Religious Toleration/Intolerance in Colonial Virginia

in 1772, the sheriff of Culpeper County was ordered to arrest a Baptist minister for unlawfull preaching
in 1772, the sheriff of Culpeper County was ordered to arrest a Baptist minister for "unlawfull preaching"
Source: Library of Congress, Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, Summons to Nathaniel Saunders, August 22, 1772

American citizens now assume they have an "inalienable right" to worship however they please, or even to choose not to have any religious beliefs. One standard joke illustrates the flexibility of American religious thought:1

A man was stranded alone on a desert island for many years. When he was rescued there were three buildings on the island.
"What are these three buildings? the rescuers asked.
"This one is my home and the second one is my church."
"And the third building?"
"That's the church I used to go to."

Religious freedom, or even tolerance, was not authorized by Virginia's government until 1786, a full decade after the Fifth Virginia Convention declared independence from Great Britain.

The king or queen of England was both head of the church and head of the state. Religious heresy was comparable to treason against the ruler. During the reign of Elizabeth I, when the English first tried to colonize North America, Catholic Spain was the political rival of Protestant England. Catholics tried to blow up James I and Parliament in 1605, but Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot failed.2

Just as in England across the Atlantic Ocean, the power of Virginia's government was united with the power of the Church of England (Anglican church) as an "established" religion.

Quakers were expelled from the colony by Gov. William Berkeley after he was restored to office in 1659, and non-Anglican preachers had to be licensed by the county court.

The American Revolution disrupted that traditional government structure and led to disestablishment of the Anglican church and official separation of church and state.

Thomas Jefferson and James Madison led the charge to create legal guarantees for freedom of religious thought and practice. Modern courts must interpret their language to assess whether a law crosses a line and unconstitutionally assumes governmental power to interfere with a religion, or to support a particular religion.

Virginia was not settled by Europeans seeking to create a haven for religious liberty. The long history of European colonization in North America reveals that the desire for property and profit was the primary incentive for crossing the Atlantic Ocean. Though Virginia ended up being settled by members of the Church of England (Anglicans), the first colonists in North America and what became Virginia were Catholics.

Ponce de Leon brought Catholic priests with him to Florida in 1521, as part of the first European colonization effort in North America. Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon brought Dominicans in 1526, when he started the San Miguel de Guadalupe colony in what is now Georgia.3

The first Europeans who tried to settle in Virginia also were Catholics. Spanish Jesuits led by Father Juan Baptista de Seguera started the Ajacan settlement, near modern-day Yorktown, in 1570. The Native Americans there killed 10 of the 11 Spaniards in 1571; the teenage boy they let survive was rescued by a Spanish ship in 1572.4

English colonization in Virginia was equivalent to Protestant colonization. One of the first actions by the initial English settlers when they arrived at Virginia was to build a wooden cross at Cape Henry. When Jamestown was founded in 1607, the Church of England (Anglican) was "established" in the colony of Virginia as the official church with King James I as the Defender of the Faith. Catholics would not be allowed to worship openly in Virginia until 1781, when French troops involved in the siege of Yorktown celebrated Mass in Alexandria.5

in 1935, National Society Daughters of the American Colonists installed a granite replica of the wooden cross erected in 1607 at Cape Henry
in 1935, National Society Daughters of the American Colonists installed a granite replica of the wooden cross erected in 1607 at Cape Henry
Source: National Park Service, Cape Henry Memorial Cross

Virginia's Protestant gentry became well-entrenched in county courts, the House of Burgesses, and also in Anglican vestries The vestry was the governing board of a parish. Members of the vestry consisted of the wealthy elite living within that parish. Because the vestry hired Anglican ministers on short term contracts, few ministers gained enough power to become independent of vestry control. If sermons within worship services or other activities of the minister were not sufficiently aligned with the perspectives of the local gentry, the minister's contract was not renewed. With a few exceptions, Puritan ministers were pushed out of Virginia quickly.

In the colonial period, the Anglican church had a key role in what today would be considered fundamental government services. The vestry set the parish tax rates for maintaining the church buildings, paying the minister, and funding social welfare expenses such as caring for orphans, the indigent, and others unable to support themselves. Parish taxes were collected by the county sheriffs, along with the other taxes imposed by the county courts (equivalent to a combination of today's Board of County Supervisors and District judges).

The chancellor of the one college in the colony, William and Mary, was always the Bishop of London or the Archbishop of Canterbury during the colonial period. Many of the professors were trained as Anglican ministers. Dissenters were obliged to pay taxes that supported teaching Anglican doctrine at the College of William and Mary.

There was no separation of church and state in colonial Virginia. Everyone, no matter what their personal beliefs, was required to pay taxes that funded Anglican activities. An established church existed in all but the Pensylvania and Rhode Island colonies. There also was no acceptance within the Virginia gentry of non-Anglican beliefs in the 1600's. Throughout the colonial period, only one Catholic family gained wealth and power, the Brents in Westmoreland and (after 1664) Stafford County. George Brent and his family had to worship privately. The county court in Stafford sought to increase acceptance of the Brents by issuing a certificate in 1668 stating that the Brent family had not tried to convert anyone to their Catholic faith for the last two decades.6

After George Brent had been elected to serve in the House of Burgesses, King James II was forced to leave England during the Glorious Revolution of 1688. In 1689, the Anglican minister of Overwharton Parish in Stafford County, Parson John Waugh, inflamed suspicion of the local Catholic leader. During the "tumult" created by his agitation, the Stafford County Court ordered the Brent family to stay at the home of a prominent local Protestant, William Fitzhugh, in a form of house arrest.7

Protestant and Catholic rivalries dated back a century to the reign of Henry VIII. He split from the church based on Rome in order to legitimize his first divorce, and declared that the King of England rather than the Pope was the top authority for religious decisions in England. Claiming that the national religion was based on the sovereign ruler's religion led to conflict when Henry VIII's daughter assumed the throne in 1553 She was Catholic, and married the Catholic son of the king of Spain.

She had religious dissenters burned to death, and became know as "Bloody Mary" after graphic accounts and images were published in Foxe's Book of Martyrs. When she died in 1588, Henry VII's second daughter became queen. Elizabeth I was a Protestant, and the definition of heresy changed dramatically as she punished heretics who supported Catholic dogma and the role of the Pope. Catholic Spain tried to invade and conquer Protestant England in 1588, but the Spanish Armada was dispersed in the English Channel. Anti-Catholic bias became closely associated with English nationalism.8

Virginia was settled initially when James I was king, and grew during the reign of his brother Charles I. They were the head of the Church of England, but the forms of worship and the words used during religious services were contested by different factions within the church.

In contrast to Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania were more tolerant of diverse religious beliefs.

Maryland had been chartered in 1732 because King Charles I owed favors to the George Calvert, Baron of Baltimore, and his son Cecil Calvert. The Virginians based in Jamestown viewed Maryland as a rival, rather than as an ally in the isolated wilderness of North America. Virginians objected to the loss of land included within the boundaries of Virginia's 1612 charter and the seizure of William Claiborne's lucrative fur trading business based on Kent Island,. Virginians also objected because the Calverts were Catholic, and would fill Maryland with Catholic colonists.

The Virginians had made their dislike of Catholics clear to Sir George Calvert clear in person. When Lord Calvert sailed from his failed colony in Newfoundland to Jamestown in 1629, he was unwilling to take the Oath of Supremacy that Charles I was the Supreme Head of the Church of England. Acting Governor John Pott forced Lord Calvert to sail back to England, where he then proceeded to obtain the charter for a new colony. Calvert named his new colony after Henrietta Maria, the Catholic wife of Charles I.9

Religious disputes between Puritans and the traditional Anglican leaders would lead to civil war in England and the execution of Charles I in 1649. Those conflicts were carried across the Atlantic Ocean to Maryland, which attracted a mix of both English Catholics and English Protestants. In 1649, the Maryland legislature approved the 1649 Maryland Act Concerning Religion, or Maryland Toleration Act which Calvert had prepared.

By then, Catholics were a minority of the population in Maryland. Cecil Calvert, Lord Baltimore, had not defined an established church in his colony. The law applied the same punishment to Puritans, Anglicans, Catholics, and others who criticized a Christian faith:10

...whatsoever person or persons shall from henceforth upon any occasion of offence otherwise in a reproachfull manner or way declare call or denominate any person or persons whatsoever inhabiting, residing, traficking, trading or comercing within this province or within any ports, harbours, creeks or havens to the same belonging, an Heretick, Schismatick, Idolator, Puritan, Independent Presbyterian, Antenomian, Barrowist, Roundhead, Seperatist, Popish Priest, Jesuit, Jesuited Papist, Lutheran, Calvenist, Anabaptist, Brownist or any other name or term in a reproachful manner relating to matters of Religion shall for every such offence foreit and lose the sum of ten shillings Sterling or the value thereof to be levied on the goods and chattels of every such offender and offenders...

The Maryland Toleration Act was not sufficient. By 1676, only 25% of the residents in Maryland were Catholics, but they controlled most of the colony's political offices and collected fees from everyone. Colonists in Tidewater feared that the Catholics in the western backcountry might ally with French raiders because of a shared religion.

The Calverts lost control over their proprietary colony in a Protestant-led coup in 1688. That occurred the same year as James II, England's last Catholic ruler, was forced from his throne in the Bloodless Revolution. In 1710, the Church of England became Maryland's established church, and Catholics were excluded from office.11

In Pennsylvania, William Penn managed to encourage religious toleration throughout the life of that colony. He issued a formal Charter of Privileges in 1701. Pennsylvania attracted a diverse set of settlers in addition to immigrants from England, including Swedes, Dutch, Finns, and refugees from many small principalities which would ultimately become part of Germany. Penn's charter gave monotheists the freedom of conscience, and allowed any Christian to hold public office:12

Because noe people can be truly happy though under the Greatest Enjoyments of Civil Liberties if Abridged of the Freedom of theire Consciences as to theire Religious Profession and Worship. And Almighty God being the only Lord of Conscience Father of Lights and Spirits and the Author as well as Object of all divine knowledge Faith and Worship who only {[can]} Enlighten the mind and perswade and Convince the understandings of people I doe hereby Grant and Declare that noe person or persons Inhabiting in this Province or Territories who shall Confesse and Acknowledge one Almighty God the Creator upholder and Ruler of the world and professe him or themselves Obliged to live quietly under the Civill Governement shall be in any case molested or prejudiced in his or theire person or Estate because of his or theire Conscientious perswasion or practice nor be compelled to frequent or mentaine any Religious Worship place or Ministry contrary to his or theire mind or doe or Suffer any other act or thing contrary to theire Religious perswasion.

Virginia suppressed Quakers and Puritans as well as Catholics. What may be the first Society of Friends meetinghouse was built at mouth of Nassawaddox Creek in 1657, during the English Civil War. The Eastern Shore was physically isolated from Jamestown, and the extensive international trade brought sailors of different backgrounds to small communities along the Chesapeake Bay.

Virginia officials did not tolerate the Quakers. By 1662, Col. Edmund Scarborough forced those on the Eastern Shore to move north of the Pocomoke River into Maryland. A year later, he led a raid across the border and attacked the Quaker settlements. That triggered a dispute with Lord Calvert in Maryland, followed by a 1668 survey to define the Virginia-Maryland border on the Eastern Shore.

After George Fox came to Virginia in 1672, what is now "the oldest continuous congregation in Virginia" of Quakers started near the Dismal Swamp. That isolated area was a haven for Puritans as well. It was distant from the gentry who created plantation in Tidewater and ruled from Jamestown. South of the James River, tobacco grew poorly. Colonists traded less with England and more with other colonies in North America and with Caribbean islands. Greater business dealings with non-Anglicans led to a less-traditional culture around Suffolk and Norfolk.13

Puritans concentrated there as well. Philip and Richard Bennett came to Warrosquyoake around 1630 and developed Bennett's Welcome plantation. Puritans came to both Maryland and Virginia as conflicts in England grew more heated, and concentrated along the Nansemond River. They sought the freedom for themselves to worship in the Puritan style, but were not advocating that other religious groups have the freedom to worship in their own way.

In 1642, Philip Bennett went to Massachusetts to recruit Puritan ministers to serve in parishes in Isle of Wight, Upper Norfolk/Nansemond, and Lower Norfolk counties. However, Governor William Berkeley came to Virginia in 1642. He was a strong supporter of Charles I, and viewed religious nonconformity as both heresy and political disloyalty.

Under Berkeley, the colonial government in Jamestown began to demand standard use of the Book of Common Prayer in worship services. He forced the three Puritan ministers recruited by Philip Bennett to return to Massachusetts, and later banished other Puritan leaders. Most followers also left, migrating to Maryland by 1650. The 1649 Maryland Act of Toleration offered a clear contrast to Gov. Berkeley's religious intolerance.

In 1652, after Parliament had seized power in England and executed Charles I, Gov. Berkeley was forced to step down. The General Assembly selected Richard Bennett to become the next governor, so between 1652-1655 a Puritan was the top official in Virginia. Bennett sought to impose Puritan control in Maryland as well. That triggered the Battle of the Severn between Catholic royalists and Puritans, while in Virginia there was no open warfare between the Anglican royalists and Puritans because most dissenters had left the colony.14

The Great Awakening began to affect Anglican domination of religious activity in Virginia in the 1740's. Unlicensed preachers began to offer independent services in private homes and scattered outdoor locations. Hierarchical control of culture by the gentry was threatened by evangelical preaching, emotional behavior during worship services, and new philosophies (such as baptizing believers only as adults, after they made a conscious choice). The outreach of dissenting religious leaders to African-American slaves was perceived as a particular challenge to the status quo.15

Colonial officials actively recruited non-Anglican Protestants to come to Virginia. Presbyterians dominated the Shenandoah Valley, after Scotch-Irish migrated to that region with encouragement in the 1720's from Governor Spotswood (who sought a buffer population between Native Americans and French Catholics in the Ohio River valley. Other immigrants west of the Blue Ridge belonged to German sects, including the Mennonites.

In the colonial period, non-Anglican "dissenting" ministers were required to obtain a license to preach from the General Court in Williamsburg, all of whose members belonged to the elite social class and were practicing Anglicans. The 1689 Act of Toleration, adopted after the Glorious Revolution forced James II from the throne and blocked his efforts to reinstall Catholic practices, was applied to Virginia in 1699. The law permitted dissenting faiths, but only tolerated them. The official religious beliefs in the colony were defined by the 39 Articles in the Church of England's Book of Common Prayer.

Methodists and Presbyterian ministers had to swaear allegiance to the king or queen when they sought authorization from supporters of a rival denomination. Non-Anglican groups had to worship in authorized "meeting houses" rather than in churches.

Samuel Davies, who led the Presbyterians in Hanover County, obtained his license to preach as a dissenter from the General Court in Williamsburg. His request may have been viewed favorably in part because his second marriage was to the daughter of the former mayor of Williamsburg.

The Presbyterian meeting house in Williamsburg, established in 1765, was the only non-Anglican place of worship officially authorized in the colonial capital. That application was championed by George Davenport, a clerk in the House of Burgesses who was known by all the rich and powerful men - who worshipped at the Bruton Parish Church.

Baptist groups developed in the Piedmont, plus areas of Tidewater dominated by traditional Anglican churches. In Williamsburg, their public gatherings started in 1776.

Baptists bypassed the licensing process by gathering outdoors and by ignoring the requirement to get authorization from the General Court to preach. That non-compliance made the Baptists the focus of most official Anglican repression. Anglicans reacted by disrupting Baptist services, plus arresting - and even attacking - dissenting preachers.16

Anglicans/Episcopalians in Virginia

Catholics in Virginia

George Washington and Religion

Parson Waugh's Tumult

Quakers in Virginia

Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, Disestablishing the Official State Church, and the First Amendment



1. "'That's where I used to go to church," Christian History Magazine, Issue 126 (2018), (last checked June 7, 2019)
2. "Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot," Historic Royal Palaces, (last checked March 31, 2024)
3. Margaret F. Pickett, Dwayne W. Pickett, The European Struggle to Settle North America: Colonizing Attempts by England, France and Spain, 1521-1608, McFarland,, 2014, p.22,; J.H. Elliott, Spain, Europe & the Wider World 1500-1800, Yale University Press, 2009, pp.36-37; David J. Weber, The Spanish Frontier in North America, Yale University Press, 1992, pp.35-44, (last checked July 1, 2014)
4. Brendan Wolfe, "Don Luis de Velasco / Paquiquineo (fl. 1561-1571)," Encyclopedia Virginia, Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, March 18, 2019, (last checked March 21, 2021)
5. "History and Founding," Basilica of St. Mary, (last checked June 7, 2019)
6. Beatriz Betancourt Hardy and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, "George Brent (ca. 1640 - by 1700)," Encyclopedia Virginia, Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, March 10, 2016,; "Aquia Episcopal Church - Stafford, Virginia,",; Grant Kleiser, "Common Nonsense: The Surprising Role of Penn, Columbia, and William and Mary in the Atlantic Revolutionary Era," University of Pennsylvania, (last checked March 31, 2024)
7. Fairfax Harrison, "Parson Waugh's Tumult: A Chapter from Landmarks of Old Prince William County," Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Volume 30, Number 1 (January 1922), pp.35-37, (last checked August 7, 2018)
8. "What Inspired Queen 'Bloody' Mary's Gruesome Nickname?," History (A&E Television Networks), October 25, 2018, (last checked June 7, 2019)
9. John D. Krugler, "The Calvert Vision: A New Model for Church-State Relations," Historic St. Mary's City,; Lyon Gardiner Tyler, The Cradle of the Republic: Jamestown and James River, Hermitage Press, 1906, p.53,; "Maryland at a Glance," Maryland Manual Online, Maryland State Archives, (last checked June 7, 2019)
10. "The Maryland Toleration Act 1649," American History: From Revolution to Reconstruction and Beyond,; Henry M. Miller, "Discovering Maryland's First City: A Summary Report on the 1981-1984 Archaeological Excavations in St. Mary's City, Maryland," St. Mary's City Archaeology Series No. 2, 1986, (last checked June 7, 2019)
11. Roy Rogers, "Maryland's Protestant Revolution and the Problem of Religious Freedom," The Junto blog, January 7, 2015, (last checked June 7, 2019)
12. "William Penn, Charter of Privileges for the Province of Pennsylvania, 1701," American Philosophical Society, (last checked June 7, 2019)
13. Robert Leland Johnson, A Good Gene Pool of the Eastern Shore of Virginia and Maryland, Gateway Press, 2006, pp.39-42
14. Kevin Butterfield, "Puritans in Colonial Virginia," Encyclopedia Virginia, Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, July 17, 2014,; J. Frederick Fausz and the Dictionary of Virginia Biography, "Richard Bennett (bap. 1609 - ca. 1675)," Encyclopedia Virginia, Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, October 9, 2015, (last checked June 8, 2019)
15. Kidd, Thomas S. "The Great Awakening in Virginia," Encyclopedia Virginia, Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, July 11, 2013 (last checked January 21, 2014)
16. "Davenport's Presbyterian Meetinghouse," Log College Press, July 20, 2022,; Jewel Spangler, "Baptists in Colonial Virginia," Encyclopedia Virginia, December 7, 2020,; "What's New at First Baptist?," Colonial Williamsburg, January 18, 2024,; Thomas Kidd, "Act of Toleration (1689)," Encyclopedia Virginia, December 7, 2020, (last checked March 31, 2024)

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