Synopses & Reviews
Before the American Revolution, no state more seriously discriminated against and persecuted religious dissenters than Virginia. Over 50 dissenting ministers, primarily Baptists, were jailed, and numerous Baptists and Presbyterians were beaten or harassed. African-American congregants were treated particularly viciously. By the time the U.S. Constitution was adopted, no state provided more extensive protection to religious freedom, nor did so in terms nearly so elegant as Thomas Jefferson's Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom. This dramatic change occurred because Virginia's dissenters, constituting as much as one-third or more of the population, demanded religious freedom before they would mobilize for the American Revolution; Virginia's establishment leaders, the same gentry leaders who led much of the persecution, had little choice but to grant that freedom. In return, dissenting ministers played an important role both in encouraging enlistments during the Revolution and themselves joining in the fighting. By comparison, British efforts to co-opt religious dissent were wan and failed to gain significant support in Virginia.
By the end of the war, though, religious liberty was not yet complete, and with the necessity of mobilization eliminated, establishment leaders, led by Patrick Henry, sought to reinvigorate the formerly established church through a general tax to benefit all Christian denominations. This proved too much for the dissenters who had demanded religious freedom based on both their politics and theology; politicized by the negotiations during the Revolution and with James Madison coordinating legislative efforts, they rose up to quash the idea of a religious tax and insisted upon adoption of Jefferson's Statute. In doing so, these eighteenth century evangelicals demanded a strict separation of church and state. The impact of their joining the polity and the robust religious liberty which they left as a legacy still resonate today.
Before the American Revolution, no colony more assiduously protected its established church or more severely persecuted religious dissenters than Virginia. Both its politics and religion were dominated by an Anglican establishment, and dissenters from the established Church of England were subject to numerous legal infirmities and serious persecution. By 1786, no state more fully protected religious freedom.
This profound transformation, as John A. Ragosta shows in this book, arose not from a new-found cultural tolerance. Rather, as the Revolution approached, Virginia's political establishment needed the support of the religious dissenters, primarily Presbyterians and Baptists, for the mobilization effort. Dissenters seized this opportunity to insist on freedom of religion in return for their mobilization. Their demands led to a complex and extended negotiation in which the religious establishment slowly and grudgingly offered just enough reforms to maintain the crucial support of the dissenters.
After the war, when dissenters' support was no longer needed, the establishment leaders sought to recapture control, but found they had seriously miscalculated: wartime negotiations had politicized the dissenters. As a result dissenters' demands for the separation of church and state triumphed over the establishment's efforts and Jefferson's Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom was adopted.
Historians and the Supreme Court have repeatedly noted that the foundation of the First Amendment's protection of religious liberty lies in Virginia's struggle, turning primarily to Jefferson and Madison to understand this. In Wellspring of Liberty, John A. Ragosta argues that Virginia's religious dissenters played a seminal, and previously underappreciated, role in the development of the First Amendment and in the meaning of religious freedom as we understand it today.
"Historians and the Supreme Court have repeatedly noted that the foundation of the First Amendment's protection of religious liberty lies in Virginia's struggle, turning primarily to Jefferson and Madison to understand this. In Wellspring of Liberty, John A. Ragosta argues that Virginia's religious dissenters played a seminal and previously underappreciated role in the development of the First Amendment and in the meaning of religious freedom as we understand it today."--BOOK JACKET.
About the Author
John A. Ragosta
is an instructor at the University of Virginia School of Law and received his PhD in history from the University of Virginia.
Table of Contents
Ch 1: Virginians Dissent: Snakes, Hornets, and Brimstone
Ch 2: Negotiating Support for the War and Religious Freedom
Ch 3: British Failures and Plans for Success
Ch 4: Mobilizing Support: Did the Dissenters Fight?
Ch 5: After the War: A Resurgent Establishment and the End of Compulsion
Ch 6: What Did They Fight, and Bargain, For?