Virginia's Religious Disestablishment
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James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, John Leland
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The Virginia legislature passed Thomas Jefferson's bill "The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom" in 1786, ending the Anglican Church's formal establishment as the state religion. Yet Jefferson's bill was merely the denouement to a decade-long struggle toward disestablishment in Virginia as well as a harbinger of religious freedom in the new United States of America.
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The disestablishment of Anglicanism in Virginia came about as the result of an unlikely alliance between a handful of Virginian gentlemen -- who were strongly influenced by Enlightenment ideas about individualism and toleration -- and evangelical religious dissenters tired of unequal treatment at the hands of local and state authorities.

Although Thomas Jefferson often receives the bulk of the credit for disestablishment for his 1786 "The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom," the struggle began in 1776 with James Madison and the Virginia Declaration of Rights. Evangelical preachers, like Isaac Backus and Samuel Davies, had long complained about establishment of the Anglican church in Virginia. The first realistic opportunity for reform came as the Revolutionary War gathered steam and the Virginia General Assembly authorized George Mason IV to draft a new constitution. James Madison, then an inexperienced state legislator, offered an amendment to Mason's constitution, changing Mason's mild defense of religious toleration into a more robust call for the "free exercise of religion," the first use of that well-known phrase.

During the Revolutionary War the Virginia legislature stopped collecting parish taxes and eased other regulations in order to encourage wartime unity. When the war ended, however, popular governor Patrick Henry proposed a bill that would have resumed the collection of parish taxes. Tensions between religious dissenters, especially upstart evangelical groups like the Presbyterians and the Baptists, and the Anglican-dominated planter elites peaked. There was an outpouring of petitions and pamphlets protesting the bill from local evangelical congregations, pastors, and fledgling organizations like the Baptist General Committee, headed by Baptist pastor John Leland. In 1785, the parish tax bill was narrowly defeated and establishment was all but legally dead. By early 1786, Virginian legislators saw the turning tide and overwhelmingly approved Jefferson's formal guarantee of religious freedom.

The alliance of secular intellectuals like Jefferson and Madison with evangelical dissenters like John Leland continued to bear fruit. Leland played an important role in the election of Madison to the constitutional ratification convention of 1788. Madison was then the primary influence behind the adoption of a Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution, in which he borrowed from his earlier work in Virginia to codify the "free exercise" of religion in the first amendment. Leland and many other evangelicals also supported Thomas Jefferson in the contentious presidential election of 1800, giving context to Jefferson's guarantee to the Danbury Baptist association that he would build a "wall of separation" between church and state.

Although Virginia was not the first state to disestablish religion -- North Carolina claimed that honor in 1776 -- it marked the turning point in American disestablishment because of the state's massive population and the out-sized political influence of its planter-politicians on the formation of the new nation. In 1833, the final state establishment crumbled when Massachusetts disestablished Congregationalism. The influence of Virginia's disestablishment did not end then, however. State battles over disestablishment, and Virginia's experience in particular, were the ultimate basis of the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark ruling in Everson v. Board of Education of the Township of Ewing (1947), which declared state-level subsidies for religious groups unconstitutional.
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Timeline Entries for the same religious group Anglicanism Family
Anglicanism Family: Other ARDA Links

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Backus, Isaac
Leland, John

Thomas Jefferson portrait- Internet Archive- from The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, vol 10

James Madison portrait- Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-19166

John Leland portrait- Internet Archive- from The Writings of the late Elder John Leland by L. F. Greene

Thomas Jefferson letter to the Danbury Baptists- Library of Congress, Manuscript Division

Thomas Jefferson tombstone- Wikimedia Commons- photo by Christopher Hollis for Wdwic Pictures
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Paul Matzko
Affliated with: Pennsylvania State University, Ph.D. in History

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