The Ministerial Act of Vermont
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“The Ministerial Act,” as it was called, for the building of meeting houses and the support of preaching by a tax upon the property and polls of the inhabitants of towns, was passed by the legislature of Vermont at its session at Westminster, in October, 1783. The Norwich meeting house had been built, as we have seen, wholly by the voluntary contributions of the people. It was decided, however, in the fall of 1785, that the cost of the building should be assumed by the town, under the provisions of this law, and so become the town’s property. At a special town meeting held for that purpose, on the first Tuesday of October, it was accordingly voted: “That the sum of £694, Lawful Money, be raised by a Tax on the Polls and Rateable Estates of the inhabitants of the town of Norwich, upon the List of 1784 (excepting those who are of a Different Sentiment from those who meet at this House for Public Worship); which Tax as aforesaid shall be paid in hard money, wheat at five shillings per bushel or other grain equivalent, pork or beef at the market price, or certificates from the Committee who have had the care of building the Meeting house, that they have paid such sums as are specified in s d certificates, for pews and seats in said House which certificates shall be taken by the collectors for his, her or their rates.” In the impoverished condition of the country at that time, such a tax must have been a serious matter to those persons who had not contributed to the building of the meeting house, and especially as a subsequent vote required its payment into the treasury within one month. The avails of the tax were of course very largely in the form of outstanding certificates, but it resulted in an equalization of the expense of building the meeting house upon the whole town. Such as had paid by voluntary contributions more than an equal share, according to their several lists, had such excess repaid to them, unless they chose to retain the pews which they had bought, in which case nothing was repaid.
The meeting house having thus become the property of the town, a general redistribution of seats was made necessary. This was effected by a committee of seven men chosen for that purpose, consisting of Samuel Hutchinson, Hezekiah Johnson, Thomas Murdock, Jacob Burton, John Burnap, Paul Brigham and Elisha Burton. It was voted that the rule to be observed in seating the congregation should be age and interest, an arrangement that probably brought the older people into the front seats, and gave some degree of choice to the larger tax-payers.
The “Ministerial Act,” so called, was maintained in full force in Vermont until 1801, when it was essentially modified. During this period, which covered the whole of Rev. Mr. Potter‘s ministry in Norwich, the inhabitants of the town were practically united in the observances of religion, and were constantly and statedly assembled under one roof for worship and religious instruction. For twenty years, beginning in 1781, the salary of Mr. Potter (usually fixed at £75) was annually voted in town meeting, a special tax there for made on the grand list of the taxpayers of the town, and its collection rigidly enforced against all who failed to show that they were communicants of another and different church. Proof of this was required by the production of an authentic certificate from the clerk or other officer of such church, setting forth the fact of such membership, and was available as a matter of fact only to a few Baptists living mostly in the western part of the town. Church and State were in close alliance and walked hand in hand. Sunday after Sunday and year after year, in summer and winter, great congregations of old and young, rich and poor, were gathered from all parts of the town, where the tabernacle of their faith had been set up, there to participate in a common service of prayer and praise, and to exchange friendly greetings with neighbors and townsfolk.
Even the accessories of worship, such as music, were carefully provided for in town meeting. It is interesting to read, upon the pages that record the business transacted by our ancestors on such occasions, entries like the following: “Mr. Benjamin Hatch requested that some Persons be appointed to assist in tuning the psalm on Sundays, etc. Voted, that Mr. Benjamin Burton, Mr. Joel Stimson, and Mr. John Burton be desired to assist as choristers.” At the annual March meeting in 1791, it was voted “that there be a Committee of five to promote singing the year ensuing, by taking in subscriptions, etc. Chose Samuel Hutchinson, John Hatch, Jr., Constant Murdock, Hezekiah Goodrich and Bliss Thatcher such committee.”