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  • The First Wall of Separation between Church and State:Slavery and Disestablishment in Late-Eighteenth-Century Virginia
  • Sarah Barringer Gordon (bio)

In the spring of 1785, an itinerant methodist preached against slavery in the Virginia countryside near Norfolk. It was a momentous occasion, pitting British native and newly minted Methodist bishop Dr. Thomas Coke against a group of lay Virginians gathered to hear the Gospel. Coke condemned slaveholding as unchristian and urged his audience to manumit their slaves. Many stalked out of Brother Martin's barn, vowing to "flog" Coke as soon as he emerged. "A high-headed Lady" egged them on, Coke reported, promising "fifty pounds, if they would give that little Doctor one hundred lashes." The threat to humiliate Coke—with a punishment meant to inflict shame as well as pain on slaves—came to naught finally, but the danger was palpable. The crowd dispersed only after Martin, who was the local justice of the peace as well as a Methodist convert, cornered the ring leader and talked him down.1 [End Page 61]

The sermonizer was shaken but apparently not deterred. Three weeks later in Brunswick County, Coke ran into more trouble. His traveling companion reported that "the minds of the people [are] greatly agitated with our rules against slavery, and a proposed petition to the general assembly for the emancipation of the blacks." Indeed, at the home of his hosts Coke engaged in a heated debate over slavery with another guest (a Colonel Bedford), who "used some threats." On April 6, Coke had preached a funeral sermon for longtime Methodist leader Colonel Bedford (likely related to, and perhaps the father of, the man who threatened him), noting at the time he had "nothing good [to say] of [the dead man], for he was a violent friend of slavery, and … would have been a dreadful thorn in our sides." Coke's disagreements over slavery extended to fellow churchmen, when the influential evangelical Anglican (and Methodist sympathizer) Devereux Jarratt resisted Coke's importuning. Coke dismissed Jarratt as a "violent asserter of the propriety and justice of negro-slavery" and a "fallen" man. Another influential Methodist "raged like a lion" when Coke "enlarged" on slavery to a sizable congregation on May 15, 1785. As Coke's reputation for antislavery preaching spread, doors were shut against him, he was formally indicted for sedition, and at least one plan was formed to murder him. His opponents were sure that his antislavery campaign was yet another British plot, designed to corrode Virginia from within.2 [End Page 62]

Coke's effect on Virginia's religious and political landscape was profound, primarily because of the opposition he provoked. His traveling ministry brought an explicitly religious antislavery sensibility to the commonwealth. His sermonizing against slaveholding became an opportunity for proponents of slavery to condemn antislavery preaching. Coke also embodied the dangers of a political role for religion, because he used the pulpit to argue that religion should control white Virginians' property. Many Virginians responded with outrage, separating clerics from politics and shutting down their potential to destabilize slavery.

Coke's travels around Virginia—and the groundswell of popular reaction against him—are documented in the scores of petitions submitted to the Virginia General Assembly that record the convergence of proslavery attitudes and support for disestablishment3. The story is bracketed by the work of two clerics: one, the British Methodist Thomas Coke, and the other, William Graham, a Presbyterian minister originally from Pennsylvania who became Coke's nemesis. Both men shifted their positions in response to the outcry over slavery. The lesson from their experience was that popular sentiment among white Virginians overwhelmingly supported slavery, and that religious leaders—if they wanted to succeed—would do well to adjust their perspective to suit their congregants. Separation of church and state became politically popular among everyday Virginians, especially proslavery evangelicals, who were convinced in the 1780s that slavery and disestablishment were both mandated by their Christian faith.

Thomas Jefferson, whose Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom was enacted in early 1786, later described disestablishment in Virginia as erecting "a wall of separation between Church & State." Precisely what lived on either side of the wall he...


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pp. 61-104
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