Religion was a fundamental part of colonial life, incorporated into Virginia society since the founding of Jamestown. (From Jamestown to Jefferson, 20-22). In fact, a major goal in the establishment of the colony of Virginia was to spread Protestantism, and religious ideals were incorporated into the laws and regulations by which the colony was governed. (From Jamestown to Jefferson, 25). The Church of England was the primary church in colonial Virginia and in the early days of the colony attendance at an Anglican Church was obligatory. Nonconformist denominations, such as Baptists and Presbyterians, began to grow, but they were allowed very little freedom to practice their own beliefs, and Anglicanism was enforced as the official state religion. Some choice was granted when the Crown’s Act of Toleration in 1689 allowed a degree of freedom of worship to nonconformists. (viginiamemory.com). However, members of these congregations were still required to be married in and pay taxes to the Anglican Church (virginiamemory.com). This allowed for a small measure of toleration, but did not truly institute religious freedom in the colonies. Until the Revolutionary War, the Anglican Church remained instated as the official religion on Virginia, and very little attention was given to the other denominations that were beginning to expand.
Decline of the Anglican Church
Though religion had been so significant in the early colonies, by the mid-1700s church attendance had begun to decline, and organized religion was no longer considered an essential part of colonial life (founders.archives.gov). In fact, in his diary Travels in the Confederation, Johann David Schoepf commented that “religion generally, is now very faint among them,” and went on to state that what few churches were still left in the colony were left in disrepair. (Scheopf). General lack of religious zeal drew away from the centrality of the Anglican Church, and left room for the growth of nonconformist denominations. As the breach between England and the colonies widened in the mid-1700s, the onset of revolutionary ideas was accompanied by a call for religious freedom. A campaign was begun, led by nonconformist denominations such as Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists, to draw attention to the need for religious freedom. (virginiamemory.com). The call was now for absolute religious liberty, not merely the toleration that had been granted in earlier days.
The Separation of Church and State
At the commencement of the Revolutionary War, Virginia was the first state to draft its own constitution (theaquilareport.com). To accompany the constitution, George Mason wrote the Virginia Declaration of Rights, which included the rights to freedom of the press, property rights, jury trial, and religious freedom (billofrightsinstitute.org). This declaration was a novelty, as the first legalized document calling for religious liberty, and was later used as a model for both the Declaration...