Patrick Henry would have the church provide social services that today we relegate to the state. Listen to his religious views presented in his Assessment Bill of 1784. Richard Schumann interprets.
Harmony Hunter: Hi. Welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. April is religion month at Colonial Williamsburg, and we’re marking in the podcast with a two-part series on the religious views of our founders. Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry both introduced religion bills in the Virginia General Assembly, and you’ll be surprised at how different they were. Listen this week as Patrick Henry, interpreted by Richard Schumann, presents his religion bill. Tune in next week for Thomas Jefferson’s rebuttal.
Richard Schumann as Patrick Henry: Good day, friends and countrymen. I have been desired by the worshipful mayor of this city, our former capital of Virginia, Williamsburg, to address the matter of religion with one of my very close associates with whom I have been highly affectionated for these last 20 years or more. Permit me to make polite introduction. I am Patrick Henry Jr., once again to serve in my fourth year as the governor of this commonwealth, and I am very pleased to bring forth also Mr. Thomas Jefferson of Albemarle County, also a former governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia.
Bill Barker as Thomas Jefferson: I thank you Mr. Henry. It is my pleasure indeed to be in your company once more.
Henry: Well, sir, we have clearly differing views upon the matter of religion in society. Which of us should begin?
Jefferson: Well, Mr. Henry as is your custom, you already have begun.
Henry: (Chuckles) Well, Mr. Jefferson, I will remind you sir, I am your elder, and therefore the wiser in most matters, certainly this one. Very well, ’tis proper and fit. I believe first it would be proper for me to address my personal views regarding the matter of religion. I am very well aware that I have an established reputation in this city – that of being a hothead, demagogue, agitator, not a statesman, and such like. I reject those opinions, and in truth I care nothing for what other gentlemen might think of me in those quarters. However, I would wish to be remembered by future generations of Americans as nothing more than a most pious and devout Christian who is following the direct will of God. I was named after my uncle, the Reverend Patrick Henry, who until his passing just three years ago, served as the parish rector at St. Paul’s Parish in Hanover County. Whenever I were home, I attended his church. I had not the means of a classical education received from the College as Mr. Jefferson did but was schooled at home to the classical style by my father and my uncle – both devout religious men, the Bible my chiefest textbook. And, to add to this deep religious influence upon my own life, imagine the civil discord created many years ago when I was still a wee lad, when my mother and all of my seven sisters announced at the dinner table – with my reverend uncle there present – that they had embraced the Presbyterian faith. And as a young boy, I, too, were taken to hear the sermons of those great dissenting preachers there in the hills of Hanover. It was a time then in the 1740s and 50s which already some referred to as a Great Awakening. Those dissenters were profoundly influential not in the matter only of spiritual conviction but also in terms of my abilities at rhetoric, or public speaking. So, then, a devout Christian, I also believe it would be fit for those who might be unfamiliar with our country of Virginia, to speak as to what we have ever known regarding religion. Since we were established as the first colony in British North America, we ever enjoyed an established church – the Church of England. Now, what does this mean – to have an establishment of religion, of a single church? For one thing, the laws required that all persons throughout Virginia must attend divine services at least one week in four – once the month – if you did not attend you would be fined for it, and rather stiffly. Now the purpose of having this mandatory and regular attendance was not only to reinforce the mild and benevolent precepts of the gospel of Jesus, it was also to ensure that we had a better informed citizenry. There is that period of time in divine services for public announcements, official announcements, recent laws enacted by the legislature, for example, which affect us all. By regularly attending church, everyone would be able to hear this news, whether they were able to read newspapers or no. Also having this established church required that all heads of household paid an annual tax to support the Church of England and that one church alone. Now those monies were applied, mark you, to very notable purposes. The salaries of the established clergy – my own uncle being one, clearly our ministers must be paid to reside among us and to teach us. Those monies were also applied to the maintenance of the church buildings, the glebe lands, and perhaps most importantly of all, those tax monies were applied to the care of the poor and the needy within society – the widows, the orphans, the sick, the dying, and the indigent – ever the domain of religion and not of government. That is all we ever knew. And, I would submit to you that it served the people of Virginia very well indeed for perhaps 120 years – for we were uniformly Anglican. In these last 30 or 40 years, though, especially, we have seen a great influx of those who dissented from the Church of England into Virginia – Presbyterians in great number, Baptists, German Lutherans, Quaker men, Mennonites, Dunkards, Moravians descending the valley road from Pennsylvania, settling into our western reaches there in the Shenandoah; Swedenborgians, and other sorts besides, Methodists.Early on I began to think – especially with most of my own family having embraced the Presbyterian faith – that it was most unjust that these honest Protestant Christians had to pay a tax to support a church to which they themselves did not subscribe. I therefore desired – and Mr. Jefferson is in large agreement with me – that we should have a greater degree of religious liberty, one which would embrace and include all of those other Protestant Christians. In 1776, in this very city, birthplace of American liberty to me, we declared independence from the Crown and the government of Great Britain. We clearly could no longer have the Church of England as our established church, and furthermore, as we were embroiled in war – war being the most expensive business that a government may undertake – it was wisely determined by the legislature that we would suspend the tax upon religion until that time of war was ended. It is now ended. It ended last year, 17 and 83, with the Treaty of Paris. The time is now that we must address the matter of religion, and I believe we must strike while the iron is hot, because the country is in flames. To my great disappointment, I have discovered that just in the seven or eight years since we have suspended the tax upon religion, we have seen a steady but very noticeable decay in morality in society…
Jefferson: Oh, Mr. Henry…
Henry: ’Tis true Mr. Jefferson. You must fact the reason of it, sir. We are seeing but three quarters of the parishes that were once are no longer. These are vacant abandoned buildings, sheep and goats grazing within the churches themselves, vestrymen – those most responsible men in the community for seeing to the well being of all within their various parishes are resigning from their vestry positions, no one willing to take their place. Most of the clergy have given up that profession, gone to something else or even left Virginia, and most disturbingly, we are seeing increasing numbers, especially of dissenters, who are most unwilling to contribute money to the care of the needy. The matter, then, must be addressed.I have presented a plan, which to me, embraces the best of the old – that is, state-sponsored encouragement for virtue and morality and the education of same – and the best of the new, and it offers a complete religious freedom for those who dissent from the Church of England or any established church. My plan is known as the assessment bill of 17 and 84. By my plan, all heads of household will once again pay an annual, very moderate, reasonable assessment towards religion. However, they will be able to choose to which church, meeting house, or minister they wish those monies to be applied. Thus, I believe that all denominations will flourish around the countryside. And, in the event that there is someone who is unable to determine upon a particular denomination, those monies will be put to a general fund which will go to the erection and maintenance of public schools for learning. By my plan, everyone is a victor. It can only lead to a better society for us all, because my friends, I am one who subscribes much to the philosophies of the Baron de Montesquieu, who, in his Spirit of the Laws, a very thorough analysis of governments of all types very clearly proved to me, and to any reasonable man, that a republic such as that which we have created cannot survive, let alone to flourish, unless the people which comprise it are virtuous and moral and adhere to the mild and benevolent precepts of the gospel of Jesus, for if they do not, that republic will certainly face the same barbarous and dreadful fate as did the republic of Rome, which to remind you crashed most terribly in rivers of blood, the countryside all ablaze, and owing to rampant immorality and depravity…
Jefferson: (sounding disgusted) Henry!
Henry: …we began as a Christian nation, and so we must remain, for in my view, Christianity softens the human heart, it cherishes and improves its finer feelings, it restrains men from their vices, it promotes good order and adherence to civil law. Is this not something which should be encouraged? My assessment bill does encourage virtue and morality. Mr. Jefferson’s scheme, I fear, does not. Now, sir, in the interest of fairness, I shall turn the floor to you.
Jefferson: Well, I thank you, Mr. Henry.
Lloyd: That was Patrick Henry, portrayed by Richard Schumann, on religion in government. Next week we’ll have Thomas Jefferson’s response on one of the disagreements about independence in the 18th century, the separation between church and state. Listen next week to Colonial Williamsburg: Past and Present on history.org.