Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
From Jamestown to Jefferson: The Evolution of Religious Freedom in Virginia • Edited by Paul Rasor and Richard E. Bond • Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011 • x, 204 pp. • $40.00
Reviewed by Terri D. Halperin, an adjunct professor of history at the University of Richmond. She is currently working on a study of the U.S. Senate from 1789 to 1821.
This volume originated in a fall 2007 lecture series on religion in Virginia sponsored by Virginia Wesleyan's Center for the Study of Religious Freedom. Paul Rasor and Richard E. Bond charged the participants with creating a coherent narrative of Virginia's religious journey from the first English settlements to Thomas Jefferson's Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786. No one doubts the law's importance: it confirmed the individual right of conscience, disestablished the Anglican Church, and was the first state law to eliminate a religious test for public office. The question this volume seeks to answer is not only how Jefferson got to the point where he was able to write the law but also how Virginians got to the point where they could accept it. These essays make for some fascinating reading.
Instead of taking the more traditional route of grounding Jefferson's statute in Enlightenment ideas and dismissing the role of religion in colonial Virginia, the authors emphasize Virginia's colonial experience. As a group, they argue that it was "the evolving political, social, and religious conditions in colonial Virginia [that] gradually helped create a space within which this new understanding of religious
freedom could emerge" (p. 2). These six authors depict Virginia as more religious, complex, contentious, and varied than previous scholars. The Anglican Church had to compete not only with tobacco but also other religions and beliefs for people's attention. The contributors examine how these different religions and belief systems influenced and responded to each other. The real strength of these essays lies in drawing out the distinctions between toleration and liberty, diversity and pluralism, and how Virginians moved from one to the other. It was only when Virginians accepted religious pluralism that they could create a society that guaranteed the right to follow one's conscience.
The essays are arranged in roughly chronological order. The disagreements are subtle, and the authors succeed in creating a coherent narrative with each essay building on the previous one. In an insightful rereading of the sources, Brent Tarter puts religion into the story of the first English settlers to demonstrate that religion and civil life were intertwined. Religion was not an afterthought in colonizing Virginia but a motivation for it. Tarter previews the work of his fellow contributors by highlighting religious diversity among the early English settlers and finding a measure of toleration within certain parameters. The Anglican Church could not operate as it did in England, and even the 1689 Toleration Act, which only allowed a modicum of freedom to Protestant dissenters, had to be enforced differently. Richard Bond continues these themes with a discussion of religion in everyday life—in the church but more significantly in the home—in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Philip D. Morgan and Monica Najar take the discussion beyond the Anglican Church by looking at Catholics, Quakers, dissenting Protestants, and heterodox religious groups. Thus, they extend the discussion to Indians, Africans, African Americans, women, and whites who practiced folk religions. Thomas E. Buckley puts Jefferson's statute in its Revolutionary context by linking religious to political freedom. Finally, Daniel L. Dreisbach examines Jefferson's statue's enduring legacy. He reinforces Buckley's point that separation of church and state did not mean the elimination of religion from public life. Indeed, many Americans believed that religion was necessary to keep social order.
There is much to like in this concise volume. It is accessible to scholars, students, and readers interested in the topic. One can imagine this book being used in courses about Virginia history and American religious history.