Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Virginia was the first state to legislate religious liberty, which influenced the First Amendment’s provision for separation of church and state.

Summary of Event

The adoption by the state of Virginia of the Statute of Religious Liberty was a pivotal episode in the long struggle for Church and state;separation of separation of church and state in the United States. The American colonies had inherited from England an organic concept of society that had predominated in the Middle Ages and survived the Protestant Reformation. In England, the church and the state had been regarded ideally as parts of a greater and divinely sanctioned social order and so owed mutual support to each other. [kw]Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty (Jan. 16, 1786) [kw]Liberty, Virginia Statute of Religious (Jan. 16, 1786) [kw]Religious Liberty, Virginia Statute of (Jan. 16, 1786) [kw]Statute of Religious Liberty, Virginia (Jan. 16, 1786) Religious freedom;United States Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty (1786) [g]United States;Jan. 16, 1786: Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty[2680] [c]Civil rights;Jan. 16, 1786: Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty[2680] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;Jan. 16, 1786: Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty[2680] [c]Religion and theology;Jan. 16, 1786: Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty[2680] Backus, Isaac Henry, Patrick Jefferson, Thomas [p]Jefferson, Thomas;religious freedom Madison, James Williams, Roger

While the Puritanism Puritans and other sects had emigrated partly to practice their particular faiths without harassment, few were committed to religious freedom for others. The legal toleration of all Christians in Maryland and Pennsylvania, and the complete toleration offered in Rhode Island, were exceptional in the seventeenth century, and even those colonies had begun to impose penalties on Catholics by the time of the Revolutionary War. Whereas, in the later colonial period, toleration of dissenting sects was often a practical necessity, connections between church and state persisted. The Church of England Church of England was established legally in the Southern colonies, and Protestant churches were supported by public funds in most of New England. Catholic Church;United States Catholics and Jews;United States Jews remained under civil disabilities in some states until well into the nineteenth century.

During the period of the American Revolution (1775-1783);religious freedom American Revolution, there was a sudden acceleration in the ongoing development of a concept of society in which political and religious life existed in separate compartments and in which religion withdrew, theoretically, into the private sphere of activity. Part of the impetus behind this new desire for a separation of church and state Church and state;United States was religious. Some originally radical Protestant sects were committed to separation early, either because of their own experience with persecution or out of more abstract considerations. Some agreed with Roger Williams that a church would be corrupted only by connection with the state. The Baptists were particularly energetic advocates of separation. Isaac Backus, Baptist leader of the fight for religious disestablishment in Massachusetts, has been characterized as the leading American advocate of religious liberty after Williams.

In addition to these strains within American Protestantism Protestantism, the philosophy of the Enlightenment;America Enlightenment, emphasizing the sanctity of the individual conscience, was influential, most notably among Thomas Jefferson and other leaders of the disestablishment struggle in Virginia. Perhaps the overriding factor in deciding the general issue in the United States, however, was a practical consideration: Because of the extreme multiplicity of sects in the country, in the long run it was not politically feasible to establish any one of them or even a combination.

The American Revolution, bringing new state constitutions and the withdrawal of British support for the Anglican establishment, provided an occasion for the reform of relationships between church and state. Virginia’s action in the period following the Declaration of Independence was particularly significant. Virginia;religious freedom in Virginia—one of the largest and most important states in the new republic and the seat of the most deeply rooted of the Anglican establishments—took the lead in moving toward religious liberty and the complete separation of church and state. Only Rhode Island offered comparable liberty among the original states, although, despite its early toleration, Catholics and Jews had been barred from citizenship there in the late colonial period.

Revolutionary Virginia inherited a strongly antiestablishment sentiment, marked historically by disputes over clerical salaries and the long struggle by Baptist Church;Virginia Baptists and Presbyterianism Presbyterians against Anglican domination. The Declaration of Rights (Virginia) Declaration of Rights, adopted by the Virginia legislature three weeks before the Declaration of Independence, asserted that “all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience. . . .” James Madison had suggested this liberal phrasing in preference to a more narrow statement of religious toleration. Later in 1776, penalties against those of dissenting religious persuasion were repealed, and Dissenters Dissenters (Protestants) (as they had been called in Great Britain) were exempted from contributing to the support of the still-established Church of England. In 1779, the legislature moved in the direction of disestablishment by discontinuing the payment of salaries to clergy of the Church of England in Virginia.

The conclusive debates in Virginia took place in 1784 and 1785. Patrick Henry led a move in Virginia’s legislature to establish a general assessment for the support of Christian worship, which would have substituted a general Christian establishment for the Anglican establishment. Initially passed in November, 1784, this General Assessment Bill was sharply attacked by Madison and defeated on its final reading in October, 1785. Madison followed up this victory by securing a vote on the “Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom,” proposed by Thomas Jefferson and originally introduced in the legislature in 1779. It was adopted and became law as the Statute of Religious Liberty on January 16, 1786. With a preamble asserting that God had “created the mind free” and that attempts to coerce it “tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion,” Jefferson’s statute provided “that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief. . . .”


There remained some vestigial connections between church and state, but their separation had been completed by 1802. Few other states immediately followed Virginia’s lead. Officeholders under many of the original state constitutions were required to be believers in God, Christians, or even Protestants. It was not until 1818 that Connecticut did away with compulsory public support of churches, and not until 1833 was a similar establishment completely eliminated in Massachusetts. The First Amendment (U.S. Constitution) First Amendment to the federal Constitution, which prohibited religious establishment or infringement of religious liberty on the national level, helped to commend the example of Virginia to its sister states. Moreover, with the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution (1868) and its subsequent interpretation by the Supreme Court, the provisions of the First Amendment were extended to apply to state legislatures and not merely to the federal government. Thus, in the twentieth century, separation of church and state became mandated for all state legislatures.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Drakeman, Donald L. “Religion and the Republic: James Madison and the First Amendment.” Journal of Church and State 25, no. 3 (1983): 427-445. Provides a historical appraisal of Madison’s evolution on this issue.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Howe, Mark De Wolfe. The Garden and the Wilderness: Religion and Government in American Constitutional History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965. Discusses the church and the world in the unfolding drama connecting them.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lambert, Frank. The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003. Explains how and why the United States became the first modern state committed to separating church and state. Includes information about the triumph of religious freedom in Virginia, including adoption of the statute.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mapp, Alf J., Jr. The Faith of Our Fathers: What America’s Founders Really Believed. Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003. Describes the religious beliefs of several of the Founding Fathers, including the faiths of three men central to the struggle for religious freedom in Virginia—Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and James Madison.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Noll, Mark A., ed. Religion and American Politics: From the Colonial Period to the 1980’s. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. A collection of historical articles with a comprehensive section on the time of the Founding Fathers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Peterson, Merrill D., and Robert C. Vaughan, eds. The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom: Its Evolution and Consequences in American History. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988. A rich collection by historians, philosophers, lawyers, and religion scholars on the impact of the Virginia statute in the late eighteenth century and after.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stokes, Anson P., and Leo Pfeffer. Church and State in the United States. Rev. ed. New York: Harper & Row, 1964. A useful abridgment of the standard, monumental survey of legal development of church and state issues in the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wald, Kenneth D. Religion and Politics in the United States. 2d ed. Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Press, 1992. A reliable primer on the history, law, and sociology involved in the relationship of church and state in the United States.

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