Application in Virginia
It was not immediately clear whether the Act of Toleration should apply to the colonies. English political philosopher John Locke, in A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), argued that colonists should enjoy full toleration—even liberty—just as the people of England should: "No man whatsoever ought therefore to be deprived of his terrestrial enjoyments upon account of his religion. Not even Americans, subjected unto a Christian prince, are to be punished either in body or goods for not embracing our faith and worship. If they are persuaded that they please God in observing the rites of their own country, and that they shall obtain happiness by that means, they are to be left unto God and themselves," Locke wrote.
The presence of this handful of Presbyterian, Quaker, Baptist, and other non-Anglican congregations did not fundamentally disrupt the Anglicans' hegemony. A Virginia author exaggerated only slightly in 1736 when he wrote that "all the Subjects here agree in Uniformity of Worship, according to the doctrine of the Church of England, which is here by Law established; and we have among us no Conventicles or meetings." Nothing shook the colonial-era Anglican church more than the Great Awakening, which began in force among Virginia Presbyterians in the mid-1740s. This upheaval raised new questions about whether Virginia would really tolerate rapidly growing non-Anglican churches.
Obstacles Faced by Dissenters
Davies's argument seemed to clinch the applicability of the Act of Toleration to Virginians in principle, but dissenters still suffered a number of disadvantages, most notably the requirement that they pay taxes to support the Anglican Church, even if they already gave funds to support their own church and pastor. In order to operate legally, both dissenting pastors and their meetinghouses had to receive licenses from the colony's General Court, which met only twice a year in Williamsburg. This presented considerable logistical difficulties, especially since most of the dissenting churches were sprouting in the backcountry.
In 1772, a bill sent to the House of Burgesses sought to clarify that dissenters would be left alone if they met the standards of the Act of Toleration, if they did not carry on their meetings in a clandestine manner, and if they did not encourage slaves to revolt (a persistent concern about the evangelicals, especially the Baptists). Although the bill failed to pass due to opposition from traditional Anglicans, in a few years the tide of the American Revolution (1775–1783) swept Virginia forward into acceptance of a broader concept of religious liberty.
Full Religious Liberty
In June 1776, the Virginia Convention adopted the Declaration of Rights as a statement of principles behind its recently declared independence from Britain. In the sixteenth article, the Convention proclaimed "That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore, all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other." This was a major step away from 1689's notion of simply tolerating religious dissent, to an endorsement of religious pluralism under law.
>Virginia did not yet move decisively to change the established status of the Anglican Church, however. That step wouldn't come until after the war, when Patrick Henry and other friends of established religion proposed a "general assessment," under which Virginians would have to pay taxes to support a church of their choice, including those of dissenters. Henry knew that the state would never go back to one established church, but he believed that a plural Christian establishment would honor both the importance of religion and the state's religious diversity. James Madison, along with thousands of evangelical dissenters, insisted that the state embrace full religious freedom instead.
1689 - John Locke publishes A Letter Concerning Toleration in England, arguing that American colonists should enjoy full religious toleration and liberty.
May 24, 1689 - In the wake of the Glorious Revolution, Parliament passes the Act of Toleration, which exempts religious dissenters from certain penalties and disadvantages in England. It is not immediately clear how it will be applied in Virginia.
1699 - Eleven years after Parliament's passage of the Act of Toleration, Francis Makemie, a Presbyterian, receives certification as the first officially recognized dissenting minister in Virginia.
1752 - In a letter to the Bishop of London, Presbyterian pastor Samuel Davies of Hanover, Virginia, argues that colonial dissenters should be protected under the Act of Toleration (1689).
June 12, 1776 - The Virginia Convention adopts the Declaration of Rights, including the sixteenth article, which guarantees citizens the "free exercise of religion."
January 16, 1786 - The General Assembly passes the Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom. Written by Thomas Jefferson and championed in the House of Delegates by James Madison, the bill effectively severs the connection between church and state.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Kidd, T. S. Act of Toleration (1689). (2016, October 25). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Act_of_Toleration_1689.
- MLA Citation:
Kidd, Thomas S. "Act of Toleration (1689)." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities, 25 Oct. 2016. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: September 27, 2011 | Last modified: October 25, 2016
Contributed by Thomas S. Kidd, an associate professor of history at Baylor University.