Primary Resource

An act for exempting the different societies of Dissenters from contributing to the support and maintenance of the church as by law established, and its ministers, and for other purposes therein mentioned (1776)

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison led this legislation to passage in the October 1776 session of the House of Delegates. It eliminates the religious tax on dissenters, or those Christians who do not belong to the established Church of England.

Transcription from Original

I. WHEREAS several oppressive acts of parliament respecting religion have been formerly enacted, and doubts have arisen, and may hereafter arise, whether the same are in force within this commonwealth or not: For prevention whereof, Be it enacted, by the General Assembly of the commonwealth of Virginia, and it is hereby enacted by the authority of the same, That all and every act of parliament, by whatever title known or distinguished, which renders criminal the maintaining any opinions in matters of religion, forbearing to repair to church, or the exercising any mode of worship whatsoever, or which prescribes punishments for the same, shall henceforth be of no validity or force within this commonwealth.

II. And whereas there are within this commonwealth great numbers of dissenters from the church established by law who have been heretofore taxed for its support, and it is contrary to the principles of reason and justice that any should be compelled to contribute to the maintenance of a church with which their consciences will not permit them to join, and from which they can therefore receive no benefit: For remedy whereof, and that equal liberty, as well religious as civil, may be universally extended to all the good people of this commonwealth, Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the commonwealth of Virginia, and it is hereby enacted by the authority of the same, That all dissenters, of whatever denomination, from the said church, shall, from and after the passing this act, be totally free and exempt from all levies, taxes, and impositions whatever, towards supporting and maintaining the said church, as it now is or hereafter may be established, and its ministers.

III. Provided nevertheless, and be it farther enacted, by the authority aforesaid, That the vestries of the several parishes, where the same hath not been already done, shall and may, and they are hereby authorised and required, at such time as they shall appoint, to levy and assess on all tithables within their respective parishes, as well dissenters as others, all such salaries and arrears of salaries as are or may be due to the ministers or incumbents of their parishes for services to the first day of January next; moreover to make such assessments on all tithables as will enable the said vestries to comply with their legal parochial engagements already entered into; and lastly, to continue such future provision for the poor in their respective parishes as they have hitherto by law been accustomed to make.

IV. And be it farther enacted, by the authority aforesaid, That there shall in all time coming be saved and reserved to the use of the church by law established the several tracts of glebe land already purchased, the churches and chapels already built, and such as were begun or contracted for before the passing of this act for the use of the parishes, all books, plate, and ornaments, belonging or appropriated to the use of the said church, and all arrears of money or tobacco arising from former assessments or otherwise; and that there shall moreover be saved and reserved to the use of such parishes as may have received private donations, for the better support of the said church and its ministers, the perpetual benefit and enjoyment of all such donations.

V. And whereas great variety of opinions hath arisen, touching the propriety of a general assessment, or whether every religious society should be left to voluntary contributions for the support and maintenance of the several ministers and teachers of the gospel who are of different persuasions and denominations, and this difference of sentiments cannot now be well accomodated, so that it is thought most prudent to defer this matter to the discussion and final determination of a future assembly, when the opinions of the country in general may be better known: To the end, therefore, that so important a subject may in no sort be prejudged, Be it enacted, by the authority aforesaid, That nothing in this act contained shall be construed to affect or influence the said question of a general assessment, or voluntary contribution, in any respect whatever.

VI. And whereas, by the exemptions allowed dissenters, it may be too burthensome in some parishes to the members of the established church if they are still compelled to support the clergy by certain fixed salaries, and it is judged best that this should be done for the present by voluntary contributions: Be it therefore enacted, by the authority aforesaid, That so much of an act of the general assembly made in the twenty-second year of the reign of king George the second, intituled An act for the support of the clergy, and for the regular collecting and paying the parish levies, or any other act as provides salaries for the ministers, and authorises the vestries to levy the same, except in the cases before directed, shall be, and the same is hereby suspended, until the end of the next session of Assembly.

VII. And whereas it is represented that in some counties lists of tithables have been omitted to be taken: For remedy whereof, and for the regular listing all tithable persons, Be it farther enacted, That the court of every county where lists of the tithables, agreeable to the directions of the laws now in force, are not already taken, it shall and may be lawful for the courts of such counties, and they are hereby required, at the first or second court after the end of this session of Assembly, to divide their counties into convenient precincts, and appoint one of the justices for each precinct to take a list of all the tithables therein; and every such justice so to be appointed, shall give publick notice of his being so appointed, and at what place or places he intends to receive the lists, by advertisements thereof affixed to the doors of the churches and meeting-houses in the parish where the precinct lies, and shall accordingly attend on the said day by him to be appointed, and at the second court next following shall deliver a fair list of the names and number of the tithables by him taken, to the clerk of the court, who on the next court day shall set up fair copies of such lists in his courthouse, there to remain during the sitting of that court, for the better discovery of such as shall be concealed.

VIII. And if the justices of any county, where lists of tithables have not been already taken, shall fail to appoint some of their members to take the lists of tithables in the manner directed by this act, every such justice so failing shall forfeit and pay ten pounds; to be recovered in the general court with costs, by action of debt or information against such justices jointly. And if any justice so appointed shall refuse or fail to give notice as aforesaid, and to take and return such list as aforesaid, he shall forfeit and pay two thousand pounds of tobacco, or ten pounds; to be recovered with costs, in any court of record in this commonwealth. And every master or owner of a family, or in his absence or non-residence at the plantation, his or her agent, attorney, or overseer, shall, on the said time appointed by the justice for taking in the lists, deliver, or cause to be delivered, under his or her hand, to the justice appointed for that precinct, a list of the names and number of all tithable persons who were abiding in or belonging to his or her family on the ninth day of June last. Every master or owner, or in his or her absence or non-residence, every overseer, failing herein, shall be adjudged a concealer of such and so many tithables as shall not be listed and given in, and for every tithable person so concealed shall forfeit and pay five hundred pounds of tobacco, or fifty shillings; to be recovered by action of debt or information, in any court of record. And when any overseer shall fail to list the tithables upon the plantation whereof he is overseer, the master or owner shall be subject to the payment of his levies, in the same manner as he would have been if they had been listed. Every person, at the time of giving in lists of tithables, shall also give in a list of his or her wheel carriages subject to a tax, to the several justices appointed to take the lists of tithables, under the like penalty for each failure, and to be recovered in the same manner as is herein directed for concealing tithables. All the penalties hereby imposed shall be, one moiety to the informer, and the other moiety to the use of the county where the offence shall be committed, towards lessening the county levy.