Religion and the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution: A Short Series, Part 5

Muhl 2

Henry Melchior Muehlenberg

For earlier installments in this series click here.

In the last installment we discussed a request made to the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention from Philadelphia Presbyterian ministers George Duffield and William Marshall asking the members to exempt clergy from the “burthen of civil offices.”

On the same day, September 25, 1776, the convention received another letter from two clergymen.  The minutes read:

A letter from the Rev. Messrs. Muhlenberg and Weynberg, praying for an addition to the 47th article of the proposed frame of government, confirming the incorporations for promoting religious and charitable purposes, was read, and ordered to lie on the table.

The authors of this letter were Reverend Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, the most prominent Lutheran minister in colonial America, and Caspar Diederus Weyberg, the pastor of the German Reformed Church on 4th and Race St. in Philadelphia.

The “47th article of the proposed frame of government” is a reference to what became, in the final draft of the Constitution, the 45th article.  (A draft of the Constitution was published in the press for the consideration of the people. Muhlenberg read it some time before September 16, 1776).

The 45th article in the draft version of the Constitution that was published for the consideration of the people of Pennsylvania read “Laws for the encouragement of virtue and prevention of vice and immorality, shall be made and constantly kept in force, and provision shall be made for their due execution.”

Historian J. Paul Selsam, author of The Pennsylvania Constitution of 1776: A Study in Revolutionary Democracy (1936) picks up the story from here and adds additional context. (I have added a few parenthetical notes):

The Reverend Henry Melchior Muhlenberg, senior minister of the united German Lutheran Congregations in Pennsylvania, from whose [October 2, 1776] letter the following account is taken, stated that on Monday, September 16, “The Provost of the College [William Smith, Provost of the College of Philadelphia] came to him unexpectedly “and said that the condition of the Christian religion seemed in danger after independence had been declared and a new form of government was in process of formation; that no care at all had been taken to acquire even the outer ramparts…”  The Provost showed Rev. Muhlenberg a paragraph which he thought should be added to the forty-seventh section.  The latter was pleased with the paragraph but believed they could do little about it.  “What can despised preachers effect with a Rump Parliament?” he wrote.  An informal gathering of a few of the leading ministers was held to discuss the question, and Muhlenberg remarked at the meeting that “it now seems as if a Christian people were ruled by Jews, Turks, Spinozists, Deists, perverted naturalists.”  The ministers “were learned pillars,” he said, “and would have much to answer for if they were now silent.”  The Reverend Dr. Alison [Presbyterian Francis Alison, Vice-Provost of the College of Philadelphia] did not feel alarmed, saying that “it was of no consequence and it would be sufficient if the officials would only give testimony to the Supreme Being as creator and preserver of all things.”  This statement evoked some discussion, but the meeting accomplished nothing.

This group decided to meet again and to invite more protestant preachers.  At a meeting the following day the Provost and Vice-Provost of the College [Smith and Alison] and five ministers decided to request the Convention to annex to the forty-seventh section the paragraph which they had drawn up.  One of their number was appointed to go to Dr. Franklin, and President of the Convention, “to ask permission to wait upon him.”  Franklin “condescendingly sent word,” says Muhlenberg, “that he would come to us.”  he met with them and after being shown the said paragraph, promised to present it to the Convention.  Rev. Muhlenberg discussed the matter with the Lutheran Church Council that afternoon.  He was supported unanimously, so a petition to the Convention was drawn up and signed by the Rev.  Weyberg on behalf of the Reformed.  It was presented to the Convention on September 25, and after being read was ordered to lie on the table. The petition  asked the Honorable Convention to annex or add unto the 47th Section of the proposed Plan the following Words viz: ‘and all religious Societies and Bodies of Men heretofore united and incorporated for the Advancement of Virtue and Learning and for other pious and charitable Purposes, shall be encouraged and protected in the Enjoyment of the Privileges, Immunities and Estates, which they were accustomed to enjoy and might or could of Right have enjoyed under the Laws and former Constitution of this State.”  It closed by stating, “A Serious Attention to, and condescending compliance with our our humbler Petition will rendre great Satisfaction, Security and Ease to all regular Christian societies and Denominations in this State and especially to your humble Petitioners…”

The paragraph the ministers suggested was adopted, for section 45 of the final draft (corresponding to the forty-seventh section of the one which appeared in the press) contained their suggestion with only a few minor changes.  The substitution of “religion” for “virtue” was the most important.

Here is the exact text of Section 45:

Laws for the encouragement of virtue, and prevention of vice and immorality, shall be made and constantly kept in force, and provision shall be made for their due execution: And all religious societies or bodies of men heretofore united or incorporated for the advancement of religion or learning, or for other pious and charitable purposes, shall be encouraged and protected in the enjoyment of the privileges, immunities and estates which they were accustomed to enjoy, or could of right have enjoyed, under the laws and former constitution of this state.

So what is going on here?

First, it is clear that Muhlenberg, Weyberg, and the Philadelphia clergy who they represented, wanted to make sure that the 1776 Constitution said something about the importance of religion to a healthy republican government.  It also appears, from Muhlenberg’s notes, that some of these clergymen (Alison excepted) wanted a more overtly Christian statement about the relationship between religion and the new Pennsylvania government in order to prevent it from being run by Jews, Muslims (“Turks”), and other unbelievers.

We don’t know if they were happy with the finished product.  Section 45 of the final draft mentions the promotion of “virtue, and the prevention of vice and immorality” as well as the place of “religious societies” in the “advancement of religion or learning, or other pious and charitable purposes.”  Perhaps these clergy understood “virtue” to mean Christian virtue.  And perhaps they concluded that “religious societies” meant Christian religious societies.  I don’t know.  Whatever the case, as we will see in future posts in this series, they did get an overtly Christian test oath for officeholders.

Second, Section 45 seems to affirm the same religious liberties guaranteed to the people of Pennsylvania in the second section of the Constitution’s “Declaration of the Rights of the Inhabitants of the Commonwealth or State of Pennsylvania.”  More on that later.