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Excerpts form
CHRISTIAN LIFE AND CHARACTER
OF THE
CIVIL INSTITUTIONS
OF THE
UNITED STATES

by Historian Benjamin F. Morris
Originally Published in 1864

     “The American republic, like the Hebrew commonwealth, has its chief glory from the good and great men who have adorned its civic and Christian history, and were the active agents in building up the organic forms of the social and political life of the republic. The Puritans, and the men of colonial history, were stalwart, noble Christian men. The men antecedent to and actors in the eventful drama of the Revolution were, most of them, men whose minds were illuminated by divine influences, and whose characters and lives bore the superscription and the imago of Christ. All were not public professors of the Christian religion, but almost all acknowledged its divinity and necessity to the existence, welfare, and stability of the state. Their Christian faith and characters not only constitute the enduring glory of our republic, but are also the sources of the Christian features of our civil institutions.
     The true and lasting fame of the American nation—its political and moral glory—consists in the eminent and illustrious characters which have, in each successive age of the republic, adorned the state and directed its political destinies. Trained in a Christian school and formed under Christian influences, and deriving their ideas of civil and religious liberty from the Bible, their practical faith led them to adopt it as the rule of life and to consult it as the source of their civil and political views and principles, as well as of their religious belief and hopes. The monument of these men of Puritan and Revolutionary times is in the great Christian ideas and truths they elaborated and incorporated into the civil institutions of the nation, and in the Christian virtues, public and private, which they bore as the fruits of their Christian faith.”
(p. 36)

     “At different times within the last twenty years a very small portion of the American people have petitioned Congress to abolish the office of chaplain. The petitions were respectfully received, and referred to the Committees on the judiciary, in both Houses of Congress, who made very able reports against granting the request of the petitioners. The doctrines of these reports are in harmony with the entire Christian policy of the Government, and are official records to prove that the Christian religion is the basis of the civil institutions of the United States.” (p. 316)

     “Another article supposed to be violated is Article 1st of Amendments: —"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." Does our present practice violate that article? What is an establishment of religion? It must have a creed, defining what a man must believe; it must have rites and ordinances, which believers must observe; it must have ministers of defined qualifications, to teach the doctrines and administer the rites; it must have tests for the submissive and penalties for the non-conformist. There never was an established religion without all these. Is there now, or has there ever been, any thing of this in the appointment of chaplains in Congress, or army, or navy? The practice before the adoption of the Constitution is much the same as since: the adoption of that Constitution does not seem to have changed the principle in this respect. We ask the memorialists to look at the facts. First, in the army : chaplains were appointed for the Revolutionary army on its organization ; rules for their regulation are found among the earliest of the articles of war. Congress ordered, on May 27, 1777, that there should be one chaplain to each brigade of the army, nominated by the brigadier-general, and appointed by Congress, with the same pay as colonel, and, on the 18th of September following, ordered chaplains to be appointed to the hospitals in the several departments, with the pay of $60 per month, three rations per day, and forage for one horse.
     When the Constitution was formed, Congress had power to raise and support armies, and to provide for and support a navy, and to make rules and regulations for the government and regulation of land and naval forces. In the absence of all limitations, general or special, is it not fair to assume that they were to do these substantially in the same manner as had been done before? If so, then they were as truly empowered to appoint chaplains as to appoint generals or to enlist soldiers. Accordingly, we find provision for chaplains in the acts of 1791, of 1812, and of 1838. By the last there is to be one to each brigade in the army; the number is limited to thirty, and these in the most destitute places. The chaplain is also to discharge the duties of schoolmaster. The number in the navy is limited to twenty-four. Is there any violation of the Constitution in these laws for the appointment of chaplains in the army and navy? If not, let us look at the history of chaplains in Congress. Here, as before, we shall find that the same practice was in existence before and after the adoption of the Constitution.”
(pp. 317,318)

     “Congress was not indifferent to the religious interests of the people ; and they were not peculiarly afraid of the charge of uniting Church and State. On the 11th of September, 1777, a committee having consulted with Dr. Allison about printing an edition of thirty thousand [KJV] Bibles, and finding that they would be compelled to send abroad for type and paper, with an advance of £10,272 10s., Congress voted to instruct the Committee on Commerce to import twenty thousand [KJV] Bibles from Scotland and Holland into the different ports of the Union. The reason assigned was that the use of the book was so universal and important. Now, what was passing on that day? The army of Washington was fighting the battle of Brandywine; the gallant soldiers of the Revolution were displaying their heroic though unavailing valor; twelve hundred soldiers were stretched in death on that battle-field; Lafayette was bleeding; the booming of the cannon was heard in the hall where Congress was sitting, in the hall from which Congress was soon to be a fugitive. At that important hour Congress was passing an order for importing twenty thousand Bibles; and yet we have never heard that they were charged by their generation of any attempt to unite Church and State, or surpassing their powers to legislate on religious matters.” (pp. 318,319)

     “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.” (p. 320)

     “While your committee believe that neither Congress nor the army or navy should be deprived of the service of chaplains, they freely concede that the ecclesiastical and civil powers have been, and should continue to be, entirely divorced from each other. But we beg leave to rescue ourselves from the imputation of asserting that religion is not needed to the safety of civil society. It must be considered as the foundation on which the whole structure rests. Laws will not have permanence or power without the sanction of religious sentiment,— without a firm belief that there is a Power above us that will reward our virtues and punish our vices. In this age there can be no substitute for Christianity: that, in its general principles, is the great conservative element on which we must rely for the purity and permanence of free institutions. That was the religion of the founders of the republic, and they expected it to remain the religion of their descendants. There is a great and very prevalent error on this subject in the opinion that those who organized this Government did not legislate on religion. They did legislate on it, by making it free to all, "to the Jew and the Greek, to the learned and unlearned." The error has arisen from the belief that there is no legislation unless in permissive or restricting enactments. But making a thing free is as truly a part of legislation as confining it by limitations ; and what the Government has made free it is bound to keep free.
     Your committee recommend the following resolution:—

     Resolved, That the Committee be discharged from the further consideration of the subject.

     The Senate of the United States adopted the following report:—

     In Senate of the United States, January 19, 1853, Mr. Badger made the following report:—
     The Committee on the Judiciary, to whom were referred sundry petitions praying Congress to abolish the office of chaplain, have had the same under consideration, and submit the following report:—
     The ground on which the petitioners found their prayer is, that the provisions of law under which chaplains are appointed for the army and navy, and for the two Houses of Congress, are in violation of the first amendment of 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."
     If this position were correct,—if these provisions of law do violate either the letter or the spirit of the constitutional prohibition,—then, undoubtedly, they should be at once repealed, and the office of chaplain abolished. It thus becomes necessary to inquire whether the position of the petitioners be correct.
     The clause speaks of "an establishment of religion." What is meant by that expression? It referred, without doubt, to that establishment which existed in the mother-country, and its meaning is to be ascertained by ascertaining what that establishment was. It was the connection, with the state, of a particular religious society, by its endowment at the public expense, in exclusion of, or in preference to, any other, by giving to its members exclusive political rights, and by compelling the attendance of those who rejected its communion upon its worship or religious observances. These three particulars constituted that union of Church and State of which our ancestors were so justly jealous and against which they so wisely and carefully provided. It is true that, at the time our Constitution was formed, the strictness of this establishment had been, in some respects, and to a certain extent, relaxed in favor of Protestant dissenters; but the main character of the establishment remained. It was still, in its spirit, inconsistent with religious freedom, as matter of natural right to be enjoyed in its full latitude, and not measured out by tolerance and concession from the civil rulers. If Congress has passed, or should pass, any law which, fairly construed, has in any degree introduced, or should attempt to introduce, in favor of any church, or ecclesiastical association, or system of religious faith, all or any one of these obnoxious particulars,—endowment at the public expense, peculiar privileges to its members, or disadvantages or penalties upon those who should reject its doctrines or belong to other communions,—such law would be a "law respecting an establishment of religion," and, therefore, in violation of the Constitution. But no law yet passed by Congress is justly liable to such an objection. Take, as an example, the chaplains to Congress. At every session two chaplains are elected,—one by each House,—whose duty is to offer prayers daily in the two Houses, and to conduct religious services weekly in the Hall of the House of Representatives. Now, in this no religion, no form of faith, no denomination of religious professors, is established in preference to any other, or has any peculiar privileges conferred upon it. The range of selection is absolutely free in each House among all existing professions of religious faith. There is no compulsion exercised or attempted upon any member or officer of either House to attend their prayers or religious solemnities. No member gains any advantage over another by attending, or incurs any penalty or loses any advantage by declining to attend. The chaplain is an officer of the House which chooses him, and nothing more. He owes his place not to his belonging to a particular religious society or holding a particular faith, but to the voluntary choice of the members of the House, and stands, in this respect, upon the same footing with any other officer so elected. It is not seen, therefore, how the institution of chaplains is justly obnoxious to the reproach of invading religious liberty in the widest sense of that term.
     It is said, indeed, by the petitioners, that if members of Congress wish any one to pray for them, they should, out of their own means, furnish the funds wherewith to pay him, and that it is unjust to tax the petitioners with the expense of his compensation. It has been shown that there is no establishment of religion in creating the office of chaplain, and the present objection is to the injustice of putting upon the public this charge for the personal accommodation of members of Congress. Let it be seen, then, to what this objection leads. If carried out to its fair results, it will equally apply to many other accommodations furnished to members of Congress at the public expense. We have messengers who attend to our private business, take checks to tho bank for us, receive the money, or procure bank drafts, and discharge various other offices for our personal ease and benefit, unconnected with the despatch of any public function. Why might it not be said that members, if they wish these services performed in their behalf, should employ and pay their own agents? Members of Congress come here to attend upon the business of the public. Many of them are professed members of religious societies; more are men of religious sentiment: and these desire not only to have the blessing of God invoked upon them in their legislative capacities, but to attend the public worship of God. But how are all to be accommodated in the churches of the city ? And of those who belong to either House of Congress some have not the means to procure such accommodations for themselves. Where, then, is the impropriety of having an officer to discharge these duties? And how is it more a subject of just complaint than to have officers who attend to the private secular business of the members ? The petitioners say, "A national chaplaincy, no less than a national Church, is considered by us emphatically an establishment of religion." In no fair sense of the phrase have we a national chaplaincy; in no sense in which that phrase must be understood when connected, as it is by the petitioners, with a "national Church." A national Church implies a particular Church selected as the Church of the nation, endowed with peculiar privileges, or sustained or favored by the public in preference to other Churches or religious societies. Of such a Church we have no semblance, nor have we any such chaplaincy. We have chaplains in the army and navy, and in Congress; but these are officers chosen with the freest and widest range of selection,—the law making no distinction whatever between any of the religions, Churches, or professions of faith known to the world. Of these, none by law is excluded, none has any priority of legal right. True, selections, in point of fact, are always made from some one of the denominations into which Christians are distributed; but that is not in consequence of any legal right or privilege, but by the voluntary choice of those who have the power of appointment.
     This results from the fact that we are a Christian people,—from the fact that almost our entire population belong to or sympathize with some one of the Christian denominations which compose the Christian world. And Christians will of course select, for the performance of religious services, one who professes the faith of Christ. This, however, it should be carefully noted, is not by virtue of provision, but voluntary choice. We are Christians, not because the law demands it, not to gain exclusive benefits or to avoid legal disabilities, but from choice and education; and in a land thus universally Christian, what is to be expected, what desired, but that we shall pay a due regard to Christianity, and have a reasonable respect for its ministers and religious solemnities?”
(pp. 323-326)

     “The House of Representatives of the Thirty-Fourth Congress, 1854,... passed the following preamble and resolutions:—

Whereas, The people of these United States, from their earliest history to the present time, have been led by the hand of a kind Providence, and are indebted for the countless blessings of the past and present, and dependent for continued prosperity in the future upon Almighty God; and whereas the great vital and conservative element in our system is the belief of our people in the pure doctrines and divine truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ, it eminently becomes the representatives of a people so highly favored to acknowledge in the most public manner their reverence for God:” (pp. 327,328)

     “The character and qualifications of a chaplain for Congress are presented in the following view, given by Rev. Thomas H. Stockton, himself having occupied that responsible position for several years. He says,—
     ‘The Congressional chaplaincy is not (or ought not to be) a sectarian ministry, but a great American representative of a pure Bible Christianity, above all parties, all glowing with the divinest energies of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,—arresting and commanding attention and exerting saving influences by its' heavenly loftiness and majesty,—something worthy of the sublimest Christian position on the face of the earth. We want evangelical ministers who represent the immense majority of American Christians, noble witnesses for Christ, orators of the Spirit, worthy to challenge heaven and earth to hear their 'Thus saith the Lord.' It is a glorious thing rightly managed.’

     Thus explicit and uniform has been the course of our legislative councils on the subject of religion. Their enactments have all been on the side of Christianity,—taking its truth for granted, acknowledging its obligations, magnifying its importance, treating it as in fact the religion of the Government, and as worthy to be made the rule of action for public bodies and for States no less than for individuals.” (pp. 331,332)

Christian Life and Character of The Civil Institutions of The United States, Benjamin F. Morris, 1864, pp. 36-332



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