February 21

Most of the first immigrants to this continent brought with them the politics and religions of their homelands. As a result, with only a few exceptions, most of the first thirteen colonies authorized a single denomination and practiced something called “a clergy tax,” or something similar, in order to support that one denomination. Both religious and government leaders felt that churches could not exist without the State supporting whatever religion was most preferred in that colony. Even when those colonies became states and the State religions were disenfranchised, the idea remained that the teachers of religion could not survive without the support of the government. And perhaps in some cases it was true.

Of course, the Baptists had universally opposed this policy up and down the East Coast and were often persecuted for their position. Eventually, primarily through their efforts, State churches were abolished.

However, on this day (Feb. 21) in 1785 the Georgia legislature passed a bill for the support of religion with public tax money, whatever the denomination. Nearly everyone was pleased with the generosity of Caesar, except for the Baptists.

The bill provided that any “thirty heads of families” in any community might choose any sort of minister “to explain and inculcate the duties of religion” and “four pence on every hundred pounds valuation of property” should be taken out of the public tax for the support of any such minister.

Despite the fact that they were among the largest denomination, and despite the income that such monies might provide, the Baptists in Georgia immediately began to protest. A document condemning the decision was prepared, and Silas Mercer and Peter Smith, presented it to the legislature. They insisted that it was an obnoxious law and should be repealed on the grounds that to receive government support made churches and ministers servants of the State rather than servants of God.

The bill was rescinded.