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Parish History Notes 12: The Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom

Thomas Jefferson’s eloquent opposition to the established church was expressed by the statute that he drafted in 1777 and presented to the General Assembly of Virginia on June 12, 1779. It finally became law, with James Madison’s leadership, on Jan. 16, 1786. The statute declared that “no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever,” and that “all men shall be free to profess…their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” 

This “Disestablishment” destroyed the position and authority of the Anglican Church in Virginia. No other law has had a more harmful effect on so many parishes and parish properties in the Commonwealth. Churches and glebe properties were abandoned or sold to emerging denominations. In some counties the overseers of the poor were instructed to seize the personal property owned by the parishes, including “Plate, Bells, Books and Ornaments,” and sell these to offset general county taxes.

For two generations after the American Revolution, a sharp decline in total membership was evident in every local Episcopal congregation. Because of the lack of resources and leadership, the surviving church buildings suffered from neglect, and evidence of this neglect remains visible in the fabric of today’s historic religious structures.