What the Religious Right gets Wrong About Religious Freedom: Lessons from the Religious Dissenters of Revolutionary Virginia

Finding itself more often than not on the losing end of the culture wars the Religious Right has taken up a new strategy to regain their lost supremacy in American culture. (1) They have cast themselves as the victims of a hostile secularism, which they claim is out to destroy their Christian values and religious freedom with it. To defend themselves, and to restore an endangered religious freedom, they launched a campaign against the progressive forces that they see as incompatible with their religious beliefs. Behind this movement is a well-organized network of advocacy organizations, think tanks, and various legal organizations. Their cleverly crafted “religious freedom” campaign has paid big dividends in the culture wars, from the passage of numerous Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRA) and Government Nondiscrimination Acts (GNA) that allow individuals and companies to discriminate in the states, to the Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case, which allowed two “closely-held” companies with owners who objected to certain forms of birth control, to drop out of federal requirements to provide contraception to its employees. Their strategy rests upon a super-charged right to the free exercise of religion unrestrained by an enfeebled Establishment Clause. How does this “religious freedom” square with that championed by those who fought to disestablish religion at the founding of our nation?

The current self-styled champions of religious liberty claim to be defending the same values as the generation that was responsible for binging us the religious freedom we so cherish as a nation. But the “religious freedom” of the Religious Right seems at odds with those of the founding generation. To understand how the new champions of religious liberty differ from their eighteenth-century predecessors, a comparison may be useful. Most histories of religious freedom focus on the efforts of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, but given the current rhetoric that portrays the fight as one between the religious and non-religious (although this has never been the case) this essay will focus on the pious dissenters who were Jefferson’s and Madison’s closest allies in their fight to disestablish religion. The alliance may seem surprising at first, but the alliance makes sense when one realizes that those who fall outside the dominant or favored religion have just as much of a stake in separating religion from government as do more secular groups.

In an effort to discredit separationist interpretations of the First Amendment, some have tried to set the views of the dissenters apart from those of the rationalists. Rather than agreeing with the strict separationist stances of the rationalists, they argue that the dissenters wanted “moral values based on religion…welcomed in the marketplace of ideas and in the formation of public policy and law.” (2) However, the evidence for this claim, and others like it, is problematic. (see detailed examination of Esbeck’s claims here). The dissenters were actually aligned in their goals, even if some of their reasons for doing so were not.

Given the importance of Virginia in shaping our understanding of religious liberty and the First Amendment, this essay will focus on the religious dissenters in that state. The creation of a Declaration of Rights, drawn up by the distinguished statesman George Mason, kicked off a decades-long fight for religious liberty. At the prompting of the budding statesman James Madison, a change in the document gave the dissenters of the established Church of England the legal basis to challenge all establishments of religion. In the estimation of Mason’s revolutionary document had a serious flaw. Article 16, meant to protect religious freedom, promised only “toleration.” With the help of his future nemesis Patrick Henry, Madison successfully had the unfortunate wording replaced with the promise of equal liberty: “all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.” (3)

In Madison’s original proposal the above clause was followed by what he saw as the implications of his equal free exercise clause: “and therefore that no man or class of men ought, on account of religion to be invested with peculiar emoluments or privileges; nor subjected to any penalties or disabilities unless under the Colour of Religion, any Man disturb the Peace, the Happiness, or Safety of Society, or of Individuals.” (the italicized section was part of Mason’s original version) Understanding that this meant the disestablishment of the Church of England the mostly conservative Anglican delegates rejected this clause, but they did so without understanding that the accepted clause was all that was needed, as the clause which followed was derived from it. The dissenters immediately understood the implications, and began drawing up petitions calling for the disestablishment not just of the established church, but of all religion. It is also important to note the second section of Madison’s rejected first proposal. It indicates that neither Madison, nor Mason, believed that religion could be used as an excuse to harm society or individuals. This obvious limit to religious freedom was almost universally accepted.

Long despised, and frequent victims of abuse, the dissenters (mostly Baptists and Presbyterians) greeted the Declaration of Rights with enthusiasm; it promised them the equality that they had long craved. Accordingly, they showered the document with unfettered praise, especially Article 16, which they called “the rising sun of Religious liberty, [meant] to relieve them from a long night of Ecclesiastical bondage.” (4) Under its banner they called for the disestablishment of religion. In an attempt to appease them the legislature passed a bill exempting them from the burden of supporting the privileged church, but it fell short of their ultimate goal to destroy all establishments, which meant that the dissenters continued their petitioning campaign. (5) But given the distractions of war the main showdown had to wait until after General Cornwallis had surrendered in Yorktown.

The Dunking of David Barrow… Oil on canvas by Sidney King, 1990Virginia Baptist Historical Society

The issue returned with a vengeance after the legislature distributed the bill “Establishing a Provision for the Teachers of the Christian Religion” for comment at the end of the 1784 legislative session. This effort awoke a sleeping giant, and prompted the dissenters to flood the legislature with nearly one hundred petitions. The stunned legislature was forced to abandon all attempts to support religion; this gave Madison the momentum he needed to finally secure the passage of Jefferson’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in 1786.

In contrast to these eighteenth-century religious dissenters, who suffered under the yoke of a privileged religion, the of the Religious Right of today advocates for a very different kind of religious liberty: one that sanctions discrimination and seeks privileges from the state. The petitions which the religious dissenters sent to the legislature from 1776 to 1786 offer unique insight into their conception of religious liberty, thus exposing the folly of the Religious Right’s “religious freedom” campaign.

Religious Freedom Belongs to Everyone Equally

The American Revolution accelerated a shift in thinking about religious toleration that had important implications for the future of the young nation. The idea of toleration as a necessary characteristic of any civilized society was the product of years of religious conflict that had soaked Europe in blood in the aftermath of the Reformation. Nevertheless, this major achievement of humanity was hopelessly out of step with the republican principles that the Americans were fighting for. The excitement of the moment is unmistakable in this Presbyterian petition, where they declared their support for the Revolution and “the necessity of casting off the yoke of tyranny, and of forming independent governments upon equitable and liberal foundations.” They looked forward to the prospect of being “freed from all the encumbrances which a spirit of domination, prejudice, or bigotry, hat interwoven with most other political systems.” (6)

The problem with toleration was that it countenanced a hierarchical system. This reasoning was lucidly expressed by the popular Baptist preacher John Leland, who declared: “The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks [i.e. Muslims], Pagans and Christians.” (7) as is evidenced by Madison’s rejection of Mason’s original proposal for toleration in the Declaration of Rights this sentiment was not one only supported by the dissenters, who obviously had the most to gain from a shift to a more equitable scheme. If they were going to fight under the banner of freedom and equality they rightly demanded these for themselves. Hence, they took up the mantle of religious liberty, which rests on the conviction that the rights of conscience belong to everyone equally.

In an effort to make good on the promise of equal rights and armed with the legal backing of the Declaration of Rights, the dissenters set out to banish all religious establishments. They reasoned that if all citizens are equally in possession of the same rights then all privileging made on the basis of religious opinions must go. This logic was spelled out in an article published in the Virginia Gazette later that year: “when men form the social compact each reserves to himself the right of choosing and acting for himself in what relates to religion and conscience, does it not follow that every individual is equally entitled to protection in the exercise of this, as much as of any other unresigned right, to obtain which they were induced to part with so great a portion of their natural liberty, and which they (all) parted with in an equal measure?” (8) It was this logic of universal equality that prompted the dissenters to petition the legislature to disestablish, not just the Church of England, but religion altogether. (9)

From the fact that all citizens were equal members of society, as secured by the Declaration of Rights, the dissenters understood that any law that privileged any one religion, denomination, or religious doctrine was an unjust privilege and in violation of the equal rights of those who did not adhere to those beliefs or practices. Thus, the Presbyterians demanded that “that all laws now in force in this Commonwealth which countenance religious domination” should be repealed. (10) Similarly, the dissenters from the Tuscarora Congregation demanded that “[n]o Laws which are indefensible & incompatible with the rights of Conscience [illeg.] be Suffered to remain” (11)

In calling out the unjust marriage and vestry laws that privileged the Episcopalians, the Baptists called upon the legislature to “take effectual Measures to redress these Grievances, in such a Way as may manifest an equal Regard to all the good People of this Commonwealth, however diversyfied by Appellations or Religious Sentiments.” And while they specifically called out the marriage and vestry laws because they found them to be the most egregious, they demanded that the legislature to “consign to Oblivion all the Relicks of Religious Oppression, and make a public Sacrifice of Partiality at the glorious Altar of Freedom.” (12) (italics mine)

Even symbolic privileges were seen as a form of domination and incompatible with a republican form of government. After losing government funding, the Episcopal Church retained its title as the established church; the Presbyterians found this kind of favoritism intolerable, and complained to the legislature about this “superiority and distinction in name” (i.e. “established church”). (13)

In particular, the dissenters’ reaction to the proposed bill “For Establishing a Provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion” illustrates the centrality of individual equality to their notion of religious freedom. There were two aspects of the bill that the dissenters saw as in conflict with the principle of equality. The first concerns an accommodation given to the Quakers and Mennonites as denominations without “teachers.” The legislature proposed that the monies collected from them would go to a “general fund,” which could then be used in a manner “best calculated to promote their particular mode of worship.” (14) Rather than seeing this as a thoughtful gesture by the legislature the dissenters denounced it as unforgivable privileging. Indignant, the Presbyterians complained that the “partiality” was based on the false assumption that the “Quakers and Menonists” were “more faithful in conducting the religious interests of their society than the other sects.” (15) The Baptists complained that this “indulgence” was “an open offense; and in its native tendency will if imposed on this state, prove injurious to the peace, and tranquility of a people, who justly respect the enjoyment of equal privileges, according to the Bill of Rights, which we still esteem as the Basis of any present happy constitution.” (16) The Quakers were in agreement with their fellow dissenters. They carped that it was an “an infringement of Religious and Civil Liberty established by the bill of Rights,” as well as an affront to “the convictions and tender scruples of their own minds.” (17)

But more importantly in this context, it is the dissenters’ rejection of any state-favoritism for Christianity that demonstrates their commitment to full equality. This is at odds with the claim that the dissenters wanted to infuse public policy with Christian moral values. While many Virginians were comfortable with a broadly inclusive Christian establishment, the dissenters were not. It would have been a betrayal of the very principles for which they were fighting for. Excluding non-Christians, they insisted, “unjustly subjects men who may be good citizens, but who have not embraced our common faith, to the hardship of supporting a system they have not as yet believed the truth of; and deprives them of their property.” (18) Another petition implored the legislature, after they proposed to provide provisions to Christian “teachers,” to “let Jews, Mehometians, and Christians of every Denomination injoy religious liberty…therefore thrust them not out now by establishing the Christian religion.” (19) Similar pleas can be found in many of the dissenters’ petitions. (20)

It seems reasonable to conclude that if these dissenters were simply seeking full equality for all religions they would therefore be satisfied with state support as long as it included all religions, but this is to misunderstand the dissenters’ conception of religious freedom. They sought to end all connections between religious and government, except those which protected religious liberty. This was because, as Leland so forcefully explained, “Let it suffice on this head, to say, that it is not possible, in the nature of things, to establish religion by human laws, without preventing the design of civil law and oppressing the people.” (21)

Separating Religion and Government is Necessary for Religious Freedom

The obvious religiosity of the dissenters has led some to conclude that they therefore could not have been in favor of a secular government that banished religion to the private sphere. This may seem intuitive from their perspective, but in the dissenters’ veiw it was precisely because they so valued their religion and their right to make their own choices on this matter that they supported the separation of church and state. Their petitions leave no doubt as to what they wanted (separation of religious concerns from civic concerns) and why (to protect their rights, the state, and religion).

Placing religion in law, and thus establishing it, was seen as anathema to the dissenters because it necessarily violated the equal rights of conscience. (22) As the antidote to the religious oppression created by establishments the dissenters demanded the separation of religion and government as one of the most consistent themes in their petitions to the legislature. Following John Locke, they divided society into two mutually-exclusive spheres (civil and religious). In this scheme religion was “wholly Destitute from the secular affairs of public society” and in “the discharge of the duties of Religion every man is to account for himself as an Individual.” Accordingly, religion “ought not to be made the object of any Human Law.” (italics mine) To do otherwise would be a “glaring violation of our Religious Liberty.” (23) Similarly, the Presbyterians complained that the bill was “a departure from the proper line of legislation.” Religion, they insisted, “is altogether personal, and the right of exercising it unalienable; and it is not, cannot, and ought not to be, resigned to the will of the society at large; and much less to the legislature.” (24) Similar expressions of separation were found in the majority of their petitions to the legislature. (25)

The only role they saw for the state in matters of religion was “to support them in their just rights and equal privileges.” (26) To do otherwise, even if it benefited themselves, would be a violation of their equal rights of conscience, which is why the dissenters rejected the general assessment bill that would have included benefits for their own denominations. They reasoned that it was not only “Sinful & Tyrannical” “to Compel a Man to furnish Contributions of money for the Propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors,” that it is equally tyrannical to force “him to Support this or that Teacher of his own religious persuasion” because that would be “depriving him of the Comfortable Liberty of giving his contributions to the Particular pastor whose morals he would make his Pattern.” This is why they insisted “[t]hat Matters of Religion are not the Object of Civil Government, not under its Jurisdiction.” (27)

Despite previously insisting that they wanted “no ecclesiastical establishment for” themselves, the Hanover Presbytery briefly supported a general religious assessment, but only if it was “the most liberal plan” possible (i.e. not limited to Christianity). However, this move was strategic, rather than a genuine change of heart. They were convinced that an assessment was a fiat accompli so they reasoned that it would be better to at least try to limit the damage by pushing the legislature in a more inclusive direction. (28) What the Hanover Presbyterians did not account for when they took up this strategy was the negative reaction from their own lay population. The outrage from the broader Presbyterian community, coupled with anger over the incorporation of the Episcopal Church, convinced the Presbytery to reverse course again. The Presbytery voted, therefore, “unanimously” to oppose “any kind of an assessment by the General Assembly for the support of religion.” (29)

In an effort to speak with one voice, the members of the Presbytery, in a joint effort with the broader Presbyterian community, drew up a new petition that came out strongly against all religious establishments. Unambiguously, the Presbyterians asserted, “Religion is altogether personal, and the right of exercising it unalienable; and it is not, cannot, and ought not to be, resigned to the will of the society at large; and much less to the Legislature, which derives its authority wholly from the consent of the people, and is limited by the original intention of civil associations.” True religious freedom could only be achieved by severing the ties between church and state.

Since some have insisted that the dissenters did not support a strict separation of religion and government because “they were religious people who sought disestablishment for (as they saw it) biblical reasons,” (30) it will be necessary to briefly examine the evidence for this claim. Support for this claim is usually based on the fact that some of the petitions called for laws to punish vice and immorality. The problem with this argument is that only a few of the petitions called for “wholesome laws,” and of these even fewer actually support such a conclusion.

The 1776 and 1777 petitions of the Hanover Presbytery indicated that the state should “restrain the vicious and encourage the virtuous by wholesome laws, equally extending to every individual.” (31) What they meant by “wholesome laws” is unclear, but there is no evidence that this included “moral values based on religion.” (32) They never pressed for such laws, except when they briefly supported a “liberal” general assessment. But, as indicated above, they did it for strategic reasons, not as a matter of principle. And after 1777 this kind of ambiguous language was gone.

The more representative Presbyterian petition of 1785 states in no uncertain terms:

Religion is altogether personal, and the right of exercising it unalienable; and it is not, cannot, and ought not to be, resigned to the will of the society at large; and much less to the Legislature, which derived its authority wholly from the consent of the people, and is limited by the original intention of civil association.

In addition, they declared that dependence “on earthly governments” was “destructive of genuine morality” since religion and morality depended on “the internal conviction of the mind,” something that laws cannot accomplish. (33) This unambiguously shows that they did not make any exceptions for religious morality in their separationist stance.

The popular 1785 “Spirit of the Gospel” (SOG) petition is not as clear cut as the Presbyterian position, but still fails to provide any substantial evidence in support of the dissenters’ desire to bring religious morality to bear in the making of public policy. While the petition called for laws punishing “the Vices, and Immorality of the people,” there is no indication that this included religious dogma. (34) And given the fact that they also stated that they wanted the legislature to “recommend Religion” only through “pious example” (not law) makes it unlikely that this is what they were seeking. Another petition addressing the issue of morality is even more problematic for the accommodationist position. This petition explicitly requested “Laws of morality,” but only those “which are necessary for private and publick happiness.” It is possible that the moral principles in this category included religiously derived ones, but this is doubtful since they also asserted “that the Church as a Spiritual body, has a polity of its own intisily distinct from and independent of all combinations of men for Civil Purposes.” (35) The petitioners of Chesterfield County made an almost identical argument, claiming that “Immorality” could be punished only in “so far as Society is injured.” (36) If these dissenters had argued otherwise they would have contradicted the very principles they were so desperately trying to put into practice. To allow the state to impose the morality of someone else’s religion results in the very ecclesiastical tyranny that they found abhorrent.

There was only one dissenter petition, out of over one hundred sent to the legislature from 1776 to 1786, which unambiguously supported state-mandated religious morality. A petition from Amherst County called for the enforcement of the act “for more Effectual Suppression of Vice__ Restraint of [illegible] & Punish men of Openly Profain & __.” (37) This was a law that enforced some aspects of Christian morality before independence, but as part of the revisal of laws it was due to be repealed and replaced with the proposed law “for Punishing Disturbers of Religious Worship and Sabbath Breakers.” The new version, like many of the bills that were part of the revision project, had yet to be enacted in 1785 when the Amherst petitioners sent their grievances to the legislature. So these petitioners were undoubtedly in favor of the harsher version, which bound citizens to some aspects of Christian dogma. However, this was an outlier within the dissenting community that was otherwise broadly united on this issue. It therefore cannot be used to represent the general position of the dissenters.

It is also important to note that the revised “Sabbath” law, which finally passed in 1786 was not, as some have claimed, in response to the dissenters. This law had been part of the revisal of that began in 1777, with most of the work carried out by Thomas Jefferson, George Wythe, and Edmund Pendleton. (38) Jefferson himself wrote the so-called Sabbath law. While the bill “compeled the observance of Sunday as a day of rest” was very liberal in comparison to the existing law it was meant to replace, which punished atheism, “blasphemies,” profane swearing, drunkenness, as well as compelled attendance at “divine service at his or her parish-church or chapel.” (39) The only thing retained in the revised law was the directive to not labor on Sundays. It may seem surprising that Jefferson would approve of this religiously-based mandate, but it is important to remember that the revised laws needed to be approved by the entire revisal committee and eventually it had to pass through the legislature which was still dominated by conservative Episcopalians. Jefferson was not given free rein to make laws according to his own liking. Jefferson also indicated in his Autobiography that the committee agreed “to undergo as few Changes as possible” when revising the laws. (40) When it eventually passed in 1786 it was because Madison was determined to finally complete the revisal of laws which had begun in 1776. The Sabbath bill was not passed at the prompting of the dissenters.

There was some support among the dissenters for the “day of rest,” despite the fact that it enforced an obviously Christian practice in contradiction to their impassioned opposition to religious coercion. But this support was not universal. One of the most determined foes of Sunday laws was Leland, who recognized that they were contrary to the principles of religious liberty, as well as Christianity. Therefore, he insisted “that the appointment of much stated holy-days,” should not be “part of human legislation.” He rejected such establishments for both religious and secular reasons, claiming that he could not “deduce it from the source of natural right, so neither can I find a hint in the New Testament, that Jesus or his apostles, ever reproved any for the neglect of that day; or that they ever called upon civil rulers to make any penal laws about it.” (41)

More than any other dissenter, Leland devoted his life to tearing down all religious establishments. His extensive writings on the subject offer the clearest and most consistent effort to articulate a coherent vision of religious liberty. In doing so he explained why sins (religious morality), as opposed to crimes, fell outside the bounds of civil law. Using history as his guide he pointed out that “when civil rulers undertake to make laws against moral evil, and punish men for heterodoxy in religion, they often run to grand extremes…In short, volumes might be written, and have been written, to show what havoc among men the principle of mixing sins and crimes together has effected, while men in power have taken their own opinions as infallible tests of right and wrong.” Even sins “of enormous size,” he averred, were “not crimes to be punished by the laws of state, which extend no further, in justice, than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor.” (41)

The dissenters saw separation as a necessary condition of religious freedom, which in turn protects religion, the state, and society. Does separation put some burdens and restrictions on religion? Yes, but necessarily so. To establish in any way religion by law privileges the religion of some at the expense of everyone else, and this takes us back to the religious tyranny that the dissenters were trying to abolish. To this end, Leland asserted, “May the combination of rulers and priests, church and state, be dissolved, and never re-unite.” (41)

The Free Exercise of Religion is Not an Absolute Right

As the Religious Right continues now to press for an unconstrained free exercise of religion (for Christians anyway) at the expense of everyone else it is worthwhile to examine the necessary limits to this right. Like all other eighteenth-century Americans, the dissenters never imagined an absolute freedom to practice one’s religion. (42) There was broad agreement that one’s right to practice one’s religion did not include the right to harm others. Locke’s admonition against discrimination would have been met with near universal approval. He asserted, “no private person has any right in any manner to prejudice another person in his civil enjoyments, because he is of another church or religion. All the rights and franchises that belong to him as a man, or as a Denison, are inviolably to be preserved to him. These are not the business of religion NO violence nor injury is to be offered him, whether he be Christian or pagan.” (43) Any state committed to equal religious liberty cannot condone religious-based discrimination. Everyone is responsible for themselves and cannot compel (directly or indirectly) others to conform to one’s own religion. Persuasion is the only option available in a free society. This is the foundation upon which religious freedom is built.

Related to this obvious “no harm” principle is one that is less obvious but just as important. The ban on establishments of religion necessarily places limits on religion and its advocates. This is why the dissenters fought so aggressively against establishments, by which they meant laws concerning religion “except for protection.” (44) Before the Revolution the dissenters had the right to practice their religion, albeit with some restrictions, but what they didn’t have was religious freedom. They were second-class citizens in an Anglican (Episcopalian after independence) world. Hence they insisted that religion and government should be separate, as shown above.

Did this mean that some Virginians would have to lose some of their privileges, even ones that were in line with their deeply held religious beliefs? Most certainly. Religious freedom can only exist when all citizens are given equal rights of conscience (i.e. no one’s religion is privileged by the state). This meant that the members of the Episcopal Church had to give up their sacred relationship with the state. Not surprisingly, Episcopalians resisted what they perceived to be an assault on their religion. One member of the Episcopal Church lamented the attack against his church, which he saw as “depriv[ing] men of what they have always enjoyed, and been taught to regard as their right.” (45) In the end, they had to sacrifice their cherished way of life to the republican commitment to equal liberty. Anything less would have been a continuation of the system of toleration, not religious liberty.

This is why the Establishment Clause is so important. It protects citizens from state-imposed religious dogma. And just as importantly it limits the free exercise of religion. Religious individuals or groups are not free to enlist the state in their religious endeavors. Just as the state is forbidden to intervene in religion, religion is barred from intervening in the affairs of the state. If the state is forbidden from making laws concerning religion then religious individuals or groups cannot use their power to place religious doctrines into law, even if they insist that it is required by their sincerely held religious beliefs.

However, many on the Right have convinced themselves that the Establishment Clause (EC) limits only the state, not “the church.” The problem with this argument is that this one-way prohibition sets up the very conditions to recreate the religious oppression that the EC was meant to prevent. If we value religious freedom then religion must also be restrained from intervening in civil concerns. This was the point of Locke’s two spheres, which the dissenters more faithfully adhered to: “Ecclesiastical authority, whether it be administered by the hands of a single person or many, is everywhere the same; and neither has any jurisdiction in things civil, nor any manner of power of compulsion, nor anything at all to do with riches and revenues.” (46) The temptation to have one’s own religious doctrines enshrined in law is great, but those who do so must understand that their attempts to do so undermine religious liberty. In order to “consign to Oblivion all the Relicks of Religious Oppression,” legislators must be willing to “make a public Sacrifice of Partiality at the glorious Altar of Freedom.” (47) The last clause of article 16 was not simply a nicety; it was a plea to remind those who might be tempted to disregard the rights of others “that it is the mutual Duty of all, to practice Christian Forbearance, Love and Charity towards Each other.”

If the legislature is forbidden to bring religion into law, then any requests by the church or individuals to do so cannot be granted. Some have taken the fact that as a Baptist minister Leland participated in politics as evidence that he and other dissenters supported the influence of religion in the making of public policy. (48) But this is a misunderstanding of Leland’s views on the relationship between religion and government. Yes, Leland and other members of the dissenting clergy participated in politics, but they did not do so in order to bring their own religious dogmas or practices into law. They participated as citizens in matters that were within the realm of the state (civil concerns) most important to secure their religious rights. Leland explained why this is a necessary component of religious liberty: “private judgment and religious opinions are inalienable in their nature, like sight and hearing, and cannot be surrendered to society. Consequently, it must be impious usurpation for ecclesiastics or civilians to legislate about religion.” (49)

Against those who violated this principle Leland cautioned, “How improper, how unjust, how anti-Christian it must be, for one man or one party of men to get that kind of religion interwoven into the civil constitution, which they believe is best, under the pretence that their consciences are wounded if others do not believe like themselves. The plea of conscience, in such cases, is the art of ill design. or the effect of imposition, which none but tyrants or bigoted enthusiasts will make.” (50)

This strong stance against all establishments of religion was the logical consequence of their devotion to the equal rights of conscience. This link between rights and no establishments (i.e. no laws on the subject of religion) runs through the dissenters’ petitions as shown above. This is why they embraced a strict separation of religion and government.

Separation Protects Religious Freedom and Religion

The argument that the separation of church and state is hostile to religion is now common on the Right. (51) This is not how the religious dissenters saw it. To them, the strict separation of religion and government was necessary to protect religion and religious liberty. (52) They were motivated to separate religion and government out of hostility to religious tyranny and a love for their religious liberty. State-imposed religion (i.e. establishments of religion) violated the sacred rights of conscience, and was “of all Oppression the most inhuman and insupportable.” (53)

Just as important as the theme of “ecclesiastical tyranny” was the theme of the corrupting influence of connections between religion and government. On this subject, they found history a useful guide. Pleas like the one found in the “Spirit of the Gospel” petition were common: “that the Blessed author of our Religion, supported and maintained his Gospel in this World for several Hundred years; not only without the aid of Civil Power, but against all the Power of the Earth.” Never was Christianity purer than it was prior to when it was established “by Human laws” by Constantine. (54) History, they insisted, “has shown that this dependence, where it has been effected, has been an injury rather than an aid.” The Presbyterian minister John Todd, in a letter to Jefferson opined that the union of church and state had corrupted the clergy by turning them into “ready Tool[s] for the State” who collaborated with the state “in every design of Tyranny and oppression, &c.” He repeated the frequent dissenter refrain that “all the Churches Since Constantine, shew the absurdity of Establishments.” In his view, “Virtue and pure religion do better without earthly emoluments than with.” (55) In other words, it was connections between religion and government that were hostile to religion. (56) Therefore, they wanted a separation in which “every man” would “be Left free from all Compulsion in this _ matter,” which would “be Best both for Church & State.” (57)


The religious dissenters of Virginia sought a religious liberty that was grounded in equal rights, and was best secured by a strict separation of church and state. This, they believed, was best for religion, government, and society. This vision is the opposite of the “religious liberty” championed by the Religious Right today. A religious liberty that allows discrimination, seeks privilege, and frequently infringes on the rights of others is not religious liberty; it is religious domination. Forgetting the lessons of the past the Religious Right is undermining what their forbears so wisely put in place.


1. Reva Siegel & Douglas NeJaime, “Conscience and the Culture Wars,” The American Prospect (June 29, 2015).

2. Carl H. Esbeck, “Dissent and Disestablishment: The Church-State Settlement in the Early American Republic,” Brigham Young University Law Review, 2004), 1580. Similarly, Thomas E. Buckley argued that the dissenters “expected that government, in caring for the general welfare, would institutionalize certain Christian norms and values,” in Church and State in Revolutionary Virginia 1776-187 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1977), 182.

3. Madison’s Amendments to the Declaration of Rights (29 May – 12 June 1776) Founders Online.

4. Petition from Prince Edward County (October 11, 1776) in Journal of the House of Delegates of Virginia, 1776 (Richmond: Samuel Shepherd & Co.), 1828, p. 7.

5. A bill For exempting the different societies of dissenters from contributing to the support and maintenance of the church as by law established in The Statutes at Large: Being a Collection of all the Laws of Virginia, from the First Session of the Legislature, in the year 1619, vol. IX, edited by William Waller Hening (Richmond: J & G Cochran, 1821), 165.

6. Hanover Presbytery Petition (October 24, 1776). The petitions used in this essay can be found at the Library of Virginia: Digital Collection.

7. John Leland, “The Virginia Chronicle” in The Writings of the Late Elder John Leland: Including Some Events in His Life by John Leland and L.F. Greene (New York: G. W. Wood, 1845, Public Domain Reprint), 118.

Here are some examples of similar statements:

Amherst County petition (November 1, 1777): They informed the legislature that they “most earnestly desire[ed] and pray[ed] that not only an Universal Toleration may take Place but that all the Subjects of this Free State may be put upon the same footing and enjoy equal Liberties and privileges, which we think (consistent with the 16th paragraph of the Declaration of Rights), can no longer with any shadow of Justice be withhold.”

Amherst County petition (1779): They informed the legislature that they “most earnestly desire[ed] and pray[ed] that not only an Universal Toleration may take Place but that all the Subjects of this Free State may be put upon the same footing and enjoy equal Liberties and privileges, which we think (consistent with the 16th paragraph of the Declaration of Rights), can no longer with any shadow of Justice be withhold.”

George Washington (letter to Hebrew congregation in Newport, RI, 1790): “All possess a like liberty of conscience, and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.”

For other examples see The First Prejudice: Religious Tolerance and Intolerance in Early America by Chris Beneke and Christopher S. Grenda, (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011) p. 291.

8. “Queries on the Subject of Religious Establishments” Virginia Gazette (Purdie) November 8, 1776.

9. Prince William Baptists (June 20, 1776); Prince Edward (October 11, 1776); Hanover Presbytery (October 24, 1776); “Ten-thousand name” petition (October 16, 1776); Albemarle, Amherst, and Buckingham counties (October 22, 1776); Berkeley, Dissenters of Tuscarora Congregation (October 25, 1776); Albemarle and Amherst counties (November 1, 1776); and Augusta County (November 9, 1776).

10. Hanover Presbytery (October 24, 1776).

11. Berkeley County (October 25, 1776).

Here are additional examples of this thinking:

Albemarle and Amherst Counties (November 1, 1776): “Your Memorialists flattered themselves, that the form of Government, that would secure just & equal Rights to the Subjects, would be the Choice of every Individual, both from the Consideration of the Justice, & good Policy, that should be contained in it, and also from the Convention, that, by the joint and strenuous Endeavors of every one our Liberty, our all would be defended against the unjust violations, thereof & which therefore all should enjoy equal Privilege.”

 “Ten-thousand name” petition (October 16, 1776): “Ten-Thousand Name” petition: they expressed hope at the prospect of “equal liberty,” which they believed was “the birthright of every good member of the State.” They therefore requested to be freed from the “burthen of an ecclesiastical establishment…as well as every other yoke.”

Hanover Presbytery (June 3, 1777): They opened their petition declaring their hope that “their fellow subjects” would join them “to repel the assaults of tyranny and to maintain their common rights.” They gave a “hearty approbation” to the DOR as the document that protected these rights. They also applauded the act “for dissenters,” which they saw as “declaring that equal liberty, as well religious as civil, shall be universally extended to the good people of this country.” (italics mine)

12. Baptist Association (November 8, 1780).

Here are some additional examples from other dissenting petition against the unjust marriage and vestry laws:

Baptist Association (June 3, 1782): “That it is evident that Dissenters are not on an equal Footing with Churchmen as they are subject to taxation without a fair and Equal Representation by the Vestry Law, and their  Ministers so ignominiously distinguished from Episcopal Ministers in the latter Clause of the Act declaring what shall be a lawfull Marriage. Your Memorialists therefore hope that your wisdom and Justice will suggest to you the Expediency of removing the Ground of Animosity, which will remain while Preference is given, or peculiar Favours are granted in our Laws to any particular Religious Denomination.”

Baptist Association (November 6, 1783): “…we have patiently waited, while the great matters of the war, was the subject of deliberation, but as that struggle is now happily over we hope that our former petitions, & memorials, may be attended to, in loandrg[?] session, & humbly pray for a redress of our grievance & that no law may pass, to connect the church, & state in the future [illeg…].”

Amelia County (May 1783): “Nothing can be more evident, than that the Partiality of the above mentioned Laws, will be construed as a Design to bestow Badges of Honor on Churchmen, and to fix Marks of Disgrace upon Dissenters, which can only tend to gratify Pride and Spleen on the one Hand, and excite Envy and Discontent on the other; and will serve to keep the otherwise dying Embers of Animosity still alive – Your Memorialitsts therefore hope you will put the finishing Hand so the Religious Freedom of all your Constituents, and that no invidious Distinctions may hereafter remain in our Laws between Churchmen and Dissenters.

13. Hanover Presbytery (November 12, 1784). Financial support for the church was suspended per the Act For exempting the different societies of dissenters from contributing to the support and maintenance of the church as by law established. The dissenters were relieved of all obligations to support religion while the members of the Episcopal Church were supposed to continue in their obligations, but at the last minute this obligation was suspended. In 1779, that obligation was legally abolished. (H.J. Eckenrode, Separation of Church and State in Virginia: A Study in the Development of the Revolution [Richmond: Davis Bottom, Superintendent of Public Printing, 1910], 61).

14. A bill “Establishing a Provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion” (1784) in Buckley, Church and State, 189.

15. Ministers and lay representatives of Presbyterian Church (November 2, 1785).

16. Baptist Association (November 17, 1785).

17. Quakers (two petitions. almost identical) (November 14, 1785).

18. Hanover Presbytery (November 2, 1785).

19. Chesterfield County (November 14, 1785).

20. Northumberland County (November 28, 1785): “Those who are not of the Christian Religion are by the assessment Bill denied the Privileges which by Nature they are said to be entitled to, and from the Declaration of Rights they might reasonable Expect.”

Here are additional examples:

Amherst County (December 10, 1785): “That it is unjust especially towards those who under the Sanction of our (hitherto) mild & Tolerant Laws & Constitution have Emigrated to this Country and by complying with the Laws have become free Denizans or Franchise Citizens of the State__ But most now (if not yet Converted to Christianity) seek an Asylum elsewhere or be Subject to the Penalties of the Law that is, Contribute to the Support of a Religion to which their Consciences have not yet Assented__ And therefore (how Excellent soever the thing is in itself or to its Real Professors) must at least be one mode of Persecution with reference to them.”

Botetourt County (November 29, 1785): “This Article gives men of Every persuasion who are Citizens an Equil Right to the free Exercise of their Religion according to the dictates of Conscience, and to Compell Jews by law to support the Christian Religion which the * as an arbitrary & despotick usurpation Which Christians ought to be ashamed of * and so long as Constitution has force of a Constitution we Consider it a Duty we owe to ourselves and posterity to defend it from the outrage even of a majority.”

Washington County (December 10, 1785): “it will enslave a considerable part of the good citizens of this country to hardships of a scheme, they have not adhered to:__ and consequently, foreigners averse to the common theory of christianity * their fortunes in other parts of the earth where more liberal sentiments prevail.”

Chesterfield County (November 14, 1785): “In trust let Jews, Mehometans, and Christians of every Denomination find their advantage in living under your laws religion is of god to man the civil law is of you to your people, then let it be your great wisdom and goodness to study our strength and wealth which will for ever be the glory and Boast of the nation (for liberty & Freedom) and let the church of Christ and religion alone.”

21. Leland, “The Rights of Conscience Inalienable, and, therefore, Religious Opinions Not Cognizable by Law; or, the High-Flying Churchman, Stripped of his Legal Robe, Appears a Yahoo,” (1791) in The Writings of the Late Elder John Leland, 187.

22. Baptist Meeting of the General Association (April 1777) In a report examining the laws of Virginia the Baptists designated “numerous laws…as offensive, prominent among which was the law which required all marriages to be performed by Episcopal clergymen, with the ceremonies of the Established church, and made all otherwise performed illegal and void; and all the laws establishing the Episcopal church as the religion of the State, and providing for its support from the public purse. As the best method to procure their removal from the statute book, continued agitation among the people and petitions to the Legislature were recommended; and, as expressive of such government action as was desired, a law was drawn up in form and reported, entitled, ‘An Act for the Establishment of Religious Freedom,’ to be presented to the Legislature, with an earnest petition that it might be adopted as a law of the State.” (Charles F. James, Documentary History of the Struggle for Religious Liberty in Virginia [Lynchburg, Virginia: J.P. Bell Company, 1900], 102-3.)

Rockingham County (1784): “it is our Humble Opinions that any Magistrate or Legislative Body that takes upon themselves the power of Governing Religion by human Laws Assumes a power that never was committed to them by God nor can be by Man for the Confirmation of which Opinion we shall Cite no less authority than the Great Mr. Lock who says ‘that the whole jurisdiction of the Majestrait [sic] reaches only to civil Concernments and that all civil power Right and Dominion is bounded and confined to the only care of promoting these things’ which is so Pertinent that we need not Expatiate on it.”

23. Rockbridge County (November 2, 1785).

24. Ministers and lay representatives of Presbyterian Church (November 2, 1785).

25. “Declaration of the Virginia Association of Baptists,” Virginia Gazette (Dixon & Hunter) (March 28, 1777), 6-7: The proposed general assessment bill them was an example of “civil Rulers go[ing] so far out of their Sphere as to take the Care and Management of religious Affairs upon them!”

Here are some additional examples:

Surry County (October 26, 1785): “if such Tax is against the spirit of the Gospel; if Christ for several Hundred years, not only without aid of civil power, but again all powers of the world supported it, If Establishment has never been a means of [propagating?] the Gospel. If no more faithful men would be called into the ministry by it; if it would not revive decayed Religion nor stop the Growth of Deism, nor serve the purpose of Government, & if against the bill of rights; your Petitioners trust that the wisdom & uprightness of your Honourable House will leave them intirely free in matters of Religion & the manner of supporting its ministers, and they shall ever pray” [This petition represents the standard version of the popular “Sprit of the Gospel” petition (25 separate petitions that followed the basic narrative of the original, but with some variations)]

Bedford County (October 27, 1785): “the Legislature has no right to Interfere in matters of Religion as we think that it would be a violation of the rights of the Good People of this state our Bill of Rights…”

 Northumberland County (November 28, 1785): “That Matters of Religion are not the Object of Civil Government, not under its Jurisdiction.”

Botetourt County (November 29, 1785): “we Consider it indisputable as well from the nature of things as the History of Mankind that Civil government & Religion are, and ought to be. Independent of Each other to [?….] _ The one have for its object a proper Regulation of the Eternal conduct of men towards each other to Regulate this the Business of Legislature; the latter have for its object our internal or spiritual welfare & is beyond the reach of human Laws”

Amherst County (December 10, 1785): “That As the Christian Religion neither Originated from Nor is Dependent on Human Laws for its Support so neither can it be Subject to their Cognizance.__ Because being in its * Properties of a Divine & Spiritual Nature It is altogether an invisible Thing residing only in the Mind & Conscience according to the Evidence & Connections There wrought by its Divine Author___ Therefore as it has no Necessary Dependence on or connexion with the Institutions of Civil Society * & Designs being wholly Different) So any attempt to blend them together necessarily Confounds the Order of things as may be seen by the unhappy Consequences of such Attempt throughout the Christian World in almost every Age & nation where this Unnatural System hath been adopted.’”

Washington County (December 10, 1785): “It is generally agreed at the present era, that religion is a personal, privilege, hence we suppose an attempt rational; when legislative capacity seems to afford it protection:__ and we understand should not be left, in any other extent to the legislator:__ to controul us in that most valuable birthright: wo’d be robbing us indeed of the highest blessing Heaven affords us.”

26. “Ten-thousand name” petition (October 16, 1776).

Ministers and lay representatives of Presbyterian Church (November 2, 1785): “We never resigned to the control of government our right of determining for ourselves in this important article; and acting agreeably to the convictions of reason and conscience, in discharging our duty to our Creator. And, therefore, it would be an unwarrantable stretch of prerogative in the Legislature to make laws concerning it, except for protection.”

27. Northumberland County (November 28, 1785)

Here is an additional example:

Baptist Association (November 3, 1785): “That to compel man to furnish contributions of money to support that Religion which they disbelieve and abhor * sinful and tyrannical that to compel even * to support the Gospel who profess to believe it, is inconsistent both with the * and independent Spirit of the Christian Religion, and the custom of the Primitive Church.” (the asterisk denotes sections that are illegible)

This wording actually comes from Jefferson’s bill “For Establishing Religious Freedom,” which had yet to pass the legislature: “That to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves [and abhors], is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing him to support their or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor whose morals he would make his pattern.”

28. Eckenrode p. 89-90, Charles Grier Seller, Jr., “John Blair Smith,” Journal of the Presbyterian Historical Society 34 (December 1956), 212; Thos. Cary Johnson, Virginia Presbyterianism and Religious Liberty in Colonial and Revolutionary Times (Richmond: Presbyterian committee of publication, 1907),105; William H. Foote, Sketches of Virginia: Historical and Biographical (Philadelphia: William S. Martien, 1850), 557.

29. Foote, Sketches of Virginia, 341.

30. Esbeck, “Dissent and Disestablishment,” 1590.

31. Hanover Presbytery (October 24, 1776 and June 3, 1777).

32. Esbeck, “Dissent and Disestablishment,” (1580).

33. Ministers and lay representatives of Presbyterian Church (November 2, 1785).

34. Carl H. Esbeck: “a separation of religion-based values from government and public affairs would have been received with wide disapprobation in the new nation. This is because civic virtue, now to be formed in the independent sectors of home, church, voluntary society, and school, was still deemed essential for the orderly exercise of liberty and acquisition of the self-discipline necessary to sustaining a republic.” (“Dissent and Disestablishment,” 1579-80); and Thomas E. Buckley: “A central tenet of this generation maintained that the success or failure of the republican experiment depended ultimately on the virtue of the people and the leaders they selected.” (Establishing Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Statute in Virginia [Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013], 62)

35. Baptist Association (November 3, 1785).

36. Chesterfield County (November 14, 1785).

37. Amherst County (December 10, 1785).

38. The original committee had two additional members (George Mason and Thomas Ludwell Lee) but they did not participate in revising the laws because they, according to Jefferson, excused themselves as “unqualified for the work.” (Thomas Jefferson, “Autobiography”)

39. “Act for the effectual suppression of vice, and restraint and punishment of blasphemous, wicked, and dissolute persons” in Henning, Statutes at Large, III, 358-62.

40. Jefferson, “Autobiography.”

41. Leland, “The Yankee Spy” (224 and 221); and “Oration, etc.” (269) in The Writing of the Late Elder John Leland.

42. Queries on the subject of Rel. establishments, Virginia Gazette (Nov. 8, 1776):

The author begins by grounding his argument in the state of nature, where “any man, or collection of men, might embrace what doctrines of faith, and worship the deity in what form they pleased, without interfering with the same, or any other natural right of their neighbors.”

To the Clergy and Laity of the Church formerly established in Virginia, Virginia Gazette (April 24, 1778): “as uniformity of sentiment is a chimera of the brain alone, it becomes the duty of each to endeavour to maintain that form which they think most useful and agreeable to themselves, most likely to preserve order and decency in their public worship, and most promotive of learning and morality, as far as such endeavours do not interfere with the civil rights of others.”

John Leland: “The freedom here contended for, is not founded on the toleration or benevolence of those in authority, but in nature, inalienable right, of which individuals cannot be deprived, but by impious tyranny. I call it impious; for a man cannot give greater evidence that he is ignorant of the precepts and spirit of Christianity, than when he resorts to legal coercion to compel others to perform what the himself believes to be religious duties. If a man works ill to his neighbor, punish him according to his crime whether he pled religious impulse or devilish instigation, the fact alone is to be attended to. But where conscience begins, empire ceases.” (see footnote 49)

43. John Locke, Letter Concerning Toleration (1689).

44. Ministers and lay representatives of Presbyterian Church (November 2, 1785).

45. The Virginia Gazette (November 1, 1776).

46. John Locke, Letter Concerning Toleration (1689).

47. Baptist Association (November 8, 1780).

48. Carl Esbeck claims that “Although Leland fought vigorously against any legislation favoring the church, he had no qualms about a robust involvement of the church or her members in political activity.” (“Dissent and Disestablishment,” 1522) Esbeck argues that Leland was a proponent of what he calls “voluntaryism” which is a principle that sees issues of establishment in terms of the proper boundaries between the two institutions of church (not religion) and state. In other words, the objects against establishments were not about rights or separating religion and government. A quick glance at Leland’s extensive writings on the subject of religious liberty clearly shows that Leland was no proponent of Esbeck’s made up concept of voluntaryism (see First Amendment Folly).

49. Leland, “Which Has Done the Most Mischief in the World, the Kings-Evil or Priest-Craft?” in The Writings of the Late Elder John Leland, 488.

50. Leland, “Short Essays on Government, And the Proposed Revision of the Constitution of Government for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts,” in The Writings of the Late Elder John Leland, 474.


Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in Allegheny: “Rather than requiring government to avoid any action that acknowledges or aids religion, the EC permits government some latitude in recognizing and accommodating the central role religion plays in our society…Any approach less sensitive to our heritage would border on latent hostility toward religion, as it would require government in all its multifaceted roles to acknowledge only the secular, to the exclusion and so to the detriment of the religious.”

Philip Hamburger: “Whereas the religious liberty demanded by most dissenters was a freedom from the laws that created these establishments, the separation of church and state was an old, anticlerical, and, increasingly, antiecclesiastical conception of the relationship between church and state.” (Separation of Church and State. [Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002]10)

Carl H. Esbeck: “A separation of government from all that is arguably religious (or arguably has a religious foundation) would result in a secular public square, one that is hostile rather than neutral to the influence of religion on society.” (“Myths, Miscues and Misconceptions: No-Aid Separationism and the Establishment Clause,” Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy 13 (1999)], 309-10)

52. Here are some additional examples:

“Ten-thousand name” petition (October 16, 1776): “having long groaned under the burthen of an ecclesiastical establishment, they pray that this, as well as every other yoke, may be broken, and that the oppressed may go free, that so, every religious denomination being on a level, animosities may cease, and Christian forbearance, love, and charity, practised towards each other, while the Legislature interferes only to support them in their just rights and equal privileges.”

Freeman’s Remonstrance (1777): “…a religious tyrant is the worst of all tyrants; and no wonder, for a tyrant can have no true religion. O Virginia! beware of Churchmen who are for climbing above your heads! I think it might be easily proved, that ecclesiastical establishments, instead of tending either to the civil or religious advantage of States, are, in fact, great obstacles and impediments to both. Yea, they have been the principal, and not the only causes of all the plots, conspiracies, war and bloodshed that have been the plagues of Christendom for many centuries past. And I verily believe, had there never been an established Church in the British Empire, we should have been to this day, an united, peaceable, and happy people.” (“A Freeman of Virginia,” The Freeman’s Remonstrance Against an Ecclesiastical Establishment: Being Some Remarks on a Late Pamphlet, Entitled The Necessity of an Established Church in any State [Williamsburg: John Dixon and William Hunter, 1777], 11-12)

Amherst County (December 10, 1785): “Therefore as it has no Necessary Dependence on or connexion with the Institutions of Civil Society * & Designs being wholly Different. So any attempt to blend them together necessarily Confounds the Order of things as may be seen by the unhappy Consequences of such Attempt throughout the Christian World in almost every Age & nation where this Unnatural System hath been adopted.”

Baptist Association (November 17, 1785): “That passing said Bill into a law would be opening the door to religious Tyranny. For that Legislature which has authority to establish all, most certainly have an equal power to establish any one Denomination of Christians, to the disparagement, and oppression of all the rest. And that we fear, would be followed with all the sanguinary horrors of persecution.”

Baptist Association (November 3, 1785): “[Happiness?] from the History of Establishments in Religion that they have generally been unfavourable not only to the progress of real piety and Charity; but to the Liberties of those States where they have existed which is a further reason why they should most seriously object against the Bill in Question. for allowing it to have been form’d with the most benevolent intentions towards the State, there is no surety that it may not be made in some future period a foundation on which men of alliberal or mistaken principles, may raise a Superstructure of Domination, totally destructive of our present system of liberty.”

Pittsylvania County (November 7, 1785): “When mature deliberation on the Said Bill, we Humbly conceive that the most fatal consequences may result from its passing into a Law: both the Libertys of the people as well as, the subversion of all true Religion.”

Chesterfield County (November 14, 1785): “In trust let Jews, Mehometans, and Christians of every Denomination find their advantage in living under your laws religion is of god to man the civil law is of you to your people, then let it be your great wisdom and goodness to study our strength and wealth which will for ever be the glory and Boast of the nation (for liberty & Freedom) and let the church of Christ and religion alone is our mature Deliberations and conclusions.”

Dinwiddie County (November 28, 1785): “We therefore with much confidence present * to this Honorable House, to inform, them that we formerly petitioned for an Assessment, and that on more mature consideration, * now opposed to it as  a measure, injurious to the liberties of the people, destructive to true Religion, and which may be fatal to the happiness, and prosperity of this Commonwealth, As their and many other, Fatal consequences, may appear before you, to the Same purpose, Your petitioners flatter themselves, that your Unprejudiced minds, will deliberately Confides and penetrate into every evil, that may * from that same. And they shall ever pray &c., &c.”

53. Baptist Association (November 8, 1780)

54. Surry County (October 26, 1785).

Here are several other similar statements:

Hanover Presbyterians (October 24, 1776): “Neither can it be made to appear that the gospel needs any such civil aid. We rather conceive that when our blessed Saviour declares his kingdom is not of this world, he renounces all dependence upon State power, and as his weapons are spiritual, and were only designed to have influence on the judgment and heart of many, we are persuaded that if mankind were left in the quiet possession of their unalienable rights and privileges, Christianity, as in the days of the Apostles, would continue to prevail and flourish in the greatest purity by its own native excellence and under the all disposing providence of God.”

Amherst County (November 1, 1779):Fully Persuaded Gentlemen That the Religion of Jesus Christ may and ought to be Committed to the Protection Guidance & Blessing of its Divine Author and needs not the Interposition of any Human Power for its Establishment & Support.”

Rockingham County (November 18, 1784): “To which we would add that is certain Christianity was first planted and was propagated through the World for three hundred years by truth and love without and often against the use of Secular force can then the power thereof be more plainly denied in any way than by saying (as some does) that it would soon fail if not supported by Tax and Compulsion…Now we would ask is Religion Lost in any of those places or whether there is not as much of it there as where thought to be well Guarded by human Laws we believe there is and that there are proofs enough to Shew that this Liberty hath greatly Contributed to their Wellfare [sic] both Civil and Religious and sure we are that there hath not appeared any thing amongst them more Contrary to the Spirit of true Christianity than what is before Related.”

Chesterfield County (November 14, 1785): We therefore do most Dutifully Declare against it to be contrary to the Gospel & sound Policy for the Author of the Christian Religion declares this Kingdom is not of this world and for the men of world to undertake to Legislate for their subjects in matters of Religion in Violating of his Kingly prerogative, even those of the Christian church have no right to Amend his Laws by adding to the Command of Holy Writ as a Legislator but only to Judge of as a Judicator according to reason conviction and the Dictates of Conscience.”

55. “To Thomas Jefferson from Rev. John Todd, 16 August 1779,” Founders Online, National Archives ( [last update: 2015-02-20]). Source: The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 3, 18 June 1779-30 September 1780, ed. Julian P. Boyd. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1951, pp. 68-69.

56. Here are some additional examples:

Ministers and lay representatives of Presbyterian Church (November 2, 1785): “Its Divine Author did not think it necessary to render it dependent on earthly governments. And experience has shown that this dependence, where it has been effected, has been an injury rather than an aid. It has introduced corruption among the teachers and professors of it wherever it has been tried for hundreds of years, and has been destructive of genuine morality, in proportion to zeal, of the powers of this world, in arming it with the sanction of legal terrors, or inviting to its profession by honors and rewards.”

Pittsylvania County (November 7, 1785): “When mature deliberation on the Said Bill [religious assessment], we Humbly conceive that the most fatal consequences may result from its passing into a Law: both the Libertys of the people as well as, the subversion of all true Religion.”

Baptist Association (November 3, 1785): “from the History of Establishments in Religion that they have generally been unfavourable not only to the progress of real piety and Charity; but to the Liberties of those States where they have existed which is a further reason why they should most seriously object against the Bill in Question. for allowing it to have been form’d with the most benevolent intentions towards the State, there is no surety that it may not be made in some future period a foundation on which men of alliberal or mistaken principles, may raise a Superstructure of Domination, totally destructive of our present system of liberty… On the whole as it appears the Bill is not adopted promote true piety, but rather to destroy it if brought into a law of the state, that being contrary to the sentiments of different religious societies as such, and to many individuals perhaps in every society.”

57. Mecklenburg County (1785).

Here are some additional examples:

Amelia County (November 9, 1785): “Then shall Light break out in Church & State, knowledge cover the Earth. We shall be like * of Nations, and all oppression forever Extirpated.”

 Brunswick County (November 28, 1785): “We do believe, that it is best for Church and State, and most agreeable to the Gospel of Christ that all Men should be free from all Compulsion in this Matter; except that of their own Reasons and Conscience.”




3 thoughts on “What the Religious Right gets Wrong About Religious Freedom: Lessons from the Religious Dissenters of Revolutionary Virginia

  1. Pingback: In the Battle for the Wall of Separation between Church and State the Supreme Court Now has a Wrecking Ball | History Chick in AZ

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  3. Pingback: Ratifying the Constitution: Anti-Federalists Demand Protections for State Establishments of Religion? (Abusing History, Part II) | History Chick in AZ

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