Virginia Magazine of History and Biography
Volume 112 / Number 4
Reflections on the Church of England in Colonial Virginia
- By Brent Tarter, pp. 338–71
This article is a reassessment of the importance of religious beliefs and practices in colonial Virginia. Two recent new books, Edward L. Bond's Damned Souls in a Tobacco Colony: Religion in Seventeenth-Century Virginia (2000) [Review] and John K. Nelson's A Blessed Company: Parishes, Parsons, and Parishioners in Anglican Virginia, 1690–1776 (2002), argue convincingly that Protestant Christianity and the Church of England played important parts in the lives of white Anglicans in colonial Virginia and that the established church was effective in carrying out its religious and social responsibilities. The books support other recent scholarship indicating that social and political life in colonial Virginia were not dangerously unstable and without a foundation in religious beliefs. During and after the American Revolution, Virginia adopted the Declaration of Rights and the Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, two influential texts of religious liberty that helped define relationships between church and state in the new nation. Daniel L. Driesbach's Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State (2002) shows that historians and legal scholars have misinterpreted one legacy of the Virginia colonial experience. Virginians generally, and Jefferson individually, did not propose to erect a wall between church and state as we today understand that metaphor. These three new books suggest that religious beliefs and intellectual history are of greater importance for understanding early Anglo-Virginia society than once believed and also invite reassessments of the colony's dissenters and of Virginia role in the larger story of American religious history.