This slim, welcome volume addresses the religious history of [End Page 197] Virginia from the founding of Jamestown in 1607 to the adoption of Thomas Jefferson’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in 1786. We know a fair amount about what Rhys Isaac styled the “evangelical revolt,” how the Great Awakening that began to transform the religious life of Virginia in the late 1740s, and we also know a lot about how that evangelical surge prompted the Virginia turn away from religious establishment. We know less about everyday religious practices in Anglican-dominated colonial Virginia, especially in the seventeenth century. Although certain books, such as Lauren F. Winner’s evocative A Cheerful and Comfortable Faith: Anglican Religious Practice in the Elite Households of Eighteenth-Century Virginia (2010), have begun to elucidate Anglican devotion in Virginia, historians still adhere to the contrast of religious-minded New Englanders versus business-driven Virginians. This volume challenges that dichotomy and helpfully suggests that Jefferson’s bill culminated a longer tale of religious development stretching back even to the first permanent English colony.
Six well-connected essays by prominent scholars of religion in colonial and revolutionary Virginia help us see more clearly the narrative thread. Brent Tarter’s opening essay questions the traditional assumption that seventeenth-century Virginia suffered from a dearth of religious institutions. Although direct evidence is scarce, legal records strongly suggest that by the mid-seventeenth century, the churches— particularly the parishes—had already become central to the social and religious infrastructure of Virginia. There were surprising signs of both religious vitality and diversity, even among Anglicans, as moderate Puritan Anglicans retained considerable influence in the colony through the Commonwealth period. Edward Bond’s essay argues, similarly, that early Virginians lived with a pervasively supernatural view of the world, sometimes manifested in magical beliefs that subtly undermined traditional Christian beliefs. On the other hand, the Anglican church seems to have grown more vibrant and stable over time, despite its less-than-ideal circumstances in Virginia due to the lack of a resident bishop and persistent shortages of clergy. [End Page 198]
After reading the section on the prerevolutionary period, one is left with the sense that because of the lack of conventional sources, we are still unable to convincingly map the religious character of seventeenth-century Virginia. Does fragmentary evidence of religious belief indicate its pervasiveness or its marginality? The writers here certainly lean toward the former answer. Of course, as Philip Morgan’s essay helpfully reminds us, when one takes account of the colonial population as a whole, including African Americans and Native Americans, then we see that religion was both vital and highly diverse, with non-Christians in at least a strong minority.
The second half of the volume covers more familiar ground: the struggle for disestablishment that followed the burst of evangelical dissent in the mid-eighteenth century. We know this story well, thanks in large part to the authors here: Monica Najar, Thomas Buckley, and Daniel Dreisbach. But their essays do break new ground or at least bring some aspects of the struggle for religious liberty into sharper focus. Najar examines the domestic dynamic of the struggle, as Baptist chroniclers highlighted the role of courageous women who joined the Baptists over their husband’s threats of retribution. Buckley offers an excellent introduction to legislative and denominational dynamics and an especially illuminating treatment of the efforts of the Episcopal church to come to terms with disestablishment. Dreisbach’s fitting conclusion to the volume highlights broad themes in the Virginia contributions to the broader story of American religion, particularly the development of religious pluralism, the move from toleration to religious liberty, and the enduring importance of religion and virtue as preservatives for the republic.
Thomas S. Kidd teaches history at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. His most recent book is Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots (2011).