Religion in Colonial Virginia was largely Anglican. It was, by law, supported with taxes until October 1776 when the “Ten-thousand Name” petition (by Dissenters, Baptists and Baptist sympathizers) were able to end the established Anglican church. The battle for institutionalization of religious equality thus began. Within a decade, Virginia had absolute religious freedom.
Thomas Jefferson’s document, The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, granted freedom of religion for Virginian residents. It was enacted on January 16, 1786. This was the most comprehensive statement on religious freedom in all of the new states. Thomas Jefferson divided it into three parts, all of which emphasized individual choice and the natural rights to freedom of religion.
Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom
- Religion was defined as a matter of opinion; therefore no legislature could enforce people to follow or contribute to any particular religious belief.
- Any restraint on the mind was forbidden; this guaranteed complete free exercise of religion; and religion was irrelevant to one’s civil rights.
- Religious freedom is a natural right, and any future legislation which revoked or inhibited those freedoms was a violation of those rights.
Protestant Episcopal Church
Clergy of the former Church of England (Anglican Church, Episcopal Church) decided to have convention in 1784. By 1785 they had nearly managed to re-enforce a tax upon the people to pay for their clergy, known as the “Teachers of the Christian Religion.”
James Madison was able to table the petition to reinforce the tax which allowed time for dissent to grow. Presbyterians and Baptists quickly heard of this tax and opposed the bill.
To most Virginians, incorporating the Episcopal Church into legislation would represent the oppressive colonial establishment they just fought a war to free themselves of. By 1787 this tax option was completely removed from the government. By 1799 the only religious document left in the legislature was Thomas Jefferson’s statute on religious freedom.
A large population growth after 1750 helped cause the decline of the Anglican Church, allowing for more religious sects to emerge. This change did not come easy–many Baptists were arrested and beaten up in the 1760s and 1770s. However, the 1780s offered a more religious tolerant environment. The First Baptist Church in Richmond attracted hundreds every Sunday morning to their service.
Only inside Baptist churches did black community members receive a form of education–and it was here that they were inspired to become preachers. The emancipation movement of the 1780s, which also swept through Virginia, was largely supported by Baptist churches.
Old First Baptist Church, Richmond, VA
Midori Takagi, “Rearing Wolves to Our Own Destruction” Slavery in Richmond Virginia, 1780-1865 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1999)
Blanche Sydnor White,First Baptist Church, Richmond, 1780-1955: One Hundred and Seventy-Five Years of Service to God and Man (Richmond: Whittet & Shepperson, 1955)
Walter H. Brooks, “The Evolution of the Negro Baptist Church,” The Journal of Negro History 7:1 (January 1922)
Paul Finkleman, ed., “Virginia” and “Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom,” Encyclopedia of the New American Nation, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2006) p. 302