Religion in Virginia

Up in Cape Cod and Boston, the leaders of those initial colonists in Massachusetts that started arriving in 1607 had a zeal to create a community. They wanted to build "city on a hill," to become a shining example to others. The Pilgrims that are popularized in so many elementary school Thanksgiving pictures, wearing black hats and carrying a blunderbuss, wanted to create an environment in which their one majority perspective would dominate the religious and political culture.

The Jamestown and subsequent settlers to Virginia provide a clear contrast. Nearly all of the Virginia immigrants in the 1600's came for economic reasons - to get rich, or get richer. The Europeans who colonized Virginia in the 1600's were not driven primarily by a desire for religious freedom. Virginia was not settled by a subset of English culture that wanted to create just one form of worship and one religious organization to manage church life.

To early Virginians, material wealth was more interesting than freedom or salvation or politics, period. The first permanent settlers to come to Tidewater Virginia were motivated by wordly desires, more than the chance to proselytize the "heathen" or establish a religious refuge.

The initial Virginia colonists were not anti-religious; they considered religion to be a fundamental part of both life and government. They assumed the Anglican church would be the "established" church, supported by taxes that were imposed by governmental authority. From 1607 until the American Revolution, the Anglican church determined an official form of worship in Virginia, and Anglican leaders resolved theological disputes. Government and religious leadership were combined at the top. The King of England was the head of the Anglican Church, and King James (for whom Jamestown was named) had imposed a new translation of the Bible.

Virginians did not cross the Atlantic Ocean to create either a "city on a hill" or a place where different religious faiths would be encouraged. In colonial Virginia, there was no expectation that church and state would be separate, or that dissent would be encouraged by government officials. Perhaps in part because of rivalry with Catholic Maryland, Virginia was often hostile to Catholics. Samuel Argall destroyed a French colony of "Papists" in Acadia in 1613, and only one Catholic was elected to the House of Burgesses during the colonial era.

However, in order to attract settlers, the Anglicans of Tidewater Virginia showed some flexibility. In the early 1700's, Governor Spottswood consciously recruited Presbyterians and other Protestants belonging to various German/Swiss denominations to move from Pennsylvania to Virginia, west of the Blue Ridge.

He encouraged dissenters such as the "Pennsylvania Dutch" to immigrate to the Shenandoah Valley, because Governor Spottswood wanted them to serve as a tripwire. If Native Americans or French launched an attack on the colony from their bases in the Ohio River Valley, Spottswood expected the new settlers to alert the English settlements east of the Blue Ridge.

Having a few Germans and Scotch-Irish, without allegiance to the Anglican Church but still reliable Protestants, was a small price to pay to create a buffer against enemies on the western frontier. Religious differences affected settlement patterns and politics, and the immigrants did not acquire large groups of slaves to grow tobacco in the Shenandoah Valley. Today, You can still find the German Mennonite heritage reflected west of the Blue Ridge in traditional head coverings and transportation, with some traditionalists still driving horses-and-buggies to Sunday services near Dayton (south of Harrisonburg).

The Anglican Church was intimately connected to the government until disestablishment in 1786, with the adoption of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Virginia political leaders established a new tradition of maintaining a wall of separation between church affairs and government affairs.

James Madison and Thomas Jefferson led first Virginia, and then the new United States, to end government involvement in religious-oriented activities. Stopping tax support for the Anglican church officially "disestablished" the church from government. The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and the First Amendment to the US Constitution ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."), moved America past beyond tolerance (which could be revoked at the whim of a later set of officials) and into official, permanent acceptance of various forms of religion - including the option to have no religion at all.

Pohick Church in Fairfax County, completed in 1774 as the Anglican church in Truro Parish, is a classic example of Georgian architecture
Pohick Church in Fairfax County, completed in 1774 as the Anglican church in Truro Parish, is a classic example of Georgian architecture with windows equally aligned on either side of the door

Buffalo Mountain rock church built by Rev. Bob Childress (Caroll County)
Buffalo Mountain "rock church" built by Rev. Bob Childress (Caroll County)

Colleges in Virginia With a Religious Affiliation

George Washington and Religion

The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and the First Amendment

Links


Population of Virginia
Virginia Places