Fighting for freedom : how Virginia's religious dissenters helped win the American Revolution and religious liberty

Ragosta, John Andrew, Department of History, University of Virginia
Onuf, Peter, Department of History, University of Virginia
Kett, Joseph, Department of History, University of Virginia
Mccurdy, Charles, Department of History, University of Virginia
Warren, Heather, Department of Religious Studies, University of Virginia

Before the American Revolution, the Anglican Church was the official, "established" church in the colony off Virginia; "dissenters," in particular Baptists and Presbyterians, faced serious discrimination, harassment, even arrest. Yet, in spite of this persecution and the dominant political position that members off the established church maintained in the new state, these sects - accounting for as much as one-third of Virginia's population - became instrumental in supporting the fight for independence and the closely-related fight for religious freedom.

During the Revolution, Virginia's Anglican political establishment and dissenters entered into a complex and extended negotiation. Baptists and Presbyterians agreed to ยท support the Revolution, including mobilizing troops (and the evidence indicates that they did mobilize as promised); in return, Virginia's political leaders provided greater religious liberty. By the war's end, establishment leaders found that dissenters could no longer be ignored, and dissenters played the critical role in defeat off proposals for a general assessment to benefit all Christian sects and in adoption off Jefferson's Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom.

Contrary to the view of many historians that the democratizing influence off evangelical religion republicanized the polity after the Great Awakening, in Virginia, control by the established political leadership was largely undiminished as the war approached. Thus, the Revolution was not so much a gentry response to dislocation caused by the evangelical "Awakening" in pre-war years; rather, during the Revolution, the political and religious establishment was forced to accept dissenter demands and, in the process, dissenters were politicized and the polity democratized.

This dissertation also considers the extent to which British leadership responded to the role off religious dissent in the political milieu off revolutionary Virginia. Finally, this study considers the ramifications off this dialogue between dissenters and patriot leaders for our understanding of religious freedom. While there is little doubt that development off religious freedom in Virginia played a central role in development of religious liberties in other states and in the First Amendment, the dissenters' part in that development and their extremely robust understanding off that freedom-including a strict separation between church and state - has not been adequately privileged.

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PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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