This Land is Our Land: Surprising or Otherwise Interesting Primary Sources, Part VIII, Fourth of July Edition

Randall Stephens

In honor of the weekend's rockets red glare and wild competitive eating contests, I post here a couple of primary source items related to the National Reform Association. The NRA was a post-Civil War organization that hoped to amend the constitution and acknowledge America's explicitly Christian character. The effort failed, but stirred up plenty of dust in the process.

From an 1876 NRA circular:

The National Association, organized to maintain existing Christian features in the American government, and to secure the Religious Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, met in Philadelphia on the 9th inst., for the transaction of its annual business. The Hon. Felix R. Brunot, of Pittsburgh, President of the Association, occupied the chair. Steps were taken to secure articles of incorporation, under the name of the National Reform Association. The maintenance of the Sabbath Laws, the retention of the Bible in the common schools, the defence of the Judicial oath and other Christian features of the government, and the securing of suitable religious acknowledgments in all new State Constitutions, were expressly recognized as among the objects of the society. The next national Convention was appointed to be held in Philadelphia during the last week in June, 1876.

A National Liberal League response from Equal Rights in Religion: Report of the Centennial Congress of Liberals, and Organization of the National Liberal League, at Philadelphia on the Fourth of July, 1876 (Boston, 1876), 128-129:

Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, all liberals and freethinkers, taking advantage of the hatred and jealousy of each sect for the others at the time of the Constitutional Convention, succeeded in placing the general government upon a purely secular basis. They expected that the noble example thus established by the supreme law of the land would be followed in all the State Constitutions. But unfortunately not a single State followed so wise a precedent. . . .

To question the truth of the Old and New Testament Scriptures was by law pronounced
"blasphemy," punishable by fine, whipping, sitting in the pillory with a rope about the neck, and twelve months imprisonment.

Under this law, in January, 1834, a jury of Bostonians convicted Abner Kneeland of blasphemy for declaring that—"The Universalists believe in a God which I do not, but
believe that their God, with his moral attributes (aside from Nature itself), is nothing but a chimera of their own imagination." For this expression of his honest sentiments, this aged, intellectual and worthy man was deprived of his liberty and sent to jail in Boston less than half a century ago!

Such outrages upon civil and religious liberty, and the spirit manifested by over-zealous members of the National Reform Association at the above meeting, give to Thomas Jefferson's strictures upon the clergy of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Connecticut,
a still wider application. In his History of the United States, Mr. Hildreth tells us that Jefferson" held up those States in his private correspondence as unfortunate, priest-ridden communities, led by the nose by a body of men who had got a smell of union between Church and State, the natural enemies of science and truth, associated together in a conspiracy against the liberties of the people."