Tuesday, 20 March 2012

A Feisty Sermon for Arab Freedom Agitators

William Tennent Senior, the grandfather of the William Tennent quoted here,
was the founder of the "Log College" in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, which
educated the founders of Princeton, who include William senior's son, also named William.

As I read the following 1777 speech excerpt by William Tennent III arguing in favor of amending constitutional proposals in South Carolina to accommodate religious freedom, I could not help but think of its implications for those of the Muslim faith in a different era and part of the world.

How would the West tolerate it (not that there would be much to be done about it) if "Muslim" were substituted for "Christain"?  Who among Middle Eastern statesman or politicians would make such a statement as this, and would it be met with constitutional amendments as it was in South Carolina, or disdain?

"My first and most capital reason against all religious establishments is that they are an infringement of religious liberty.  Religious establishments, as far as they operate, do interfere with the rights of private judgment and conscience.  In effect they amount to nothing less than the legislature's taking the consciences of men into their own hands and taxing them at discretion.

"We contend that no legislature under heaven has a right to interfere with the judgment and conscience of men in religious matters, if their opinions and practices do not injure the state.  The rights of conscience are now too generally understood to make it needful to take much pains to convince mankind that they appertain to a higher tribunal and that the objects of human legislation are quite of a different nature.  The state may give countenance to religion by defending and protecting all denominations of Christians who are inoffensive and useful.  The state may enact good laws for the punishment of vice and encouragent [sic] of virtue.  The state may do any thing for the support of religion, without partiality to particular societies or imposition upon the rights of private judgment.  But when the legislative authority of the state states itself up as a judge in church controversies and proceeds by law to declare this system of opinions right and that wrong; when it proceeds to lay hardships upon the professors of the one while it lavishes its bounties on the other, and that while both are equally useful and inoffensive--I say in this it not only mistakes the proper objects of legislation, but is chargeable with manifest injustice.  No legislature upon earth has a right to do such a thing; nay, we contend, that such a right cannot possibly be communicated to them.  I can communicate to my representative a power to dispose of part of my property for the security of the remaining part.  I may give him a right to resign a part of my personal liberty to the obligation of good laws, as a means of preserving the rest, but cannot--I say it is out of my power to communicate to any man on earth a right to dispose of my conscience and to lay down for me what I shall believe and practice in religious matters.  Our judgment and practice in religious matters is not like our purse; we cannot resign them to any man or set of men on earth; and therefore, no man or set of men on earth either has or can have a right to bind us in religious mattes.  The rights of conscience are unnalienable [sic] and therefore all laws to bind it are ipso facto null and void.  Every attempt of this kind is tyranny let it be made by whatever body of men and in whatever age.  Of all tyrany [sic] religious tyrany is the worst and men of true sentiment will scorn civil, where they cannot enjoy religious, liberty.

"And now, Sir, permit me to take a short view of religious establishments and see whether they do not, more or less, bear hard upon the rights of private judgment and partake in greater or smaller degrees of this worst of tyrany.  On all hands it will be acknowledged that those establishments are of this nature which lay heavy penalties upon those who refuse to conform to them.  Can you form an idea of more horrid cruelty exercised upon the right of conscience than that which imposes, fines, imprisonment and death upon those who presume to differ from the established religion?  You, Sir! look back with horror upon the history of such savage cruelty, the more cruel as it has ever been exercised under the colour of law.

"Of the same nature, though differing somewhat in the degree of their cruelty, are those establishments which incapacitate good subjects who differ from the speculative opinions of the state.  Judgment and conscience in these matters is [six], or ought to be, as independent of our will as our height or colour.  They are formed by the circumstances of the time in which we live, by the manner of our education, by the capacity of our mind and the degree of evidence.  Would not that prince be esteemed a cruel tyrant who should ordain that every man of six feet high and of a sandy complexion should be excluded from the rights of citizens?  An assembly of two hundred senators who could ordain that good citizens should be deprived on account of their inoffensive opinions would be two hundred times as cruel."

[Newton B. Jones, ed., Writings of the Reverend William Tennent, 1740-1777, reprinted in 61 South Carolina Historical Magazine 197-98 (South Carolina Historical Society: Charleston, SC., 1960).]

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