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Religion and Revolution

  • Religious dissenters challenged establishment before Stamp Act challenged
  • Colonists challenged civil authority over religious matters
  • Madison against making religion a matter of law
  • Washington believed in value of military chaplains

Evangelicals not willing to follow rules of Church of England

In the 18th century, Virginia authorities tolerated small numbers of dissenters from the Church of England who agreed to register with the courts and obtain required licenses. In the 1750s and '60s, evangelical Presbyterians and Baptists became less and less willing to be constrained by rules that advantaged the Church of England in the colony. They precipitated a struggle for religious freedom that challenged the centralized church establishment even before the Stamp Act Crisis gave evidence that changes were underway in the political arena.

General Assembly guaranteed religious freedom in 1786

As Virginia approached a break with the Crown in the 1770s, dissenters' efforts to free themselves to practice their religion freely paralleled and often was reciprocal with political decisions that led to independence. Political independence, declared in 1776, was confirmed at war's end. Actions of Virginia legislators during that period crippled the Anglican church and brought some relief to non-Anglicans, but it was not until 1786 that the General Assembly guaranteed freedom of religion with the passage of Jefferson's famous Statute for Religious Freedom.

"Great Awakening" inspired colonists to challenge status quo

In the 25 years before events in 1776 forced Virginians to choose between revolution and loyalty to the king, the sermons of George Whitefield, Samuel Davies, and others during the series of religious revivals we know as the "Great Awakening" had already inspired many colonists to make decisions that upset the status quo. When they turned their backs on the Anglican establishment, evangelical dissenters not only challenged civil authority but questioned its legal partnership with the Church of England. Moreover, traditional social distinctions blurred as black and white, rich and poor, and free and enslaved worshiped at gatherings where they heard about a God who loved them all equally.

Jefferson and Madison wanted religious freedom among rights

The goals of dissenters dovetailed with the aims of patriot leaders influenced by the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. These men felt that no matter what "God" was, the human mind had been created free. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and others included the free exercise of religion among the natural rights they hoped to secure. Baptists and Presbyterians driven by evangelical fervor and a desire to practice their religion unmolested, together with political thinkers strongly influenced by their study of history, philosophy, science, and religion effected disestablishment of the church in Virginia (1786), a feat that perhaps neither group could have accomplished alone.

This partnership was as unlikely as it was unplanned. For instance, the Virginia Convention adopted the final draft of George Mason's Declaration of Rights in June 1776. Article sixteen stated, in part, that "all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience." The document stopped short of actually disestablishing the church, but evangelicals took these words at face value. They bombarded the legislature with petitions listing their grievances and demanding relief. In response the General Assembly annually exempted "the different societies of Dissenters" from contributing to the support of the Anglican church beginning in the year 1776. A few years later, the assembly legalized marriages performed by dissenting ministers.

Bill to establish religious freedom introduced in 1779 but not passed until 1786

Thomas Jefferson introduced his bill for establishing religious freedom in 1779 in Williamsburg as part of a general revision of state laws. Too radical a step for legislators to take at that time, the bill languished during the war years. But dissenters did not forget, and their petition campaign continued.

In the early 1780s Patrick Henry and others supported a halfway measure known as "general assessment," in which taxpayers would designate the minister or meetinghouse to which their tax monies would go. Dissenters in general regarded this proposal with suspicion, as did James Madison, whose famous "Memorial and Remonstrance" spoke for opponents of the measure. He reiterated that religion could never properly be a matter of law. Moreover, a government that could favor all Christian churches today, could with equal lawfulness revert to favoring a particular sect tomorrow. The measure failed. James Madison then resurrected Jefferson's bill and shepherded it through the legislature in 1786 while its author was United States minster to France.

Ministers praised revolution; dissenters petitioned Assembly to counsel troops

The American Revolution itself was praised by some ministers from the pulpit as God's vehicle for bringing the people in America into the promised land. On the other hand, ministers loyal to the Crown continued to stress that the monarch remained God's principal representative on earth, and that he carried out this duty with the help of a select group of high-ranking individuals. Meanwhile, George Washington and other military leaders recognized the importance of religious counsel for their troops. A number of Anglican ministers became chaplains, and dissenters petitioned the assembly to be permitted to minister to American soldiers.