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  • Wellspring of Liberty: How Virginia's Religious Dissenters Helped Win the American Revolution and Secured Religious Liberty
  • Thomas E. Buckley S.J. (bio)
Wellspring of Liberty: How Virginia's Religious Dissenters Helped Win the American Revolution and Secured Religious Liberty. By John A. Ragosta. (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2010. Pp. 261. Cloth, $34.95.)

In what is primarily a work of advocacy, John Ragosta argues that religious dissenters, principally Baptists and Presbyterians, bear the most conspicuous responsibility for the transformation of Virginia during and immediately after the Revolution from a British colony where the Church of England was legally established to a state with an essentially modern separation of church and state. While he acknowledges that James Madison and Thomas Jefferson contributed important "writings," Ragosta insists that "it was the dissenters who bargained for, and fought for, religious freedom" (11). He wants their voices represented both in the history and the "current legal and … judicial decisions" on church and state (170).

Perhaps the author's legal background has sensitized him to the importance of negotiations between adversaries, because he reiterates this theme throughout the book. In one camp he locates the supporters of the Anglican establishment who controlled the assembly and keenly desired to mobilize all Virginians to wage the Revolution. In the other are the religious dissenters. They favored political independence from Britain yet asked in effect "what's in it for us" if Virginia retained a polity that privileged one church and its clergy and discriminated against all the others. The "well-spring for liberty" in the book's title is "the Whigs' need for broader support" that required "political leaders to enlist the evangelicals in the war" (70). By negotiating with them, Ragosta claims that they "pulled dissenters into the military" and "increasingly politicized them … contributing to the republicanization of Virginia" (99).

The process began at the outset of the Revolution when the "free exercise of religion" guaranteed in the Virginia Declaration of Rights of 1776 stopped legal persecution. Later that year the Assembly ended the taxation imposed on dissenters to support the established church. Both measures certainly helped the mobilization of dissenters and the author makes a good case for the support dissenting clergy offered the cause. But his further claim that "the war years were marked by intense negotiations and dialogue among the establishment and dissenters with regular [End Page 537] liberalizations on multiple fronts to satisfy dissenter demands" is less persuasive (125). Only minimal changes in church polity benefited the dissenters during the war years. Jefferson's proposed statute for religious freedom was introduced and quickly shelved in June 1779. The bulk of petitions that year supported the passage of a religious assessment bill, which also failed. By reducing the wartime contest to a prolonged negotiation between dissenters and the state's political leadership, this study misses the complexity within the struggle for religious freedom. Members of the renamed Protestant Episcopal Church of Virginia dominated the government and the religious rationalists among them typically supported the views of Jefferson and Madison in opposition to more traditional Episcopalians who sought state support for religion. Unfortunately Ragosta largely ignores this quarrel within the established church as well as the genuine differences between and among Baptists and especially Presbyterians over the proper relationship between church and state.

Only after peace rendered mobilization unnecessary, and a benevolent assembly appeared to favor the Episcopal Church by an incorporation act that fixed that church's polity, did the dissenters unite to mount the barricades against a revised assessment proposal. At that moment Madison brought forward Jefferson's statute and the assembly passed it with a combination of rationalist and dissenter support in January 1786. The author coins a new word for this process, "republicanization," by which he apparently means that former outsiders now cracked the Anglican establishment's political monopoly and became part of the governing process in Virginia. This indeed represented permanent change as the former dissenters engaged freely in interest group politics. That recognition is the major contribution of this study. His further claim that this also brought "new governmental institutions" is more dubious. Virginia's state government looked suspiciously like the colonial government except...


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pp. 537-539
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