Materials in the Library of Virginia’s collections contain historical terms, phrases, and images that are offensive to modern readers. These include demeaning and dehumanizing references to race, ethnicity, and nationality; enslaved or free status; physical and mental ability; and gender and sexual orientation.
When the first English settlers arrived in 1607, the Church of England served as the official 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 and support the clergymen of the Church of England. Marriage ceremonies were also required to be performed by ministers of the Church of England to be considered legal. During the 18th century, Baptists, Presbyterians, and other dissenters campaigned for the recognition of their denominations and for the freedom of all Virginians to practice their faith as they chose.
Following American Independence, key political leaders in Virginia pursued the disestablishment of the Church of England as the formal church denomination of the young state. Initially introduced in 1776 by George Mason in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, religious tolerance came to fruition in the Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, which is commonly known as the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. First drafted by Thomas Jefferson in 1777, it was passed by the Virginia General Assembly on January 16, 1786. Virginians were no longer "compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever" and were "free to profess . . . their opinions in matters of Religion . . . ."
The act is one of the most important laws adopted by the assembly. It opens with an eloquent vindication of religious and intellectual freedom and closes with specific guarantees of religious liberty and belief. The Virginia law was one of the sources that Congress drew on when drafting the Bill of Rights to the United States Constitution in 1789 in which free exercise of religion was granted and Congress was prohibited from abridging the freedom of religion. The guarantees established in the Act for Establishing Religious Freedom became part of the second Virginia Constitution which was adopted in 1830.
Citation: An Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, 1786, Special Collections, Library of Virginia.
Scan it: Scan the document, original and transcribed version, identify how many acts are contained in the document, and list two or three phrases which stand out to you in each act.
Analyze: What can you infer about the power of the Church of England in Virginia prior to 1786?
Virginia Validation: Which amendment to the United States Constitution contains language similar to the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom? How are the rights described in the U.S. Constitution different from the rights guaranteed by the Virginia act?
Current Connection: Does the Act for Establishing Religious Freedom still have relevance today? Why or why not?