building Yeocomico Church with brick rather than less-expensive wood demonstrated permanence and authority of the Church of England
Source: Library of Congress, Yeocomico Church, Cople Parish, Hague vicinity, Westmoreland County, Virginia
In the 1500's, different kings and queens in England sought to impose different perspectives on religion. Henry VIII declared that the Pope, the Roman Catholic leader, no longer had authority in England, and in the 1534 Act of Supremacy had himself established as the head of the Church of England. He confiscated the lands and wealth of the monasteries, which controlled 20% of England's cultivated land.
However, Henry had been raised as a Catholic. He did not accept salvation by faith alone, as espoused by Martin Luther. While the leader of a Church of England that was separate from the Roman Catholic church, organizationally, Henry VIII still retained traditional Catholic doctrine for controversial issues such as transubstantiation and clerical celibacy.
In contrast, his son Edward VI was raised as a Protestant. His half-sister Mary was designated in Henry VIII's will as next in line to inherit the throne, but Mary was a Catholic. Her mother, Henry VII's first wife, was Catherine of Aragon - daughter of the King of Spain.
Edward sought to change the line of succession and have a Protestant cousin replace him, but Lady Jane Grey was quickly displaced after Edward VI died.
Queen Mary re-established Roman Catholicism as the state religion. She became known as "Bloody Mary" for the execution of what she categorized as heretics, including 300 people burned at the stake. In the 1500's, religious uniformity was equivalent to political uniformity. Religious dissenters were perceived as a threat to the ruler's control. Queen Mary planned to marry the man who became King Philip II of Spain, potentially involving England on the Catholic side of the religious wars in Europe. In international relationships, the religion of the rulers was a significant factor in determining friend vs. foe.
Mary died childless and her half-sister Elizabeth succeeded her. Elizabeth I was a Protestant, and Spain sought to gain control over England by a military conquest. The defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588 reduced the threat, but English leaders viewed Catholics as potential traitors. Mary Queen of Scots conspired with other Catholics to seize power from Queen Elizabeth I, and was executed after being caught.
Elizabeth I, the "Virgin Queen," also died childless in 1603. Her successor was James VI of Scotland. He was the son of Mary Queen of Scots. He had been raised a Protestant but married a Catholic.1
James I was inclined to tolerate openly the different religious practices of both Protestants and Catholics. He authorized a new translation of the Bible for better understanding of it by those who could read, a translation which became the King James's Version. James' tolerance cooled after the 1605 Gunpowder Plot was foiled. Guy Fawkes and other Roman Catholic conspirators failed in their plan to blow up Parliament, and the Catholic threat created a greater focus on religious conformity in order to minimize political dissent.2
The restrictive approach of James I was demonstrated in 1606, as venture capitalists sought royal authority to establish a colony in the New World. His First Charter, issued April 10, 1606, did not require religious conformity. However, on November James I issued Articles, Institutions and Orders that required the London Company to establish the Church of England as the one true faith in the new colony:3
In its first meeting in 1619, the General Assembly formalized the establishment of the Church of England, also known as the Anglican Church, as the only authorized religion in the colony. The Church of England became the official ("established") government-protected religion of Virginia in 1619. The burgesses in 1619 passed a law requiring that:4
in the colonial period, ministers in Anglican churches spoke down to parishioners who sat in pews ranked by social status
Source: Library of Congress, Pohick Episcopal Church, Lorton vicinity, Fairfax County, Virginia. Interior
England was not a theocracy where the church controlled the government. It was the reverse, where the government controlled the church and appointed the bishops. In Europe, there were constant challenges regarding the temporal authority of the Pope in Rome vs. the power of monarchs in separate nations.
The Catholic kings in Spain tried to force neighboring countries with Protestant rulers to become Catholic and acknowledge the Pope's authority. Those religious wars may have been based in part of efforts to guide spirituality. More likely, the primary driver was the desire of a ruler to exert earthly power more than to ensure the people in another nation achieved eternal salvation.
When a king died, a new one could claim under the divine right of kings that they had the power to establish a different official religion for the nation. That power to define the nation's faith ("cuius regio, eius religio") was affirmed in the 1555 Peace of Augsburg. Though the monarch had the authority to impose his personal ideology, Henry IV of France recognized that his conversion from being a Protestant to becoming a Catholic would solidify his ability to rule France. Henry IV supposedly said:5
The alliance of church authority and state power in England was useful to both institutions. By establishing just one official church, the monarch limited competition from non-Anglican preachers. Like the Pope, English bishops claimed they derived power straight from Jesus through apostolic succession. When the Archbishop of Canterbury placed a crown on the heads of English monarchs, they benefitted from the legitimacy granted by the Church of England.
Sermons in churches were also a primary source of information and official direction in Virginia's colonial era. An adult who attended church every Sunday might hear about 15,000 hours of sermons during their lifetime. In four years at college, a modern student might hear only 1,500 hours of lectures. As one scholar has noted:6
Oher colonies also sought to establish religious conformity.
In the Massachusetts colony, Puritans leaders punished nonconformists and created a state-imposed religion even more rigid than Virginia. Puritans came to Virginia, but the royal governors did not encourage them to stay. Governor William Berkeley forced 300 Puritans to flee to Maryland in 1649.
At different times, the governors of Virginia practiced official discrimination against dissenters. Dissent in faith was conflated with dissent against the legitimacy of Charles I as king, so Catholics, Puritans and Quakers were chased out of the colony in the first half of the 1600's. Virginians also tried to force the Catholic Calvert family out of power in Maryland.
The General Assembly sought to exclude Catholics who believed in papal authority and transubstantiation, and instead impose Anglican liturgy, sacraments, and other practices to create:7
Religious differences were a key part of the English Civil War, culminating in the victory of the Parliamentary army and execution of King Charles I in 1649. Virginia stayed loyal to the king, earning the nickname "The Old Dominion," until Puritan forces arrived and displaced Gov. William Berkeley.
Puritan governors allowed Virginians to continue to use the Book of Common Prayer that had been banned in England. However, prayers for the king had to be eliminated.
Charles II, Protestant son of Charles I, was restored to the throne in 1660. In Virginia, the General Assembly passed new laws that imposed religious conformity, clarified the responsibilities of the vestry, and officially established the size of the vestry at 12 men to manage each parish.
The new laws also mandated weekly attendance at church. Sermons were an effective way to shape attitudes of the parishioners. Other than conversations with neighbors, there were few source of news or opinion in colonial Virginia at the time. The first newspaper was not published in Virginia until 1736. In 1661, Gov. William Berkely highlighted the advantage of having control over information:8
Those who failed to attend could be fined. That provision was designed to pressure the few Quakers in Virginia to leave. It also created a selective enforcement mechanism to force people who upset local leaders in various ways, such as by spreading malicious gossip, to modify their behavior:9
St. Luke's Church in Isle of Wight County, originally known as Newport Parish Church, was built near the end of the 17th century
Source: Virginia Department of Historic Resources, 081-0066 Timber Ridge Presbyterian Church (by Elizabeth Lipford/DHR, 2022)
Those who refused to have their children baptized were made subject to fines in local county courts:10
When James II replaced Charles II after he died in 1685, the crown shifted back to a Catholic. In theory, everyone in England was supposed to follow the religious guidance of the king, who was both head of state and had of the church, but James II was unable to force a switch back to Catholic religious practices.
Virginia's governors were always Anglicans. Only one Catholic, George Brent, was allowed to serve in the General Assembly during the colonial period. After James II succeeded his brother Charles II, the new king issued a Declaration of Indulgence in 1687 to grant Catholics equal rights. George Brent was elected to the General Assembly in 1688 and, during a brief window of tolerance, served until Protestants King William and Queen Mary replaced King James II.
The Glorious Revolution of 1688 forced King James II out of power. King William and Queen Mary were recruited to replace him because they were Protestant rather than Catholic. Under William and Mary, Parliament passed the Act of Toleration, or "An Act for Exempting their Majestyes Protestant Subjects dissenting from the Church of England from the Penalties of certaine Lawes," in 1689. Protestant Christians such as Presbyterians and Baptists were tolerated, but Catholic priests were still banned.
A 1699 law passed by Virginia's General Assembly authorized fining someone who did not attend church at least once every two months, unless they had an excuse accepted by the county court. Dissenters were exempted under the Act of Toleration, but only if they had gone to their own house of worship within the two month period.
Under the royal act, Virginia's General Court began to issue a license for non-Anglican Christian ministers to preach and organize churches. The license authorized preaching only in a fixed location, constraining the non-Anglicans who were itinerant preachers traveling constantly in the less-settled backcountry.
Ministers in the backcountry, where the Anglican church was least significant, were burdened by the requirement to travel to Williamsburg to get a license. Many of the Separate Baptists refused to apply for a license, claiming the civil government had no right to determine who was entitled to preach the word of God in a religious setting.
Licensing based on the 1689 Act of Toleration proceeded slowly:11
In the 1700's, immigrants from Scotland, Ireland, and Europe brought people with different religious beliefs to the colony, including German Pietist faiths, Lutherans, and Presbyterians. In the Great Awakening during the 1730s and 1740s, the number of dissidents expanded as religious fervor and more-emotional worship services increased in Virginia. New religious practices were adopted, such as full-immersion baptism and the laying on of hands. Diversity of religious ritual and adoption of new styles of worship threatened the traditional social order, in which acceptable behavior was determined by the gentry.
Other colonies were more flexible on permitting different religious activities. The Calverts in the Maryland colony recognized that toleration of non-Catholics was essential for attracting new colonists. That colony passed "An Act Concerning Religion," also known as the Maryland Toleration Act, in 1649. When Virginia expelled Puritan preachers, Maryland welcomed them. William Penn's Pennsylvania colony was the most successful in attracting people with various Protestant beliefs.
Virginia's political leaders first embraced religious diversity in the 1720's. That decision was based on geopolitical considerations, rather than based on greater toleration or acceptance of other faiths.
Governor Spotswood saw the advantage in welcoming immigrants that had come from Ireland and modern-day Germany to Pennsylvania. The immigrants desired to settle on cheaper land in the Shenandoah Valley, but were unwilling to become Anglicans. The governor accepted that the Presbyterian Scotch-Irish and the "Pennsylvania Dutch" would worship and organize churches in ways different from the Anglicans, since new Protestant settlers on the western border would provide a buffer against the French and the Native Americans.
Governor Gooch followed Spotswood's policy. Starting in 1730, Governor Gooch granted John and Isaac Van Meter 40,000 acres near Cedar Creek, Opequon Creek, and the Shenandoah River. Such large grants of land within the boundaries of the Fairfax Grant triggered Lord Fairfax's fight to survey and establish his claim, a dispute the Van Meter's avoided by selling their claims quickly to Joist Hite.
Hite recruited his buyers from recent immigrants in Pennsylvania, as did other landowners. Quakers from Hopewell in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania migrated south and settled on land that had been granted to a Quaker (Alexander Ross) and a Presbyterian (Morgan Bryan). Those Pennsylvanians founded the Hopewell Meeting and built a log meetinghouse in 1734. It burned in 1757, and the Quakers built the first half of the current limestone meetinghouse between 1759-1761.12
the plain and functional Hopewell Meetinghouse is the oldest house of worship in Frederick County
Source: Library of Congress, Quaker Meeting House, Winchester vic., Frederick County, Virginia
In 1732, Col. William Beverly obtained a grant further south in an area already known as the Irish Tract, and in 1739 a Quaker from New Jersey (Benjamin Borden) got a large grant to the south of Beverly Manor in what now is Rockbridge County.
Beverly partnered with Irish ship captain James Patton, who brought immigrants directly from Ireland up the Potomac River and then walked them west across the Blue Ridge into the Shenandoah Valley. Later, Patton got his own grant on the New River. He populated Dunkard's Bottom, now flooded by Claytor Lake, with Anabaptists known as "Dunkers" (similar to Mennonites and Amish, and named for the practice of full-immersion adult baptism) from the German Pietist community in Ephrata, Pennsylvania.
Timber Ridge Presbyterian Church in Rockbridge County, built in 1755, is the second oldest Presbyterian house of worship in the Shenandoah Valley
Source: Virginia Department of Historic Resources, 081-0066 Timber Ridge Presbyterian Church (by Calder Loth, 2017)
In a radical break from Anglican tradition, some Baptists worshipped in mixed-race congregations, baptized free and enslaved blacks, and allowed women to have leadership roles.
In 1743, "ordinary" people led by a bricklayer began reading religious tracts. They were inspired by George Whitefield's revivals and started holding their own meetings. Some dissidents were fined by the county courts for failing to attend Anglican church services, but the community of dissidents expanded. In 1743, they recruited a Presbyterian minister from Southwest Virginia to preach in Hanover County.
Rev. Samuel Davies first came to Hanover County in 1747. In 1752, he obtained an official opinion from the attorney general in England that the Act of Toleration did apply to the colony of Virginia. That affirmed his legal right to preach and for meetinghouses of dissenters (the alternative to attending Anglican churches) to be authorized. However, dissenters listening to Davies and other Presbyterian ministers were still required to pay the county taxes that funded operations of the Anglican parishes and paid salaries for Anglican ministers.
When Anglicans in a community felt threatened by the growth of the Presbyterians, the county court had the legal authority to limit Presbyterian preaching. In 1758, the Lancaster County court revoked a license it had issued "unadvisedly" for a Presbyterian meetinghouse. The power of the government limited missionary work from being conducted within the enslaved population by dissidents.
Separate Baptists did not require that their preachers be ordained or educated. Those who felt the call to preach were welcomed by a gathering. In contrast to the Church of England, which struggled to fill pulpits in different churches with "qualified" ministers who had an appropriate social background, dissident groups did not suffer a serious shortage of preachers.
The gentry's prejudice against Presbyterians moderated when a new group emerged and Anglicans began to view the Presbyterians as a less-threatening group. Expansion of the Separate Baptists in Virginia began in the 1750's:13
Though still practicing as ministers of the Church of England until 1784, Methodists preached different philosophies than traditional Church of England (Anglican) ministers.
As more Virginians broke with Anglican traditions and chose their own leaders without endorsement by the parish vestry, the role of the established church was minimized even as the importance of religion increased in public life. The lower respect for men serving on the Anglican vestry reduced the social status of the traditional elite families, and that reduced the elite's control over the population.
Authority in colonial Virginia was exerted through "soft power." How the elite dressed, the architecture of their mansions, and seating arrangements in church defined who was powerful and could command obedience. Though there was a county sheriff who collected taxes, in colonial times there was no police force routinely on patrol, no equivalent to the modern practice of selective police enforcement targeting minority groups. People complied with colonial laws and behavioral norms out of respect for a hierarchical society. The emergence of alternatives to the Church of England created new centers of authority and threatened the traditional social structure.
the architecture of Christ Church in Alexandria was intended to convey power and strength
Source: Library of Congress, Christ Church, Alexandria, Virginia
Finding qualified Anglican ministers was also a challenge. It was difficult to recruit the best and brightest Anglican ministers to the colonies from England; Anglican ministers ordained on the eastern side of the Atlantic Ocean could find a better job in England.
Upper class Virginians did not view serving as a minister as an honor, and discouraged their children from taking such positions. Many came from Scotland and Ireland, and were viewed as coming from a "lower class" than the vestry. The moral behavior of many Anglican ministers was inconsistent with the teachings in the Bible.
The failure to send an Anglican bishop to Virginia limited the organization, discipline, and political independence of the established church. In 161, the General Assembly had required that only ministers who had received ordination from "some Bishopp in England" could preach in Virginia. Anglican ministers were thought to be empowered in the apostolic succession from Jesus through the laying-on of the hands of a bishop. Vestries later had the optin of hiring ministers who had not received ordination directly from a bishop, but such ministers lacked a clear claim to apostolic succession.
Bruton Parish Church was the center of religious activity for government officials when Williamsburg was the colonial capital of Virginia
Source: Library of Congress, Bruton Parish Church, Williamsburg, Virginia
Whatever their qualifications beyond public speaking skills sufficient to stir a crowd in a pub or a church, and whatever their personal character, they traveled from England to Virginia with expectations of being hired by a vestry that could not afford to be very selective.
Ministers were not automatically held in high respect by the congregation or the vestry that ran a parish. Vestries, composed of the elite local Virginia landowners, maintained control over the minister in their parish by not giving them the equivalent of tenure. A vestry could choose to tell a minister that his contract was ending, even though recruiting a new minister would be a challenge.
A vestry in Richmond County tried to fire the minister in 1749 after the dominant landowner, Landon Carter, developed a person prejudice against him. The church was nailed shut to exclude him, and tenants on his glebe lands diverted his livestock. The minister sued the tenants and won damages.
The General Assembly responded by giving all Anglican ministers the equivalent of tenure, but the increased financial security did not translate into increased social status. The case exacerbated the division between the elites in the vestry and the ministers in the pulpit. The gentry families continued to run the vestries in the parishes of the Anglican Church of England, but their support for the institution diminished as they portrayed ministers as mere employees rather than peers.14
A particular case in Hanover County highlighted the public's low perception of ministers, comparable to the perception of the gentry.
Since 1749 the pay of ministers had been fixed by the General Assembly at 16,000 pounds of tobacco per year. Vestries paid their ministers in tobacco rather than in cash, since specie was rare in the colony.
When the price of tobacco climbed during a drought which led to a shortage during the French and Indian War, ministers saw an opportunity to become wealthy enough to raise their social status and increase clerical independence. The General Assembly, in which no minister served, responded to the inflated price of tobacco by passing Two-Penny Acts in 1755 and 1758.
The laws authorized vestries to pay ministers in money according to the normal price of tobacco, two pennies per pound, and not the temporary inflated value which was 300% higher. In response to the 1758 bill, one minister exclaimed in anger:15
The dispute over pay evolved into a dispute over authority in the colony. Half the ministers in the colony assembled in a convention and sent a lobbyist to London with the goal of getting the 1758 Two-Penny Act disallowed. The clerical lobbyist argued that the law challenged royal supremacy and the House of Burgesses was acting treasonously. When the ministers sent a representative to London in hopes that the General Court or Privy Council there would overturn the Two-Penny Act, the political leadership in the colony faced a direct threat to their authority.
The Privy Council overruled the 1758 Two Penny Act. Because the Privy Council decision did not state if their decision was retroactive, three ministers filed lawsuits in 1762-63. They asked the county courts to force their vestries to pay the difference between the market value vs. the fixed price of 16,000 pounds of tobacco for those years when the law was in effect. Rev. Alexander White filed a lawsuit in King William County, Rev. Thomas Warrington sued in Elizabeth City County, and Rev. James Maury sued in Hanover County.
The jury in King William County ruled against Rev. Alexander White. The justices in Elizabeth City County dismissed Rev. Thomas Warrington's case, after the jury returned an open verdict. Rev. James Maury won his case, but in a second phase of the trial the jury had to determine how much money the minister would be awarded as damages.
Patrick Henry was a key lawyer during the sentencing phase of the "Parsons' Cause" case. He made a powerful speech that conflated the power of the clergy and the British government, painting them both as oppressive burdens on Virginia society. The jury awarded Rev. Maury just one penny in compensation, reflecting the lack of public support for Anglican ministers and a growing displeasure with the authority of a British king in London. The Anglican clergy's attempt to use civil authority to force public support backfired and the reputation of ministers was diminished further.16
Lawsuits by ministers in county courts, trying to force the local taxpayers to provide funding after failing to obtain local support from the parishioners, helped to poison the relationship between civil and church leaders. Once the American Revolution started, the Virginia gentry quickly eliminated taxpayer support for ministers in the first meeting of the new state's General Assembly in 1776. After another decade of debate, the Church of England lost its "established" role in part because of conflicts over religious authority in the 1750's and 1760's.
Patrick Henry portrayed the Church of England as an oppressive agent of English governmental power in the 1763 Parsons' Cause case
Source: Encyclopedia Virginia, Patrick Henry Argues the Parsons' Cause (c. 1834 painting by George Cooke, now at the Virginia Museum of History and Culture)
Virginia officials who tried to force conformity with Anglican beliefs also undercut public support for the established church. Separate Baptists who refused to get official licenses were a target for Anglican ministers who could recruit the county sheriff to break up unlawful assemblies. Baptist preachers were jailed for breaking the peace and preaching without a license, and some were dragged from the pulpit and whipped in public.
Though Anglican ministers cared about religious orthodoxy, local officials may have been more alarmed by the threat created by religious dissidents to the traditional social order. The Separate Baptists created mixed-race gatherings and empowered women as Baptist "deaconesses," challenging the hierarchical colonial power structure in which the authority to own property and make official decisions was limited primarily to just white men.
James Madison was appalled by the mistreatment of Baptists in Caroline and Culpeper counties. Unlicensed preachers were abused and Baptists meetings were disrupted by Anglican ministers and county sheriffs. A mob in Stafford County tossed a live snake and a hornets nest into a Baptist meetinghouse.17
At the start of the American Revolution, the elites in the five Virginia Conventions recognized the need for broad public support. A break with King George III and Parliament inevitably involved a break with the head of the Church of England.
Movement towards independence created the opportunity for dissenters to obtain greater legitimacy, as the Anglicans in Virginia rejected the traditional authority of King George III. Religion and political authority remained entangled so long as the head of the state was also the head of the church. The political split with King George III and Parliament was accompanied by an equivalent split with the authority of the Church of England.
Virginia's revolutionary leaders could not choose a new single denomination that would replace the Church of England as the established, official state religion. Starting in 1776, Virginia's leaders structured a new form of government in which individuals could choose their own church, rather than have the government define the "right religion." The process of breaking with the Church of England occurred in fits and starts, and required a decade before the split was completed in 1786.
In 1775, Baptists requested that their ministers receive equal status in the army being raised to fight the British. Patrick Henry led the successful effort for ministers of Anglican and dissenting faiths to receive equal treatment in the army.18
The June 12, 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights established a clear separation between the authority of the state vs. the power of the individual regarding religion. In it, Virginia's revolutionary leaders specifically rejected the power asserted by the King of England to be Defender of the Faith, with authority to establish official religious dogma. Section 16 of what became the "bill of rights" in all Virginia constitutions stated instead:19
Referencing "Christian forbearance" prioritized that faith over others. In the 1901-1902 convention that revised the state constitution, an effort was made to remove the adjective "Christian." That change was intended to clarify that the government in Virginia was completely neutral regarding different faiths; Jewish forbearance was as relevant as Christian forbearance. That effort failed and the reference to Christian forbearance is still in the state's constitution.
The Virginia Declaration of Rights had been drafted primarily by George Mason. When he finally arrived to join the debates, the president of the Fifth Virginia Convention, Edmund Pendleton, declared optimistically:20
Mason's first draft for the Fifth Virginia Convention had proposed only that "all Men shou'd enjoy the fullest Toleration in the Exercise of Religion." However, 25-year old James Madison successfully argued that the draft should be revised beyond "toleration" which could be revoked by the legislature. While Thomas Jefferson was at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Madison pushed for the declaration to be amended so it defined religious belief as a natural right, one which could not be directed by government.
George Mason endorsed the change in his wording, and the final document ended up saying:21
However, the convention rejected Madison's proposal to disestablish the Church of England. Changing the traditional perspective of the relationship between church and state, and separating the two in Virginia, required another 25 years. Madison's rejected language was:22
The Virginia Declaration of Rights was the boldest in all the colonies for separating church and state, and Virginia was the only state to stop using some form of religious restriction limiting who could be elected to office. New England states continued to require compulsory financial support for religion. The Massachusetts tax to support "public Protestant teachers of piety, religion, and morality" did allow taxpayers to designate their payment to their own denomination or sect, so long as it was Protestant.
The Maryland Declaration of Rights authorized the state to collect a tax to support religion (emphasis added), though the state never passed such a tax:23
Jefferson consulted Mason's Declaration of Rights when preparing the Declaration of Independence in June, 1776. However, Jefferson included no mention of religion in the Declaration of Independence. The Articles of Confederation, approved by the Continental Congress and 1777 and finally ratified by the states in 1781, included only this mention of religion in Article III:24
even after adoption of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, non-Anglican worship services were disrupted and preachers were harassed
Source: Library of Congress, Religion and the Founding of the American Republic - The Dunking of David Barrow and Edward Mintz in the Nansemond River, 1778
After Virginia declared independence in 1776, the Fifth Virginia Convention edited the Book of Common Prayer. The government body mandated that prayers for the King and Realm of England be removed. Anglican ministers had a choice: comply or return to England.
The new General Assembly inherited from its colonial predecessor an established church, with 98 parishes created prior to independence. What had been the Church of England became the Church of Virginia, and became known as the Protestant Episcopal Church. One result was that the official link with the Diocese of London was broken, and there was no bishop in America who was authorized to ordain new ministers.
During the American Revolution, the Virginia legislature continued to create new parishes as population expanded. Six more were authorized by 1780, reaching a total of 104 parishes.
Vestries continued to exercise authority at the local level, in parallel with county courts. Members of the vestry appointed their replacements on the vestry, so members of the elite gentry continued to control local government. Local residents had no opportunity to vote for the vestry members who hired ministers - or for the justices of the peace who formed the county court.25
The first Constitution of Virginia, adopted in June 1776, prohibited all ministers from serving in the General Assembly. That ban minimized the potential that government would impose religious beliefs. Throughout the colonial period, no ordained minister was allowed to serve in the House of Burgesses. On the rare occasions when a minister was elected, the burgesses blocked the minister from taking his seat. The Governor's Council was not restrictive, however, and the Commissary of the Bishop of London sat on the Council.
In 1836, Humphrey Billups was elected to the House of Delegates. Because he was a Methodist preacher, his credentials were rejected by a 179-2 vote.
The barrier to election was retained in all revisions of the state constitution until after the Civil War, when the "Underwood Constitution" of 1870 finally eliminated the prohibition.26
After adoption of a constitution in 1776, sheriffs in Virginia counties still collected mandatory taxes used to pay salaries of the ministers remaining in Virginia parishes. Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and other dissenters organized a petition drive to end the requirement to pay taxes to support the established church.
Advocates sewed together 100 pages to create the impressive "Ten Thousand Names Petition," and it was submitted to the General Assembly on October 16, 1776. The legislature responded by passing "An act for exempting the different societies of Dissenters from contributing to the support and maintenance of the church as by law established, and its ministers, and for other purposes therein mentioned" on November 19, 1776 that temporarily suspended the taxation. Anglican vestries and ministers had to rely upon donations plus revenue generated from glebes. Farming and other activities on the glebe were expected to generate income to supplement the salary provided to the minister.
The glebes were parcels of land previously acquired by local vestries when a parish had been created, or when enough funding had been obtained to purchase a tract of land. The funding to purchase glebe lands came from a tax set by the vestry and collected by the county sheriff.
The same 1776 law that exempted dissenters from paying a tax to support Anglican church buildings and ministers explicitly authorized the vestries to continue to levy a tax in order to provide services to the poor.
The law also protected the existing property rights of the Anglican vestries:27
a replica of the Ten Thousand Names Petition, on display at the Library of Virginia
Source: UnCommonwealth blog, Library of Virginia, "That The Oppressed May Go Free": A Petition To The Virginia General Assembly For Religious Freedom
Otherwise, the General Assembly was busy dealing with the creation of a new state government. It did not change the powers of the established church to manage local social services such as caring for the indigent and the infirm who were impoverished, adoption of orphans, and dealing with illegitimate children of indentured servants.
Philosophically, Jefferson thought that the opinions of men are not the object of civil government, nor under its jurisdiction. He sought to eliminate government authority over religious beliefs and practices, but was unable to get a majority of the General Assembly to support his approach in 1776. After the Church of Virginia no longer received funding from the taxpayers and had to rely upon voluntary contributions plus income from its glebes and other property, it remained the official, established church of the new Commonwealth of Virginia. Those who were not Anglicans remained dissenters from the official government faith.
For the first decade of independence, Virginia legislators discussed the possibility of mandating a "general assessment" for religion. A group of five males could form a Church of the Established Religion of the Commonwealth and seek public funding.
Under that approach, mandatory taxes to support churches would be collected, distributed perhaps to the ministers of a faith preferred by the taxpayer. Some dissenters supported that approach, recognizing it would guarantee some funding for their religious organizations. Anglicans, who began calling themselves Episcopalians, were strong supporters of renewed financial support from the state.
Thomas Jefferson drafted his Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom starting in 1777, when he was part of a team rewriting Virginia's colonial laws to reflect the new condition of independence. He started as one member of a five person Committee of Revisors that included George Mason, Thomas Ludwell Lee, Gorge Wythe, and Edmund Pendleton. The first two quickly dropped off the committee, and Jefferson ended up doing most of the work preparing 126 bills.
He discovered that there was no single law which "established" the Church of England as Virginia's official religion:28
After being elected governor in 1779, Jefferson served on the Board of the College of William and Mary and had the program of education revised. The school had been chartered in 1693 so:29
The College of William and Mary trained ministers for over seven decades. Until the American Revolution, they would travel to London to be ordained before returning to Virginia and serving in a parish.
Jefferson transformed the curriculum and eliminated the religious training. Funding for the Divinity School was diverted to other college expenses, and the college became a secular institution.30
Jefferson thought his Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom might pass the General Assembly in 1779. It was introduced as Bill No. 82, one of five bills related to religion in the list of 126 bills prepared by the Committee of Revisors. The bill focused on preventing the state from compelling individuals to support any particular religious group and insuring the civil rights of individuals would not be affected by their choice of faith.
The bill did not erect a total wall of separation between church and state. It did not require the government to be 100% secular, or prohibit the state from citing religion as the basis for civic action. As finally adopted, the bill starts with "Almighty God hath created the mind free..."
Bill No. 83 was titled "A Bill For Saving the Property of the Church Heretofore by Law Established." It would have transferred legal title to the assets of all Anglican parishes from the vestry to representatives of the members of the parish. The vestry was seen as part of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, and was not an elected body representative of the members of the parish.
Bill No. 83, if it had passed, would have enabled new representatives of the parish to pay bills using the church's assets. The General Assembly would have cleared the title to those assets. and ensured they would not be confiscated by the state.
Bill No. 85, a "Bill for Appointing Days of Public Fasting and Thanksgiving," would have mandated ministers to preach in their house of worship on days designated by the governor. The bill specified the content to be preached must be "suitable to he occasion." Those who failed to preach on the designated days could be fined 50 pounds.31
Bill No. 84, "A Bill for Punishing Disturbers of Religious Worship and Sabbath Breakers," limited work on Sundays to routine household chores and emergency tasks. This bill, ultimately adopted in 1786, forced establishments to close on one day a week that was intended to be dedicated to religious worship and rest. Since Christians worshipped on the "Sabbath," the law prioritized one religious perspective by forcing a cessation of non-essential work just on Sundays.
Starting in 1610, colonial officials had passed laws prohibiting certain Sunday activities. These were later known as "blue laws," perhaps because they were once printed on colored paper or perhaps because indecent behavior was considered "blue."
Virginia's blue laws were renewed in various forms with a justification that a day of rest was good public policy, but continuing to designate the Christian Sabbath as that day. Seventh Day Adventists, Jews, and other religions with a different day for their worship were not authorized to open on Sundays. In 1846, two Jews were fined for working in their office on a Sunday. After they protested, laws were revised to exempt from such punishment those who worshipped on a different day than Sunday.
Starting in 1974, the General Assembly exempted certain industries and, after a referendum, local jurisdictions. Ultimately drug stores - exempted as essential businesses because they filled prescriptions - were selling products on Sunday while other retail stores with the same products were required to stay closed. Sunday sales produced the largest volume per hour during the week, but only for those stores able to open.
In 1988 the Virginia Supreme Court ruled that there were so many exceptions to the Sunday sales ban that the laws were unconstitutional "special laws." The laws were not overturned because they breached the wall of separation between church and state.32
The General Assembly's ban on Sunday hunting, first passed in 1643, survived until 2014. In that year Sunday hunting on private land was authorized. Sunday hunting on public land remained illegal until 2022.33
There was competing legislation in 1779 to define the "Christian Religion" as the state’s official religion. That bill also failed to pass.
The mandatory tax to support Anglican ministers was permanently repealed in 1779, but Bill No. 82 was tabled. Jefferson's proposal was too radical, at least in 1779. The gentry declined to agree:34
the Ten Thousand Names petition was part of the 1776 campaign by dissenters to end state-required taxation to support the established Church of England (Anglican Church)
Source: Library of Virginia, Dissenters: Petition
The governmental authority of seven local Anglican vestries were constrained in 1780. The General Assembly shifted responsibility for local social services from the vestries in seven counties to a new county-managed organization, Overseers of the Poor. That reduced the cost and time burdens on those seven Anglican vestries; they welcomed the change even though it reduced their political authority.
Also in 1780, the General Assembly authorized non-Anglican, dissenting ministers to conduct legal marriages. Since marriages determined who would control and inherit property and children were deemed legitimate only if the parents had been wed by an Anglican minister, the right to conduct marriage rites was significant. The legislature allowed:35
However, the General Assembly limited the authorization to just four ministers of a non-Anglican congregation in a county, and prohibited them from performing marriages outside the county. County courts had to approve the four ministers. The limitations may have been based not on religious discrimination, but on the need to ensure marriages were recorded officially. If a person died without a will, the county courts needed to know who should inherit property according to state law. The Anglican parishes had maintained the official marriage records during the colonial era, and there was not yet a system by which local courts in Virginia counties could assume that responsibility. 36
The American Revolution led to a dramatic decline in the influence of the Anglican/Episcopalian church in Virginia:37
After the Peace of Paris ended the Revolutionary War in 1783, Episcopalians petitioned the General Assembly to pass a general assessment and provide government-collected funding to religious institutions. Advocates of a general tax argued that strengthening churches would address the disruptions in civil society created during the American Revolution, when the recriminations for violating the norms in Virginia's hierarchical society had largely disappeared.
More worship experiences, with more exhortation by ministers, would in theory lead to higher standards of "republican virtue" and better public conduct. Advocates of the general assessment argued that it would be in the public's interest to have taxes support religious "teachers."
Supporters of the traditional church organized now as Episcopalians expected to be the primary beneficiaries, assuming the majority of Virginia's would be counted as former Anglicans. The Episcopalians suggested that public support for the general assessment had becom politically acceptable since the American Revolution had been successful, and the need to mollify non-Anglican minorities had diminished.
Dissenters were still very active in demanding fair treatment, however. They continued to petition the General Assembly, where the House of Delegates referred the petitions to a Committee for Religion.
The Episcopalian clergy organized themselves and held a convention in Richmond starting on June 1, 1784. At the time, Methodists were still part of the Protestant Episcopal Church. They did not withdraw and establish a separate denomination until December, 1784.
On June 3, that convention submitted a petition to the General Assembly. It requested, among other items, that the Episcopalian clergy be released from the burden of managing social services at the local level.
The Committee for Religion proposed on June 8, 1784 that the General Assembly repeal the laws directing how vestries must be chosen, getting the government out of the business of managing the affairs of the Protestant Episcopal Church. The committee recommendation included assuring the Protestant Episcopal Church vestries that they retained ownership of their existing land, buildings, and other property.
The Committee for Religion also proposed that all denominations should be allowed to incorporate, so whatever they owned would be in the church's name. That would eliminate the need for church leaders to own church property in their own name.
Another recommendation from the Committee for Religion was to relax the remaining restrictions on the rights of dissenting ministers to perform official marriages. The state legislature finally solved the problem of maintaining official records of marriages by mandating that ministers report all marriages to the county court.
On December 28, 1784, the legislature granted a charter to the Protestant Episcopal Church. That created a legal organization that could control church property, and at the time still served as the established church in Virginia.38
After receiving its charter, the Church of England in Virginia officially became the Protestant Episcopal Church. The "new" denomination was independent from the Church of England, but had also lost the support of the Methodists. 39
The bill incorporating the Protestant Episcopal Church was poorly worded. By mandating that lay leaders be included in the "Convention" to manage the corporation, the state government violated the Declaration of Rights by using government authority to impose requirements of a religious group.
It stimulated a negative reaction even within the Episcopalians, because it removed the right of vestries to select the minister. One of the petitions submitted to the General Assembly in 1785 calling for repeal of the charter highlighted the problem with creating a Convention composed of all the Episcopalian clergy plus one lay leader from each parish:40
In 1787, the charter was repealed. The elected legislators responded to the strong reaction against granting any authority to the Protestant Episcopalian Church. Incorporation strengthened its ability to maintain ownership of church buildings and glebes, giving an advantage to the Episcopalians in attracting new members.
One option for leveling the playing field was to give state funding to support all the religious denominations. Throughout 1784 Patrick Henry had championed a general assessment bill, titled as "Bill establishing a provision for the teachers of the Christian religion." Henry proposed that dissenting religious groups as well as Episcopalians should receive tax revenue, so long as the dissenters were Christian:41
in the 1780's, Patrick Henry argued in favor of a state tax to fund churches; he did not advocate for total separation of church and state
Source: US Senate, Patrick Henry
Henry's effort to establish multiple religions, not just Episcopalians, as state-funded churches had at least tepid support initially from George Washington. While most dissenters were opposed to the general assessment bill, many Presbyterian ministers and the Presbytery of Hanover initially supported it. Those Presbyterians thought that public funding for religious institutions would enhance public order and morality and provide needed support for their religious leaders, even if such support would strengthen Episcopalians the most.
As James Madison described it:42
However, the chartering of the Protestant Episcopal Church caused the Presbytery of Hanover to shift its position and oppose the general assessment. James Madison was able to have a vote on the tax issue delayed until 1785.
James Madison led the charge against the bill in the House of Delegates, and was allied with George Mason. He published, anonymously, his Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments in June, 1785. Madison avoided alienating key legislators who supported the general assessment by disguising his authorship, and did not publicly acknowledge it until 1826.
In the Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments, Madison argued that religions could thrive without public funding due the power of their beliefs and ability to attack willing followers. Religious institutions would be corrupted by their efforts to retain public funding, and giving government any power over religion would lead to excessive use of that power.
Madison included in his Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments: 43
Throughout 1785, those who opposed the general assessment bill submitted petitions against it. Opposition ended up stronger than support, and the powerful voice of Patrick Henry had been removed from he House of Delegates by electing him as governor. At the end of 1785, the legislators dropped the proposed tax, the "general assessment."
Madison followed up on his victory in the general assessment debate and quickly introduced the Statute of Religious Freedom which Thomas Jefferson had prepared. He was successful in getting it adopted, in part because he agreed to deleting Jefferson's preamble which had articulated the supremacy of reason over faith:44
When the General Assembly voted on the Statute of Religious Freedom, the legislators were meeting at what is now the corner of 14th Street and Exchange Alley in Richmond. The Valentine Museum's Valentine First Freedom Center and Monument now marks the spot.
In a 66-38 preliminary vote in December 1785, the House of Delegates refused to weaken Madison's bill. As approved finally on January 16, 1786, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom said:45
When passed on January 16, 1786, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom disestablished the Protestant Episcopal Church as the official state religion. Virginia had an official government-sponsored church not only during its colonial period from 1619-1776, but also from 1776-1786 when Virginia was a state.
To replace the role of vestries in performing local social services, Overseers of the Poor were appointed in all counties. The General Assembly repealed the charter of the Protestant Episcopal Church in 1787, but all church property - glebes, buildings, furniture, communion plates, etc. - remained under the control of the vestry. Some of the property had been donated to the parishes, but most had been acquired using government-required taxes paid by local residents who may not have shared the Anglican faith.46
Jefferson was particularly proud of his role in writing the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. The final version had been revised during the approval process within the General Assembly, and Madison had led the political campaign to get legislative approval while Jefferson was in Paris serving as the American minister to France, but everyone recognized Jefferson's role as the original author. He included on his tombstone:13 47
On January 24, 1799, the General Assembly repealed seven previous acts which were perceived as inconsistent with the Bill of Rights because they mixed government and ecclesiastical authority or provided undue support to one denomination. The laws were repealed because they:48
Primary reason for the repeal was to eliminate the 1776 guarantee that Anglican church property would remain under the control of vestries, as stated in "An act for exempting the different societies of Dissenters from contributing to the support and maintenance of the church as by law established, and its ministers, and for other purposes therein mentioned."
The Presbyterians initiated a campaign to sell the glebes in 1787. The Baptists then took the lead. Starting in 1789, the Baptist General Committee sent a petition annually to the General Assembly requesting that the glebe lands be converted to public use. Their fundamental argument continued to be that the glebes had been purchased with taxes paid by all residents during the colonial era, and it was unfair that only Episcopalian ministers were receiving benefit from them.
Conservatives in the House of Delegates blocked annual proposals to sell the glebes. They argued that few dissenters had paid taxes to purchase the land except in counties west of the Blue Ridge, since most glebes had been acquired before 1750. Until then, nearly everyone east of the mountains was an Anglican, except for some Quakers.
In 1796, the French Revolution created a stronger push for change in Virginia. The Episcopalians calculated they finally would lose a vote in the state legislature, so they sought to have a court decision to resolve the status of their claims to the glebes. Transferring the issue to the judicial branch was not successful. In 1799, the legislature repealed the 1776 law that had protected the Episcopalian claim.
For the next two years, there were discussions on how to require the glebes be sold - including land, enslaved workers raising crops and livestock, and the buildings in which ministers lived - and what to do with the money. In 1802, the General Assembly passed the "Act Concerning the Glebe Lands and Churches within this Commonwealth." It authorized the sale of glebe lands upon the death or resignation of the current rector (minister) of a parish in the Protestant Episcopal Church. The requirement that the pulpit be empty avoided pushing a minister out of their home while they were still actively preaching and had a group of supporters in the community.
Proceeds from the sales were delivered to the Overseers of the Poor in that county, for establishing and supporting local academies for public education, and to reduce taxes. There were some cases where individuals took advantage of the sales for their personal benefit, such as using the land after the death of a minister until the sale was completed but not paying any rent.
The General Assembly was less ambitious than Henry VIII, who had seized the church monasteries 250 years earlier. The legal justification for selling the glebes in Virginia was equally strong for seizing the church buildings and the land on which they sat, but that would have displaced worshippers. Selling just the glebes offered the best opportunity to get a one-time cash windfall in many counties, while minimizing political opposition.
The 1802 law specified:49
Where a congregation of Episcopalians was using a church building, it typically stayed under their control. Where the congregation had dissolved, abandoned Anglican churches simply decayed away without maintenance. Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists and others typically built their own houses of worship at convenient locations for their followers.
In one case, a church was sold to the highest bidder. In Prince Edward County, however, the Methodists and Baptists both sought to control an old church. The Baptists ended up with the title, but allowed the Methodists to use the building. In Williamsburg, the Bruton church was used by different congregations:50
In 1803, the vestry of Manchester Parish in Chesterfield County won the Turpin v. Locket lawsuit to block the overseers of the poor from selling its glebe. he Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals was prepared to issue its 3-1 ruling that the 1802 law was unconstitutional. However, Chief Justice Edmund Pendleton, who had voted in the majority, died the day before he was planning to announce the opinion.
That triggered a rehearing of the case, and in 1804 the newly-appointed member of the court concluded the law was constitutional. According to the rules of the court, the resulting 2-2 tie meant the law was left in place rather than overturned. As a result, most glebes eventually were seized and sold. Some of the initial funding for the University of Virginia came from the sale of two glebes.51
The Code of Virginia still includes:52
the glebe of St. Anne's Parish in Essex County was sold in 1803, including the brick glebe house
Source: National Register of Historic Places, 028-0014 Glebe House of St. Anne's Parish
Not all glebes were lost by the Episcopalians. In 1817 the vestry of Bennett's Creek Church in the Suffolk Parish, located in what is now the City of Suffolk, won a lawsuit that protected their ownership of a glebe. The church successfully argued that the property had been donated rather than purchased, and was therefore exempt from seizure.53
The last glebe transferred to Overseers of the Poor under the 1802 law was in Loudoun County. The vestry of Shelburne Parish acquired their 465-acre glebe in 1773. The parish was created in 1769, and initially had to pay its minister a higher-than-average salary because there was no glebe income. After the 1802 law was passed, the parish vestry managed to delay the seizure of their glebe for nearly 40 years.
The 1840 Virginia Court of Appeals ruling in Selden v. Overseers of the Poor of Loudoun again declared the 1802 law to be constitutional, but based that conclusion on the principal of Stare Decisis. The glebe house, now expanded significantly, still stands.54
the glebe house of Shelburne Parish was enlarged after finally being sold to a private owner in 1840
Source: National Register of Historic Places, 053-0186 Glebe of Shelburne Parish
The Fairfax Parish, created in 1765, paid its first minister a salary of 17,280 pounds of tobacco, and added an additional allowance of 2,500 pounds because it also had no glebe. The vestry purchased the plantation of Daniel Jennings in 1770. It paid 15 shillings per acre for what was thought to be 400 acres, but an 1815 survey revealed the total was 566 acres.
The vestry also ordered construction of a new 1.5 story brick glebe house, which was completed in 1775 and became the minister's home. In what is now Arlington County, Glebe Road connected the glebes of the Falls Church and Christ Church.
When Virginia ceded territory to create the District of Columbia, the glebe for Fairfax Parish ended up in the new district's Alexandria County. The Fairfax County Oveseers of the Poor tried to force the sale of the glebe in 1811, but the vestry argued that seizure was not authorized because the property was in the District of Columbia rather than the Commonwealth of Virginia. The overseers claimed the glebe had been owned by the state government since 1776.
The US Supreme Court ruled in favor of the vestry of Fairfax Parish. The Federal Court declared in Terrett v. Taylor that the glebe was the private property of the Protestant Episcopal Church, and that the state law incorporating the church made it later unconstitutional to seize the glebe under the 1802 "Act Concerning the Glebe Lands and Churches within this Commonwealth." By then, however, all but the Shelburne Glebe in Loudoun County had been acquired by Overseers of the Poor.
The Fairfax Parish had the unique ability to sue in Federal court because its glebe was in the District of Columbia. In 1815, a declaration by the US Supreme Court that a state law was unconstitutional did not have the same effect as it would today. The 1803 tie vote in the Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals had established that the General Assembly's 1802 law was consistent with the Virginia constitution. The US Supreme Court decision would affect Federal cases, but the Shelburne Glebe case did not become a Federal lawsuit in which Terrett v. Taylor would be a controlling precedent.
Over 90 glebes were transferred to Overseers of the Poor, and the Fairfax Parish was the only one to defeat the 1802 law and avoid losing its asset. In the end:55
In parishes where the minister had died and left and no services were being held, the General Assembly authorized use of the church buildings for academies. In King George County, the legislature passed a law in 1808 that permitted an academy to use the brick church which had been constructed in 1766, and authorized sale of the glebe lands to fund reconfiguration of the building.
By 1816 the academy had failed and the Episcopalians had regrouped. They successfully petitioned the General Assembly to return the building for their use. St. Paul's Episcopal Church continues to this day to meet there.56
The glebe of Hungar's Parish on the Eastern Shore was sold in 1850. It had been donated though a will written in 1654 with a provision that a minister must preach there regularly; if the pulpit was vacant for six months, the land would revert back to a descendant of the donor. In 1835, the Overseers of the Poor in Northampton County sought to force the sale of the glebe. The Overseers claimed the property had escheated to the state, because the current Episcopal Church had a different doctrine than the Anglican parish which was in existence in 1654.
The vestry argued that fundamental doctrine was consistent, though political view and liturgical practice had changed after the American Revolution. The Overseers contracted o sell the property. In 1842, the vestry won a lawsuit that established ownership. The Virginia court determined that the buyer had not acquired title to the glebe through that sale, but another lawsuit filed in 1846 continued the dispute.
In 1859, the Overseers claimed that there had been a gap between ministers of greater than six months, so the parish was no longer the owner of the glebe. The highest court of Virginia, the Court of Appeals, ruled in favor of the Overseers of the Poor. The 1802 "Act Concerning the Glebe Lands and Churches within this Commonwealth" turned out to be irrelevant to the decision.
The disruption of the Civil War delayed action. The glebe of Hungars Parish was finally divided into three sections and sold to private owners in 1870.57
the Overseers of the Poor in Northampton County acquired the glebe of Hungars Parish through a unique legal argument, not through the 1802 law authorizing sale of glebes
Source: Virginia Department of Historic Resources, 065-0033 Glebe of Hungars Parish (by David Edwards/DHR, 2021)
When Alexis de Tocqueville visited the United States in 1831-32, he discovered to his surprise that individual faith and religious institutions were thriving without government support. As a Catholic, he was especially interested in how those priests viewed the separation of church and state. He realized that religion was more vital to the Americans because it was freely chosen, creating a stronger personal commitment:58
Across the 13 colonies, there was no opportunity to select any particular faith as the one established religion; there were too many different religious institutions and no dominant faith. When the Continental Congress originally drafted the Land Ordinance of 1785, it planned to dedicate a tract of land in each surveyed township "for the support of religion," along with an equal amount of land "for the maintenance of public Schools," and directed that:59
That provision avoided defining which church would receive the revenue from the land dedicated "for the support of religion." Residents in each township would make that decision, and different townships might choose to fund different denominations.
During the second reading of the bill, as the Continental Congress debated the draft of the ordinance, 12 of the 13 colonies had representatives in attendance. Only New Jersey was missing when a member from New York made a motion to strike out "and the section to religion." In the final 17-6 vote, Rhode Island and Maryland supported retaining the wording while representatives from New York and North Carolina split their vote. All the other states voted in the majority to remove the language. If the words had stayed in the ordinance, the national government would have officially supported religion in a generic manner comparable to Patrick Henry's general assessment proposal.60
Four years after deleting the clause from the bill which finally became the Land Ordinance of 1785, the Continental Congress included just a generic statement about religion in the 1787 Northwest Ordinance. In 1787, the Continental Congress again prioritized education instead of religion:61
In two land sales in 1787, however, Congress did provided specific support for religion. The 1787 sales of 1.5 million acres to the Ohio Company of Associates and one million acres to John Cleve Symmes required the purchasers divide up parcels for sale using the rectangular survey system, and required the purchasers to dedicate the land in Section 29 to "the purposes of religion." That requirement echoed the proposal to dedicate a portion of national government land sales "for the support of religion" which had been considered, but then rejected, in the drafting of the Land Ordinance of 1785.
The Ohio Company of Associates was a group of land speculators totally different from the earlier Ohio Company that had obtained a 500,000 acre grant from colonial Virginia's General Assembly in 1749. Virginia's cession of the Northwest Territory had ended the potential for that group to acquire land.
The Ohio Company of Associates was composed of 285 officers who had served during the American Revolution and were willing to pay for western lands, since it did not appear that the Congress would award them land grants for their service. They agreed to pay $1 million, but used Continental securities which had been acquired at a significant discount to reduce the actual cost.
From the beginning of the effort by the Ohio Company of Associates, religion was used to help justify the government selling such a large swath of land. The key leader in the Ohio Company of Associates sent a letter to George Washington in 1783 and got his endorsement. The letter included the plan to divide the land into:62
The pressure to dedicate Section 29 "for the support of religion" came from the Ohio Company of Associates rather than from the Continental Congress. Reverend Manasseh Cutler, another key leader in the company, made the desire clear. Having a minister in the newly-settled land was expected to improve social behavior in a place on the frontier, and revenue from Section 29 would support a minister. From an economic rather than a social perspective, making the township a more stable community would help attract more purchasers of land.
The Continental Congress authorized the sale to the Ohio Company of Associates on July 23, 1787. The commitment to sell 1,000,000 acres to Judge John Cleves Symmes was approved on October 2, 1787. The two sale agreements were made when the national government was still operating under the Articles of Confederation, a year before ratification of the new US Constitution, and four years prior to ratification of the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights.
When a second sale was authorized in 1792 to members of the Ohio Company of Associates, authorizing the use of army bounty warrants for purchase, the requirement for use of Section 29 to support religion in the "Second Purchase" was omitted. The company still chose to dedicate Section 29 for that purpose. In Ohio, about 43,500 acres in different Section 29 parcels are known as the "ministerial lands."
That acreage was initially leased, along with the sections dedicated to support education, by trustees who managed the assets. In the early 1800's, the decision was made to sell rather than perpetually lease the lands, and to deposit the cash into a permanent endowment managed by the State of Ohio. That required obtaining title, which the United States had retained since 1787 for the "First Purchase" of the Ohio Company of Associates and for the land sold under the arrangement with Judge John Cleves Symmes.
The US Congress passed acts as needed to transfer title, and by 1918 the "ministerial trust fund" managed by the state was worth $150 million. The revenue was distributed to religious societies within Ohio based upon the percentage of membership, until 1968. Ohio voters approved an amendment to the state constitution so all future revenue would be used just for educational purposes.63
two land sales by the Continental Congress in 1787 required using Section 29 for the purposes of religion
Source: William Edwards Peters, Ohio Lands and Their Subdivision
The US Constitution, written in the 1787 Constitutional Convention to replace the Articles of Confederation, included no clear statement regarding religious liberty other than Article VI. It was controversial because it allowed Catholics to be elected to Federal offices. Except for the Virginia delegates, everyone at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 came from states with religious tests restricting who could serve in public offices. The delegates could not agree on a standardized Federal test because different states would support allowing different "dissidents" to serve, so Article VI included:64
There was no limit on the 13 states imposing a religious restriction. Some survived for decades, and Maryland blocked atheists from becoming a notary public until 1961. A US Supreme Court ruling finally ended that religious discrimination.65
The failure of the proposed Constitution to articulate clearly the rights retained by individuals and states threatened ratification of the new form of government by the 13 states. During the ratification debates in Virginia, James Madison promised to amend the Constitution to make clear the constraints on the Federal government.
In the First Congress (1789-90), James Madison successfully led the first effort to amend the US Constitution. He fulfilled the promises he had made in the Virginia ratification convention, and included a restriction on Federal authority to support religion in the First Amendment:66
The Bill of Rights limited the power of just the Federal government to interfere with religious freedom. That amendment did not apply to the states until the Supreme Court ruling in the Cantwell v. Connecticut case in 1940. It was state laws, not the US Constitution, that caused Virginia to dis-establish the Church of Virginia and stop providing state funding to churches.
Today, the Federal and the state governments are required to treat religious belief as a permanent natural right:67
However, the adoption of the First Amendment did not immediately preclude the Federal government from providing public support for institutions which have a religious character at least in part. Interpretation of the restrictions on public support for religion continue to trigger legal cases that reach the US Supreme Court for decisions.
In addition to the words in the US Constitution and various laws, many cases cite language about maintaining a wall of separation between church and state. When the US Supreme Court quoted it in Reynolds v. United States, a case decided in 1878, the phrase was called an "authoritative declaration of the scope and effect" of the First Amendment language.
Thomas Jefferson penned the phrase in 1802. He explained in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association that he had declined to issue a proclamation recommending a general thanksgiving after learning the France and the United States had agreed to a treaty eliminating the threat of war. Jefferson had opposed the practice of Federalist officials to invoke a religious basis for their actions. He had endorsed Bill No. 85, a "Bill for Appointing Days of Public Fasting and Thanksgiving," back in 1777, but that applied to state government and not actions by Federal officials.
Jefferson wrote to the Baptists:68
In 1830, the voters approved a replacement for the 1776 state constitution. In Article III, Section 11, the second Constitution of Virginia provided a clear statement regarding the limits on state power regarding religion:69
After 1784, the General Assembly refused to incorporate any religious denominations. Because churches were not legally chartered, they lacked clear title to the land and property with their buildings for worship. In addition, members of a church could not include a bequest in their wills to churches, because without a charter churches did not exist in the eyes of the law.
In 1815, the General Assembly refused a request by Presbyterians to incorporate a new theological seminary. The Presbyterians bypassed that rejection by having the seminary and its endowment managed through the denomination's General Assembly, which received a charter in the State of Pennsylvania.
As one scholar has noted, Jefferson and Madison would have been surprised at how their ideals and words were implemented by Virginia's later leaders:70
In 1787, when the General Assembly repealed its incorporation of the Protestant Episcopal Church in 1784, the law authorized churches to own property. However, the 1799 repeal of all laws related to religion other than the 1786 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom removed this right.
In 1842, the state legislature finally authorized religious denominations to own a limited amount of property, up to two acres of land in a city or town and up to 75 acres of land in the country. The legislature still refused to authorize incorporation by religious organizations.
Th 1842 law finally clarified that churches could have clear title to their land, but only in a roundabout way. Land could be owned by individual members or by trustees, but not held in the name of the congregation. Without the authority to incorporate, congregations were not recognized officially by law. The limitation on property ownership was justified by a desire to prevent any religious group from becoming wealthy and powerful, as the Catholic Church had done in Europe.
Congregations who elected trustees still were required to have them officially appointed by local courts. The role of the trustees limited the power of a minister, bishop or even Catholic priest. In Virginia, the system ensured that lay leaders would not be threatened by a religious leader who might establish independent authority and potentially preach against slavery.
Subsequent efforts by Baptist and Episcopal ministers to authorize churches to incorporate were blocked by Presbyterian opposition. The prohibition was incorporated in the 1851 constitution:71
The General Assembly approved a ballot measure in 1996 that would have changed the state constitution and allowed religious societies to incorporate. Voters approved four other ballot measures in 1996, but rejected the proposal for church incorporation.72
Until 2002, religious institutions appointed trustees to manage their property. Circuit Courts approved the appointments of new trustees, and also had to approve real estate transactions. The 1842 limits on property ownership had been increased over the years until, in 2002, the caps were 15 acres of land in a city/town or 250 acres outside city/town boundaries within a single county. Cities and towns were authorized to allow up to 50 acres.
There was also a limit on how much religious societies could own in assets other than real estate, such as stocks and bonds. The limit set in 1842 was $30,000; by 2002, the cap was $10,000,000 in personal property. There were no equivalent limits on secular organizations.
A Virginia Supreme Court decision in 2002, Falwell v. Miller, finally allowed religious denominations to incorporate.73
At the start of the 1901-1902 constitutional convention John Garland Pollard proposed deleting the word "Christian" from Section 18 of the Bill of Rights in the 1870 Constitution, which included wording as originally adopted in 1776 (emphasis added):74
The proposal was intended to make more clear that the state constitution was a secular document, and that religious equality should not prioritize forbearance of others by the faith of the majority. Pollard viewed the separation of church and state as placing each religion upon equal footing in the eyes of the law, rather than assuming Virginia was a "Christian state" in which other religions would be authorized through the tolerance of Christians.75
Pollard argued that state government should not be evaluating whether one religion was better than another. Toleration could be revoked, which legal equality would limit the ability of the majority faith to impose extra burdens upon members of minority religions.
The proposed modification of the Bill of Rights was welcomed by the Jewish leadership within Virginia, but evangelical Christian leaders objected. Though Pollard might have been able to convince the members of the constitutional convention that the change was appropriate, he accepted the advice that the change would be unpopular among the voters and might threaten ratification. Disenfranchising black voters was a higher priority than making a statement about religious equality, and Pollard dropped his proposal.
In the end, the 1902 Constitution was never submitted to the voters for ratification. The constitutional convention just declared that it would replace the existing state constitution, so the concern about voter opposition turned out to be not a factor.
The 1901-1902 constitutional convention also rejected an effort to incorporate into the state constitution the state law restricting how much property a religious institution could own. That restriction was linked to a proposal to allow churches to incorporate. Denominational agencies, such as a relief organization, could incorporate under the interpretation by Virginia courts of the state constitution. However, the sponsoring religious organization could not get a corporate charter from the General Assembly. In contrast, 43 of the 46 states allowed churches to incorporate just like breweries and baseball clubs.
The constitutional limit on real estate ownership proposed in 1902 was expected to prevent churches from becoming too wealthy and too powerful, based largely on how Protestants interpreted the history of the Roman Catholic church. Carter Glass, a delegate to the convention who later served as US Senator, responded that the appropriate response to fear of a wealthy church was to incorporate and tax all churches.
When the restriction on property ownership by religious denominations was defeated in the convention, the 1902 proposal to authorize incorporation was also defeated.
The new constitution did end the practice of Virginia cities providing funding for private charitable institutions that performed essential services, such as providing housing for orphans. Leaders of the Baptists and Methodists led the effort to end local funding for institutions in Richmond, Norfolk, and a few other cities that, in most cases, were associated with the Roman Catholic Church. City officials said the hospitals, asylums, and homes for the aged were non-sectarian and church support helped to subsidize the costs. Protestants claimed that enhancing any religious institution would inevitably enhance the denomination associated with it.
The logical argument that that public funds should support only public institutions was amplified by anti-Catholic bias, with references to religious rivalries in medieval history. The proponents of a ban on public funding for any religious institution glossed over the recent request from Methodists for 35 acres of land from the city of Lynchburg, to facilitate construction of an orphanage run by that denomination - and recently incorporated by the General Assembly.
One member of the convention proposed that if complete separation of church and state was necessary, then tax exemptions on churches should also be ended. The state should drop its "blue laws" that required retail establishments to close on Sundays, which was the Sabbath for Christian denominations but not for all faiths. Those proposals did not advance, and state support for Protestant denominations was even increased by adding parsonages to the list of church property that would be tax exempt. That benefitted primarily rural Christian churches; urban churches typically did not provide free housing for their ministers.
After the prohibition on public funding for religious institutions providing public services was included in the 1902 state constitution, Richmond and Norfolk had to appropriate more funding to continue to operate their charitable facilities. The new constitution's Article III, Section 67 ban on funding non-public institutions also led to William and Mary College becoming a 100% state institution in 1906.76
though the percentage of Roman Catholics in Virginia was low, decisions at the 1902 constitutional convention reflected Protestant fears of that faith
Source: Thomas E. Buckley, S. J., "A great religious octopus": church and state at Virginia's Constitutional Convention, 1901-1902
Restrictions on discrimination by government agencies does not prevent all religious discrimination. In the 1928 election, Virginia voted for a Republican presidential candidate for the first time since 1872. Al Smith, the Democratic candidate, was both a Catholic and opposed to Prohibition while the Republican candidate, Herbert Hoover, benefitted from a wave of economic prosperity. Protestant leaders such as Methodist Bishop James Cannon, a leader of the Virginia Anti-Saloon League, openly opposed Smith's election. Voters gave Herbert Hoover a majority in 40 of the 48 states in 1928, and Al Smith belied that religious prejudice was a major reason for his loss.
Nancy Astor, a native of Virginia and the first woman elected to serve in the English Parliament, publicly expressed the anti-Catholic bias of the Virginia elite when she said Hitler's Germany was entitled to rearm before World War II because it was "surrounded by Catholics."77
Virginia voted for two Catholic presidential candidates in 1960 (John F. Kennedy) and 2020 (Joe Biden), and elected its first Catholic governor (Tim Kaine) in 2005. Open religious prejudice today is focused against Muslims and Jews.
Anti-Jewish sentiment comes from individuals and non-government organizations; overt religious discrimination by government agencies against Jewish groups is now rare in Virginia. The remaining prejudice by non-government groups was reflected in the "we will not be replaced" chant during a 2017 white power rally with tiki torches in Charlotesville.78
Zoning decisions by local governments reflect anti-Muslim prejudice, and mosques have relied upon lawsuits and the courts to obtain equal treatment. In 2016, the US Department of Justice filed a lawsuit against Culpeper County after it denied permission for the Islamic Center of Culpeper to pump and haul away sewage from a planned new mosque location in a rural area without any connection to a wastewater treatment plant. Local residents had expressed unjustified concerns about Islamist terrorism.
Other organizations and businesses had been granted pump and haul permits in similar situations. A Culpeper County supervisor was unhappy when the county settled the lawsuit in 2017 and authorized the permit, rather than require installation of a septic system that would cost the 20 members of the Islamic Center of Culpeper between $20,000 and $25,000. He argued that the county's decision was based on appropriate land use regulations for undeveloped land, not any religious discrimination which violated the Federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000:79
The US Department of Justice also filed a religious discrimination lawsuit against Stafford County in 2020, after the local supervisors had adopted land use restrictions in 2016 which effectively blocked the All Muslim Association of America from opening a new cemetery sized for 15,000 graves while imposing looser restrictions on Christian cemeteries. The Federal government claimed that Stafford County had violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The county rescinded the ordinance and paid $500,000 to the All Muslim Association of America, settling he lawsuit before trial.80
Anti-Muslim sentiment often highlighted the acts of religious extremists. In 2014, when a former deputy national security adviser for Middle East policy objected to President George W. Bush saying that Islam was a religion of peace, a fellow attendee at a religious conference responded:81
The US Supreme Court is faced with the challenge of interpreting the scope of the First Amendment. What funding can be provided (perhaps via vouchers) to private schools with a religious affiliation, may the mayor put a Christmas tree in front of city hall, how much teachers can support/regulate prayer in public schools, whether a copy of the Ten Commandments can hang on the wall of courtrooms, can high school football games start with a prayer... the words written in Virginia 200 years ago are still essential to American culture today.
The Virginia Supreme Court has interpreted the state constitution and state laws to prevent judges from sentencing juveniles to attend Sunday school and church, decreeing in a custody case that children must be reared in the Jewish faith, or allowing a bequest in a will that required the recipient to be a member of a particular religious sect or denomination. The court blocked the General Assembly in 1954 from funding tuition payments to sectarian schools. The Virginia Supreme Court did authorize state-funded loans to students attending religious schools and upheld the laws requiring business establishments to close on Sundays.82
Jimmy Carter, in his 1988 campaign for president, campaigned openly as a Christian. The politicization of faith communities continued, but the Republican Party was far more successful than the Democrats. By 2019, 78% of people who identified as religious evangelicals were also Republicans, compared to just 17% who described themselves as Democrats. Between 1994-2019, the percentage of white Catholics who identified as Republicans climbed from 45% to 58%, and among Mormons the increase was 61% to 74%.
The political preferences of other religious groups favored Democrats. In 2019, 68% of Jews, 68% of Hispanic Catholics, and 84% of Black Catholics were allied with the Democratic Party.
Lawsuits related to religious freedom appeared regularly on the US Supreme Court docket, with clearly-partisan support for different sides. Religious partisans on each side reacted differently in 2015 when the court legalized same-sex marriage, and in 2020 when it ruled that employment discrimination based on sexuality and gender identity violated laws banning discrimination based on sex.83
Virginia was the leader in establishing religious freedom over two centuries ago, but has also produced leaders that edged close to mixing the affairs of church and state. With the rise of the "Religious Right" in the 1980's, two Virginia ministers were key players in Republican politics at a national level. Rev. Pat Robertson led the Christian Coalition from his base of operations in Virginia Beach, while Rev. Jerry Falwell led the Moral Majority from his base of operations in Lynchburg.
Rev. Robertson was the son of a former US Senator. He founded both the Christian Broadcasting Network, with its flagship show "The 700 Club," and Regent University in Virginia Beach. The university became a campaign stop for Republican but not Democratic candidates.
A producer for the 700 Club described Rev. Pat Robertson as "a politician who happens to be a minister," and commented about how the show gave listeners clear direction regarding the intersection of religious and political philsosophies:84
Rev. Jerry Falwell Jr. allied Liberty University closely with President Trump and his election campaign efforts, rallying white Christian evangelicals in particular to support the president. He endorsed Trump in January 2020, just before the Iowa caucuses. The religious leader's support helped immunize Trump from revelations about his personal morals and behavior.
Falwell created a purported "think tank," the Falkirk Center. It became a base for freelance media figures to claim an association with an academic institution when pushing their political agenda through a podcast, videos, and social media outreach.
Falwell was forced to resign as president of Liberty University in August 2020, after revelation of indiscrete personal behavior and allegations of sexual impropriety. The university then decided to let its contract with Charlie Kirk expire. The Falkirk Center, who name honored the partnership between a university president and a political activist, was renamed as the "Standing for Freedom Center."85