committed to historic Baptist & Reformed beliefs









Sunday Observance and Religions Liberty.



[The following paper, omitting certain local and occasional matter. which has been for obvious reasons edited but, was prepared by me, at the request of Drs. J. B. Hawthorne, Thomas S. Dunaway, and J. B. Hutson, and Rev. M. Ashby Jones, who served with me on a committee of the Baptist Ministers? conference of Richmond and Vicinity, and later was adopted unanimously by the Conference. It is printed here out of deference to the, perhaps, too partial judgment of my brethren, who deem it worthy of permanent preservation. If it has any merit, it is in the fact that it discusses briefly, and, I venture to hope, with some discrimination, the application of the doctrine of religious liberty to a very practical question. We have much valuable literature telling of the struggle for the establishment of this doctrine, but scarcely any showing its application to the practical questions which are continually rising: ?R. H. Pitt.]

We feel constrained to put on record our cordial and steadfast belief that the State has no right to legislate concerning Sunday as a holy or religious day, and that, when the civil arm is invoked for the protection of that day, it must not be on the ground that the day is a Christian institution, but on the ground that certain physical and economic laws, which have been disclosed and verified by the experience of mankind, render cessation from ordinary labor necessary one day in seven, and it falls in with the convenience of the public, for obvious reasons, to fix the first day in the week as that period. If the State is to protect the day as a religious day, as an institution of the Christian religion, then why limit legislation to the mere matter of cessation from ordinary labor? As a Christian institution, the duties of worship and of active Christian work are not less obligatory on that day than the duty of rest. Indeed, it may be safely maintained that, in passing from the old Sabbath to the new Lord?s-day, the emphasis was changed. Rest was the main idea of the seventh, worship and Christian work are the chief features of the first day. It would be singular, indeed, to appeal for protective legislation for the day as a Christian institution, and yet neglect in such legislation the chief Christian features of the day-to enforce the Jewish idea of rest and ignore the Christian ideas of religious work and worship! And this, too, while the ground on which such legislation is urged is that the day is a Christian institution, and ours is a Christian nation.

The emphasis which has been laid upon this statement, that "we are a Christian nation," and the insistent assertion that we have therefore the right to enact general Christian legislation, to discriminate in favor of the Christian religion as against any other, though not to discriminate in favor of any special sect of Christians, seems to make it necessary to travel over somewhat familiar ground and to restate some fundamental principles.

We are a Christian people, in the sense that the great majority of our people are either actively or nominally sympathetic with some form of the Christian religion; we are not a Christian nation, in the sense that we have a right to impose by law distinctively Christian duties upon others. The ethical principles which Christianity presents in their most complete form, and which are reflected to a gratifying degree in our laws, are not true because they are taught by Christ and his inspired followers. Christ taught them because they were true, and they would have been true if he had never taught them. They are eternally and unchangeably true. For this reason, and not because Christ taught them, are they inwrought in our laws. Of course, this by no means implies that Christianity has not put added emphasis on many of these principles and made it possible to give them full recognition in the laws of the State. That the State depends for its safety and stability upon the prevalence of pure religion among its constituents is certainly true; that the State cannot properly administer in religion is equally true.

We can easily test for ourselves the validity of the new and modified doctrine of. the separation of Church and State, which, we regret to say, has gained currency recently, and against which we earnestly protest. If ours is "a Christian nation," in the sense that we may properly invoke State support for Christianity or for its institutions, then why for one Christian institution and not for another? Why for Christian Sunday, and not for Christian baptism? If for Sunday, which commemorates the resurrection, why not for Good Friday, which a large portion?indeed, a large majority?of the Christian world holds peculiarly sacred as the anniversary of the crucifixion?

It is somewhat vaguely set out that, while the State may not discriminate among the various sects of Christians so as to favor one at the expense of another, it may enact a sort of general Christian legislation. But the moment the State undertakes to support and protect distinctively Christian Institutions by law, because they are Christian, it is surely guilty of unjust discrimination in two directions. First, and most obvious, is the discrimination against non-Christians. They are compelled at once to the extent of this protective legislation to support the institutions of a religion in which they do not believe. This is utterly subversive of personal liberty and abhorrent to the foundation principles of the Christian religion, which never proposes to get itself established or propagated by the sword or the civil arm. But, supposing that the unbelievers are for one reason or another a negligible quantity, there is inevitable discrimination among believers; for, if the State undertakes to support a Christian institution as such, it must define it, it must interpret it. And when it begins its work of definition and interpretation, it will be confronted with an embarrassment of riches. Whose definition shall be regarded as orthodox? In the most conservative community, the prevalent views of the Lord?s-day, of its relation to the Jewish Sabbath and the fourth commandment, of how far the restrictions surrounding the old apply to the new day, are as various as the individuals who hold them. Whose views shall prevail? Shall we settle these matters of religion by a majority vote? Besides, what would we do with that small, but devoted, body of Christians who hold that the ancient Sabbath remains, and that it is their sacred duty to observe it?

Over against all this crudity and confusion we may put a few sentences from the immortal "Memorial and Remonstrance" drawn by James Madison, and submitted to the Virginia General Assembly in 1785. The occasion was the anticipated consideration of the "General Assessment Bill," which had been introduced at a previous session. This was not a bill to establish any one sect as against others, but to establish "provision for the teachers of the Christian religion," of whatever name?just the sort of legislation which, we are now told, we have a right as a "Christian nation" to enact. Against this bill the famous remonstrance was written. Here are some of its sentiments: "The religion, then, of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man, and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is, by its nature, an unalienable right." . . ."We maintain, therefore, that in matters of religion no man?s right is abridged by the institution of civil society, and that religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance." . . ."The bill implies either that the civil magistrate is a competent judge of religious truths or that he may employ religion as an engine of civil policy. The first is an arrogant pretention, falsified by the extraordinary opinion of rulers in all ages and throughout the world; the second, an unhallowed perversion of the means of salvation."

This "Memorial" argues that such. legislation as was proposed corrupted Christianity, was unnecessary for the support of the civil government, "departed from the generous policy which" offered "an asylum to the persecuted and oppressed," destroyed the "moderation and harmony" which prevailed then among the sects, was "adverse to the diffusion of Christianity," and finally that this invasion of an inalienable right imperiled all other civil liberties, which had been won at such frightful cost. It need not be added that the General Assessment Bill never saw the light. It died in committee.

We are at pains to quote thus freely for two reasons: First, these views of Madison were fully shared by Thomas Jefferson and George Mason. The former drew the "Act to Establish Religious Freedom," which, offered by Mr. Madison, was adopted by the General Assembly of Virginia, December 16, 1785, and which provided "That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever; nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened is his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities." The latter (Mr. Mason) was the author of the Virginia Bill of Rights, while James Madison himself moved the adoption of the first amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which declares that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Hence Mr. Madison?s "Remonstrance" helps us?if, indeed, we need any help?to interpret his amendment. And Mr. Jefferson?s and Mr. Mason?s sympathy with Mr. Madison shed light on the significance of the "Act to Establish Religious Liberty" and the Bill of Rights, of which they were respectively the authors.

But we are giving attention to this matter for another reason. The principle with whose advocacy Baptists are historically and doctrinally identified is on trial in various ways. We are told that the courts have decided against it. As a fact, the decisions of the courts have varied touching this, as they have concerning all other questions, but the tendency of the decisions has been toward the full recognition of the principle. And, if we were careful to quote human authorities, it might be said, in answer to any decisions that looked in the other direction, that Congress has in recent years had the whole question of the relation of the State to religion exhaustively debated, with the result that by an overwhelming majority appropriations to sectarian schools in the Indian Territory have been abandoned, and on the distinct ground that these appropriations were in support of religion. But, as Baptists maintained this principle when courts, legislatures, and popular opinion were all against it, it would be strange indeed if an occasional court decision seemingly out of sympathy with it should break their allegiance. It goes without saying that courts and legislatures have frequently invaded the principle and perverted the doctrine of separation of Church and State. Some of the customs and traditions which prevailed in the days of the Establishment still linger among us. They are not of great importance, but we hope to see the day when every trace of the old and hateful tyranny has disappeared.

The principle is on trial, too, in Cuba and the Philippines. Among the many perplexing questions arising in connection with our new colonial policy is this constantly recurring one of Church and State. It is not the time to palter with this great doctrine of the separation of the two. If our fathers, speaking through Mr. Madison, could "take alarm at the first experiment upon their liberties," surely we, who know how hardly the battle was won, and who know from how many unexpected directions it has been and is being assailed, ought now to be ceaselessly vigilant.

The Reformed Reader Home Page 

Copyright 1999, The Reformed Reader, All Rights Reserved