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Religion in early Virginia

In a harsh new world, Virginia’s English colonists were supported by an ancient and familiar tradition, the established church. The law of the land from 1624 mandated that white Virginians worship in the Anglican church (The Church of England) and support its upkeep with their taxes. Where religion was an integral part of everyday life in Virginia, the lines blurred between religious and civil authority. Virginia gentlemen, who supported establishment but disliked centralized church authority, gained control of parish vestries and county courts to secure their power over religious matters.

Despite establishment, the eligious life of white Virginians was not without diversity. Dissenters from many Protestant groups had settled in the colony from early on, and had long resented the legal restrictions placed on their own practice of religion. Finally, after about 1750, evangelical Christians started a struggle for religious freedom parallel to and often opposite from the wider struggle for political independence. Although Anglicans tolerated Protestant dissenters, they found the traditional religious views of Native Americans and Africans beyond sanction.

But English colonists made only fitful efforts to bring blacks and Indians into the stablished church. The Powhatans and Indians further inland proved resistant to Christianity. For blacks, the oppression of slavery inevitably forced them to abandon a purely African worldview. Still, they did not come to Christianity in great numbers until evangelicals began gathering Christians from both races after the mid-eighteenth century.

Although some blacks and whites formed bonds through their shared evangelical experience, Virginia’s celebrated statute for religious freedom would have only limited meaning for African-Americans until after the Civil War. The Anglican gentry in Virginia long had a reputation for shallow faith nd attendance at church was more of habit and a desire for social contact than piety or zeal. Historians have begun to reevaluate this oversimplified view. They now characterize many of Virginia’s elite as sincere attachments to a moderate faith that provided a standard for judgment.

Faith was only a private and family affair. Reflections on a minister’s sermons, for example, were discussed within the family group or recorded in diaries, such as those of William Byrd II and John Blair of Williamsburg. The spread of religion in eighteenth-century life inspired the motifs used in the design of some household furnishings. Inscriptions on this pot encouraged the hostess, as she poured coffee, to “keep her conversation as becometh the lord” and her company to remember the comforting words of the twenty-third psalm, “the lord is my Shepherd Ishall not want.

Studies of the religious lives of the middle and lower classes, although harder to pursue, have tended to focus on the period after 1750, when evangelical Christianity pulled in Virginia’s “lesser folk,” including many slaves. Recent research indicates that small planters and their families made up the bulk of the congregations in Anglican churches and that hesecolonists held values similar to those of their betters.

While accepting difference in social rank, they came to expect a certain civility and recognition from the gentry that likely extended to the parish church and churchyard. The seeds of faith planted in Anglican homes and churches often lay dormant under routine worship, but later flourished under the influence of evangelical preachers. These men remodeled familiar biblical themes into a message of spiritual renewal and of a personal God who intervened in human affairs. Slaves in great numbers were drawn to evangelical Christianity, particularly the Baptist groups.

After the mid-eighteenth century, evangelical Christians (Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists) challenged the establishment’s discriminatory practices by flaunting licensing laws and refusing to be restricted to particular meetinghouses or locales. As the Revolution approached, they formed an unlikely partnership with apostles of the Enlightenment among the Revolutionary generation. Both were bent upon disestablishing the Anglican church in Virginia. The diversification of religion in Virginia up to and through the Revolutionary period was relatively peaceful. Conflicts did occur.

Anglican agents sometimes forcibly broke up evangelical meetings in the 1770s, and the sight of Baptist ministers preaching from their jail cells galvanized James Madison to give full support to disestablishment. But it seems as if the very number of religious groups in Virginia (and America) precluded the religious persecutions and sectarian warfare that had plagued England and the rest of Europe for centuries. Virginians proved to be less tolerant of non-Christian faiths, however. Most notably, slavery constituted a form of violence that deprived Africans of their traditional religious systems.

Native Americans clashed with colonists not only over land but in resisting conversion to the Christian faith. As settlers pushed back the Indians and as Anglican parishes spread out over Virginia, the gentry were able to gain control of the established church on the local and county levels as well as in the colonial legislature. Anglican elites proved to be tough opponents to evangelical Christians and the Revolutionary leaders who joined them in supporting disestablishment. African-Americans also made common cause with the evangelicals after 1750. Before that time, few blacks had joined the Christian fold.

In the 17th century, mall numbers of slaves had recognized that they could gain their freedom through baptism, but the General Assembly closed this loophole in 1667. Over the next century, most slave owners and Anglican ministers ignored the spiritual lives of African-Americans. Throughout the colonial period, the established church was supported and reinforced by other formal and informal institutions. Virginia lacked a bishop. Therefore, control of religious matters was largely left in the hands of local institutions ruled by the gentry. Vestrymen became the dominant influence on church affairs by the end of the 17th century.

They paid the clergy, built and repaired church buildings, and provided support for the needy. Justices of the peace, sitting on the bench of county courts, heard cases having to do with attendance at Anglican church services and adultery, and other moral offenses. In consolidating control over civil and religious matters on all levels, the leading men of the county further enhanced their power, and at the same time imparted their authority to the church. Virginia’s General Assembly protected the established church in law. It enforced laws that penalized dissenters: for example, requiring all officeholders to be Anglican.

The legislature also exercised authority over such matters as the creation of new parishes and the setting of ministers’ salaries. It was in the legislature that the battle over disestablishment was waged and eventually won, but informal institutions also supported the religious lives of Anglicans and dissenters alike. Families transmitted values and religious teachings. Reflecting the evolution of family relationships, by the mid-18th century, white women had become the primary guardians of the religious lives of their families. For dissenters, traveling preachers and local congregations played an important role in affirming their faith.

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