The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and the First Amendment

in 1772, the sheriff of Culpeper County was ordered to arrest a Baptist minister for unlawfull preaching
in 1772, the sheriff of Culpeper County was ordered to arrest a Baptist minister for "unlawfull preaching"
Source: Library of Congress, Religion and the Founding of the American Republic - Summons to Nathaniel Saunders, August 22, 1772

Today we take it as an "inalienable right" that Americans have the freedom to worship however we please - or to choose not to worship at all, if that's our personal preference. One Internet joke illustrates the flexibility of American religious thought:

A man was stranded alone on a desert island for many years. When he was rescued there were three buildings on the island.
"What are these three buildings? the rescuers asked.
"This one is my home and the second one is my church."
"And the third building?"
"That's the church I used to go to!"

Religious freedom was not always endorsed by Virginia's government, however. One of the first actions by the initial English settlers when they arrived at Virginia was to build a wooden cross at Cape Henry. The Church of England (Anglican) was "established" in the colony of Virginia as the official church, with King Jame I as the Defender of the Faith, when Jamestown was founded in 1607.

in 1935, National Society Daughters of the American Colonists installed a granite replica of the wooden cross erected in 1607 at Cape Henry
in 1935, National Society Daughters of the American Colonists installed a granite replica of the wooden cross erected in 1607 at Cape Henry
Source: National Park Service, Cape Henry Memorial Cross

Virginia's gentry became well-entrenched in Anglican institutions. The vestry (the governing board of a parish) consisted of the wealthy elite living within that parish, and the vestry hired Anglican ministers on short term contracts. If worship services and other activities of the minister were not sufficiently aligned with the perspectives of the gentry, contracts were not renewed.

The vestry set the parish tax rates for maintaining the church buildings, paying the minister, and funding social welfare expenses such as caring for orphans, the indigent, and others unable to support themselves. Parish taxes were collected by the county sheriffs, along with the other taxes imposed by the county courts (equivalent to a combination of today's Board of County Supervisors and District judges). There was no separation of church and state; everyone, no matter what their personal beliefs, was required to pay taxes that funded Anglican activities.

The Great Awakening began to affect Anglican domination of religious activity in Virginia in the 1740's. Unlicensed preachers began to offer independent services in private homes and scattered outdoor locations. Hierarchical control of culture by the gentry was threatended by evangelical preaching, emotional behavior during worship services, and new philosophies (such as baptising believers only as adults, after they made a conscious choice). The outreach of dissenting religious leaders to African-American slaves was perceived as a particular challenge to the status quo.1

Colonial officials actively recruited non-Anglican Protestants to come to Virginia. Presbyterians dominated the Shenandoah Valley, after Scotch-Irish migrated to that region with encouragement in the 1720's from Governor Spottswood (who sought a buffer population between Native Americans and French Catholics in the Ohio River valley. Other immigrants west of the Blue Ridge belonged to German sects, including Dunkards and Menonnites.

Baptist groups developed in the Piedmont, plus areas of Tidewater dominated by traditional Anglican churches. Anglicans reacted by disrupting Baptist services, plus arresting - and even attacking - dissenting preachers.

In June, 1776, the Fifth Virginia Convention adopted a Declaration of Rights, followed later that month by adopting the first state constitution. The new State of Virginia assumed the powers of the King of England, but the General Assembly claimed authority to govern derived from the people rather than from divine right. (The Virginia Declaration of Rights was incorporated into the first revision of the Constitution of Virginia in 1830, and now makes up most of Article I.)

In 1776, the Virginia Declaration of Rights established a clear separation between the authority of the state vs. religious authority. 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, stating in Section 16:2

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

The declaration was drafted primarily by George Mason. When he finally arrived to join the debates, the president of the Fifth Virginia Convention, Edmund Pendleton, declared optimistically:3

The Political Cooks are busy preparing the dish, and as Colonel Mason seems to have the Ascendancy in the great work, I have sanguine hopes it will be framed so as to Answer it's [sic] end, Prosperity to the Community and Security to Individuals.

However, 25-year old James Madison did not consider Mason's draft to be adequate, and he successfully led the effort to change Mason's initial language on religious freedom.

The US Constitution was ratified without an overt statement regarding religious liberty - but in the First Congress, James Madison led the effort to amend the document to fulfill promises made in the Virginia ratification convention. Today, the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights still says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

The 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.

even after adoption of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, non-Anglican worship services were disrupted and preachers were harassed
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

Virginia was the leader in establishing religious freedom over two centuries ago, but produced leaders that edged close to mixing the affairs of church and state. Anti-Catholic bias did not disappear from Virginia with passage of the "Act for Establishing Religious Freedom." Nancy Astor, a native of Virginia and the first woman elected to serve in the English Parliament, expressed it when she said Hitler's Germany was entitled to rearm before World War II because it was "surrounded by hostile Catholic powers."1

In the last two decades, two religious leaders in Virginia have been 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.

Links

References

1. Kidd, Thomas S. "The Great Awakening in Virginia," Encyclopedia Virginia, Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, July 11, 2013 (last checked January 21, 2014)
2. "Virginia Declaration of Rights - June 12, 1776," Avalon Project, Yale Law School, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/virginia.asp (last checked January 21, 2014)
3. "The Virginia Declaration of Rights, June 12, 1776," Virginia Memory, Library of Virginia, http://www.virginiamemory.com/online_classroom/shaping_the_constitution/doc/declaration_rights (last checked January 21, 2014)
Fox, James, Five Sisters: The Langhornes of Virginia, pp. 426-7, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2000


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