The Disestablishment of Religion in Virginia: Dissenters, Individual Rights, and the Separation of Church and State

By Neill, Debra R. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, January 1, 2019 | Go to article overview

The Disestablishment of Religion in Virginia: Dissenters, Individual Rights, and the Separation of Church and State


Neill, Debra R., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


The long battle over religious establishments in Virginia culminated with the passage of Jefferson's famous Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom in 1786. This outcome could not have been predicted in 1776 when the colony declared independence. Political and religious power rested firmly in the grip of members of the established Church of England. From all appearances, Virginia was set to be one of the most conservative states of the newly independent nation, but the Revolutionary War opened the way for radical change. An unlikely alliance between rationalist, such as James Madison, and pious religious dissenters challenged the traditional order and made Virginia a beacon of religious liberty.

Given its unique role in establishing religious liberty, Virginia remains at the center of the current debate over religious liberty and the meaning of the First Amendment. Looming large in this debate are the high-profile statesmen Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Largely absent from this story has been the equally important role of their religious allies. There are only a few serious historical works addressing the dissenters' role in disestablishing religion in the states during and after the Revolutionary War. One of the first was William G. McLoughlin's seminal work, New England Dissent, 1630- 1833, but the first serious historical study of the dissenters in Virginia was undertaken by Thomas E. Buckley in Church and State in Revolutionary Virginia. Both McLoughlin and Buckley characterized the dissenters' vision as one that rejects government intervention in religious affairs, while "expect [ing] that government, in caring for the general welfare, would institutionalize certain Christian norms and values." In contrast to this religion-focused interpretation of the dissenters, the historian John A. Ragosta, in The Wellspring of Liberty, portrays the Virginia dissenters as warriors in the struggle for a religious liberty that rests on the separation of religion from government.1

In contrast to historians, legal scholars have been more enthusiastic about investigating the dissenters' role in the process of disestablishment of religion from 1776 to 1833. This is primarily because these scholars see the dissenters as allies in rejecting a strict separation of church and state. Those who fall in this camp can be broadly categorized as "accommodationists," those who advocate for the accommodation of religious belief in public policy. To boost the credibility of their accommodationist interpretations, they argue that, as the primary force in the push to disestablish religion, the pious dissenters should carry more weight than rationalists in the interpretation of the First Amendment. Like McLoughlin and Buckley, these accommodationists insist that the dissenters sought a different type of separation from the rationalists. In their view, the dissenters had a vision of religious liberty that was grounded in their concern for the future of the church and a desire to permeate society with the Christian gospel. As Carl H. Esbeck contends, they "were religious people who sought disestablishment for (as they saw it) biblical reasons." By citing the dissenters' religious-focused arguments and language in their works, these scholars have constructed a compelling narrative of the dissenting vision of religious freedom that is compatible with an accommodationist church-state arrangement.2

Although accommodationists disagree on the extent and scope of the dissenters' willingness to accommodate religion, they agree on the basic outlines of the dissenting vision of religious liberty. In their view, the dissenters built their church-state vision based on two guiding principles: the equality of all religions or denominations (Christian or Protestant) and a ban on government intervention in religious affairs. The former implies that laws supporting religion are acceptable as long as all religions are treated equally. The latter leaves religion free to influence the government, even as the government is prevented from intervening in church affairs. …

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