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The Anglican Church in Virginia

Established Church

Established churches that worked in tandem with the government were the custom and the law for many centuries in Europe. In keeping with this ancient tradition, colonial Virginia law required Virginians to worship in a state church that they supported with their taxes. This arrangement was patterned after the Anglican, or Church of England, establishment in the mother country.

Church of England affiliation required to hold office in Virginia

Almost from the beginning, the establishment in Virginia differed from that in England. By the late 17th century, the power of the church in Virginia had come to rest with Virginia's ruling elite, who typically made up county courts, Anglican vestries, and the colonial government. Office-holding qualifications at all levels required Church of England affiliation. County courts and vestries handled nearly all governmental functions vital to everyday life. Justices exercised an amalgam of administrative, judicial, and ecclesiastical powers. They passed judgment in all manner of cases, including absence from Anglican church services, bastardy and adultery, and other moral offenses as defined in law.

Anglican parishes levied taxes and gave support to needy

Parish vestries not only levied public taxes to pay the clergy and build and repair churches, but also doled out support for poor orphans and other needy persons in their parishes. The General Assembly created new parishes and set ministers' salaries. And it spelled out the conditions under which dissenters were allowed to practice their religion.

Although many among the colonial elite supported a church establishment, they opposed centralization of church authority that would take authority to run church affairs out of their hands. Their hands-on management of church affairs taught them (just as service in the strong county court system did) that Virginians were capable, independent leaders. They therefore opposed a movement in the 1770s to secure a resident American bishop.

Dissent and Religious Toleration

By law, colonial Virginians were members of the Anglican church, but in spite of church establishment, religious life in Virginia was not cut of whole cloth for long. Immigrants – Scots, Irish, English,Continental – brought religious diversity to the colony. Virginia officials chose to tolerate (in the legal sense) most non-Anglican Protestants. Legislation granted limited religious expression and practice to persons who did not accept the religious doctrines and ritual of the Church of England.

The law required dissenters to notify the courts of their dissenting status. Dissenting ministers and their meetinghouses needed licenses from the General Court. Legal toleration provided dissenters a means, however cumbersome, by which they could legally worship outside the Anglican church, but it also disadvantaged dissenters by barring them from public office and by taxing them for support of the Anglican church. Moreover, the privilege of religious toleration could be withdrawn at any time.

Religious Freedom and Separation of Church and State

Religious beliefs and the evolution of American organized religion contributed considerably to the restructuring of American society that culminated in a formal break from Great Britain. Freedom of religion, and the unique system of institutional religion it fostered, were integral parts of the process of becoming Americans. As Virginians responded to the appeal of evangelical faith and the tolerant rationalism of the Enlightenment, they grew away from the idea of a single authoritarian church protected by the state and toward the concept of religion disentangled from government.

The personal appeal of evangelical faith together with the ideals of the Enlightenment helped create an atmosphere in which this and other democratic ideals could flourish. In 1786, the Virginia Assembly enacted Thomas Jefferson's Statute for Religious Freedom. In 1791, the First Amendment to the Constitution stated that the federal government could not enact laws establishing religion or "prohibiting the free exercise thereof." Baptists and other denominations accomplished a final goal in 1802, when Virginia approved the sale of church lands (glebes) that had been purchased with public tax monies before 1776.

"New-Light" Promise

The emotional and personal appeal of evangelical Christianity, particularly Baptist, touched slaves in unprecedented numbers. "New-light" sermons told of Jesus' teaching that God loved everyone equally, a message that slaves combined with Old Testament themes of delivery from persecution. But Virginia's celebrated Statute for Religious Freedom would have only superficial meaning for black Virginians until after the Civil War.