Divesting the Vestries : Courts, Legislatures, and the Many Definitions of Religious Establishment in the Early Republic

Author: ORCID icon orcid.org/0009-0001-1714-5084
Jiranek, Nathaniel, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Schwartzman, Micah, University of Virginia
Taylor, Alan, AS-History (HIST), University of Virginia
Barzun, Charles, University of Virginia

Historically, the debates on the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom have informed jurists as they traced the contours of the First Amendment’s prohibition on established religion. However, these struggles over the role of religion in Virginia did not end with James Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments. The debates over what constituted a religious establishment in the Commonwealth continued throughout the period of the Early Republic as members of the revolutionary generation and their children grappled with the inherited establishment of the Anglican Church. These debates culminated with an 1802 Act of the General Assembly which enabled the largest confiscation of church lands in the Anglo-American world since the Henrician dissolution of the monasteries in 1536. Despite the scale of this dispossession, this later period of the Virginia debates is often overlooked in the history of the American religious liberty. In investigating how the confiscatory 1802 Act survived decades of legal challenges, this paper explores the multiple definitions of religious establishment that critics and supporters of the legislation marshalled to their respective causes. These legal challenges demonstrate that intense disagreement over what constitutes an established religion have always inflected the debate over the role played by religion in American public life.

MA (Master of Arts)
Establishment, Glebe, Religion, Virginia
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