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James Meacham on the Danger of a Union of Church and State

The reason more generally urged, is the danger of a union of church and State. If the danger were real, we should be disposed to take the most prompt and decided measures to forestall the evil, because one of the worst for the religious and political interests of this nation that could possibly overtake us. But we deem this apprehension entirely imaginary; and we think any one of the petitioners must be convinced of this on examination of the facts. I have prepared a table showing the churches, ministers, members, and worshippers, in the leading denominations of Christians in this land. It was hastily made, and is doubtless imperfect. I shall append another table, which was published in the Christian Almanac; and any person who has the leisure may compare, and from both form a correct conclusion. The column of worshippers was made by taking from the census the list of church accommodations of each church. This, of course, makes no pretence to entire accuracy; but it is, comparatively, perfectly fair, because it assumes that all churches are filled with worshippers, and that this is the measure of them. It is the nearest and fairest approach to accuracy that I know how to make. Now look at that score of different denominations, and tell us, do you believe it possible to make a majority agree in forming a league to unite their religious interests with those of the State? If you take from the larger sects, you must select some three or four of the largest to make a majority of clergy, or laity, or worshippers. And these sects are widely separated in their doctrines, their religious rites, and in their church discipline. How do you expect them to unite for any such object? If you take the smaller sects, you must unite some fifteen to make a majority, and must take such discordant materials as the Quaker, the Jew, the Universalist, the Unitarian, the Tunker, and the Swedenborgian. Does any one suppose it possible to make these harmonize? If not, there can be no union of church and State. Your committee know of no denomination of Christians who wish for such union. They have had their existence in the voluntary system, and wish it to continue. The sentiment of the whole body of American Christians is against a union with the State. A great change has been wrought in this respect. At the adoption of the constitution, we believe every State—certainly ten of the thirteen—provided as regularly for the support of the church, as for the support of the government: one, Virginia, had the system of tithes. Down to the Revolution, every colony did sustain religion in some form. It was deemed peculiarly proper that the religion of liberty should be upheld by a free people. Had the people, during the Revolution, had a suspicion of any attempt to war against Christianity, that Revolution would have been strangled in its cradle. At the time of the adoption of the constitution and the amendments, the universal sentiment was that Christianity should be encouraged—not any one sect. Any attempt to level and discard all religion, would have been viewed with universal indignation. The object was not to substitute Judaism, or Mahomedanism, or infidelity, but to prevent rivalry among sects to the exclusion of others. The result of the change above named is, that now there is not a single State that, as a State, supports the gospel. In 1816 Connecticut repealed her law which was passed to sustain the church; and in 1833, Massachusetts wiped from her statute-book the last law on the subject that existed in the whole Union. Every one will notice that this is a very great change to be made in so short a period—greater than, we believe, was ever before made in ecclesiastical affairs in sixty-five years, without a revolution or some great convulsion. This change has been made silently and noiselessly, with the consent and wish of all parties, civil and religious. From this it will be seen that the tendency of the times is not to a union of church and State, but is decidedly and strongly bearing in an opposite direction. Every tie is sundered; and there is no wish on either side to have the bond renewed. It seems to us that the men who would raise the cry of danger in this state of things, would cry fire on the thirty-ninth day of a general deluge.

[Representative James Meacham (Whig, Vermont) served from 1849 to 1856. This paragraph comes from HR 124, 33rd Cong. 1st Sess., p. 6, a report on chaplains.]

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