The American Revolution: A History in Documents

By Steven C. Bullock | Go to book overview

Chapter Five
The Limits
of Liberty
Revolutions in Society and Culture

This piece of needlework from the
1770s relates the Biblical story of
Absalom, the son of King David,
in a way that echoes the plight of
the colonies before the Revolution.
While Absalom, trapped in a tree
by his long hair, is executed by the
commander Joab, dressed signifi-
cantly in a red coat—the father
uncaringly plays a harp
.

In October 1776, four months after Virginia's Declaration of Rights had proclaimed the liberties of its citizens, members of the Presbyterian church in Hanover County complained to the state's legislature that they were still denied those rights. Americans were now [casting off the yoke of tyranny] imposed by the British. Yet Presbyterians were still oppressed by the [spirit of domination, prejudice, or bigotry] that continued in Virginia. Although they were [dissenters] who did not belong to the Episcopal Church (what had been the Church of England before the Revolution) they still had to pay taxes to support it. This situation seemed particularly unfair in relatively recently settled counties like Hanover. Dissenters there were forced to pay [the heavy burdens] of buying land to support the ministers, paying their salaries, and building churches, even though [there [were] very few Episcopalians.]

Having to pay for ministers they did not want to hear and for churches they did not want to attend had not been unusual. For centuries, governments in Britain and other European countries had [established] a single church, requiring residents to pay tax money to support it, accept its religious beliefs, and often even attend its services. As the Virginia Presbyterians suggested, however, the Revolution's ideals of liberty and equality inspired many Americans to challenge this long-established pattern. [In this enlightened age, and in a land where all are united in the most strenuous efforts to be free,] the Presbyterians declared, [we hope and expect that our representatives will cheerfully concur in removing every species of religious, as well [as] civil bondage.] In fact, their petition argued, political and religious freedom were closely connected: [every argument for civil liberty, gains additional strength when applied to liberty in the concerns of religion.]

-127-

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