Carl Watner

The Struggle for Religious Freedom and the Voluntaryist Tradition




Religous tolerance and freedom is the voluntary principle introduced in thoseparticular aspects of personal and communitarian life. This principle needs now to be extended to all spheres of life.




Voluntaryism has played a significant part in the long struggle for religious freedom in England and the United States. Since the early 17th Century, when many of the Puritan sects originated, the arguments for separation of Church and State and for freedom of conscience have rested on the "voluntary principle." The advocates of religious voluntaryism demanded that all religions and churches should be supported by voluntary membership and voluntary giving. They opposed taxation for the purpose of maintaining a State religion, and resisted compulsory attendance and membership in State churches. The opponents of religious voluntaryism were quick to point out its radical implications. If the only true church was the voluntary church, then the only true political organization was a voluntary State. Disestablishment of the State Church of England would inevitably lead to a state of « religious anarchy, » just as abolition of the monarchy would lead to political anarchy. The purpose of this article is to briefly sketch the historical connections between the arguments for religious voluntaryism, and some of our 20th Century defenses of an all voluntary society.

Even though the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guards against a State religion, it was not until the 1820s and1830s that religious taxes and the last vestiges of a state church were extirpated in many of the original thirteen states. Most of us have probably forgotten Henry David Thoreau's clash with ecclesiastical law in Massachusetts, which he refers to in his lecture on "Civil Disobedience" (1848). « Some years ago (1838, when he turned twenty-one) the State met me in support of a clergyman, whose preaching my father attended, but never I myself.
‘Pay,’ it said, ‘or be locked up in the jail.'
I declined to pay. But, unfortunately another man saw fit to pay it. » The same problem had plagued many Baptists, Quakers, and other dissenters in Massachusetts.

Thoreau's parish in Concord claimed the right to tax him for support of its church because his father had attended the parish church, and Thoreau had been baptized into it as an infant.
Though a Massachusetts statute of 1836, declared that « no one can be made a member of a religious society without his consent in writing, » Thoreau made what was known as a « certificate bow » or request for exemption from the town clerk of Concord.
« However, at the request of the selectmen, I condescended to make some such statement as this in writing:—‘Know all men by these presents, that I, Henry Thoreau, do not wish to be regarded as a member of any incorporated society which I have not joined.' The State, having thus learned that I did not wish to be regarded as a member of that church, has never made a like demand on me since; though it said that it must adhere to its original presumption that time. »

Much of Thoreau's argument reflects the voluntaryist heritage which had been the backbone of the dissenting stand. « I did not see, » he wrote of this threatened arrest for refusing to pay religious taxes, « why the schoolmaster should be taxed to support the priest, and not the priest the schoolmaster: for I was not the State's schoolmaster, but I supported myself by voluntary subscription. I did not see why the lyceum should not present its tax-bill, and have the State to back its demand, as well as the church.
If I had known how to name them, I should then have signed off in detail from all the societies which I never signed on to; but I did not know where to find a complete list. »

The Eleventh Amendment to the Massachusetts State Constitution, which was adopted in November, 1833, was supposed to abolish compulsory support of religion, but it overlooked young men like Thoreau, who came of age without formally presenting a certificate either signing off from their parish or attesting to their membership in some dissenting society.

While Thoreau was protesting religious involuntaryism in Massachusetts, his spiritual cousins in England, known as the nonconformists, were renewing their demand for the disestablishment of the Church of England. Following the Reform Act of 1832, dissenters formulated a list of their major grievances. They objected to the Church's monopoly over birth and death registration, over marriage and burial ceremonies; they resented their exclusion from the ancient English universities, and specially demanded relief from the church rates they had to pay for the upkeep of parish churches which they did not attend.
In short, they were upset by all the civil and religious penalties they suffered by not being members of the State Church.

Some nonconformists went so far as to organize the British Anti-State-Church Association in 1844. Edward Miall, a leading dissenter, was the guiding light behind this organization for many years. As editor of THE NONCONFORMIST, Miall roused many Baptist and Congregationalists to attack the root from which their grievances sprang. He argued that the State should accord no special position to one church. Disestablishment became his cry. Miall elaborated a whole political theory, voluntaryism, on the basis that religion should always be supported by voluntary giving and not by State aid. The voluntaryists taught that no acceptable or effectual service could be rendered in the spiritual realm which did not first rest on individual conviction and individual conscience. Coerced support for the State church was not only a violation of conscience but also resulted in a weakened church. (Apparently, neither Miall nor any of the other leading voluntaryists attacked the church rates on the ground that it constituted an unjust confiscation of property.)
The association which Miall helped found changed its name in 1853 to The Society for the Liberation of Religion from State Patronage and Control and it eventually became known as "The Liberation Society."
It existed well into the late 1800s and by then had achieved most of its goals.

An interesting connection is to be made between Miall and early voluntaryist political radicalism. The conviction that the churches should be free from State interference coincided with the views of the free traders in the Anti-Corn Law League, for example.
One critic of Miall went so far as to sever his relationship with the British Anti-State-Church Association on the ground that it had become « a school of anarchy. » The young Herbert Spencer
(1820-1903) published a series of letters in Miall's paper in 1842.
These letters were known as "On the Proper Sphere of Government." Here the young Spencer expressed his « juvenile radicalism » by championing the causes of the dissenters.
He defended free trade, Church disestablishment, opposition to war and imperialism, and support
of voluntary education. In a number of instances Spencer used « the argument for religious freedom to buttress his case for freedom in other spheres. » He wished to demonstrate that « natural rights are the foundation of religious freedom » and he insisted that these rights should be « extended consistently to all spheres of human activity. »

It was in the United States that the voluntaryist tradition was most widely recognized, even though not always put into consistent practice. The « voluntary principle »  in religion became an axiom for nearly all Americans. This formed the underlying basis for separation of Church and State in the United States. Foreign observers of America during the 19th Century were particularly struck by the religious voluntaryism practiced here. De Tocqueville noted the vitality of the churches. James Bryce reported that the American places of worship were usually well attended.
The most striking feature of American religious life to many European visitors was the legal status of the churches. « Of all the differences between the Old World and the new, » Bryce wrote, « this is perhaps the most salient. ... All religious bodies are absolutely equal before the law and unrecognized by law, except as voluntary associations of private citizens. »

By the late 19th Century, the American experience with the separation of Church and State, embraced by the First Amendment to the Constitution, meant voluntaryism in practice. Since the government took no part in the religious life of the people, it became the sole responsibility of the churches to attend to such matters. The churches and their clergy realized that « the church as a spiritual entity will be happiest and strongest when it is left absolutely to itself. »
Disassociation from the government also led to religious peace. As Bryce noted, at least half of the internal troubles in Europe stemmed from theological differences. However, since the State played no religious role whatsoever in America, this strife and rancor were largely avoided.
It was his conclusion that, « So far from suffering from the want of State support, religion seems in the United States to stand all the firmer because, standing alone, she is seen to stand by her
own strength. » Depending solely upon voluntary support, the churches are subjected to a form of moral coercion, which makes it necessary for them to discharge their own responsibilities if their own institutional life is to remain strong and vigorous.
American experience has proven that churches tend to flourish and become strong and influential when they are subjected to the coercion of a purely voluntary status. In this respect, they are much like any competitive business offering their customers a service. It is only by free trade in religion that the truth can be tested and abuses be guarded against. Persuasion rather than government dictation was the only means that made this possible.

But this was not always so. Although it is thought that many of the Hew England colonies were founded as havens from religious persecution in England, the original colonists themselves were often bigoted and did not extend the religious freedoms they sought to others outside their own faith. Connecticut, in particular, offers a very interesting example, because it was not until the first State Constitution was ratified in 1818, that any sort of separation of Church and State took place. Up until that time, the clergy and supporters of the existing order believed that the State church must be tax supported if religion were to survive in Connecticut.

State guardianship of the churches was the keynote of the policy of the founders of Connecticut from the early decades of the 1600s. They believed that the church must train its members in civic responsibility and moral uprightness if a well-ordered community was to be protected « against the dangers of theocracy on the one hand and of religious anarchy on the other. » Congregational churches were established by state legislation between 1644 and 1657, and steps were taken to assure them full financial security and support by the government. This was accomplished by legislating that the salaries of ministers were to be guaranteed by tax collection and that « no church was to be organized or to engage in religious activity without the consent and approval of the legislature. » All citizens were subject to ministerial taxes (whether they were believers or non-believers) and were fined for refusal to pay and for failure to attend religious services.

As a result of this stewardship of religion, the state religion, Congregationalism, became strong and dominant. Nevertheless this protection did not guard it from becoming lax in matters of faith and morals. Quakers and separatists of all sorts challenged the legitimacy of a church which required state support.
Although some tax relief was given to members of recognized churches, the courts and legislature in Connecticut were not prone to extend the principle of toleration to the multitude of sects they feared would spring up in the absence of a state church.
During the mid 1700s (largely as a result of the Great Awakening), more than thirty separatist churches sprang into existence, despite the persecution and tax burdens that their members suffered.

The pleas for religious freedom never ceased in Connecticut, but they made head way slowly. The voluntaryist flavor of these arguments is interesting and also indicates the amount of ridicule and suffering that their supporters underwent. One of the most striking examples of their opposition to the religious establishment took place in a public debate between a Baptist (separatist) minister and a Congregational minster in Lyme, Connecticut in 1727. One section of the debate was devoted to « Whether ministers of the gospel ought to be maintained in the least, by goods taken away by force from men of contrary persuasion? »
Wightman, the Baptist, took the negative on three grounds:
1. Because there is no precept nor precedent for so doing in the new Testament.
2. Because so to do is what we would not be done unto ourselves.
3. Because the Lord requires only volunteers and not forced men in his service.

Wightman was convinced that there was no other way for support of the gospel « but what is from the freewill offerings of the people. » Bulkley, his opponent, hurled the accusation that the sectaries in Connecticut had called the Standing Ministers (himself included) « Greedy Dogs and Ravenous Wolves » and that since the Bible did not prescribe how ministers were to be financially supported it was up to the legislature to make that determination.

By the time of the American revolution, public opinion in Connecticut had reached the point where conscientious dissenters were excused from attending worship in established churches, provided they attended worship elsewhere. In 1777, separatists were exempted from taxes for the support of the established church if they could furnish proof that they had contributed to the support of their own churches. These concessions failed to wholly satisfy the dissenters because they desired complete religious liberty. When the final break with England took place, Connecticut passed into the union of the 13 colonies with its old colonial charter still intact. Therefore Congregationalism still maintained its place as the state church.

The federalists and supporters of the new federal constitution in Connecticut defended the need for a church-state system, even when experiments in many of the other thirteen states proved that religion and civil government could survive independently of one another. They and especially the Congregational clergy were convinced that disestablishment would result in nothing less than a return to "a state of nature." It was inconceivable to them that society could long exist without civil recognition and support of religion. Ex-governor Treadwell voiced his fears that « a voluntaryist Christian commonwealth could not maintain itself in peace and order. »
Others opposed disestablishment because it meant that « everything might be safely left to each
individual. »

Lyman Beecher, a well-known Congregational minister, opposed the call for a state constitutional convention, which was agitated for several years prior to 1818.
In order to push for complete religious freedom in the state, the rising democratic forces and the opponents of state religion banded together in what became known as the Toleration (or Republican) party. The first state constitutional convention brought forth a document which largely guaranteed the religious freedoms the separatists had been so actively seeking. The union of church and state was dissolved in late 1818. Beecher expected the worst from disestablishment: the floodgates of anarchy would be loosened in Connecticut.

As Beecher relates the story in his autobiography, the ratification of the new constitution was « a time of great depression and suffering…. It was as dark a day as ever I saw. The odium thrown upon the ministry was inconceivable. The injury done to the cause of Christ, as we then supposed, was irreparable. » But soon a new, revolutionary idea occurred to Beecher. True religion might stand on its own.
« For several days (after disestablishment became a foregone conclusion) I suffered what no tongue can tell 'for the best thing that ever happened to the State of Connecticut.' It cut the churches loose from dependence on state support. It threw them wholly on their own resources and on God. » Before the change:

Our people thought they should be destroyed if the law should be taken away from under them. … But the effect, when it did come, was just the reverse of the expectation.
We were thrown on God and on ourselves, and this created that moral coercion which makes men work. Before we had been standing on what our Fathers had done, but now we were obliged to develop all our energy.

Beecher also noted with elation the new alignment of religious forces which was the result of disestablishment.
By repealing the law that compelled everyone to pay for the support of some church, « the occasion of animosity between us and the minor sects was removed, and the infidels could no more make capital with them against us. »
On the contrary, « they began themselves to feel the dangers from infidelity, and to react against it, and this laid the basis of co-operation and union of spirit. »
Beecher’s final conclusion was « that tax law had for more than twenty years really worked to weaken us » and strengthen our opponents.
Ministers supported by voluntary offerings exerted an influence deeper than they ever could have if they continued to be tax supported. Neither Beecher nor many of his contemporaries originally conceived that true religion and good morals could exist without governmental support, but their experience in Connecticut, proved otherwise. The voluntary system did not lead to the decay of religion or morality or to the host of evils which all defenders of the established order predicted.

There is a clear parallel between the predictions of those who opposed disestablishment in Connecticut and those who cannot believe that an all voluntary society could exist today. Neither group could believe that the spontaneous order in the religious market place or the commercial market place would provide any sort of natural order.
If nothing else, the historical case in Connecticut proves them wrong.

The lack of a compulsory, coercive authority in both religious and commercial organizations does not lessen their authority, but in fact increases it (however paradoxical this may appear).
Precisely because such voluntary groups of people lack the coercive authority of a government, they are obliged to direct their efforts to establish a powerful moral authority over those whom they would exert an influence. There is simply no other legitimate way to deal with people. They are either voluntarily persuaded to take a course of action or they are compelled to do so through the use of force. Authority voluntarily accepted is far stronger and a more powerful factor than violence can ever be. To understand and come to an appreciation of this paradox would seem to be a valuable lesson to be learned from an examination of the struggle for religious freedom in the voluntaryist tradition.



Short Bibliography

William H. Mackintosh, Disestablishment and Liberation: The Movement for the Separation of the Anglican Church from State Control, London: Epworth Press, 1972.

Wìnthrop S. Hudson, The Great Tradition of the American Churches, New York: Harper and Brothers, 1953.

Paul Wakeman Coons, The Achievement of Religious Liberty in Connecticut, Vol. XL of the Tercentenary Commission of the State of Connecticut, Committee on Historical Publications, new Haven: Yale University Press, 1936.

William Q. McLoughlin, New England Dissent 1630-1883, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971 (2 vols.).


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