Public incidents in this past month provided reminders of the freedoms instituted in America’s founding documents such as freedom of the press, freedom to assemble or speak openly about one’s convictions. National Religious Freedom Day on January 16 commemorated another. On that day in 1786, the Virginia General Assembly adopted Thomas Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom, which states, “No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, . . . [or] shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess . . . their opinions in matters of religion.” This document became the basis for the First Amendment clause of the 1791 U.S. Constitution, ensuring that all Americans have the right to worship freely and follow their conscience.
Settlers in England’s earliest North American colony could not claim that right. The English government granted a charter to the Virginia Company, an English merchant trade business whose officers controlled the administration, laws and religious worship in Virginia. Charter documents implied that leaders would follow practices in accordance with the Church of England, and required all new settlers to take oaths of allegiance and supremacy to the King as head of the Church of England. The Company’s instructions stipulated that “the true word, and service of God and Christian faith be preached, planted, and used . . . according to the doctrine, rights, and religion now professed and established within our realme of England.”
Along with establishing profit-making activities, the charter also required the first colonists to Christianize Virginia’s Indians, whose religious practices certainly differed from those of English settlers. Settlers considered the Virginia Indians to be in “miserable ignorance of the true knoweledge and worshippe of God.” However, the English rarely witnessed or understood the practices and rituals conducted by the local Powhatan people who did not worship the one God of the English. Virginia Indians fiercely resisted early attempts to force Christianity upon them and when, in the late 18th century, some groups began to adopt Christianity, most connected with the Baptist Church, not the Church of England.
The first Africans brought to Virginia in 1619 quickly learned that they could not worship as they had in their African homeland. As a result of a Portuguese presence in West Central Africa since the late 1400s, many Africans mingled the practices of the Roman Catholic Church with their own. Although arriving as forced immigrants, the religious rituals practiced in English Virginia may have seemed familiar to them.
Virginia’s first leaders started from scratch to create both a civil and ecclesiastical administration and build a place to worship. Early on, conditions in Virginia forced the Company to inflict a strict law code that covered religious, moral and military offenses with stiff penalties. Some of the laws harshly punished those who skipped daily worship and catechism instruction or who blasphemed against God. Curiously, these laws did not require colonists to adhere to the Canons or ordinances of the Church of England.
When the first General Assembly met in 1619 in the church at Jamestown, the delegates officially established the Church of England in the colony, noting that ministers “shall duely read divine service, and exercise their Ministerial function, according to the Ecclesiasticall laws and orders of the churche of Englande.” Representatives created laws to help the Church and the clergy maintain order in the colony, requiring colonists to attend worship, and instituting punishments for committing “ungodly disorders” and “enormous sinnes.”
Through Virginia’s first decades, London’s religious leaders offered no oversight for an overseas Church, both out of sight and out of mind. The English Church did not create an ecclesiastical hierarchy or courts in Virginia, or send a bishop to oversee the small body of ministers; Virginia’s governor and legislature adopted the role of bishops and dioceses in England. The responsibility for governing Virginia’s Church eventually came to rest with secular authorities. The legislature governed the Church through establishing parishes and instilling powers in parish vestries, provided for the construction of churches, regulated tobacco payments to clergymen, and enacted laws relating to Church affairs. The governor inducted ministers based on vestry recommendations. After the 1630s, county courts began to hear cases against morality and punish offenses.
In the 1640s, the first assemblies under Governor Sir William Berkeley brought ecclesiastical changes. For the first time, the 1642/43 Assembly required by law the use of the Book of Common Prayer in worship. This Assembly also addressed the growing number of dissenting (usually Puritan) ministers serving congregations and required all to conform to the Church Canons and use of the Book of Common Prayer or risk expulsion from the colony by Berkeley, who supported the King and reinforced the role of the English Church in the colony. This Assembly ordered Protestant dissenters to leave the colony.
Further, this Assembly established the parish vestry as the local governing body for the Church, creating lay (non-professional) control over local Church affairs. Vestries could impose local parish taxes to support operations, investigate moral offenses, build churches, recruit and pay ministers, and provide welfare services to the poor and orphans in a parish.
In Virginia as in England, groups that adhered to the Church’s precepts included Church of England Anglicans, dissenting Puritans (those who sought to reform the Church such as Massachusetts Bay settlers), and extreme Puritan Separatists (such as the Pilgrims). Anglicans adhered to a distinct Christian tradition representing a middle ground between Roman Catholicism and Lutheran/Reformed Protestantism.
Other dissenting Protestant groups not descended from the English Church included Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Quakers. The latter, arriving in Virginia in the mid-17th century during England’s Civil War, settled primarily on the Eastern Shore, and sometimes suffered whippings or imprisonment. All dissenting groups paid taxes for the support of the established Church and dissenters still faced expulsion.
Some dissenters fled from Virginia to Maryland. In 1632, Charles I granted the land that became Maryland to George Calvert, 1st Lord Baltimore, who had served in Parliament and had converted to Roman Catholicism in the 1620s. The Calvert family welcomed Protestant and Roman Catholic immigrants but soon the Protestants held the majority. In 1649, the Maryland legislature passed the Maryland Toleration Act ensuring freedom of worship to all Christians. Disagreements between religious groups continued however, and late in the 17th century, the Church of England became established in the colony.
Following the English Civil Wars of the 1640s, the Puritan Commonwealth government took charge in Virginia in 1652. English Puritan leaders created the Directory of Worship for use in worship in place of the Book of Common Prayer, believing that the latter evolved from Roman Catholic rituals. In Virginia, however, Puritan assemblymen allowed the Assembly to govern, local governments to maintain control, and clergy to use the Book of Common Prayer with little threat.
By the 1660s, the Virginia Church struggled with few clergy ordained in the Church of England, lack of church buildings, and lax enforcement of Church laws requiring colonists to worship and maintain membership. Leaders and members of the Assembly paid little attention to the Puritans, Quakers and other nonconformists exiled from England and settling in the colony.
Around this time Anglican clergy in the Virginia Church faced increased censure from Quakers for their failure to offer spiritual care, instruction and baptism to both free and enslaved Blacks and Virginia Indians. Morgan Godwyn, an Anglican minister, criticized these clergy as well as planters for neglecting the spiritual care of these people. However, clergy and planters believed that Christians could not be enslaved. Since planters viewed their enslaved Blacks as infidels and merely property, they feared that baptizing them meant they had to free them. In 1667 the General Assembly ruled that “conferring of baptism doth not alter the condition of the person as to his bondage or freedom.”
The beginning of the reign of King Charles II and his government’s new interest in overseas colonies changed the dynamics in the colony. In 1676, Charles established the Council of Trade and Plantations in England to create a stronger imperial administration for the colonies. As the Council strove to impose order and control, the Church became vital to England’s policies. The Council granted Henry Compton, the Bishop of London, jurisdiction and supervision over the Church in the colonies. Compton required that any minister intending to serve in the colonies must be licensed through the Bishop’s office to perform professional duties.
However, colonial religious climate changed again as a result of the 1688 Glorious Revolution and the accession of William III and Mary to the throne. In 1689, Parliament passed the Act of Toleration, allowing dissenting Protestant groups outside of the Church of England to organize, build churches and conduct worship. The Act included dissenting Quakers, Presbyterians and Baptists but excluded Roman Catholics and Unitarians. It legally recognized dissenters but required them to take the oaths of allegiance and supremacy to the monarch as head of church and country and to register their meeting houses. It prohibited them from holding political offices and worshipping in private.
Colonial governments implemented the terms of the Act. Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Delaware and New Jersey outlawed the establishment of any church and had the highest levels of religious tolerance. Roman Catholics could only practice their religion freely in Pennsylvania and Maryland. In Virginia, Quakers, as one of the largest dissenting groups, could now worship but were taxed to support the established Church. Presbyterian clergymen could achieve certification under the Toleration Act after obtaining a license to preach. Still, in the colonies religious toleration did not necessarily equate with religious freedom. The governments in some colonies allowed dissenting groups to practice their beliefs and freely conduct public worship, but with restrictions and requirements. Officially the Church of England remained the established church in Virginia, Maryland, New York, the Carolinas and Georgia. By law, everyone in these colonies paid taxes for its support.
Changes occurred in the religious life of Virginia between 1720 and the 1770s as increasing numbers of settlers with diverse national origins and religious affiliations immigrated there. The colonies approached revolution in the 1760s and the English Church weakened in status as many colonists’ loyalties transferred to religious groups sympathetic with the Patriot cause. The Church of England lost power and influence as revolutionary forces took over. By the 1770s Enlightenment thinkers such as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison opposed established churches, believing that religion was a natural right best protected without government oversight. They further objected to the limited religious toleration available to dissenting groups in Virginia, particularly Baptists, Quakers and Presbyterians.
In 1777, Jefferson drafted a bill that would establish religious freedom in Virginia as a “natural right.” When the Virginia General Assembly first considered the bill in 1779 the Episcopal Church, newly independent from the Church of England, was the state-sponsored or established Church in the colony. Tax monies supported the Church and colonial laws compelled mandatory attendance.
The bill endured a long struggle until adopted by the General Assembly in 1786. The resulting statute ensured Virginians the right to choose their faith without coercion and called for the separation of church and state. The Assembly disestablished the official Church, first established by the 1619 General Assembly. Jefferson noted the importance of providing religious freedom to “the Jew, the Gentile, the Christian, the Mahometan, the Hindoo, and [the] infidel of every denomination.”
Jefferson’s statute influenced the drafting of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1791 — “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” — and the U.S. Supreme Court’s understanding of religious freedom. He considered it one of his crowning achievements. Hopefully, Americans today can appreciate and respect the freedom we all have to worship as we please, along with all our other Constitutional rights and freedoms and the responsibilities that accompany them.
Nancy D. Egloff
Historian, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation
James B. Bell, Empire, Religion and Revolution in Early Virginia, 1607-1786. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
George Maclaren Brydon, Virginia’s Mother Church and the Political Conditions Under Which It Grew. Richmond: Virginia Historical Society, 1947
John A. Ragosta, “Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom,” Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia. https://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/virginia-statute-religious-freedom