Way Back When
by Margaret Morabito, Church Historian
Religious Taxes and The Toleration Act 1791-1819
United Church of Christ
6 PAYSON HILL ROAD
RINDGE, NH 03461
First Congregational Church
Let’s change directions away from structural concerns of the Meeting House and into issues of religious taxation that affected our church in the 1790s and early 1800s.
Since the town’s incorporation in 1768, Rindge residents had been paying taxes to the town, some of which went towards the minister’s salary and the Meeting House expenses. Congregationalism was the majority denomination of the town, as generally agreed upon by the townspeople, so the ministerial tax automatically went to the Congregational Church. This situation was typical of towns throughout New Hampshire. However, there was a growing revolt, both locally and on the state level, from residents belonging to other smaller denominations or to no denomination at all, who objected to paying taxes in support of a religious sect alien to their own beliefs.
In 1791, New Hampshire enacted a law to help address this issue. Under the 1791 Act for Regulating Towns and the Choice of Town Officers, taxpayers were obligated to pay taxes in support of their town’s designated denomination, which was now determined by the selectmen of the town. As usual, the residents were required to pay for the minister’s salary, as well as for the construction and maintenance of a building for religious and town services. In deference to the objectors, the Act also allowed for exemptions for members of other religious sects, as long as the person exempted was contributing financially to the cost of a minister at some other religious society and provided an acceptable certificate to the town to prove the claim. Apparently, though, providing proof was not always an easy task and, in many towns, there were court battles, not to mention the problems of those residents with no religious affiliation. As the years went by, there was increasing pressure to modify the law.
What was the situation in Rindge?
In prior Way Back When articles, People of the Early Church and Paying For Pews, we saw that as early as 1768, there were a few residents who objected to financially supporting the Congregational Church, so our town had experience with this kind of conflict. In those early years, requests to not pay the religious fees were hard fought but often denied. By 1796, though, Rindge was allowing exemptions from the ministerial tax, as specified in the 1791 Act. The number of certificates presented for exemption was small. Ezra Stearns' History of Rindge references three in 1796 and 1797, seventeen in 1800, nine in 1810, and twenty-five in 1819. In 1819, this was a small but increasing percentage of the total of about 250 taxpayers. The majority of exemptions went to Methodists, but there were some Universalists and Baptists. Although the system worked to a certain extent, it seems to have been burdensome, and there was no redress for resident taxpayers who were not associated with a denomination.
Across New Hampshire, even with the availability of the exemption petition, controversy and disputes continued to grow from non-Congregationalists and non-religious affiliated taxpayers. In 1819, the state passed The Toleration Act, which amended the 1791 Act and essentially ended mandatory religious taxation by the towns. The Toleration Act continued to allow towns to vote, assess, and collect money needed for repairing meeting houses owned and used by the town for town purposes. It allowed for continued taxes to pay for settled ministers who had an already existing contract with the town, but not for new settled pastors. More importantly, it directly accommodated residents with religious affiliations other than Congregationalism, thereby treating all religious denominations equally. The Act stated that each religious sect or denomination of Christians in the state could associate and form its own society, admit members, establish governing rules, and have the power to raise money by taxing its own members for their minister and their building. Any person could voluntarily withdraw from a religious association by written notification at any time and not be liable for further religious tax payments to that association. In a major departure, the 1819 Act also stated that residents were free to not belong to any religious society and did not have to pay towards any religious endeavor.
Thus, in 1819, New Hampshire had dissolved the concept of a parish town, and it had dissolved any requirement for Christian or other religious membership by resident taxpayers. After the Toleration Act of 1819, the town of Rindge ended its ministerial tax. Reverend Payson had served as the pastor from 1782 up into 1819/1820. The next settled pastor was paid by The First Congregational Church and Society in Rindge, newly established in 1820.
(Sources consulted: Stearns' History of Rindge New Hampshire 1736-1874; The Toleration of 1819: The History of Separation of Church & State in New Hampshire (http://nhfamiliesforeducation.org/content/toleration-act-1819-history-separation-church-state-new-hampshire); The History of New Hampshire, From Its Discovery, in 1614, To The Passage Of The Toleration Act, in 1819 by George Barstow.)