The Commonwealth of Virginia, which was the colony of Virginia, led the charge for the separation of church and state in America but still involved battling long-established ways of living. Since 1624, the Anglican Church, also known as the Church of England, was the official church in Virginia and all Virginians were mandated to pay taxes to support the church; this is known as establishment.
The Great Awakening during the 1730s was a religious revival movement that gave birth to religious sects that dissented from the established Anglican Church, such as Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists. These dissenters were also known as evangelists. Virginia’s General Assembly protected the established church in law and penalized dissenters. It required all officeholders to be Anglican and the legislature exercised authority over such matters as the creation of new parishes and the setting of ministers’ salaries. After about 1750, evangelical Christians experienced a struggle for religious freedom parallel to the wider struggle for political independence.
Virginia eventually became more accepting of non-Anglican Protestant religions. The 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights stated, “all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience,” but it did not allow for complete religious freedom. Thomas Jefferson introduced a bill titled “Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom” in 1779 advocating for complete religious freedom, but it was too radical of a step for Virginia at the time so the bill did not pass.
In 1784, Patrick Henry proposed a halfway measure known as a general assessment, in which taxpayers could designate the minister or church to which their taxes would go. This way, non-Anglican Protestant dissenters would be accommodated but Protestantism would still be supported. This measure was known as, “A Bill establishing a provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion.” Madison persuaded the General Assembly to postpone action on the bill in order to allow time for the text to be printed for consideration by the people. Madison used this time to allow Patrick Henry to become governor of Virginia, thus forfeiting his voice in the General Assembly during the next session. This postponement was also when Madison constructed “A Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments,” first published on June 20, 1785.
A memorial is a written statement of facts presented in the form of a petition, and a remonstrance is a protest, objection, or disapproval. So, in order to remonstrate against (protest) Patrick Henry’s assessment bill, Madison listed the reasons (in the form of a memorial) why the bill should be opposed. It is also interesting to note that Madison wrote “Memorial and Remonstrance” anonymously. In fact, Madison did not make an explicit acknowledgment of his authorship until 1826.
Thirteen of Madison’s petitions were circulated and in time bore 1,552 signatures. Henry’s assessment bill failed to pass and Madison used the momentum to push through Jefferson’s “Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom” in 1786, which was originally introduced in 1779. Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance” paved the way for complete religious freedom in Virginia, which the Virginia delegates then brought to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787.
This context will discuss the life of James Madison, the fight for religious freedom in Virginia and influences on Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance, and will provide an annotated version of the document.