By Eric Lane
The Virginia colony played an outsized role in the struggle for religious freedom during the nation’s founding. Many Americans are aware of Thomas Jefferson’s efforts. He was a Virginian and the author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, the blueprint for the religious liberty protections found in the First Amendment.
James Madison, another Virginian, is hailed as the father of the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights. But nearly forgotten is the role of the founding Virginian “lower sorts” – the men who did the actual fighting during the Revolution. If it hadn’t been for the “common” man in the colonies, many Americans would still be curtsying to the Queen of England and tithing to the Anglican Church.
At the time of the Revolution, the total population of the 13 colonies was approximately 2.5 million, but this is a guess since the first census did not occur until 1790. Estimated at 750,000, including slaves, Virginia had the most inhabitants, almost twice as many as Pennsylvania, the second most populated colony, with 434,373 residents.
In September 1776, the Second Continental Congress, in desperate need of soldiers, instituted military quotas based on each colony’s population size. For Virginia, this added up to approximately 5,000 men of fighting age.
The state religion in colonial Virginia, the Anglican Church, demanded taxes to support its clergy and churches. Other denominations, such as Baptists and Quakers, suffered persecution and oppression. At the time of the Revolution, however, “dissenters,” those who were non-Anglicans, made up a substantial portion of the Virginia population.
The largest dissenter group was the Baptists. It upset Madison that several Baptist ministers were in prison for their beliefs. Writing to a friend in Pennsylvania in January 1774, the “worst” news he had to deliver was that the “diabolical Hell conceived principle of persecution” was raging in the colony.
“There are at this [time] … not less than 5 or 6 well-meaning men in [jail] for publishing their religious sentiments which in the main are very orthodox,” Madison wrote. “I have neither patience to hear talk or think of any thing relative to this matter, for I have squabbled and scolded abused and ridiculed so long about it, [to so little] purpose that I am without common patience. … Pray for Liberty of Conscience to revive among us.”
While many today falsely believe that early America was a bastion of religious liberty, many in the colonial era agonized over its absence. At the time of the founding, no denomination suffered more persecution than Baptists. They were the most likely “well-meaning” Christians to be thrown in jail even as revolutionary sentiment spread. While leaders like Madison and Jefferson learned much about the need for religious freedom from Enlightenment authors such as John Locke, their most profound convictions about liberty of conscience came from watching it denied to fellow Americans.
In his famous “Memorial and Remonstrance” (1785), Madison wrote, “Religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence. The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate.”
Most colonists identified themselves as British. The Virginia colony was no different. Thomas Paine’s pamphlet, “Common Sense,” helped change the debate from reconciliation with to independence from Britain.
“Europe, and not England, is the parent country of America,” argued Paine. “This new world hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every part of Europe. Hither they have fled, not from the tender embraces of the mother, but from the cruelty of the monster; and it is so far true of England, that the same tyranny which drove the first emigrants from home, pursues their descendants still.”
“Common Sense” lit the flame of freedom in the heart of the Virginia colony’s common man. They grasped the magnitude of the moment and leveraged it, understanding how desperately the Continental Army needed men to fight.
They also understood how the cause of the revolution was linked to religious freedom. Organized primarily by Baptists, on October 16, 1776, “The Ten Thousand Name Petition” was presented to the Virginia Assembly. It called for the Church of England’s disestablishment in the Virginia colony and breaking the “yoke” of religious oppression. Its backers demanded “Equal Liberty!”
The petition was read to the General Convention at Williamsburg, then Virginia’s capital. Addressed to the “Honorable the Speaker and House of Delegates,” the petition’s endorsers called themselves “Dissenters from Ecclesiastical Establishment in the Commonwealth” and observed, “Your Petitioners being in common with the other inhabitants of that Commonwealth delivered from the British Oppression, rejoice in the Prospect of having their freedom secured and maintained to them and their posterity inviolate. The hopes of your petitioners have been raised and confirmed by the Declaration of our Honorable House with regard to equal Liberty, Equal Liberty! that invaluable Blessing, which though it be the birthright of every good member of the state has been what your Petitioners have been deprived of, in that, by taxation their property hath been wrested from them and given to those from whom they received no equivalent.”
They added, “Your Petitioners therefore, having been groaned under the Burden of an Ecclesiastical Establishment beg leave to move your Honorable House that this as well as every other yoke may be broken, and that the Oppressed may go free that so every religious Denomination being on a Level, Animosities may cease, and that Christian Forbearance, Love and Charity may be practiced towards each other, while the Legislature interferes only to support them in their just right and equal Privileges. And your Petitioners shall ever pray.”
The petition contained the signatures of 10,000 “dissenters” and others (more or less) and consisted of 125 pages sewn together and joined with wax.
It was a masterstroke. The common men would fight in the independence movement to free the colonies from imperial rule; the ministers would even join in recruitment efforts using their pulpits to rally draftees for the cause. Their price? Religious freedom. Why? For dissenters, British tyranny and Anglican religious monopoly in Virginia were indistinguishable.
The “Ten Thousand Name Petition” reveals that yearning for religious freedom in the colonies was not limited to the intellectual and upper classes. It was a shared ideal between non-loyalist colonists regardless of social standing. When Christian nationalists argue that America has been and should always remain their distinct type of “Christian” nation, the “Ten Thousand Name Petition” stands in direct opposition.
Historians recount the struggle for religious freedom undergirded by the separation of church and state, mostly highlighting the aristocracy’s views and actions. They were indeed important, but we must not forget the Virginia colonists’ role, the so-called “lower sorts.” They fought for religious freedom, equality for all religions, the overthrow of the monarchy and church-state separation. They had simply had enough of a state religion, and they boldly said so.
Let us remember to honor them – and their decisive contribution to the rights we enjoy today.
Eric Lane serves as president of the San Antonio Chapter of Americans United.