The Sacred and the Secular in Early National Virginia

Is revolutionary Virginia the birthplace of American secularism?

My attention was returned to this critical question by a recent twitter exchange between Annette Gordon-Reed and Sam Haselby (and others) along side a recent piece by Haselby in Aeon.[1] The scuffle between Gordon-Reed and Haselby focuses on the time-is-a-flat-circle question of Thomas Jefferson’s religious beliefs. Was he a secularist? Some variant of Christian? A Unitarian? An atheist? Haselby’s Aeon piece takes a different tack, arguing that the American founding represented a “rogue wave of rationality in a centuries-long sea of Protestant evangelising, sectarianism and God-talk.” Haselby marks out the Founders—particularly Jefferson and James Madison—as “visionary secularists” who created a secular republic, which was eventually co-opt by decidedly non-secular political and cultural forces. He singles out late eighteenth-century Virginia as the primary canvas upon which the great artists of American secularism worked.[2]

Revolutionary Virginia has long been a wellspring from which Americans have interpreted the place of religion in the young republic. The document that emerged out of Virginians’ struggles over church and state, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, is a soaring endorsement of the voluntary principle that all religious beliefs are matters of personal conscience. The act—originally drafted by Jefferson and honed to legislative acceptability by Madison—orders that “no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”[3] As very eighteenth century as this prose is, the sprit of it animates many twenty-first century American secularists.

Haselby’s Aeon piece and his understanding of Jefferson work toward making a usable past for modern-day secular Americans. Secularism, to Haselby, has a long “Anglo-Protestant” genealogy—from Martin Luther to Thomas Jefferson—and rests at the heart of the American nationalist project. The Virginia Statute and the First Amendment are its foundational texts. The United States is a “country that holds sacred the intentions of its revolutionary-era founders, those founders’ secular ambitions are clear.” Secularism, then, is as American as apple pie.

Like many usable pasts, however, Haselby’s rests awkwardly alongside the historical record. Even if we side-step the Gordian Knot of Thomas Jefferson’s actual personal religious opinions, the idea that American founders were secularists in the modern sense, much less Virginia itself was a modern secular republic, does not ring true. Haselby is aware of this, to some extent, by arguing “in hindsight, American secularism has experienced both clear victories and stark defeats.” But an honest assessment is that separation of church and state in Virginia and the new United States makes those victories much less clear and the defeats much starker than Haselby is willing to credit. Disestablishment transformed the relationship between politics and religion but not in a modern, secular fashion.

Why not? Because, when it comes to issues of religions liberty, words are wind. While the voluntary principle was enshrined in Virginia law, the Old Dominion did not become a secular republic by any means. While the commonwealth lost the license to try to make its citizens think like Christians, it retained the authority make them act like Christians. This is a political power that the Old Dominion’s legislature would exercise throughout the waning years of the eighteenth and well into the nineteenth century. The white men and women who made religious freedom a lived reality in Virginia wanted their commonwealth to be a republic of evangelical Christians and were not afraid to use political power to ensure that reality.[4]

To understand why this is the case we need to look at the origins of political support for disestablishment in Virginia. Those origins lay within the political and cultural battles of early eighteenth-century colonial Virginia. The first strand is evangelical Christians—particularly Baptists and Presbyterians—who faced political and financial penalties, alongside occasional repression, due to their refusal to conform to Anglican doctrine. The other strand comes from many Anglican planters themselves, who saw attempts to centralize religious authority by colonial and imperial leaders as a direct threat to their local, personal political authority. These two strands of opposition to the colonial church of Virginia boiled over in the revolutionary period and made the passage of Jefferson’s Statute possible.[5]

Whatever Jefferson and Madison’s intentions these decidedly non-secular forces were what made religious freedom in early national Virginia. In the wake of the passage of the Statute for Religions Freedom these groups saw their interests served. Evangelical denominations flourished and used the new legal regime inaugurated by Jefferson’s Statute to revenge themselves on the formerly established Anglican-cum-Episcopal Church. The white planter elite maintained their outsized role in Virginia’s largely local religious life and culture. Moral legislation was enacted in Richmond, enshrining Christian norms in Virginia’s legal code. By the coming of the Civil War, Virginia was about as far from being a secular republic in the modern sense as possible.[6]

Haselby is aware, at least somewhat, of these difficult realities. He argues that while the political ideas of American secularism, that “Anglo-Protestant” tradition, are obvious it was “secularisation itself—that is, the building of institutions to cultivate secular ideals deeply into the society—that’s when things get difficult.” Secularism was “unpopular” and, as I laid out above, separation of church and state required non-secular political forces to be enacted. Jefferson, Madison, and the rest of Haselby’s unnamed secular Founders failed to build political support for the rest of their platform, such as public schooling and public libraries. Difficulties abounded. The most telling passage in Haselby’s piece highlights just how slippery this whole enterprise is:

In history, these are somewhat strange circumstances. A revolution leads to a historic achievement, but the beginnings and parameters of that achievement, even its moderately specific origins, remain murky, actually unstated. No one stepped up to offer a theory of the concept, or a formal statement of its principles. No one used the word.

No one used the word because it did not exist in the eighteenth century, at least not in the sense that Haselby wants. His usable past wants straight lines from Martin Luther, who endorsed state violence to enforce his ideas, to Thomas Jefferson, who helped birth a very un-secular nineteenth century America. The path to our modern conception of secularism is crooked and flows through more sources than an “Anglo-Protestant tradition” that dead-ends in Jefferson and Madison. It flows in and out of differing faith traditions—Catholic, Muslim, Protestant, Jewish. It accounts for the struggles of free thinkers, Catholic nuns, and enslaved African-Americans, who struggled to have their consciences heard and respected.[7] Haselby’s conception of American secularism fails to link the world of secularist ideas with a conception of lived secular politics. In many ways he replicates the political sins he notes in Jefferson and Madison.

To argue this is not to embrace the flipside of Haselby’s fallacy. It is not to say that the Founding period and its legacy have nothing to do with modern secularism. Rather, it is to suggest that such originalism is misplaced. It took generations of later Americans—Muslims, Jews, Catholics, free thinkers, and others—to breathe life into the secularist implications of Jefferson’s Statute and the First Amendment. To try and make a usable past for twenty-first-century secularists that ignores or sidesteps this lived experience of everyday secularism denies them a history as rich and powerful as the ideas of Jefferson and Madison that Haselby celebrates.


[1] It is important to note I have not had the opportunity to read either historians’ recent volumes—Haselby’s Origins of American Religious Nationalism (reviewed by us here) or Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf’s latest biography of Jefferson.

[2] I actually encountered this Aeon piece and this infamous twitter debate separately. Erik Loomis actually brought Haselby’s public writing on Virginia to my attention.

[3] William Waller Hening, Statutes at Large; Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia from the First Session of the Legislature, in the Year 1619 (13 vols., Richmond: George Cochran, 1823), 12: 85.

[4] The best overview of this political and cultural process is Thomas E. Buckley, Establishing Religious Freedom: Jefferson’s Statute in Virginia (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2013).

[5] The literature on these topics is immense. For the best treatments see: Rhys Isaac, “Religion and Authority: Problems of the Anglican Establishment in Virginia in the Era of the Great Awakening and the Parsons’ Cause,” The William & Mary Quarterly, Third Series 30, no. 1 (1973): 3-36; Randolph Ferguson Scully, Religion and the Making of Nat Turner’s Virginia: Baptist Community and Conflict, 1740-1840 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008); Jewel E. Spangler, Virginians Reborn: Anglican Monopoly, Evangelical Dissent, and the Rise of the Baptists in the Late Eighteenth Century (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008); John K. Nelson, A Blessed Company: Parishes, Parsons, and Parishioners in Anglican Virginia, 1690-1776 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001); Rebecca Goetz, The Baptism of Early Virginia: How Christianity Created Race (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012). For the passage of the Statute itself see: Thomas E. Buckley, Church and State in Revolutionary Virginia, 1776-1787 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1977).

[6] Christine Heyrman, Southern Cross: The Beginnings of the Bible Belt (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997); Thomas E. Buckley, “Evangelicals Triumphant: The Baptists Assault on the Virginia Glebes, 1786-1801,” The William & Mary Quarterly, Third Series 45, no. 1 (1988): 33-69. My own dissertation work looks at how this process reshaped the formerly established Episcopalian Church.

[7] For a few places to begin exploring this crooked road see: David Sorkin, The Religious Enlightenment: Protestants, Jews, and Catholics from London to Vienna (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011); Christopher Grasso, “The Boundaries of Toleration and Tolerance: Religious Infidelity in the Early American Republic,” in The First Prejudice: Religious Toleration and Intolerance in Early America, ed. Chris Beneke and Chris Grenda (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010), 286-302; Jon Sensbach, “Slaves to Intolerance: African-American Christianity and Religious Freedom in Early America,” in Ibid., 195-217; Steven K. Green, The Second Disestablishment: Church and State in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010); John Lardas Modern, Secularism in Antebellum America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).

6 responses

  1. I read though your links Roy, and the assertion that stood out to me was the argument that Jefferson’s contemporaries did not believe that he was a Christian.

    Editing Jefferson’s papers full-time demonstrates to me that this is a massive oversimplification of the diversity of popular thought regarding Jefferson’s religious beliefs (or the lack thereof).

    So, what did people think regarding Jefferson’s religion?

    If we can judge this question by the letters that Jefferson received, it’s a mixed bag (with the always interesting anonymous hate-mail), but there are plenty of letters that appeal to Jefferson on the grounds of a shared Christianity.

    To give but one example, on 27 October 1804, Philadelphia Quaker and anti-slavery activist John Parrish wrote to Jefferson urging him to cajole Congress to end the slave trade before 1808. Parrish’s reasoning, whether correct or not, was based upon the assumption that he and Jefferson’s shared a similar faith and belief in eternal life.

    One can read an un-annotated and un-verified transcript of the letter here:

    *Shameless Plug for documentary editing*

    In short, one of the real value-added aspects of the modern, comprehensive, edited editions of the founders’ papers is that we can catch glimpses of what ordinary people, from all walks of life, thought regarding a variety of issues.

  2. Pingback: Religion and the Founding: Part I of Probably Many – Professor Park's Blog


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