Religion in early Virginia

In a harsh new world, Virginia\'s English colonists were supported by an
ancient and familiar tradition, the established church. The law of the land from
1624 mandated that white Virginians worship in the Anglican church (The Church of
England) and support its upkeep with their taxes. Where religion was an
integral part of everyday life in Virginia, the lines blurred between religious and
civil authority. Virginia gentlemen, who supported establishment but disliked
centralized church authority, gained control of parish vestries and county
courts to secure their power over religious matters. Despite establishment, the
religious life of white Virginians was not without diversity. Dissenters from many
Protestant groups had settled in the colony from early on, and had long resented the
legal restrictions placed on their own practice of religion. Finally, after about
1750, evangelical Christians started a struggle for religious freedom parallel to
and often opposite from the wider struggle for political independence.
Although Anglicans tolerated Protestant dissenters, they found the
traditional religious views of Native Americans and Africans beyond sanction. But English
colonists made only fitful efforts to bring blacks and Indians into the
established church. The Powhatans and Indians further inland proved resistant to
Christianity. For blacks, the oppression of slavery inevitably forced them to abandon a
purely African worldview. Still, they did not come to Christianity in great numbers
until evangelicals began gathering Christians from both races after the
mid-eighteenth century. Although some blacks and whites formed bonds through their shared
evangelical experience, Virginia\'s celebrated statute for religious freedom
would have only limited meaning for African-Americans until after the Civil War.
The Anglican gentry in Virginia long had a reputation for shallow faith
and attendance at church was more of habit and a desire for social contact than
piety or zeal. Historians have begun to reevaluate this oversimplified view. They now
characterize many of Virginia\'s elite as sincere attachments to a moderate
faith that provided a standard for judgment. Faith was only a private and family
affair. Reflections on a minister\'s sermons, for example, were discussed within the
family group or recorded in diaries, such as those of William Byrd II and John
Blair of Williamsburg.
The spread of religion in eighteenth-century life inspired the motifs
used in the design of some household furnishings. Inscriptions on this pot encouraged
the hostess, as she poured coffee, to "keep her conversation as becometh the
lord" and her company to remember the comforting words of the twenty-third psalm, "the
lord is my Shepherd Ishall not want." Studies of the religious lives of the
middle and lower classes, although harder to pursue, have tended to focus on the
period after 1750, when evangelical Christianity pulled in Virginia\'s "lesser folk,"
including many slaves. Recent research indicates that small planters and
their families made up the bulk of the congregations in Anglican churches and that
thesecolonists held values similar to those of their betters. While accepting
difference in social rank, they came to expect a certain civility and recognition from
the gentry that likely extended to the parish church and churchyard.
The seeds of faith planted in Anglican homes and churches often lay
dormant under routine worship, but later flourished under the influence of
evangelical preachers. These men remodeled familiar biblical themes into a message of
spiritual renewal and of a personal God who intervened in human affairs.
Slaves in great numbers were drawn to evangelical Christianity, particularly the
Baptist groups. After the mid-eighteenth century, evangelical Christians (Baptists,
Presbyterians, and Methodists) challenged the establishment\'s discriminatory practices by
flaunting licensing laws and refusing to be restricted to particular meetinghouses or
locales. As the Revolution approached, they formed an unlikely partnership
with apostles of the Enlightenment among the Revolutionary generation. Both were
bent upon disestablishing the Anglican church in Virginia.
The diversification of religion in Virginia up to and through the Revolutionary
period was relatively peaceful. Conflicts did occur. Anglican agents
sometimes forcibly broke up evangelical meetings in the 1770s, and the sight of Baptist
ministers preaching from their jail cells galvanized James Madison to give
full support to disestablishment. But it seems as if the very number of religious
groups in Virginia (and America) precluded the religious persecutions and sectarian
warfare that had plagued England and the rest of Europe for centuries. Virginians
proved to be less tolerant