authority; but teachers, whose influence depended upon their ability to convince the intellect, and hold the confidence, of their hearers. As early as 1691 the full right of citizenship, and the free exercise of public worship, had been extended to all Christians, with the exception of Roman Catholics; and, forty years later on, it was enacted that the taxes for religious objects, which had been collected from Episcopalian householders, should be handed over to their own Episcopalian minister, if there was one within five miles whose services they attended. That was the Five Mile Act of Massachusetts and Connecticut. The English law which bore the same name was an ordinance forbidding a Nonconformist clergyman to show his face within five miles of any corporate city or borough. In 1775, when the American Revolution broke out, that Act still remained in our Statute-book; nor had it yet become a dead letter. 1
Any progress, which was made towards religious liberty in those colonies where Anglicanism had been established, owed less than nothing to the clergy of the official Church, or to Royal Governors who had the supposed interests of that Church in their keeping. In the province of New York, under the rule of Lord Cornbury, places of Worship, and religious endowments, sometimes by chicanery, and sometimes by arbitrary violence, -- were wrested from Presbyterians or Independents, and handed over to Episcopalians. Nearly half-way through the eighteenth century, in the same province, Moravian missionaries, the most innocent and guileless of mankind, were proscribed and persecuted on the pretext that they were Popish emissaries with designs against His Majesty's Government. And even as late as 1768, — when the country was ablaze with the agitation against the tea-duty, — the Virginian clergy contrived to get three Baptists into gaol for the crime of having re
1 The Kentish Justices put the Five Mile Act in force against Wesleyan preachers thirty years after Methodism had become a living power in England.
fused to discontinue preaching. There have been periods in the history of nations when intolerance has been dignified by the intense religious conviction, and the pure, ascetic, morals of a dominant priesthood; but such was not the case in the Southern colonies, and least of all in Virginia. The desirable gifts and graces were often sadly lacking in clergy men who had been exported from England to serve the parishes in that province. “As to other commodities, so of this, the worst are sent us; and we had few, that we could boast of, since the persecution in Cromwell's tyranny drove divers worthy men hither.” That was written by a Royal Governor in the reign of Charles the Second; and a very perceptible change for the better never took place in the character of the Virginian incumbents until the Church, disestablished and disendowed, was at last thrown back upon her own resources.
There was no bishop, within a distance of three thousand miles, to encourage and promote the worthy, or to admonish and chastise the reprobate; and the Anglican clergy of the Southern plantations, without a director above them, were not a law to themselves. Abandoned to their own guidance and discretion in parishes sometimes as large as an English county, they frequently succumbed to the temptations prevalent in a loosely, and, (so far as slavery was concerned,) a viciously organised society. In one respect they were singularly unfortunate. The boon companions with whom they consorted, the Presbyterian neighbours who had to pay their stipends without attending their ministrations, and the church-goers who listened to their ill-read prayers and short and slovenly discourses, 2 belonged to a race
1 In one case Patrick Henry "offered his services to defend the poor preachers, and tradition has it that he rode fifty miles to do so. In his speech he so dwelt upon the folly and wickedness of attempting to punish a man for preaching the gospel of the Son of God, that he overwhelmed the court, and secured the immediate discharge of his client." In 1770 two other Baptists were thrown into Chesterfield County gaol, and there "they did much execution by preaching through the grates of their windows." History of Religious Liberty; chapter iv., section i.
2 Josiah Quincy, — accustomed as he was to New England sermons closely reasoned, and divided into many heads, - during a visit to the
largely endowed with caustic humour. It would be easy to compile, and perhaps not difficult to read, a chapter full of racy anecdotes and pungent sayings which bear upon these ancient clerical scandals; but the truth about the Southern clergy may with greater propriety be left to the sorrowing testimony of the best among their own number. Reports sent to the Bishop of London by his Commissaries in America, — who were carefully selected for that office on account of their talents and virtues, but who had no powers to restrain or punish their erring brethren, - tell a most deplorable story from first to last. Their statements were confirmed, and their conclusions summed up, by a favourably disposed and sympathetic spectator who watched the Episcopal Establishment from without. James Pembe
James Pemberton, a member of the Society of Friends, - an excellent man, and a very strong Loyalist, — wrote in 1766 that the vast increase of Presbyterians in America was due to the neglect of the rulers of the Church of England, who, to the dishonour of their profession, had little regard for the morals of the persons that they appointed to the office of clergyman.
This relaxation of ecclesiastical discipline was not the only, nor the greatest, evil inflicted upon the Church of England in America by the want of resident bishops. No native-born colonist could be ordained without incurring the indefinite delays, and unspeakable discomforts, of a sea journey replete with perils which would be incredible to our generation if the record of them did not rest upon incontrovertible evidence. Of three South in 1774 heard "a young coxcomb preach flippantly for seventeen and a half minutes" in a Charleston pulpit.
1 The letter is quoted by President Isaac Sharpless, in his History of Quaker Government in Pennsylvania. An account of the Bishop's Commissaries, and their Reports, may be found in a paper by Mr. Edward Eggleston, in the Century Magazine for May 1888. Mr. Sandford Cobb, in the second section of his sixth chapter, relates how the letters written by good American clergymen to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, and to the Bishop of London, abounded in references to the bad lives of many among their colleagues, and to the terribly disastrous influence on the repute and efficacy of the Church.
candidates for ordination, sent to Europe from Hebron in Connecticut, one perished on the return voyage; a second died on ship-board; while the third was taken by a hostile vessel, and spent the rest of his life in a French prison. Doctor Johnson, a citizen of the same province, a man of saintly life who had left the Independents to become an Episcopalian minister, lost a son who had sailed for England on the same errand. This, (said the bereaved father,) was the seventh precious life which had been sacrificed; most of them the flower of their country. Such was indeed the case; for American youths who, in the face of immense disadvantages and discouragements, dedicated themselves to the service of the Church of England, were mostly respectable, and sometimes eminent, in character and attainments. But the difficulties of communication between the colonies and the mother-country were, in the majority of cases, prohibitive. The Church in the Southern colonies was mainly supplied from across the ocean; and clerical emigrants, who found their way to those regions, were very generally the failures of English universities, or Scotch and Irish adventurers who sought an escape from the despised and miserable lot of the usher in an eighteenth-century academy. The daily life in a tobacco-parish contained no element of that missionary work which has an attraction for men of high and enthusiastic spirit; from a very early date it had been well ascertained by Oxford and Cambridge Bachelors of Arts that a curate in England had more considerable worldly prospects than a Virginian rector and archdeacon ;2 and those prospects, far from improving, grew poorer as time advanced, and as the esteem and affection of the Provincials became estranged from their established clergy.
That clergy was remunerated in kind, and not in
1 At a later period, according to Doctor Johnson, ten had been lost, out of fifty-four who had gone for ordination.
2 Letter from Morgan Godwyn to Governor Berkeley, written about the year 1670.