Amendment I (Religion)

[Volume 5, Page 78]

Document 39

Benjamin Rush to John Armstrong

19 Mar. 1783Letters 1:294--95

The early respect I was taught to entertain for your character, and the agreeable connection we once had together, are the only apologies I shall offer for opening a correspondence with you upon the subject of a college at Carlisle.

I am no stranger to the opposition that has been excited against the scheme in your county by some gentlemen in this city, nor am I unacquainted with the very illiberal reflections that have been thrown upon me for favoring the design by two of those gentlemen. I have nothing to say against them by way of retaliation. The only design of this letter is to explain more fully to you the advantages to be derived to the state at large and the Presbyterian society in particular from a nursery of religion and learning on the west side of the river Susquehannah.

The manner in which the Presbyterians seized their present share of power in the University of Philadelphia has given such general offense that there is little doubt of an attempt being made in the course of a few years to restore it to its original owners. The old trustees say that the present charter is contrary to the Constitution of the state and to every principle of justice, and I find a great many of the most respectable members of the Assembly are of the same opinion, among whom is the Reverend Mr. Joseph Montgomery.

But supposing the present trustees held the University by the most equitable and constitutional tenure, it cannot be viewed as a nursery for the Presbyterian Church. Only 11 out of 24 of the present trustees are Presbyterians. Dr. Ewing was elected by a majority of a single vote. He will probably be the last Presbyterian clergyman that ever will be placed at the head of that institution, should it even continue upon its present footing. From its extreme catholicism, I am sorry to say that, as no one religion prevails, so no religious principles are inculcated in it. The fault here is only in the charter, for all the teachers I believe are friends to Christianity and men of pious and moral characters.

Religion is best supported under the patronage of particular societies. Instead of encouraging bigotry, I believe it prevents it by removing young men from those opportunities of controversy which a variety of sects mixed together are apt to create and which are the certain fuel of bigotry. Religion is necessary to correct the effects of learning. Without religion I believe learning does real mischief to the morals and principles of mankind; a mode of worship is necessary to support religion; and education is the surest way of producing a preference and constant attachment to a mode of worship. Religion could not long be maintained in the world without forms and the distinctions of sects. The weaknesses of human nature require them. The distinction of sects is as necessary in the Christian Church towards the perfection and government of the whole as regiments and brigades are in an army. Some people talk loudly of the increase of liberality of sentiment upon religious subjects since the war, but I suspect that this boasted catholicism arises chiefly from an indifference acquired since the war to religion itself. We only change the names of our vices and follies in different periods of time. Religious bigotry has yielded to political intolerance. The man who used to hate his neighbor for being a Churchman or a Quaker now hates him with equal cordiality for being a tory. Colleges are the best schools for [divinity. But divinity] cannot be taught without a system, and this system must partake of the doctrines of some one sect of Christians--hence the necessity of the College being in the hands of some one religious society. The universities of England, Scotland, and Ireland, and I believe of every other kingdom in Europe are in the hands of particular societies, and it is from this circumstance they have become the bulwarks of the Christian religion throughout the world.

The expense of an education in Philadelphia alone, exclusive of the influence of a large city upon the morals of youth, is sufficient to deter the farmers from sending their [Volume 5, Page 79] sons to the University of Philadelphia. The distance of the College of New Jersey from the western counties of this state makes the difference of one fifth of the expense in the education of a young man in traveling twice a year backwards and forwards to and from his father's house.

It has long been a subject of complaint among us that the principal part of the emigrants from Pennsylvania into new countries were Presbyterians. This has greatly reduced our numbers and influence in government. It is I believe pretty certain that we do not now compose more than one fourth or fifth part of the inhabitants of the state. A college at Carlisle, by diffusing the light of science and religion more generally through our society, may check this spirit of emigration among them. It may teach them to prefer civil, social, and religious advantages, with a small farm and old land, to the loss of them all with extensive tracts of woods and a more fertile soil.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 5, Amendment I (Religion), Document 39
The University of Chicago Press

Letters of Benjamin Rush. Edited by L. H. Butterfield. 2 vols. Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 30, parts 1 and 2. Princeton: Princeton University Press, for the American Philosophical Society, 1951.