Colonial Virginia: Religious Freedom

At the end of the eighteenth century, Virginia, along with Massachusetts, led the struggle for independence in what would become the new United States. The colony produced many influential leaders of the American Revolution, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Patrick Henry. For some of these leaders, the struggle for political independence led directly to another great cultural change: a campaign to “disestablish” the Anglican Church, which was the Virginia colony’s official religion, and to grant all citizens an equal right to their own religious beliefs.

Among the Founding Fathers, two in particular, Jefferson and Madison, played a pivotal role in passage of the landmark Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom in 1786. This act served as an important model for the new Constitution that would be adopted by the states in 1789.

“Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free,” the Act begins in ringing language, and goes on to resolve:

That Truth is great, and will prevail if left to herself, that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them:

Be it enacted by General Assembly that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities.

While it was Thomas Jefferson who crafted the text of the landmark Act and James Madison who helped achieve its passage, the effort to secure religious equality for all was also driven by average citizens, many of whom practiced what were called “dissenting” faiths, those that stood outside the colony’s official church.

From a religious point of view, the eighteenth century saw a major transformation in the British colonies among Protestant believers. In the eyes of its supporters, the Anglican Church served its parishioners well, providing charity and spiritual guidance to the poor and respectable careers to many of the gentry. In many places, the traditional church gave settlers cohesion, purpose, and structure. Church attendance was high. Civic leaders and religious ministers came from the same class, reinforcing a social order that was widely accepted.

But Dissenting voices had long been part of the Anglican Church. Starting in the 1730s and1740s, the first great American evangelical revival swept the colonies. In open-air sermons attended by thousands, it introduced a new religious experience that emphasized complete devotion to God, the sinfulness of all, and an equal access to God’s grace—a call that had a special appeal for the lower classes.

In addition to their call for personal commitment, evangelical revivalists also attacked the Anglican and Congregationalist Churches for their rational approach to Scripture, their hierarchical institutions, and their vested interests in worldly affairs, which ignored the suffering and needs of the common people. Eventually, Presbyterians, Baptists and Methodists—the denominations most affected by the Great Awakening—would become the largest Protestant denominations in the U.S.

The importance of these denominations to the struggle for religious freedoms is often overlooked by scholarship that focuses on the Founding Fathers, many of whom were Deists. New scholarship about this period in Virginian history balances the contributions of famed political leaders such as Jefferson and Madison with those of ordinary individuals, whose efforts helped secure their own liberties of faith.

The struggle for religious liberty before and during the Revolutionary War, the passage of the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, and many landmark statements about religious liberties from this time—including George Washington’s Letter to the Newport Congregation—reflect both the vision of leaders like Jefferson and Madison, and the aspirations of  these religious minorities.

From the time the first British settlers settled in Virginia in 1607, the British crown had granted the Anglican Church special privileges by declaring it the established church of the commonwealth. Religious hegemony and social dominance went hand in hand. Virginia was governed by large tobacco planters who were closely associated with the Anglican Church. Indeed, to any eighteenth observer, the “legal and social dominance of the Church of England was unmistakable.”

After the “Glorious Revolution” in England and passage of the Act of Toleration in 1689, some (though not all) Protestant “nonconformist” sects in England and the American colonies were exempted from previous restrictions and impositions. Nonetheless, in many of the colonies all non-Anglicans were still required to pay the tithe, a tax to support the salaries of Anglican clergy and maintain their churches. In effect, Presbyterians, Quakers, Baptists, Catholics, and Jews were made to pay for a clergy whose religious teaching they rejected. They were forced to support a clerical institution that served the very elite they often opposed for political and economic reasons.

The tithe to the Anglican Church combined with laws that that stopped dissenting ministers from performing marriages or conducting public worship, severely curtailed the religious freedoms of the nonconformist Christians. Corporal punishment for religious dissent was common (including whipping or cropping the ears of outspoken Baptists or Quakers, and in extreme cases, execution). Even after the Act of Toleration, “heretical” preachers in the colonies risked steep fines and imprisonment. Meanwhile, daily encounters with discrimination, harassment, and marginalization hurt Dissenters’ social and economic status.

During the second part of the eighteenth century, hostility to established churches grew. In Virginia, Baptists found new audiences among the poor, who found their emphasis on the equality of all believers appealing. Dissenting ministers who held their sermons outdoors, allowing room for all comers, symbolically returned to the simplicity of earlier days, leaving little room for the prestige of front pews and gentry grandeur found in the official religion.

But as Dissenter influence grew (especially among the poor and slaves), so did their persecution. The colonial Anglican gentry responded to their presence with force. They broke up meetings and open air sermons, imprisoned heretic preachers, and incited the mob to whip, burn, and stone repeat offenders. Some historians argue that Virginian dissenters arguably suffered the worst religious persecution in antebellum America.

As a result, the 1760s and 1770s witnessed increased discontent and discord within the colony.

In the 1770s, led by the Dissenters, the campaign to secure full religious liberty in Virginia led to a flurry of public petitions, which in turn threatened to undermine the colony’s cohesion at the same time that political sentiment against Great Britain intensified. The leaders of the colony faced a dilemma: whether to make concessions to the nonconformist sects, or not do so, and risk splitting their support base at the very point that the growing revolutionary movement most required that support.

For their part, the Dissenters promised to join the revolutionary battle only if their religious freedom was guaranteed. The Dissenters’ pressure finally led to the first major concession: in 1776, the Virginia Convention adopted a Bill of Rights that included a provision for the “free exercise of religion,” and stated the claim to that freedom in influential language crafted by George Mason and James Madison:

That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore, all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other.

But, aside from this declarative gesture, the practical meaning of religious freedom remained contested, as the Baptists and other Dissenters continued to insist on an end to state-enforced tithes, and that restrictions on their worship services and marriage ceremonies be removed.

Although Anglican dominance was rejected by many independent-minded settlers, the outspoken revolutionary Patrick Henry and other privileged members of the planter class continued to support an established Christian church. Henry, among others, advocated a limited form of pluralism in which the state government would still enforce a “general assessment,” or tax, for the support of selected Christian churches. His proposal would permit individuals to earmark their taxes for the church of their choice. Each taxpayer would be compelled, however, to support one of the officially sanctioned churches.

As early as 1777, as the newly-independent colonies waged war against Great Britain, Thomas Jefferson drafted his first attempt at a bill to address Virginia’s religious discrimination against non-Anglicans. The bill was intended to remove all the restrictions England’s colonial administration had imposed on Christian Dissenters and non-Christians. In 1779, Jefferson introduced the bill to the Virginia legislature when he became a governor, but it took several more years of pressure and negotiation, and indeed, the conclusion of the War of Independence, for the bill to be approved.

The bill finally passed in 1786, after a dramatic speech by James Madison to the Virginia General Assembly, titled “A Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments.”

Madison was in agreement with Jefferson that citizens should not be judged by their religious beliefs.

The impact of the struggle of Virginia’s Protestant Dissenters was far reaching and spread beyond the borders of their own commonwealth. By the time the new national Constitution was drafted in 1787, Virginia—a former “bastion of established Anglicanism”—had become the most progressive of the thirteen original states in protecting religious liberties.”

The importance of Jefferson’s Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom cannot be overestimated. It served as the model for parts of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. In the word of one scholar, it also “serve[d] as the model for the principle of church/state separation” in America.

There are clear echoes of Jefferson’s thinking in George Washington’s “Letter to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport.” For this reason, it’s worthwhile studying Jefferson’s argument in favor of religious liberties in further detail, which we will do in an upcoming post.