The Fight for Religious Freedom in Virginia

In the mid-eighteenth century thousands of Virginians were enlightened by evangelicals during the Great Awakening and, as a result, converted to become Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists. At the start of the Revolutionary War, one-fifth of the population considered themselves to be dissenters from the Church of England. Religious views aside, Patriots considered the dissenters as allies and convinced them to fight against Britain by citing scripture and appealing to their spiritual devotion to God and their duty to fight for Him. However, during the drafting of the Virginia Constitution the alliance took a turn for the worse when Patriots were only willing to grant the dissenters religious toleration. The patriots argued that establishment would not interfere with individual rights and would promote peace, happiness, and virtue. They looked at Virginia’s past as support to why establishment was positive. The Church of England had been established in Virginia for 150 years, and the colony had been much more successful and peaceful than most. The Patriots also argued that the lack of establishment would cause confusion and chaos between the different religious sects, as they would come into conflict over which one was superior.

On the side of the dissenters, Thomas Jefferson argued that an established church was not needed for a religion to flourish. He looked to Pennsylvania as an example of this because the state had many different sects that were all very successful and provided a system of checks and balances to ensure that no sect would gain too much power. Jefferson proposed a state where people could worship freely without suffering civil consequences, such as paying taxes or undergoing persecution from the Church of England. Presbyterians, Lutherans, and Baptists all agreed with Jefferson. In 1776, Hanover County petitioned for a complete separation of church and state, which was debated at the fall 1776 session of the Virginia legislature. They passed a bill that repealed laws that held religious opinions outside of the Church to be criminal, but also said that those religious assemblies must be regulated. The legislators left the issue of provisions supporting the clergy unanswered, and it was debated for the next three years.

In 1779, the legislature disestablished the Church of England to the extent that the clergy could not use taxes as a means of support any longer, but it still did not grant Virginians religious freedom. Instead, they favored Patrick Henry’s idea of “liberal establishment,” which granted religious toleration. In 1784, Henry, the Protestant Episcopal Church, and legislators who supported establishment proposed the General Assessment Bill, which would establish a tax to support teachers of Christianity. This bill is what Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance effectively refutes, as the Assembly sided in favor of religious freedom rather than establishment. Madison posed four main arguments as to why there should be neither an established religion nor a tax supporting a religion. He said that religion is a personal experience, so it cannot be forced upon someone by another person, the government, or the Church itself. The right to experience religion for oneself is an unalienable right which cannot be imposed on by the government. The state cannot infringe on personal liberties because its power comes from the people, and it can be easily taken away. Madison also reminded the Assembly that they too were once persecuted by England, so they could not do the same to the citizens of their new country.

Presbyterians and Baptists also provided additional support to Madison’s claim. They argued that there were two spheres in society – temporal and spiritual – and each should be maintained by its respective governing body, the state and church. The Baptists also added that religion could not be determined by a majority ruling in the same way that matters of politics were decided. After the Memorial, the Virginia legislature debated Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom, which was drafted in 1777 and presented to the House in 1779. It called for a complete separation between church and state and would grant religious liberty to all. It was passed on December 17, 1785 by a 65-20 vote. This would set a precedent that the Framers of the Constitution would come back to as they were establishing the relationship between religion and the federal government.