Joseph BALCOM’s (1705 – 1787) son Elijah played an interesting role in constitutional history. Ronald Balkom sent me the story in a PDF image. Tiny, tiny type in all caps. It took skilled touch typing (which I don’t have) to transcribe because one glance away and you lose your place, but it’s in and enhanced with links, pictures and commentary.
The church that Elijah didn’t want to pay for was founded 300 years ago today, November 12, 1712. Happy 300th to the First Congregational Church of the Attleboroughs!!
This post concentrates on Elijah’s constitutional court case. For his complete story including his minuteman days as a drummer and fifer and his wife and children, see his father’s page.
Elijah Balcom was born 2 Sep 1752 in Attleboro, Bristol, Mass. He married 30 Nov 1786 Attleboro to Marcy Daggett. Elijah died 7 Jan 1796 in Attleboro.
Do you remember learning in elementary school that Antidisestablishmentarianism was the longest word in the English language? I never knew what that word meant. Turns out it was the ideology opposing Elijah in 1781.
Edited from Robert E Bolkom’s of Lakeland Florida Dec 1984 Newsletter — In the night of Dec 17, 1781 Elijah Bolkcom 28 years of age and unmarried was at home with his father Joseph, now 75, in Attleboro, Mass. Although Elijah was baptized and raised in the Congregational Church, he changed in May of 1780 to the Baptist Society which was led by Job Simmons. This church had begun 11 years earlier and were Calvinists in theology and though Elijah attended regularly and supported the church, he did not yet enjoy full membership.
Constable Wilmarth chose this night to place Elijah under arrest for non payment of his religious tax. On the way to the jail at Taunton, Elijah had second thoughts about leaving he aging father at home alone and agreed to pay the 17 shillings, sixpence and 3 farthings and was released. [remember 20 shillings to the pound]
Attleboro, like most Massachusetts towns was predominantly Congregationalists and the new state constitution provided for a religious tax on every male inhabitant in order to maintain a “standing church” in each town or parish. Since Congregationalists were in the majority, the “standing churches” were almost always Congregational.
Following approval by town meetings, the Massachusetts Constitution was ratified on June 15, 1780, became effective on October 25, 1780. It remains the oldest functioning written constitution in continuous effect in the world and was the model for the Constitution of the United States of America, drafted seven years later.
In the summer of 1779, delegates were elected to a constitutional convention, which met in Cambridge in September 1779. The convention chose a committee of thirty members to prepare a new constitution and declaration of rights, which in turn named a subcommittee of John Adams, Samuel Adams, and James Bowdoin. The subcommittee in turn assigned the task of preparing a first draft to John Adams alone, a “sub-sub committee of one,” as Adams later referred to it. For the new declaration of rights, the committee of thirty members assigned the drafting directly to John Adams. However, the articles on religion was referred to Calvinist Congregational Clergy who guided the orthodox Puritan outcome.
Perhaps the most famous line in Adams’s draft declaration of rights was this: “All men are born equally free and independent….” This was slightly revised before being adopted by the constitutional convention: “All men are born free and equal…
Article I. All men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights; among which may be reckoned the right of enjoying and defending their lives and liberties; that of acquiring, possessing, and protecting property; in fine, that of seeking and obtaining their safety and happiness.
In 1781, Article 1 was the subject of a landmark case Brom and Bett v. Ashley which outlawed slavery in Massachusetts.
In 2004, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled in Goodridge v. Department of Public Health that it was unconstitutional under the Article 1 of the Massachusetts constitution to allow only heterosexual couples to marry.
It’s inspiring that John Adam’s work of 233 years ago is still bringing justice today, but back to Elijah and Article 3.
Article 2 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights said
” no subject shall be hurt, molested or restrained in his person, liberty or estate for worship of God in the manner and season most agreeable to the dictates of his own conscience for his religious profession of sentiments”,
but Article 3 asserted that every town or parish had the right to make suitable provision at their own expense for the institution of the public worship of God and for the support and maintenance of public Protestant teachers of piety, religion and morality. This meant that compulsory religious taxes were still to be laid in the new state.
The fourth paragraph allowed non-Congregationalists to pay the tax to their own pastor, but the courts construed this clause so narrowly that in practice it exempted only members of an incorporated Episcopalian, Baptist, Methodist or Universalist Church. A member of one of these bodies who resided too far from his church to attend, or a non-church goer had to pay to support a Congregational minister ( unless he lived in Boston where the voluntary system prevailed.) In Elijah’s case, he had to pay because he had not yet been accepted as a full member of the Baptist church.
In December of 1780, Attleboro had authorized renovation of its Congregational church in the amount of 23,000 pounds and was aggressively raising funds. At least four of Elijah’s neighbors who refused to pay had a cow siezed and sold at public auction to satisfy the requirement. Anyone who refused to pay was called “A Certificate man” which meant that they were probably a Quaker, Baptist or Episcopalian. The Baptists in Massachusetts had been fighting to dis-establish the standing church concept for over 100 years. By disestablishment, they meant the abolishing of religious taxes.
I’m not sure if the Church Elijah didn’t want to pay for his the 1st or 2nd Congregational Church of Attleboro. Maybe the funds went into one pot and were divided. I was corresponding with the First Congregational Church of North Attleboro (Oldtown) and their historian found in Second Church’s History by Ted Moxham (who is still the historian) that when their first meeting house was built (work began in 1743, but took several years to finish) and that pews were not installed until about 1786 . It then says that they were installed with funds collected to defray the cost. They said “Sounds like that might be the funds that you are looking for!! ”
I’m still checking with the 2nd Attleboro Congregational Church for a picture of the Church began in 1743 and finished about 1786, but here’s what the current church looks like. This Facebook Page from the New England Church Project has over a hundred beautiful pictures of the current church.
The First Congregational Church of North Attleboro (Oldtown) Facebook Invitation to their 300th anniversary celebration. The church was founded 300 years ago today, November 12, 1712.
Just a reminder tomorrow is our 300th Anniversary Celebration!!!!
All are welcome!!!
Worship is at 10am, fellowship and fun to follow from 11-1pm and then an Oldtown Chicken BBQ at 1pm. (not 1:30 like the Friday email said)
Please wear your 300th t-shirt if you have one. If you don’t we have lots of extras!!! See you tomorrow!!!
By Feb 2, 1782 Elijah, with counsel, had filed suit against the assessors Wilkerson, Wilmarth and Richardson and was in the Justice of Peace Court at Norton (held in Justice Holmes’ house). He stated that because he was a member of the Baptist Society, regular attendance and financally supporting it, that he was not liable for the religious tax. He claimed that the assessors were in full knowledge of this and that the arrest was arbitrary, illegal and vexatious. The ruling went against Elijah. He filed an appeal in the Inferior Court of Common Pleas at the Bristol County Courthouse in Taunton and the review was set for the March term. His case was based on the claim that Article 3 was unconstitutional.
Article 3 was a compromise which attempted to satisfy those who wanted to continue the old Puritan tradition of an established tax supported church and those who wanted a voluntary church system. It satisfied neither group and was the most controversial and hotly debated issue at town meetings which preceded the ratification of the constitution.
Massachusetts officials recognized Elijah’s appeal to be an ideal test case and the Attorney General personally appeared to argue for the defendants. Elijah was suppoted by Isaac Backus, spokesman for the Baptists and other minority sects whho were closely watching the case progress. The defendants tried to get a trial by jury, but Elijah realizing the difficulties to seat an impartial jury and because of the complexity of the isses insisted that it be heard by competent judges. Decision by judges also would enhance the legal precedent and potential for future impact.
Elijah claimed that his relationship with God was purely between he and his creator and the government had no right to intervene. He argued for a separation of church and state in order that each individual could worship and support the church of his choice. The court ruled in his favor and awarded him six pounds, eighteen shillings and sixpence court costs and recovery of the tax and penalty.
The Baptists and minority sects (and even some Congregationalists) were overjoyed and the case was appropriately publicized. Isaac Backus even had tracts printed explaining the expected impact of the decision.
Isaac Backus (1724-1806) was the leader of the New England Baptists. In this response to Payson’s Election Sermon, Backus forcefully states the Baptists’ opposition to state support of the churches. This opposition was grounded in the Baptists’ reading of the New Testament and also of ecclesiastical history which demonstrated, that state support of religion inevitably corrupted the churches. Backus and other Baptist leaders agreed with their clerical adversaries in believing that religion was necessary for social prosperity and happiness but they believed that the best way for the state to assure the health of religion was to leave it alone and let it take its own course, which, the Baptists were convinced, would result in vital, evangelical religion covering the land.
The joy at winning Elijah’s case turned to sorrow two years later when Baptist Gershin Cutter of Middleboro found himself in a similar plight as Elijah. This time the local court ruled in his favor, but on appeal against him. For the next fifty years Massachusetts authorities did their best to make the religious tax stick until 1833 when the constitution was amended to eliminate it.
While the Bolkcom case was being enjoyed in Massachusetts, Virginia was in the throes of fiery debate on the same subject. George Washington, Patrick Henry and Richard Lee argued for the general assessment bill with Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and George Mason opposed.
In this Oct 3, 1785 letter George Washington informs his friend and neighbor, George Mason, in the midst of the public agitation over Patrick Henry’s general assessment bill, that he does not, in principle, oppose “making people pay towards the support of that which they profess,” although he considers it “impolitic” to pass a measure that will disturb public tranquility.
In 1786 the bill was defeated and Jefferson became recognized as the author and initiator of the separation of church and state in the new nation. A close look at Jefferson’s argument reveals that his opposition was based upon a fear that religious influences would creep into government much as they had in Europe and impose their will on the people through government. An effective philosophy which is as important today as it was in 1786.
Elijah’s argument that religion was prior to all states and kingdoms of the world and could not in its nature be subject to human laws was different from Jefferson’s. How different might our posture be today towards prayer in schools and federal aid to education if his reason for separation had been accepted rather than Jefferson’s.
Find Out More
Understanding the Separation of Church and State – We need to look at three parts of the Constitution: Article VI section 3, the 1st Amendment & the 14th Amendment.
Religion and State Governments Religion and the Founding of the American Republic