If you flip through the pages of an old town book in Vermont, you might find, tucked away between tax records and town meeting minutes, something like this example from Putney, in Windham County, with a few pages of identical entries, each with the statement, “I do not agree in Religious Opinion with a Majority of the Inhabitants of this Town.”
So why is a dissident religious profession in a town book? Whenever you see information like this recorded in a town book, you ought to ask yourself the following questions:
- What law controlled the collection of this information?
- What incentives did someone have for providing this information? What was their motivation? Was there a motivation to lie? Were there safeguards to prevent lying?
- What else does the record tell you?
It ends up that this this particular kind of record is related to both religion and taxation, and understanding this particular record might help you in your genealogical research.
A 1797 Vermont law, “An Act, for the Support of the Gospel,” allowed towns to levy a tax on all inhabitants for the upkeep of a meeting house and the hiring of a minister. The denomination supported was to be whatever was the majority held by the town’s population. As you might imagine, this particularly grated on those of minority religious opinion, who had to pay the tax for the majority church as well as contribute to their own church. An exception, however, was provided, to opt-out of the double taxation, if you provided a certificate to to town clerk from a minister attesting that you belonged to a minority church.
An 1801 act partially repealed the 1797 law, noting:
Whereas many of the good citizens of this state have represented to the general assembly that the aforesaid act appears to them a direct violation of the third section of our bill of rights an infringement of those inalienable rights which the good of society never requires to be resigned and a compulsion of conscience in religious worship…
Under the revised 1801 law, residents could simply attest to the town clerk the language we see above in Putney’s town book, “I do not agree in Religious Opinion with a Majority of the Inhabitants of this Town,” and thereby not pay the tax.
(A few years later, in 1807, the entire provision for a government-collected religion tax was repealed.)
So what does this mean for genealogical research? A few things:
- Like other tax records of the time it acts like a partial census of adult male residents. If your ancestors shows up on the list, you know he lived there on that date.
- It tells you that the person on the list was not of the majority religion in the town. This could help you identify the religion of your ancestor, and perhaps focus your search for those church records. In many Vermont towns of this time period the Puritan religion (Congregational church) was the majority. Some of the more prominent minority religions that you might find include Baptists and Quakers.
- Knowing your ancestor’s religion can help you interpret other records, or explain why records you might expect do not exist. For example, Baptists practiced adult baptism, not infant baptism. So a date of a Baptist baptism is not a good alternative for a birth date.
One last consideration: Could someone have lied in order to avoid taxes? It is possible, though I think it would be hard for someone belonging to the majority church to claim he did not belong, in a public record. This is something that would have been easily detected, in a small town, by the clerk, the minister, or another resident. Another possible case is that someone belongs to no church.