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Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, January 16, 1786

Context

Following American Independence, key political leaders in Virginia pursued the disestablishment the Church of England as the state church of the young state. Initially introduced in 1776 by George Mason in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, religious toleration came to fruition in Thomas Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom. The Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, which is commonly known as the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, was written by Thomas Jefferson and passed by the Virginia General Assembly on January 16, 1786.

When the first English settlers arrived in 1607, the Church of England served as the official state church of the Virginia Colony. Under the 1689 English Act of Toleration, Protestants who were not members of the Church of England were still required to pay taxes to support the clergymen of the Church of England. While they were granted limited religious freedom, their marriage ceremonies were required to be performed by Church of England ministers. Baptists Christians led the campaign and were later joined by Presbyterians and other religious groups during the Revolutionary War. The campaign pushed to provide full religious freedom in belief and practice to all Virginians, including Catholics, Jews, and others who were not Protestant Christians.

The passage of the act represented the end of a 10 year campaign to disestablish the Church of England. The Virginia law was one of the sources that Congress drew on when drafting the Bill of Rights in 1789, which granted the free exercise of religion and prohibited Congress from abridging the freedom of religion. Its guarantees became part of the second Virginia Constitution that was adopted in 1830.

Citation: An Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, 1786, Special Collections, Library of Virginia.

Standards

VS.1, VS.6b, USI.1, USI.7b, USI.7c, CE.1, CE.2b, VUS.1, VUS.5c, GOVT.1, GOVT.2f

Suggested Questions

Analyze: What can you infer about the power of the Church of England in Virginia prior to 1786?

In Their Shoes: Identify the “stakeholders” affected by the proposed Act.

Up for Debate: What current issues of religious tolerance can be related to this topic?

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