The Problem of Virginia’s Colonial Establishment

I’ve been reading, writing, and thinking about Virginia’s colonial Anglican establishment since I entered graduate school (back when the Galactica had just uncovered the fate of Earth and Lehman Brothers was still short-selling subprime mortgages).  This work led me to decide to write a dissertation on the religious politics and fate of the colonial establishments in the post-Revolutionary Chesapeake.  Beginning the real work on my dissertation, however, has hammered home one important insight: despite all that reading I still don’t have a real sense of what the hell was going with Virginia’s colonial establishment.

The basics of how the establishment functioned are clear enough—with its vestries, strong tradition of local control, and notorious shortage of ministers. The bigger questions—what purpose the establishment served in colonial Virginia, why it came to be overshadowed by evangelical denominations, etc.—remain muddled and deeply contested. For over the two hundred years a lot of ink has been spilled on these questions but little consensus has been reached.

The most influential early accounts of Virginia’s colonial establishment are drawn from the Baptist denominational histories from the early nineteenth century. These early works were very much written in search of a usable past for nineteenth century Baptists. Minster-historians, such as Robert Semple, depicted early Baptists as valiant men of the Gospel suffering under the “rigid treatment” of Virginia’s Anglican authorities. The magistrates descended upon peaceful “Baptists and their worship with as much rudeness and indecency as was possible.” Despite “these severe oppositions the Word of the Lord grew and” evangelical dissent in the Old Dominion “multiplied greatly.”[1] As Baptist ministers toiled in prison cells and evangelicalism’s appeal grew, the established church grew more and more flaccid. The best efforts of the Virginia’s Anglican minsters and laity – debating Baptist ministers, open mockery, harassment and persecution – just made the rising tide wax stronger.[2] Semple’s classic account, and others like it, remain a striking (perhaps a bit torture porny in its constant evocation of early Baptist sufferings) vision of the rise of the Baptists and the hollowness of the Anglican establishment. The continuing influence of these early histories was helped along when they were pared down, excerpted and reprinted by Baptist ministers and historical commissions at the turn of the twentieth century.[3]

Virginia Anglicanism received a similar treatment at the hands of the earliest Episcopalian historians—despite the fact that the Protestant Episcopal Church was the successor body to the Anglican Church in America. The history and memory of the colonial establishment became interwoven with high-stakes debates over the theological fate of the antebellum Episcopal Church. Evangelical Episcopalians proved as harsh critics as Baptists.[4] Bishop William Meade, in his extremely influential two-volume history, describes the colonial clergy as “immoral and ignorant” and, by his lights, as went the clergy so went “all ranks of the community.”[5] With Episcopalian accounts like Meade’s on one hand and Baptist histories like Semple’s on the other, spawned what could be called an “evangelical interpretation” of Virginia’s colonial history which reigned supreme for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The most sophisticated and influential scholarly version of this “evangelical interpretation” remains Rhys Isaac’s classic The Transformation of Virginia. Isaac stresses the simultaneous strength and weakness of the colonial Anglican establishment. The Church of England was strong enough to persecute and vilify dissenting faiths but weak in that the establishment was largely a prop for gentry control of politics and culture and, hence, had shallow support among common white and black Virginians. Dissenting evangelical faiths, to Isaac, were a “proto-democratic” religious insurgency that spoke to the needs of common Virginians, on both sides of the racial divide. The dissenting ranks swelled during the Revolution and this surging evangelicalism toppled the establishment with the passage of Jefferson’s Statute of Religious Freedom in 1786. Beginning in 1787, then, these evangelicals surged demographically and politically into the center of life in the Old Dominion—casting their old rival into the dustbin of history.[6]

Isaac’s award winning analysis brought a deep theoretical sophistication to the “evangelical interpretation” and, most importantly, broadened the story to include the experiences of enslaved Virginians and the problem of slavery, more generally. While Transformation of Virginia spawned many works that revised and expanded Isaac’s arguments, almost from the moment the book was published a radically opposed understanding of Virginia’s colonial religious establishment was brewing.[7]

The broadest lines of what would come to be called the “revisionist” were first sketched out in the mid to late 1980s, when historians came to see Anglicanism as growing stronger and more entrenched in the Old Dominion throughout the eighteenth century.[8] By the turn of the twentieth this insight flowered into a comprehensive interpretation of the entire history of Virginia’s colonial Anglican establishment. On one end of the chronological spectrum “revisionists” stressed the importance of Anglican theology to the impulse behind the settlement of Jamestown and the religious toleration practiced in some corners early Virginia.[9] On the other chronological pole “revisionist” scholarship suggested that, for white Virginians at least, Anglicanism was an organic part of the lives of men and women of all social classes through to the American Revolution. Evangelical dissent, from this perspective, was less important and widespread among the white community in than presented by “evangelical interpretation.”[10] The colonial establishment, in this new view, was anything but the staid, impotent monstrosity painted by the older scholarship.[11]

By washing away the image of drunken Anglican ministers torturing humble Baptists, the “revisionist” interpretation has cleared away much of the detritus of our understanding of Virginia’s colonial establishment. This historiographical shift, however, presents its own problems which in some ways muddles issues even further.

If Anglicanism was waxing, nearly to the eve of the Revolution, and appeal of evangelical dissent has been overblown, at least among white Virginians, then how can we explain the rapid collapse of the fortunes of the Anglican-cum-Episcopal Church in final years of the eighteenth century? If the older scholarship flattened out complex reality of religious life in the seventeenth century and eighteenth centuries, then the new “revisionist” scholarship makes it difficult to explain the cultural changes of the nineteenth century.

This is what I meant when I began this post by explaining that I wasn’t entirely sure “what the hell was going on with Virginia’s colonial establishment.” These largely mutually exclusive understandings of British North America’s oldest established church present us with one the big interpretative problems in colonial American religious historiography and the history of church-state relations in what became the United States. As I’ve discussed in a previous post, Virginia’s history of church-state conflicts remains a touchstone in both scholarship and the popular understanding the “American freedom” and the fact that we have such a confused understanding of this foundational era is nearly criminal. How can we fully understand how church and state were “separated” in early national Virginia when we don’t have a consensus of how they were brought together in the first place?

At the same time, of course, this historiographical tangle presents us with an opportunity for fresh scholarship and new insights. It will be up to this generation (myself included) of historians to try to puzzle through some of mess and come up with an interpretation of Virginia’s colonial establishment that takes both its critics and the established church seriously.


[1] Qtd. in Robert B. Semple and George William Beale, A History of the Rise and Progress of the Baptists in Virginia, Revised Edition (Richmond: Pitt and Dickinson, 1894), 17-19.

[2] Semple’s describes the Anglican life in Virginia thusly: “they indulged themselves in the violation of most of the Christian precepts; that their communion was often polluted by the admission of known drunkards, gamesters, swearers and revellers; that even their clergy, learned as they were, had never learned the most essential doctrine of revelation, the indispensable necessity of the new birth or being born again; that their public discourses were nothing more than moral addresses, such as a pagan philosopher, unassisted by the Bible, could have composed.” See Ibid., 22.

[3] See Charles F. James, Documentary History of the Struggle for Religious Liberty in Virginia, Reprint (New York: Da Capo Press, 1971); William Taylor Thom, The Struggle for Religious Freedom in Virginia (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1900).

[4] The very first full-history of colonial Virginia Anglicanism, written by an Episcopalian, is Francis Hawke’s critical but sympathetic volume in his broader Contributions to the Ecclesiastical History of the United States. See Francis L. Hawkes, A Narrative of Events Connected With the Rise and Progress of the Protestant Episcopal Church in Virginia, Vol. 1 (New York, NY: Harper & Brothers, 1836). The accounts of evangelical Episcopalians have been more influential—particular that of William Meade. For example, see William Meade, Old Churches, Ministers, and Families of Virginia, 2 vols., 1872 reprint (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincot & Co, 1857). For Meade’s continuing influence through the turn of the twenty-first century, see Brent Tarter, “Reflections on the Church of England in Colonial Virginia,” Virginia Magazine of History & Biography 112, no. 4 (2004): 338–371.

[5] Meade, Old Churches, Ministers, and Families of Virginia, 1: 368, 469.

[6] Rhys Isaac, The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982).

[7] Just a few examples include: Monica Najar, Evangelizing the South: A Social History of Church and State in Early America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008); John A. Ragosta, Wellspring of Liberty: How Virginia’s Religious Dissenters Helped Win the American Revolution and Secured Religious Liberty (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[8] A few of the starting places include: Jon Butler, Awash in a Sea of Faith: The Christianization of the American People (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1990); Dell Upton, Holy Things and Profane: Anglican Parish Churches in Colonial Virginia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986).

[9] On the religious inspirations for Jamestown and the early English empire see: Douglas Bradburn, “The Eschatological Origins of the English Empire,” in Early Modern Virginia: Reconsidering the Old Dominion, eds. Douglas Bradburn and John C. Coombs (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011), 15–56. For religious toleration in early Virginia and the strength of Anglicanism in seventeenth century Virginia, more broadly, see Edward L. Bond, Damned Souls in a Tobacco Colony (Macon: Mercer University Press, 2001).

[10] Above all, see John K. Nelson, A Blessed Company: Parishes, Parsons, and Parishioners in Anglican Virginia, 1690-1776 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001).

[11] For a useful overview of the revisionist position, see Edward L. Bond and Joan R. Gunderson, “The Episcopal Church in Virginia,” Virginia Magazine of History & Biography 115, no. 2 (2007): 162–443.

One comment on “The Problem of Virginia’s Colonial Establishment

  1. I found this a really superb synthesis of muddy waters of Virginia’s religious history. My own dissertation research is interested in – the words of Perry Miller – “the religious impulse” for the settlement of Virginia. As you can imagine, one of the main obstacles I have in my writings is weighing the intention of the absentee establishment with the reality of colonial life, but this paradox is what I find most interesting about of subject. It speaks volumes about the complexity of the issue to see how this disconnect between intention and reality continued all the way through to almost the nineteenth century.

    Thanks for the post!

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