The genealogical history book that I’m currently writing is not the first time that I’ve written about the history of Virginia. I have done a lot of research over the years on the history of Virginia and particularly upon the church-state relationship in Virginia. For example, I wrote a paper at Gettysburg College for Colonial America entitled, “The Shaking of the Anglican Establishment in Colonial Virginia.” What follows here is the next step in that research. It was a paper written for Modern Age, a church history course in the M.Div. program at Westminster Theological Seminary. The original title of this paper was “The Shaken Ecclesiastical Establishment Crumbles: The Church-State Debate in Virginia’s Frontier, The State as Nursing Fathers vs. The State as Independent.” I included my own transcriptions of some of the primary sources in appendixes below. Many, but not all, of those words with different spellings than currently at use in American English are marked with “[sic].”
In late 1776, there was a flurry of petitions on religions questions from Virginia’s upper (southern) Shenandoah Valley counties and their neighbors to the south. With the Declaration of Independence, the former request of dissenters for tolerance in the two years prior to 1776 gave way to calls for disestablishment of the Anglican Church’s unique privileges in the few months afterwards. Over the course of the ten years following the Declaration, two distinct views developed with regard to the future relationship between church and state. Neither view usually had room for special privileges, with those favoring the continuance of the establishment of the now Protestant Episcopal Church negligible in numbers. The first view perhaps can be justly entitled the Nursing Father position. The most representative and carefully articulated petition of this viewpoint came in November 1783 from Amherst County. The second view argues for a more independent relationship between church and state seeing even support for all churches equally as suspect. The most representative and carefully articulated petition of this viewpoint came in October 1785 from Albemarle County. The latter view exceeded the former in the number of adherents within these counties.
Support for the establishment in the Colony of Virginia had been on the decline for some time due to settlement patterns and geography as well as the growth of dissenting denominations through the implications of the Toleration Act and the Great Awakening. This is not to mention how the established church failed to change to meet the shifting circumstances, despite its long history as functionally independent from the Church of England. There are also important social considerations that influenced the decline of the established church. Most critical was the struggle between the Tidewater (old coastal Virginia) and the Piedmont frontiersmen for power. Those on the frontier, of all social classes, were much more open to the Presbyterian Great Awakening brought by Rev. Samuel Davies than those that lived in the Tidewater with an entrenched establishment. There are economic motives (trade with the Scottish) as well as the common attitude of rebellion towards one’s parents (as all descended from Tidewater inhabitants) that help explain the attractiveness of associating with the dissenters, not to mention that many probably experienced genuine conversion through evangelists. The western Piedmont, furthest from the Tidewater, includes Albemarle and Amherst Counties. A very similar population lived in Bedford and southern Botetourt Counties.
The other counties under consideration are in the upper Shenandoah Valley. Northern Botetourt and southern Augusta came together to form Rockbridge County in 1778. At the same time, the State carved Rockingham County from northern Augusta. Rockbridge was an area settled by Scots-Irish Old Side Presbyterians. Pennsylvania German Mennonites as well as German Lutherans and Reformed heavily settled in Rockingham. And Augusta in 1778 was the area where two groups overlapped. From their arrival to colonial Virginia the Scots-Irish Presbyterians controlled Augusta’s established church, contra efforts by the colony’s government. Then when the Pennsylvania Germans came, the establishment offered support for Lutheran and Reformed cooperation with each other and the Presbyterians so that viable churches were possible despite sparse populations and needs for clergy. As each denomination established strong churches and secured pastors the need for the establishment waned. The result of all these factors portended the demise of the established church.1
In many ways the Virginia of 1774-1786 is a foreign land to the modern in terms of religion and politics. In May 1774, Presbyterian elders from the Peaks of Otter Congregation in Bedford County petitioned the House of Burgesses for the ability to buy and sell land and slaves in order to support a Minister. In doing so they noted,
That your Petitioners have in time past and are still willing to contribute their Quota in Support of the Church of England as by Law established in this Colony of Virginia: which they do with the more Cheerfulness, as they have hitherto enjoyed their Rights and Privileges and the free Exercise of their Religion as Presbyterian Dissenters unmolested.
At the heart of the petition is the message that the free exercise of religion of the dissenting church contributes to the making of good citizens and therefore the state should respond favorably to requests for the legal allowances to conduct business. And the elders also had to ask for the right to withhold the money from a Minister who did not “continue in the doctrine and subject to the Discipline of the Presbyterian Church as held and exercised by their Sessions Presbyteries and Synods.” This acknowledged that the church was at least functionally subordinate to the state in issues of church discipline. Again in November 1785 there was a similar petition from Bedford County Presbyterians near the Peaks of Otter asking to be incorporated.2
There were also a number of petitions over the years for issues related to the support of Anglican Church pastors. The Church before the Revolution, and as the Protestant Episcopal Church after it, enjoyed the rights of official establishment in Virginia. As a result, pastors were employees of the state. Rev. John Brander of Bedford County petitioned in May 1774 for his pay rate in tobacco to equal other Ministers. Rev. Charles Clay of Albemarle County petitioned in October 1779 for back pay for 1774 due to tax collection problems put on hold for the Revolution, when he willingly took a pay cut for the cause. Rev. Adam Smyth of Botetourt County petitioned regarding his job and salary in November 1776. There is also one from the Sheriff of Botetourt, regarding the payment of Rev. Smyth in December 1783 and one from Rev. Smyth’s son seeking the unpaid monies due his father’s estate in November 1793. In November 1783, various inhabitants of Botetourt County even petitioned for relief from the taxes needed to pay Rev. Smyth. Effectively, the state acted as the body of appeal for ecclesiastical issues like a presbytery or synod would.
In addition to questions related to pastoral pay, there was a handful of other decisions left to the state. One petition in Botetourt related to Rev. Smyth’s problems was from the few remaining members of the vestry, a local ecclesiastical arm of the state, in that county in May 1777. It sought the vestry’s dissolution since they were not able by law to carry out their duties with so few vestrymen. And there was a petition from William Fleming in November 1778 seeking the approval of another means to provide for the poor since the government previously did so through the vestry. The same problem arose in Rockbridge County, which was without a vestry for some time, so the County Court petitioned in May 1780 to have either the Justices or someone else appointed to relieve the poor. Other establishment issues were permission to buy or sell a glebe, land for the pastor, or other property matters. The vestry of Bedford County petitioned to sell their glebe in November 1778 and then again in May 1779 when no favorable action had yet been taken. Furthermore, the division of the parish was a decision left to the state. For example, inhabitants of Bedford and Campbell Counties petitioned in June 1782 to have Russell Parish, comprising both counties, divided along county lines.3
In a somewhat different vein, concerns of religious practice invariably led to petitions. The Mennonites and Dunkards of Rockingham County, where many Pennsylvania Germans of Mennonite heritage settled, petitioned in December 1784 to have the same privileges as the Quakers in regard to exemptions from military duty. Some Bedford County residents, not confessing Quakers, petitioned in November 1779 for relief from a large fine arising from a belief that oath taking is improper. Several Presbyterians of unknown residence, within Virginia, petitioned in October 1778 for exemptions from oath requirements. Most petitions, however, did not seek mere tolerance of variant viewpoints but something more. These other religious petitions dealt with the issues related to disestablishment.
One petition signed by almost a hundred men in November 1783 from Amherst County expresses best the arguments of the Nursing Father position. The most oft quoted sentence therein has been, “Far be it from us to Suppose that Our Legislature will look on this Important Business as Unworthy of their Notice, Or that you will think it beneath your Dignity to become Nursing Fathers to the Church.” The petition starts by praising God for his guiding them to victory in the Revolutionary War and expressing gratitude for his agents in this regard. Then it moves to say that while joyous of God’s favor in the struggle and the peace now upon them (as well as “a Prospect of all the Temporal Blessings which can Result from it”), their happiness is not complete. Without the thing they ask, these men said, “We must be more miserable than the Beasts that Perish.” They declared, “Long have we groan’d under & secretly lamented the miserable Declension, nay the in some Places, almost total Annihilation of our Divine Religion instead of which Vice and Immorality Lewdness & Prophanity [sic] in Sundry Shapes appear.” The ensuing text also mentions gaming, blasphemy, and other vices. The complaint of these Amherst petitioners was that people are substituting iniquity for worship of God.
Seeing now the grievance of the Nursing Father advocates, it is time to turn to their proposals for revival of the worship of God. Indeed, this was their very aim, saying that the best way of “working a Reformation will be to Restore the Publick [sic] Worship of God in this Land.” They warned that God’s displeasure might befall the Commonwealth if the wickedness prevalent all around and corrupting the youth was not brought into check. The savior of these men was the legislature. It is in this context that they declared that the state should be a Nursing Father to the church, defined as all Christian denominations (with differences seen as unessential—a call for unity in Christ). Later in the text, they said, “No Roud [sic] or lordly Relate, No bigoted Presbytery can Awe your Deliberations: And may the Spirit of the Most High inspire your Hearts & Enlighten your Minds with Wisdom from above.” At the end, the subscribers noted the characteristic arguments of this position that the other side roundly denounced. It was that the “Publick Worship of God and a due Administration of the Sacraments” would end without state monetary support. And that it did not violate religious liberty “so long as every Individual is left at full Liberty to bestow whatever he contributes upon the Ministers and Teachers of That Society whereof he is a Member.” Government compulsion with regard to religious matters was considered fair.
A petition from Albemarle County in October 1785, signed by more than 220 free men, best expressed the arguments of the Independent position. It was written in response to a proposal that would compel all to pay for their own clergy4 – the very thing the Nursing Father supporters wanted. This pro-Independent argument, like the other side, argued in terms familiar to the day. The foremost appeal was invariably stated akin to the following:
The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it, as these may dictate. This right is, in its nature an unalienable right. It is unalienable because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds, cannot follow the dictates of other men. It is unalienable also because what is a right towards men, is a duty towards the Creator. It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him.
The argument, using Virginia’s Declaration of Rights Article 16 for support (though the original intent does not agree with their interpretation of its purpose5), was that freedom of conscience requires men to have the choice whether or not to give to their own clergy. Ultimately, issues of religion are not within the purview of a legislature. Any that “submit to” the regulation of religion by the government “are slaves.”
Other frequent arguments made by the pro-Independent camp included in the Albemarle petition are such things as, “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity in exclusion of all other Religion that the same authority which can force a Citizen to contribute threepence only of his property, for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment, in all cases whatsoever.” Moreover, failure to perform one’s religious duties like paying for the Minister offend against God not man, “To God therefore, not to man must an account of it be rendered.” Furthermore,
The Bill implies, either that the Civil Magistrate is a competent judge of Religious truth, or that he may employ Religion as an engine of Civil policy. The first is an arrogant pretension falsified by the contradictory opinions of Rulers in all ages, and throughout the world: the second, an unhallowed perversion of the means of Salvation.
In response to the argument of Nursing Father advocates, the memorialists put forward the contention that the Christian religion does not need the state to survive and to say it does is to deny the Gospel and to deny history. In this way, the petition states,
The establishment proposed by the Bill is not requisite for the support of the Christian Religion. To say that it is, is a contradiction to the Christian Religion itself, for every page of it disavows a dependence on the powers of this world: it is a contradiction to fact; for it is known that this Religion both existed and flourished not only without the support of human laws, but in spite of every opposition from them; and not only during the period of miraculous aid, but long after it had been left to its own evidence and the ordinary care of Providence.
Additionally, there were substantial arguments about how establishments have made problems for the church in the past including sanctioning wicked clergy.
The Albemarle petition was dramatic at times. Take for instance, “Distant as it may be, in its present form, from the Inquisition, it differs from it only in degree.” And, “The magnanimous sufferer under this cruel scurge [sic] in foreign regions [looking to come to America] must view the Bill as a Beacon on our coast, warning him to seek some other haven.” This petition truly represented a long development of thought in pro-Independent circles.
It is worth noting some of the most common Independent arguments not pronounced in the Albemarle petition. There was a tradition of speaking about the Revolution as anticipatory of the Independent view. One petition that circulated in slightly different forms around Albemarle and Amherst counties in October 1776 said,
That when it became Necessary that the form of Government should be new Modeled in consequence of our having thrown off our Dependence on the Crown & Parliament of Great Britain, your Memorialists flattered themselves that, that form of Government, that would secure Just & equal Right to the Subject, would be the Choice of every Individual.
The comment that they “flattered themselves” appeared a few times among petitions from the Independent camp. In a petition from Rockbridge County in December 1784, the writer declared,
That your Memorialists hoped after the happy termination of a long and dangerous war all denominations of Christians in this State would have enjoyed equal privileges both religious and civil free from the most remote attempt of any one Sect to gain legal advantages in distinction from the Rest – But to our great surprise before the wounds we received in our Country’s Cause had ceased to bleed or the Arms with which we gained our Liberties began to rust the Episcopal Clergy come in and pray for distinctions incompatible with that political Equality which is the undoubted Privilege of every Christian in the Federal Union as the reward of the common blood and treasures so freely spent by all.
While Rockbridge citizens were surprised, Botetourt residents responded a year later to a new bill, “That your Petitioners were not a little surprised at the sight of a Bill Establishing a Provision for teachers of the Christian Religion.” The Rockbridge memorial argued that compelling members to pay for their ministers is worse than simply establishing one church because it would destroy religion. The basic argument is best summed up as, “But by a general tax all will be rendered so independent of the will of the particular Societies for their support that all will be infected with the common contagion and we shall be more likely to have the State swarming with Fools, Sots, and Gamblers than with a Sober Sensible and Exemplary Clergy.” The Botetourt petition puts it this way, “Among the Different denominations of Christians many of whose opinions are Dramaticaly [sic] opposite to each other, it would be absurd not to suppose some of them erroneous, your petitioners are humbly of opinion that it would be as absurd to support by publick authority the teachers of these erroneous oppinions [sic].”
There are two extant petitions that do not seem to openly take a side in this debate other than to argue for disestablishment. An Augusta County petition from December 1786 had language similar to those holding the Independent position but it did not go that far. It called for disestablishment on the grounds that the Episcopal Church privileges were not granted equally to all sects. And there also was an Albemarle County petition from November 1786 that did not seem to take a side on the Nursing Father versus Independent debate, though it does not contend that the legislature has no say in Religious affairs (still a case mostly from silence is weak). It is a cleverly argued work, using the metaphor of a man dying without a will for the situation facing the established church. King George III was the man who died, to them, without a will and his estate was the established Anglican Church. The only extant petition on the other side of the establishment versus disestablishment debate from these counties also came from Albemarle County. In December 1786, the vestry of Albemarle County and some members of the established church urged against disestablishment.
There is only one other surviving petition outside of Amherst County that seems to fit the Nursing Fathers argument in the sense that it supports a religious assessment. It came from Augusta County in October 1779. The petition argued in favor of the “Plan proposed by the House of Delegates, For Establishing the priviledges [sic] of the several denominations of Religious Societies, at the Last Session of Assembly.” Seven days later, the legislature received from citizens of the same county, a petition supporting Thomas Jefferson’s “Bill for establishing religious Freedom.” These two viewpoints come from opposite poles. The former sees support of religion as “a great means for Laying a Permanent foundation to Maintain that Liberty, which we are so Earnestly, if so Joyntly [sic] contending for.” In the latter petition, the signers declare support for Jefferson’s bill merely by saying opponents “objections against it, do hereby signify our most cordial approbation of it as founded upon just, catholic & political principles & pray that it may this present Session be passed into a Law.” Both appeals probably favored disestablishment narrowly defined as the exclusive privileges of the Episcopal Church (since it is Augusta County), but at least some Nursing Father proponents would consider the general establishment of the Christian Religion perfectly acceptable (See “A Bill Concerning Religion,” 1799).6
There were two other petitions from Amherst in favor of assessment. In November 1799 several “Protestant freeholders & inhabitants of Amherst County” declared (including some quite prominent ones),7
That your petitioners are of Opinion that a sincere cultivation of the worship of our Creator will produce peace to our minds, will dispose Men to mutual acts of benevolence and render them dutiful subjects to the State. We your Petitioners therefore humbly pray that a law may be enacted obliging all Protestants to contribute to the support of the ministers of their several professions to be collected and paid in such a manner as to the wisdom of your honble house seem proper: and your Petitioners further pray that altho [sic] they are willing that Toleration should be granted to the members of the Church of Rome yet knowing their intolerant & persecuting spirit, their aspiring and domineering genius, such toleration should be guarded & limitted [sic], and we particularly pray that no Roman Catholic, Jew, Turk, or Infidel be entitled to hold any Post civil or military within this commonwealth.
The second petition’s entire body is the following:
The petition of the Freeholders & others the Inhabitants of Amherst County & Parish have seen for a considerable Time and with much Concern (religion declining dayly [sic]) for want of some proper mode adopted for its support They humbly Pray that a general assessment may Take Place.
The Judge certifying the second petition, William Loving, signed the first. The other curious thing is that the latter petition, like the former did not call for the end of the Episcopal establishment. In fact, this second petition was in an established Episcopalian setting (hence usage of “parish”). So while these two petitions fit the Nursing Father model on the question of an assessment for paying Ministers of the Gospel, they did not necessarily favor disestablishment of the Episcopal Church.
Petitions akin to the Independent vision were much more numerous. In the Fall following the Declaration of Independence, three very similar petitions, one cited earlier, circulated,8 the first two dated October 1776 and the third November 1776; the first two for Albemarle, Amherst, and Buckingham Counties, the third for only Albemarle and Amherst. These three say something like: “Your Memorialists Desire nothing More, with Regard & Respect to Religious Matters, than that every Religious Denomination may be on an equal footing; be supported by themselves, Independent of each other.” There was a comparable petition from Augusta County dated November 9, 1776. Another Independent petition came in November 1784 from Rockingham County. Endorsing the Presbyterian Convention held in Augusta County that approved an Independent view (and not the Nursing Father view many Presbyterians had held earlier)9 were petitions from Augusta County in November 1785, Botetourt, Augusta and Rockbridge Counties in August 1785, and one for just Rockbridge County (same date as last). Besides the one from Botetourt cited earlier, Rockbridge, Bedford and Rockingham10 Counties also sent pro-Independent petitions in October and November of the same year. For Amherst County, throughout 1776-1786, there was an additional four against religious assessments or for the religious freedom bill (3 unique – 2 had identical texts). The petition from Presbyterians near the Peaks of Otter in November 1785 apparently also expressed the hope that no assessment would be compelled from them for religious purposes.11
The result was two petitions in favor of a Nursing Father position and nineteen (including a few with almost identical texts) for an Independent position. For disestablishment (defined narrowly) generally, besides these twenty-one, there were two in favor and one against – for a ratio of 23:1. Then there were also the two in favor of assessment (the Nursing Father position) but not necessarily Episcopal disestablishment. Most of the petitions had a substantial number of signatures. Incidentally, these counties had representatives that supported their position in the House of Delegates. All of the Delegates from these counties were for the Independent position and many, if not most, were Presbyterians.12
In summary, again observe a petition from Amherst County in November 1779, showing its independent position, saying,
And we assure you Gentlemen, It is with much Satisfaction That we your Petitioners who are Compos’d of Church of England men; Presbyterians, Baptists & Methodists do all unanimously & with One Voice hereby declare to your Honble House our hearty Assent Concurrence & Approbation to the purport of the said Bill [a bill for Religious Freedom] and desire that the same may be passed into a Law. Fully Persuaded, Gentlemen That the Religion of Jesus Christ may and ought to be Committed to the Protection Guidance & Blessing of its Divine Author, & needs not the Interposition of any Human Power for its Establishment & Support.
And the Albemarle residents seeing the situation as analogous to a man dying without a will: “our old father & head of the church as many acknowledge George the third to be, is Dead towards us, and all that [remains?] is an Equal division of the Estate that we equally Labour’d for.” And later declared, “then when Justice takes place Ephraim will not envie [sic] Judah nor Judah, Ephraim.” Then their neighbors shortly afterwards lobbied on behalf of the Parish in Albemarle saying, they “pray that the said Act may not be repealed; because they conceive it, in the present infant State of their Church [the Episcopal Church], to be singularly necessary for the Order, Government, Discipline, Doctrine, & Worship thereof.” Though they are “full of Charity & Brotherly Love: for all Denominations.”
The petition of December 1786 from Augusta County had many of the characteristic phrases of a pro-disestablishment letter, which was the primary objective of the subscribers. Using such phrases as “we flattered ourselves” and appealing to “the Blood and Treasure” spent on the Revolutionary War. And eventually appealing to Scripture, which is not common in these petitions, it quoted the Great Commission passage from Matthew 28:18-20. The basic point being that it is a denial of Christ’s teaching to believe that the church needs the state subsidy to survive. It is easy to see how arguments for disestablishing the state church developed into the arguments for an Independence of church and state where the state does not support the church at all financially.
The most vocal church-state position in the upper Shenandoah Valley and counties to its south was complete independence. During the Revolutionary Era, the Westminster Confession of Faith, subscribed to by Presbyterians, underwent revisions for Americans. The new reading used the phrase “Nursing Father” to describe the state. However, Presbyterians from these counties did not support this view with regard to funding because of experience and principles derived from Common Sense Realist philosophy and Lockean-Jeffersonian political theory. They followed the Confession’s view of the freedom of conscience as the issue at stake in the debate. Still, all this said, the area under consideration was not representative of Virginia – let alone the nation. The Tidewater region probably showed more support for the Nursing Father position.
In many ways, the Revolutionary War opened the floodgates of open support for disestablishment. What is particularly interesting and surprising, however, is how many linked arguments for disestablishment and complete financial separation of church and state. The Scots-Irish and German inhabitants of the Valley not only favored disestablishment as no longer necessary, but also embraced arguments for freedom of conscience with regards to paying the Minister’s salary. While the western Piedmont still had pockets of support for the fiscal Nursing Father view of government, or even occasionally for the special privileges of the Episcopal Church, it too had moved to a view that the gospel should go forward without any state coercion. Petitions reveal the state of poor health the established church enjoyed in the area. Yet instead of the life support of the state, those with an Independent view believed the Church of Christ would thrive through the power of Christ.
1 For the last two paragraphs I rely on “The Shaking of the Anglican Establishment in Colonial Virginia,” paper submitted by the author for Colonial America, Gettysburg College, November 2001.
2 The petition is not extant.
3 The Rockingham County Court makes similar requests in a petition in October 1778 as is known from the Virginia Journal of the House of Delegates. The petition is not extant.
4 The bill is entitled, “A Bill establishing a provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion.” A transcription of it can be found in Thomas Buckley, Church and State in Revolutionary Virginia, 1776-1787 (Charlottesville, University Press of Virginia, 1977), 188-189.
5 Ibid., 19.
6 A transcription of the Bill is available in Buckley, Church and State, 185-188.
7 For the background of a couple prominent signers see Ibid., 51.
8 One could do conjectural work (where text is missing or damaged) as well as redactional criticism with these three petitions.
9 For the historical background see Buckley, Church and State, 137-139.
10 This petition does not survive, but Legislative records indicate it opposed the Assessment Bill.
11 The petition, mentioned earlier in the paper, is not extant.
12 Buckley, Church and State, 197-200.
The map [linked] above gives the county boundaries as of 1776. “Au” in the middle is Augusta County, “Bot” below it is Botetourt County. Next to Botetourt is Bedford and Amherst. Next to Amherst is Albemarle. In 1778, Rockbridge County formed from the southernmost part of Augusta and the northernmost part of Botetourt Counties. The same year, Rockingham formed from the northernmost part of Augusta County.1
[Picture unavailable, see cited source]
Here is a map with the full county names and geographical features. The dark line running south and north separates the Tidewater from the rest of the Commonwealth. This map anachronistically added these county names.2
2 Image is unaltered from Wesley M. Gewehr, The Great Awakening in Virginia, 1740-1790 (Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press, 1930), page before 19.
1774 May 17 Bedford Petition
Transcribed by Justin Marple
Petition of the members of the presbyterian church, pray that the elders thereof may be enabled to take and to hold lands and slaves, to the use of the minister, under proper regulations.
17 May 1774, referred to the committee for religion.
21st May 1774 reported reasonable”
To the Honourable Mr. Speaker and Gentlemen of the House of Burgesses. The Petition of a Number of Presbyterians, Members of a Presbyterian Church or Congregation in the County of Bedford, known by the Name of the Peaks of Otter, humbly showeth, That your Petitioners have in time past and are still willing to contribute their Quota in Support of the Church of England as by Law established in this Colony of Virginia: which they do with the more Cheerfulness, as they have hitherto enjoyed their Rights and Privileges and the free Exercise of their Religion as Presbyterian Dissenters unmolested: nor have they any Fears or Doubts of being Disturbed therein by this Honourable House, while your Petitioners duly obey the Laws of their Country, continue good Subjects to their most gracious Sovereign, and are useful Members of the Community. And as they look upon Obedience to the Laws and  from the Legislature to be reciprocal, they therefore pray the Protection of this Honourable House in future, in the free exercise of their Religion, which they humbly concieve [sic] is well calculated to make Men wise  To their lawful Sovereign, and to live in  is Subjection to the Laws. While they thus implore your Protection and favorable Notice, they beg Leave to inform this Honourable House that they find it very convenient to support Clergy of their Denomination by the usual Method of Subscription; therefore a Number of well disposed Persons in said Presbyterian Church or Congregation have made Contributions to purchase therewith Lands and Slaves for the Support of a Stated Minister of the said Congregation: but not believing their Elders or Church Session a Body sufficiently corporated [sic] by any express Law of this Colony, in which to vest the Freehold of the Land and Slaves in Trust for the Purpose of raising a Salery [sic], and the same [?] being in Obeyance [sic] would be liable to various Trespasses with our , for Remedy whereof your Petitioners farther pray that this Honourable House would pass a Law impowering [sic] the Elders of said Congregation to dispose of the Benefactions that now are or hereafter may be given for the Support of a Minister of the Presbyterian  in the Purchase of Lands and Slaves, or to place the same or any Part thereof to Interest as shall seem most for the Benefit of the Congregation, and vest in the said Elders and their Successors the Freehold of the said Land and Slaves to the Use of the said Minister, as long as he continues in the Doctrine and subject to the Discipline of the Presbyterian Church as held and exercised by their Sessions, Presbyteries and Synods; with Power to withhold the Profits of the said Lands and Slaves and the Interest of the Money whenever the Minister shall deviate from the Doctrine or Discipline according to the Judgement [sic] of the said Judicatures [sic]: and if the Profits of the said Lands [“and” is scribbled out] Slaves and Money should at any time exceed the Salery [sic] agreed upon with the said Minister, the Elders are to dispose of the Overplus, as also the Profits arising from such Sale to purchase other Lands or Slaves of a Minister and the Admission of his Successor, according to the Rules of the Presbyterian Church, as shall be directed by a Majority of the Congregation that the Elders shall have the Power to sell any Lands or Slaves that may be thought less useful and with the Money arising from such Sale to purchase other Lands or Slaves of more Value to the same uses: that the said Elders and their Successors shall be regular Members of the Presbyterian Church according to the Doctrine and Discipline thereof and that they shall be annually accountable to the Minister for his Salery [sic], or  thereof as shall arise from the Profits of the Land and Slaves and the Interest of the Money: that the [said Elders?]  a fair Book of all their Transactions in the said Trust, and render a just Account thereof to such [Persons?] as shall be chosen by a Majority of the Congregation when thereunto demanded; and on Refusal or  to be liable to the [Sins?] of the Said Persons so chosen with the Consent of the said Majority. This our Petition being solely intended for promoting Religion and Virtue amongst the Presbyterians in this Part of the Colony is humbly left to the [Serious?] Consideration of this Honourable House to [last line is damaged – seems that some of it says something like “…Amendments…Wisdom shall be Shown” – then the last word is not uncertain: “expedient.”]
and your Petitioners as in Duty bound shall ever pray
1783 November 27 Amherst County Petition
Transcribed by Justin Marple
To the Honourable the Speaker and Gentlemen of both Houses of Assembly. The Petition of Sundry Inhabitants of the County of Amherst
That Your Petitioners Admire & Adore the All Gracious and Wonder Working Hand of the Almighty & Supreme Disposer of All Things Who hath Conducted us through so many scenes of Distress and hath at length Crown’d our Victorious Struggles for Freedom with Full & Complete Success: That Our Bosoms glow with Gratitude towards all who were the Agents & under Him the immediate Instruments in effecting this Great & Happy Revolution Whether Citizens or Allies in Council or in the Field.
But while we contemplate with Wonder & Gratitude the Mercies of Heaven and the Signal Interposition of the Most High in Our Favour [sic] Whilst we are Charmed at the Return of Peace and with it a Prospect of all the Temporal Blessings which can Result from it* Yet Our Hearts Experiences a Restless Anxiety One Thing is Wanting to render Our Prospect of Future Happiness Compleat [sic] And That so Important, that without It we shall be so far from being a happy People, that we must be more miserable than the Beasts that Perish.
We are sadly Apprehensive of the Fatal Consequences of these Things, especially towards Our [line is illegible] to put a stop to these swiftly increasing Evils, to check the Torrent of Iniquity before it Overspread Our Land like a Flood. To attain this happy End we humbly Conceive it will be highly Expedient, first, to Revive & Amend the Laws for the more Effectual Suppression of Vice & Punishment of Wicked Blasphemous & Dissolute Before and in particular to Provide more effectual means for the Punishment of those Crimes which fall immediately under the Cognizance of the Magestrates [sic]. We cannot forbear to mention Gaming & all its Concomitant Vices which are the Pests of Society of good Government, which enervate & debauch the minds of Our Youth,  moral & in fine are a Disgrace to the very Name of Christianity.
But Secondly And Above all we cannot Doubt for a Moment that the Most Effectual means for working a Reformation will be to Restore the Publick [sic] Worship of God in this Land. And well may we fear, if a Sense of Duty & especially now of Gratitude for the unparalleled Mercies we have receiv’d cannot move us to Honour his Name by Restoring his Worship and Restraining of Wickedness That some Exemplary National Judgment Or Signal Mark of his High Displeasure will soon overtake us.
To you then Gentlemen we Look. (To You, in whom Wisdom, Virtue, and Integrity We have Reposed the highest Confidence) To Draw the Out – lines of the Great Work and  a Plan for bringing the same to an Happy Conclusion. Far be it from us to Suppose that Our Legislature will look on this Important Business as Unworthy of their Notice, or that you will think it beneath your Dignity to become Nursing Fathers to the Church. For Success in this Weighty & Momentous Concern you will have the Earnest Prayers of every Good Man of all Denominations amongst us Thousands are now wishing for a Reformation in their Different Modes of Worship and there is the greatest Reason.
* Hayes’s Paper Sept. 13th last p. [illegible]
Reason to hope and believe That a System of Worship Simple Pure & Tolerant Formed On the Broad Basis of Gospel Liberty & Christian Charity____Divested of past Prejudices & Bigotry And Dictated by a true Catholick [sic] Spirit would meet with a General Acceptance and Approbation.
We are well aware of the Great Variety of important matters which will be before you at your next Session But we hope the Obvious Necessity of Attending to This (the most Important of all) will excuse our troubling you at this Time. We cannot however expect that you will be able fully to Investigate the Subject at once But Pray (as above hinter) that the Proper Preparatory Measures may be Adopted. This seems a Precious Season for Restoring Religion Our Present Situation is peculiarly favorable. No Roud [sic] or lordly Relate, No bigoted Presbytery can Awe your Deliberations: And may the Spirit of the Most High inspire your Hearts & Enlighten your Minds with Wisdom from above. With Zeal for His Glory. Accompany’d with Universal Love towards all Mankind and an Earnest Desire for their Salvation That you may Form such a System as may Reconcile all those Petty Jars & trifling Differences which (tho’ Confessedly Unessential) have hitherto so unhappily Divided the Protestants Amongst us. May promote an Happy Union by Comprehending all the Sincere & pious Christians of every Denomination at present among us. Be a means of preventing future Divisions. And lay a Foundation for the Exercise of Christian Love Forbearance & Moderation in the Ages to come. So that Perhaps as the mists of Ignorance and the prejudices of Custom & Education gradually diminish all may become United together in One Spirit under the One Head and exhibit such a Spectacle to the Wondering World as hath not appear’d since the first Ages of Christianity.
Freedom in Religion is so well Secur’d by the Bill of Rights and so Interwoven in the Constitution which we First  May well remain Inviolate to our  that it is alltogether [sic] Unnecessary for us to declare against every appearance of Compulsion.
And yet (how melancholy  the Consideration may be) We Awefully [sic] fear it will prove too sad a Truth, That the Publick Worship of God and a due Administration of the Sacraments cannot long be supported without a General Contribution in favour of Religion. Which Experience sadly Verifies cannot be had without the Interference of the Legislature. This cannot be Considered by any as an Infringement of Religious Freedom so long as every Individual is left at full Liberty to bestow whatever he contributes upon the Ministers and Teachers of That Society whereof he is a Member. But then we hope that the Express Sum required of each Individual (which must needs be moderate especially at first & in proportion to our Circumstances) will be  Ascertain’d by Our Legislature As well as the Annual Method of Collecting & Paying it.
In the fullest Dependence on the Wisdom Piety & Catholick Spirit of Our Hon.ble [sic] Legislature And shall ever pray & etc.
1785 October 28 Albemarle Petition
Transcribed by Justin Marple
To the Honble General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia
A Memorial and Remonstrance.
We the subscribers, inhabitants of Albemarle county, having taken into serious consideration a Bill printed by order of the last Session of General Assembly, entitled, “A Bill establishing a provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion”; and conceiving that the same if finally armed with the sanctions of a law, will be a dangerous abuse of power, are bound as faithful members of a free State to remonstrate against it, and to declare the reasons by which we are determined. We remonstrate against the said Bill,
Because we hold it for a fundamental and undeniable truth, “that Religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction not by force or violence.” The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it, as these may dictate. This right is, in its nature an unalienable right. It is unalienable because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds, cannot follow the dictates of other men. It is unalienable also because what is a right towards men, is a duty towards the Creator. It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent both in order of time and in degree of obligation to the claims of Civil Society. Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society; he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe: and if a member of Civil Society, who enters into any subordinate association, must always do it with a reservation of his duty to the General Authority; much more must every man, who becomes a member of a particular Civil Society, do it with a saving of his allegiance to the Universal Sovereign. We maintain, therefore, that in matters of Religion, no man’s right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society, and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance. True it is, that no other rule exists, by which any question which may divide a Society can be ultimately determined, but it is also true that the majority may trespass on the rights of the minority.
Because, if Religion be exempt from the authority of the Society at large, still less can it be subject to that of the Legislative Body. The latter are but creatures and vicegerents of the former. Their jurisdiction is both derivative and limited. It is limited with regard to the coordinate departments: more necessarily it is limited with regard to the constituents. The preservation of a free Government requires, not merely that the metes and bounds which separate each department of power, be invariably maintained; but more especially, that neither of them be suffered to overleap the great Barrier which defends the rights of the people. The Rulers, who are guilty of such an encroachment, exceed the commission from which they derive their authority, and are Tyrants. The people who submit to it, are governed by laws made neither by themselves nor by any authority derived from them, and are slaves.
Because it is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties. We hold this prudent jealousy to be the first duty of Citizens, and one of the noblest characteristics of the late Revolution. The freemen of America did not wait till Usurped power had strengthened itself by exercise, and entangled the question in precedents. They saw all the consequences, and they avoided the consequences by denying the principle. We revere this lesson too much soon to forget it. Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity in exclusion of all other Religion that the same authority which can force a Citizen to contribute threepence only of his property, for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment, in all cases whatsoever.
Because the Bill violates that equality which ought to be the basis of every law, and which is more indispensable, in proportion as the validity or expediency of any law is more liable to be impeached. [Marginal Note: “Decl Rights”] “If all men are by nature equally free and independent;” if all men are to be considered as entering into Society on equal conditions, as relinquishing no more, and therefore retaining no less, one than another, as their natural rights, above all, are they to be considered as retaining an “equal title to the free exercise of Religion according to the dictates of conscience.” Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess and to observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us. If this freedom be abused, it is an offense against God, not against man: To God therefore, not to man must an account of it be rendered. As the Bill violates equality by subjecting some peculiar burdens; so it violates the same principle by granting to others peculiar exemptions. Are the Quakers and Mononists [Mennonites] the only Sects who think a compulsive support of their Religions unnecessary and unwarrantable? Can their piety alone be entrusted with the care of public worship? Ought their Religions to be endorsed above all others with extraordinary privileges, by which proselytes may be enticed from all others? We think too favorably of the justice and good sense of these denominations to believe that they either covet preeminences over their fellow Citizens, or that they will be seduced by them from the common opposition to the measure.
Because the Bill implies, either that the Civil Magistrate is a competent judge of Religious truth, or that he may employ Religion as an engine of Civil policy. The first is an arrogant pretension falsified by the contradictory opinions of Rulers in all ages, and throughout the world: the second, an unhallowed perversion of the means of Salvation.
Because the establishment proposed by the Bill is not requisite for the support of the Christian Religion. To say that it is, is a contradiction to the Christian Religion itself, for every page of it disavows a dependence on the powers of this world: it is a contradiction to fact; for it is known that this Religion both existed and flourished not only without the support of human laws, but in spite of every opposition from them; and not only during the period of miraculous aid, but long after it had been left to its own evidence and the ordinary care of Providence: nay it is a contradiction in terms; for a Religion not invented by human policy, must have preexisted and been supported, before it was established by human policy: it is moreover to weaken in those who profess this Religion a pious confidence in its innate excellence and the patronage of its Author; and to foster in those who still reject it, a suspicion that its friends are too conscious of its fallacies, to trust it to its own merits.
Because experience witnesses that ecclesiastical establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of Religion, have had a contrary operation. During almost fifteen Centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? more or less in all places pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the Laity, in  superstition, bigotry, and persecution. Enquire [sic] of the Teachers of Christianity for the ages in which it appeared in its greatest lush those of every Sect, point to the ages prior to its incorporation with civil policy. Propose a restoration of this primitive state, in which its Teachers depended on the voluntary rewards of their flocks; many of them predict its downfall. On which side ought their testimony to have greatest weight, when for or when against their interest?
Because the establishment in question is not necessary for the support of Civil Government. If it be urged as necessary for the support of Civil Government, only as it is a means of supporting Religion, and it be not necessary for the latter purpose, it cannot be necessary for the former. If Religion be not within the Cognizance of Civil Government, how can its legal establishment be said necessary to Civil Government? What influence in fact have ecclesiastical establishments had on Civil Society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the Civil Authority; in many instances they have been upholding the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they been seen the Guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers who wished to subvert the public liberty, may have found an established Clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just Government instituted to secure and perpetuate it, needs them not. Such a Government will be best supported by protecting every Citizen in the enjoyment of his Religion, with the same equal hand which protects his person and his property; by neither invading the equal rights of any Sect, nor suffering any Sect to invade those of another.
Because the proposed establishment is a departure from that generous policy, which offering an asylum to the persecuted and oppressed of every nation and Religion, promised a luster to our Country and an accession to the number of its Citizens. What a melancholy man is the Bill of sudden degeneracy? Instead of holding forth an asylum to the persecuted, it is itself a signal of persecution. It degrades from the equal rank of Citizens all those whose opinions in Religion do not bend to those of the Legislative Authority. Distant as it may be, in its present form, from the Inquisition, it differs from it only in degree. The one is the first step, the other the last, in the career of Intolerance. The magnanimous sufferer under this cruel scurge [sic] in foreign regions must view the Bill as a Beacon on our coast, warning him to seek some other haven, where liberty and [text difficult to read] repose from his troubles.
Because it will have a like tendency to banish our Citizens. The allurements presented by other situations, are every day thinning their number. To superadd a fresh motive for emigration, by revoking the liberty which they now enjoy, would be the same species of folly which has dishonoured and depopulated flourishing Kingdoms.
Because it will destroy that moderation and harmony which the forbearance of our laws to intermeddle with Religion has produced among its several Sects. Torrents of blood have been spilt [sic] in the old world, by vain attempts of the secular arm to extinguish religious discord by proscribing all differences in religious opinion. Time has at length revealed the true remedy. Every relaxation of narrow and rigorous policy, wherever it has been tried, has been found to assuage the disease. The American theatre has exhibited proofs that equal and compleat [sic] liberty, if it does not wholly eradicate it, sufficiently destroys it malignant influence on the health and prosperity of the State. If with the salutary effects of this system under our own eyes, we begin to contract the bounds of religious freedom, we know no name that will too severely reproach our folly. At least let warning be taken at the first fruits of the threatened innovation. The very appearance of the bill has transformed that “Christian forbearance, love and charity,” [Marginal note: “Decl Rights Art 16”] which of late mutually prevailed, into animosities and jealousies which may not soon be appeased. What mischeifs [sic] may not be dreaded should this enemy to the public quiet be armed with the force of a Law?
Because the policy of the Bill is adverse to the diffusion of the light of Christianity. The first wish of those who enjoy this precious gift ought to be, that it may be imparted to the whole race of mankind. Compare the number of those, who have as yet received it, with the number still remaining under the dominion of false Religions, and how small is the former? Does the policy of the Bill tend to lessen the disproportion? no, it at once discourages those who are strangers to the light of truth, from coming into the region of it; and countenances, by example, the nations who continue in darkness, in shutting out those who might convey it to them. Instead of levelling [sic] as far as possible, every obstacle to the victorious progress of truth, the Bill with an ignoble and unchristian timidity, would circumscribe it, with a wall of defense against the encroachments of error.
Because attempts to enforce by legal sanctions, acts obnoxious to so great a proportion of Citizens, tend to enervate the laws in general, and to slacken the bonds of Society. If it be difficult to execute any law which is not generally deemed necessary or salutary what must be the case where it is deemed invalid and dangerous? And what may be the effect of so striking an example of impotency in the Government on its general authority?
Because a measure of such singular magnitude and delicacy, ought not to be imposed, without the clearest evidence that it is called for by a majority of Citizens; and no satisfactory method is yet proposed, by which the voice of the majority in this case, may be determined, or its influence secured. “The people of the respective counties are indeed requested to signify their opinion respecting the adoption of the Bill to the next Session of Assembly.” But the representation must be made equal, before the voice, either of the Representatives or of the Counties, will be that of the people. Our hope is that neither of the former, will after due consideration, espouse the dangerous principle of the Bill. Should the event disappoint us, it will still leave us in full confidence, that a fair appeal to the latter will reverse the sentence against our liberties.
Because, finally, “the equal right of every Citizen to the free exercise of Religion according to the dictates of Conscience,” is held by the same tenure with all our other [Rights] as the basis and foundation of Government, “P. It is enumerated with equal solemnity, or either with studied emphasis. Either then we must say, that the will of the Legislature is the only measure of their authority; and that, in the plenitude of this authority, they may sweep away all our fundamental rights; or that they are bound to leave this particular right untouched and sacred: Either we must say that they may controul [sic] the freedom of the press; may abolish the trial by Jury; may swallow up the Executive and Judiciary powers of the State; nay, that they may annihilate our very right of suffrage, and erect themselves into an independent and hereditary Assembly; or we must say that they have no authority to enact into a law, the Bill under consideration. We the subscribers say that the General Assembly of this Commonwealth have no such authority; and that no effort may be omitted on our part against so dangerous a usurpation, we oppose to it this Remonstrance; earnestly praying, as we are in duty bound, that the supreme Lawgiver of the Universe, by illuminating those to whom it is addressed, may, on the one hand, turn their Councils from every act which would affront his holy prerogative or violate the trust committed to them and, on the other, guide them into every measure which may be worthy of his blessing, may redound to their own praise, and may establish more firmly to the liberties, the prosperity, and the happiness of the Commonwealth.”
Library of Congress and the Library of Virginia. Early Virginia Religious Petitions. Images and summaries online, including information about petitions not extant. Available from http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/repehtml/repehome.html. Internet. Accessed November 2004.
Buckley, Thomas. Church and State in Revolutionary Virginia, 1776-1787. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1977.
Gewehr, Wesley M. The Great Awakening in Virginia, 1740-1790. Durham, N.C.: Duke Univ. Press, 1930.
Marple, Justin. “The Shaking of the Anglican Establishment in Colonial Virginia.” Paper submitted for Colonial America, Gettysburg College, November 2001.
Sheldon, Garrett and Daniel Dreisbach, eds. Religion and Political Culture in Jefferson’s Virginia. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Pub., Inc., 2000.
“Virginia GenWeb.” Website online. Available from http://www.rootsweb.com/~vagenweb/1776map.gif. Internet. Accessed 1 December 2004.