October 24, 1776
To the honorable the General Assembly of Virginia:
The Memorial of the Presbytery of Hanover humbly represents, that your memorialists are governed by the same sentiments which have inspired the United States of America, and are determined that noting in our power and influence shall be wanting to give success to the common cause. We would also represent that dissenters from the Church of England in this country have ever desirous to conduct themselves as peaceable members of the civil government, for which reason they have hitherto submitted to several ecclesiastical burdens and restrictions that are inconsistent with equal liberty. But, now when the many and grievous oppressions of our mother country have laid this continent under the necessity of casting off the yoke of tyranny and forming of independent governments upon equitable and liberal foundations, we flatter ourselves that we shall be freed from all incumbrances which a spirit of domination, prejudice, or bigotry hath interwoven with most other political systems. This we are the more strongly encouraged to expect by the Declaration of Rights so universally applauded for the dignity, firmness, and precision with which it delineates and asserts the privileges of society and the prerogatives of human nature, and which we embrace as the magna charta of our commonwealth, that can never be violated without endangering the grand superstructure it was designed to maintain. Therefore we rely upon the declaration, as well as the justice of our honorable legislature, to secure us the free exercise of religion according to the dictates of our consciences. And we should fall shower of our duty to ourselves, and the many and numerous congregations under our care, were we upon this occasion to neglect laying before you a statement of the religious grievances under which we have hitherto labored, that they may no longer be continued in our present form of government.
It is well known that in the frontier counties, which are justly supposed to contain a fifth part of the inhabitants of Virginia, the dissenters have borne the heavy burdens of purchasing glebes, building churches, and supporting the established clergy, where there are very few Episcopalians, either to assist in bearing the expense or to reap the advantage, and that throughout the other parts of the country there are also many thousands of zealous friends and defenders of our state who, besides the invidious and disadvantageous restrictions to which they have been subjected, annually pay large taxes to support an establishment from which their consciences and principles oblige them to dissent. All which are confessedly so many violations of their natural right, and in their consequences a restraint upon freedom of inquiry and private judgment.
In this enlightened age, and in a land where all of every denomination are united in the most strenuous efforts to be free, we hope and expect that our representatives will cheerfully concur in removing every species of religious as well as civil bondage. Certain it is that every argument for civil liberty gains additional strength when applied to liberty in the concerns of religion, and there is no argument in favor of establishing the Christian religion but what may be pleaded with equal propriety for establishing the tenets of Mohammed by those who believe the Al Koran; or, if this be not true, it is at least impossible for the magistrate to adjudge the right of preference among the various sects that profess the Christian faith without erecting a chair of infallibility which would lead us back to the Church of Rome.
We beg leave farther to represent that religious establishments are highly injurious to the temporal interests of any community. Without insisting upon the ambition and the arbitrary practices of those who are favored by government , or the intriguing, seditious spirit which is commonly excited by this as well as every other kind of oppression, such establishments greatly retard population, and consequently the progress of arts, sciences, and manufactories: witness the rapid growth and improvement of the northern provinces compared with this. No one can deny that the more early settlement and the many superior advantages of our country would have invited multitudes of artificers, mechanics, and other useful members of society to fix their habitation among us, who have either remained in their place of nativity or preferred worse civil governments and a more barren soil, where they might enjoy the rights of conscience more fully then they had a prospect of doing it in this. From which we infer that Virginia might have been the capital of America, and a match for the British arms without depending on others for the necessaries of war, had it not been prevented by the religious establishment. Neither can it be made to appear that the gospel needs any such civil aid. We rather conceive that when our blessed Savior declares his kingdom is not of this world he renounces all dependence upon state power; and as his weapons are spiritual, and were only designed to have influence upon the judgment and heart of man, we are persuaded that if mankind were left in quiet possession of their unalienable rights and privileges, Christianity, as in the days of the apostles, would continue to prevail and flourish in the greatest purity by its own native excellence and under the all-disposing providence of God.
We have humbly represent that the only proper objects of civil government are the happiness and protection of men in the present state of existence, the security of the life, liberty, and the property of the citizens, and to restrain the vicious and encourage the virtuous by wholesome laws equally extending to every individual; but that the duty which we owe our Creator and the manner of discharging it can only be directed by reason and conviction and is nowhere cognizable but at the tribunal of the Universal Judge. Therefore we ask no ecclesiastical establishments for ourselves, neither can we approve of them when granted to others. This indeed would be giving exclusive or separate emoluments or privileges to one set of men without any special public services, to the common reproach and injury of every other denomination. And for the reasons recited we are induced earnestly to entreat that all laws now in force in the commonwealth which countenance religious domination may be speedily repealed; that all of every religious sect may be protected in full exercise of their several modes of worship, and exempted from all taxes for the support of any church whatsoever, further than what may be agreeable to their own private choice or voluntary obligation. This being done, all partial and invidious distinctions will be abolished, to the great honor and interest of the state, and every one be left to stand or fall according to merit, which can never be the case so long as one denomination is established in preference to others. That the great sovereign of the Universe may inspire you with unanimity, wisdom, and resolution, and bring you to a just determination on all the important concerns before you, is the fervent prayer of your memorialists.
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