Enjoy this guest blog written by my friend and scholar John A. Duvall
RELIGIOUS FREEDOM IN VIRGINIA
It was once against the law to be a Baptist, or any religion other than Anglican, in Virginia. Virginians were required to worship in Anglican churches. While colonial Anglicans sometimes “tolerated Protestant dissenters,” they more often tried to marginalize them and to create unfortunate barriers to their existence. Lines were blurred between religious and civil authority as parish vestries and county courts tried to secure control over religious matters. Non-Anglican preachers, including independent Baptists, vocal Calvinists, and frontier Methodists thought to be loyal to British rule, were regularly imprisoned without habeas corpus rights for violating the Anglican loyalty law.
Tensions rose…and rose!
In time, it became clear something had to be done to permanently relieve such an explosive situation. Private discussion and public debate, including questions of Indian and African religious practice, occupied many citizens in the early scattered communities. Other dissenters resented the legal restrictions imposed on their religion and dared to express open resentment of the favored, tax-supported Anglicans, whose churches benefitted from enforced taxation.
About 1750, and onward through the Revolutionary War, evangelical Christians increasingly challenged the discriminatory religious rules of the establishment. After the Revolution they formed effective alliances with democracy-leaning politicians; and in Virginia, they united their efforts to strip the Anglicans of their long-held stranglehold on religion.
Though sketchy, this brief background is intended to reveal the fertile soil which sprouted the religious liberty seeds sown in Virginia by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Patrick Henry, James Monroe and others in the Commonwealth’s formative years. Enlightened leaders with a marvelous vision of Virginia’s future, they soon saw that “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” including worship of one’s Creator, or non-worship of any Creator, dwelt in the dictates of one’s own heart. Inner conviction, conscience, for them, and for us, is a powerful force.
In 1777 Jefferson first penned the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. This document’s inception and circulation roughly parallels the years of the American Declaration of Independence and Revolution. The actual adopted 1786 version assures Virginians both “freedom of conscience and the right to think and to let think.” This principle was also carried forward into the First Amendment of the US Constitution, which initially was to address freedom of “religious” speech only, but by the time of its adoption was amended to address freedom of “all speech”.
For over 229 years the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom has certainly stood the test of time. Other freedoms it has spawned or inspired along the way include abolishing human slavery; voting rights, long denied, for all women; and humane custodial care for children.
Reverend John A. Duvall is a retired teacher, social worker, and United Methodist minister. He lives at Valley Magister Farm in Comers Rock, Virginia.