Virginia Baptists and Religious Liberty, 1765 to 1802 -- By: G. Hugh Wamble

Journal: Faith and Mission
Volume: FM 08:1 (Fall 1990)
Article: Virginia Baptists and Religious Liberty, 1765 to 1802
Author: G. Hugh Wamble

Virginia Baptists and Religious Liberty, 1765 to 1802

G. Hugh Wamble

Professor of Church History, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

Virginia Baptists played an important role in the struggle for religious liberty between 1765 and 1802. The leadership during the legislative phase of this struggle came from others, the two most notable being Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Baptists and other dissenters from Anglicanism, the official religion of the colony at the beginning of the period under review, provided the popular support and manpower for effecting change. Their experience demonstrated the evils of an establishment of religion and cultivated in them a passion for religious liberty.1

Persecution to Toleration

Despite the English Act of Toleration (1689), Separate Baptists and some Regular Baptists in Virginia suffered persecution and faced civil and social disabilities prior to the incorporation of religious liberty into constitutional and statutory law. The Act of Toleration, which ended religious oppression during the Restoration period, permitted trinitarian Protestants to meet and practice their religion outside of the Church of England on condition that they (1) take oaths of loyalty to civil authority, (2) register their meeting-places and ministers, (3) refrain from meeting in places “with the doors locked, barred, or bolted,” and (4) hold orthodox religious beliefs such as set forth in the Anglican Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion.2 The law exempted Baptists from teaching and practicing infant baptism, which they opposed; it also exempted Quakers from oath-taking, which they scrupled.3 However, Protestant Non-conformists remained subject to payment of tithes, parish duties, and ecclesiastical courts.

As early as 1699 the Virginia legislature implicitly held the Act to be applicable to Virginia.4 In 1738 the governor assured Presbyterians, then moving in large numbers from Pennsylvania and Maryland into Virginia’s western counties, that their ministers would be unmolested if Presbyterians took the prescribed oaths, registered their meeting-places, and “behave[d] peaceably towards the government.”5 Some Regular Baptists taking part in the same migration complied with the law and obtained licenses for meeting- places and ministers in Northern Virginia, though sometimes with difficulty.6 These religious dissenters escaped most of the hardships which dissenters in more populous areas of the...

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