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  • "For Conscience Sake":Quaker Campaigns Against Legislative Chaplaincies, 1789–1797
  • S. Spencer Wells (bio)

In November 1791, Free Quaker Samuel Wetherill made a provocative overture. Standing before Philadelphia's Society for Attaining Useful Knowledge, the former Friend took the United States fledgling federal government to task for obliging American citizens to "maintain or contribute to maintain a ministry which their conscience disapproves." It did so, he asserted with the impassioned zeal and "independence of a freeman," by requiring Americans to pay taxes towards the support of congressional chaplaincies. Because the practice threatened to invade the "rights of the people" it deserved no "legislative sanction." Wetherill made his concluding point with adamancy: the congressional chaplaincy deserved to be abolished forthwith.1

While American chaplaincies, both civil and military, have come under increased historical scrutiny in recent years, early national criticism of governmental chaplains has not been fully accounted for. According to common understanding, only a few late-eighteenth century Virginians spoke out against chaplains serving in the nation's legislative halls. Baptist leader John Leland in 1790 within the pages of the Virginia Chronicle spoke out against the "unconstitutional" practice of "paying the chaplains of the [national] civil and military departments out of the public treasury." James Madison privately concurred somewhat belatedly almost three decades later in letters to sympathetic colleagues. Both individuals are seen as exceptions rather than the rule. To be sure, chaplains serving in state and national legislative bodies did not inspire widespread resistance among citizens of the early American Republic. But condemnation of the ways in which such appointments unduly mixed church and state did spread beyond select presidents and evangelical leaders alone. Though Friends are not often recognized for the part they played in calling for the disestablishment of state churches in the wake of the American Revolution, throughout the 1790s a select number took it upon themselves to [End Page 1] speak out against chaplaincies in an organized public fashion. Where Wetherill chose to address his pointed comments to an assembly of his peers, Quakers belonging to Virginia Yearly Meeting pressed further afield, repeatedly petitioning their state assembly to do away with its own democratically elected chaplains. Though both endeavors proved unsuccessful in the end, close examinations of Friends' short-lived campaigns against state and federally-sponsored chaplains not only provides evidence that criticism of state-sponsored chaplains was more widespread than previously imagined, but also provides clues as to why Quakers have been so often overlooked in previous studies of early national chaplaincies and the separation of church and state.2

Critiquing Chaplaincies: Samuel Wetherill, Free Quaker

When Samuel Wetherill laid out his précis against congressional chaplains he well understood the dangers of mixing religion and politics. Little more than a decade before, Wetherill found himself on the short end of Quakers' disciplinary stick after tendering his loyalty to Pennsylvania's revolutionary government. Following his disownment in 1779 for setting Friends' calls for neutrality at naught by "making himself a party in the public commotions" then "prevailing," Wetherill began taking steps to gather similarly excised Friends under a common religious roof. The resulting community of faith, The Society of Free Quakers, attempted to assert their continued allegiance to Quaker principles such as the Inward Light, even as they concurrently ended practices of disownment in their own society. Wetherill's brush with Quaker discipline tinged the remainder of his life. Thereafter, Wetherill increasingly devoted himself to protecting the freedoms of conscience and private judgment whenever and wherever he believed them to be threatened with attack—both within the church and the larger American polity.3

By 1791, most Americans accepted governmental chaplains as a matter of course. During the War of Independence, the Continental Congress hired chaplains to open their deliberations with prayer, while Commander-in-Chief George Washington went out of his way to issue calls for chaplains to accompany the troops he commanded in an effort to instill order, decorum, and Christian patriotism within the ranks. Though members of the Constitutional Convention did not hire a chaplain, the first Federal Congress lost little time appointing their own. Shortly after convening in April of 1789, the Senate quickly moved to create a five...


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