The Legal Regulations of Public Morals in Colonial North Carolina

The first provision made for a church in North Carolina was in the charter granted to Sir Robert Heath in 1629. Other church provisions were re-enacted in charters to the Lords Proprietors in 1663, and in 1665. Of course these provisions were for a state church, all the efforts on the part of the authorities in England being in this direction, that is to say, to incorporate church and state. The first effort to put these provisions into practice was the vestry act of 1701. Another act, that of 1704, precipitated the Cary Rebellion. From 1730 till 1773 the “Schism Act” was enforced.

The British Toleration Act, or Act of Indulgence, of 1689, defined the position of dissenters from the Established Church. Dissenters were allowed places of worship protected from disturbance, if they took the oath of allegiance and subscribed to the declaration against transubstantiation. But such congregations had to be registered, and the doors of their meeting houses left unlocked and unbarred. All ministers had to endorse the Anglican creed, except that Baptists were relieved from subscribing to the doctrine of infant baptism, and Quakers must adhere to the government, abjure transubstantiation, profess faith in the Trinity and in the inspiration of the Bible. Dissenters were excluded from the English universities, and the Anglican ceremony alone was good enough to tie the matrimonial knot. The Corporation and Test Acts kept many from entering corporations or holding public offices.

From 1701 till 1710 there was much opposition to the Establishment, but in the latter year the churchmen got the upper hand and held it for some time. Unexecuted statutes provided for from £30 to £50 for ministers’ salaries. The vestry act of 1715 was the first church act to come down to us. The legislation of this troubled period clearly indicates that the right to dissent was not yet to be recognized. The vestrymen appointed in the various parishes were compelled to subscribe to the Anglican creed under pain of a £3 fine, unless they were avowed dissenters. Vestrymen and church wardens were granted power to purchase glebes and build churches in each precinct with money levied on the poll and collected under a heavy penalty in case of refusal or neglect of payment. But laws are hard to enforce where the moral sentiment of the people is not behind them.

After all this legislation churches and ministers were hard to find in the province, for salaries were small and hardships numerous. The Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, to supply the great need of preaching, now sent missionaries to this promising field. The first eight who came under the auspices of this society were either extremely weak or vicious. Some were cowardly and vacillating; some were knaves, some thieves, and one was a drunkard. John Urmstone was fond of cider, rum, and trading. He was called “the starving missionary,” from his continual complaint of hard times. He was the plague of the church in the province for ten years. This dissipated, worldly-minded divine suddenly disappeared in 1721–presumably to ask of St. Peter admittance at Heaven’s gate. It is said the cause of Christ would have been the gainer had he never set foot within the borders of the colony. He was a slave owner, a liquor-vender, a chronic grumbler, an incorrigible liar, and very avaricious. He administered the sacrament twice in the space of five years. He was much worse than the men he came to save. The next two missionaries, James Adams and William (cordon, were good men. The former remained in the province four months, the latter two years, although suffering greatly in both body and mind. He administered the sacrament several times and baptized nearly three hundred persons.

The Establishment is largely responsible for the backwardness of the State in education and intellectual pursuits. No schoolteacher was allowed to leave England or to keep school in the province without license from the bishop of London. Restrictions were placed on all schools. In fact, the establishment of schools was not encouraged. While the Occasional Conformity Bill, supplemented in 1714 by the Schism Act, was intended to exclude dissenters from all posts of honor, power and profit, the Schism Act did operate to crush their seminaries and deprive them of the means of educating their children. This was the heritage the mother country gave us. Under these restraints the people were restless. Their opposition had a wholesome effect upon the rulers. The spirit of fear went far toward mitigating the original instructions of the governors. The people were opposed to paying taxes imposed in the name of religion, when that religion was construed to be identical with conformity to the established church. Out of a poll tax of five shillings imposed for religious purposes, little more than enough was collected to pay the readers who officiated on Sunday, and the occasional clergyman coming from Virginia to preach before the Assembly.

In 1734 Gabriel Johnston became governor. Notwithstanding their folly clearly exposed by former failures, the same instructions that had been sent to Gov. Burrington were repeated to Gov. Johnston, including the church acts and the Schism Act. Gov. Johnston was zealous for the Church. The condition of public morals was painful to him. He reminded the Assembly that the instructions for establishing the clergy were already on their books. He was much grieved at the deplorable and almost total want of divine worship in the province, and wrote feelingly and eloquently about it. In his address to the Assembly in 1739 he says: “The establishment of the public worship of Almighty God, as it is the great foundation of the happiness of society, and without which yon cannot expect His protection, deserves your earliest care. That in such a wide-extended province as this is, inhabited by British subjects, by persons professing themselves Christians, there should be but two places where divine service is regularly performed, is really scandalous. It is a reproach peculiar to this part of His Majesty’s dominion, which you ought to remove without loss of time. ” In 1741, under Gabriel Johnston’s administration, the only general church act was passed. It provided for a poll tax of five shillings. As this was inadequate in some parishes, special taxes were levied there. As money was scarce, provision was made for paying these taxes in commodities at fixed rates. Stringent fines were imposed upon all refusing or neglecting to pay these taxes. Where the Assembly authorized the establishing of a church, until such house could be built, the courthouse in that parish might be used for religious purposes.

Gov. Johnston believed that it was the ditty of all well regulated governments to keep the Lord’s Day holy, and to suppress vice and immorality. So he recommends that all on that day apply themselves to the duties of religion and piety, and by the act of 1741 it was made a misdemeanor to engage in ordinary labor, or in gaming or sport, on land or on sea, within his jurisdiction. Swearing before any one was a grave and punishable offense, but before the representatives of the law the fine was heavier. Drunkenness on any day was fined, but on the Sabbath the fine was doubled. Each party in an act of fornication was fined twenty-five shillings. The father of a bastard was compelled, on pain of imprisonment, to support it; but if the mother would not reveal the father, she was responsible for its support. The provisions in this paragraph were authorized to be read publicly in all places of worship, by the minister, clerk or reader. Persons unable to pay the fines for drunkenness or swearing before a court of record were put in the stocks not exceeding three hours. A courthouse, a prison, and stocks, were ordered to be built in every parish. Violators of the tippling-house ordinance, upon failure to pay their fine or give security, were subjected to the whipping-post. The next year after Gov. Johnston’s death all excessive and deceitful gaming was prohibited. One-half of the fines accruing from the violation of this ordinance were devoted to the poor. One-half of all fines arising from violation of acts mentioned herein went to the informers. The other half was devoted sometimes to the Church, sometimes to the province.

Gov. Johnston died in 1752 and was succeeded by Arthur Dobbs. In 1730 the authorities in England had instructed Gov. Burrington to enforce the Schism Act, which had resulted in crippling the educational interests of the colony; these same instructions were, in 1733, renewed to Gov. Johnston; and in 1754, after twenty years of failure, the authorities, having gained no wisdom, again renewed their old instructions, including the Schism Act. It seemed the home government was doing all in its power to hinder the growth, development, and liberty of the province. Gov. Dobbs began his administration in 1754 with an earnest effort to provide support for a sufficient number of learned, pious clergymen, who were to live in the province. He wished to accommodate these ministers with houses, glebes, and parish clerks, that the rising generation might be instructed in the principles of true religion and virtue.

The next ten years were years of trial. Act after act in regard to church building or the hiring of clergymen was passed and almost immediately repealed. In 1760 great numbers of dissenters flocked into North Carolina, mainly from New England-Anabaptists, Methodists, Quakers, and Presbyterians. The Anabaptists and the Methodists were distinguished by their ignorance and obstinacy. The dissenters rendered the ministry and liturgy of the Church of England as odious as possible, that they and their doctrines might be the better supported. There was much scheming and corruption. Men took advantage of the technicalities of the acts of the Assembly to become vestrymen, after which they succeeded in making the laws null and void. Vestries worked for their own interests, performing their civic duties and ignoring their ecclesiastical functions. In Rowan county vestrymen refused to qualify and business was obstructed. They wrangled constantly with the governor for an increase of their functions. Many would not go to the polls on election days, so an act was passed to compel all except Quakers to vote or pay a fine of twenty shilling. Shackles were put on all schools. After the repeal of the Schism Act in England, it was reenforced three times in North Carolina. In educational matters there was less freedom in 1773 than in 1673. A more rigid conformity was required in Carolina than in England. This was tyranny. The history of provincial

North Carolina shows a continual struggle against a government, which blindly sought to repress all aspirations whether political, religious, or intellectual.

An act of 1669 had made marriage a civil contract for lack of clergy. In 1710 magistrates were empowered to perform the marriage ceremony in parishes where there was no minister. In 1741, in the palmy days of good old Gabriel Johnston, the right was taken from all dissenting ministers except Quakers, and provision was made that the ministers of the established Church should get all marriage fees, it mattered not who had performed the ceremony, unless the churchmen had positively refused to do so. Marriage of whites to Negroes or Indians was prohibited. This was well enough. By this religious persecution, the rights of Quakers and Baptists were taken away. Strange discrimination it was to favor the Quakers in some respects and oppress them in others. The Baptists seem to have been always unfortunate. The Methodists had not yet figured very largely in the province. The Presbyterians ignored all legislation in regard to marriage, and married when they pleased, and doubtless as they liked, in the most approved style ; that is, without license or publication. In 1766 the restriction was removed from regularly called Presbyterian ministers, but the minister of the Church of England in the parish got the fee. Not until the Revolution and the constitution of 1776 had swept away the Establishment did the dissenting clergy have the legal right to perform the marriage ceremony.

Presbyterian and Quaker ministers, by special enactment, were released from general or private musters. Baptist ministers had to attend.

While dissenters suffered distraint for tithes and military levies, they were not imprisoned, and only one man, named Borden, was deprived of office on account of religious views. However, dissenters did not figure prominently as officeholders during the royal period. Sixty-six years of constant agitation culminated in the Mecklenburg instructions of 1775 and the Declaration of Rights in 1776, and crystalized in the Halifax Constitution of 1776 and in the final adoption of the Federal Constitution of 1789. The final triumph of absolute religious freedom in this State was attained by the removal, in 1835, of what seemed to be a ban on Roman Catholics.

*In preparing this paper I have consulted “The Public Acts of the Assembly of the Province of North Carolina,” and “Church and State in North Carolina,” by S. B. Weeks, Ph. D.

Extracted from historical Society of Trinity College, Series II.

History, Religion,

Trinity College Historical Society. Historical Papers of the Trinity College Historical Society. Durham, N. C.: The Society. 1897-1956.

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