Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Volume 116 / Number 3
Virginia Dissenters' Struggle for Religious Liberty during the American Revolution
- By John Ragosta, pp. 114–49
As the American Revolution approached in Virginia, patriot leaders and dissenters from the established church in the colony faced difficult decisions. The dissenters, primarily Baptists and Presbyterians, were not only subject to a series of significant legal infirmities, but were also confronted in the prewar years with a growing, often vicious, persecution; between 1768 and 1774 about half of the Baptists ministers in Virginia had been jailed for preaching. That persecution had been led by the same members of the Church of England who dominated the patriot movement and who desperately needed the assistance of the dissenters—who perhaps made up as much as one-third or more of the population—for effective wartime mobilization. As a result, Virginia's patriot leaders were anxious about the extent of support they would receive from dissenters. This conundrum was resolved when the dissenters demanded religious liberty in return for their support for the war effort. Those demands, as evidenced most clearly in several hundred religious petitions filed with the Virginia General Assembly, reveal a complex negotiation in which piecemeal reform paralleled dissenter demands and wartime necessity. Tellingly, when the need for mobilization faded with the victory at Yorktown, the Anglican establishment ignored dissenter demands and sought to reintroduce state support for religion. This effort failed when the newly politicized dissenters not only emphatically rejected any ties between church and state, but also demanded adoption of Thomas Jefferson’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom. Their struggle should play a more central role in our understanding of religious freedom in America.