The image above, from the Library of Congress, shows the signatures of three of my Albemarle County ancestors, Thomas Craig, John Jameson and Micajah Via, who were supporters of the American Revolution during its earliest and darkest days. They were calling for the English Church to be disestablished as the State Church. An image of the additional signers is here: 1 November 1776. A transcript of the entire document is available here: TRANSCRIPT. With the loss of so many historical documents during the wars fought on Virginia soil, these petitions give us a snapshot of which Virginians were in support of the Revolutionary cause by their opposition to the established Church of England.
Many historians write that the American Revolution was, to a considerable extent, a religious quarrel, between Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Quakers and other Dissenters whose religious principles and politics were in opposition to the established Church and its government. The King of England was the head of the English church. Anglican priests swore allegiance to the King and The Book of Common Prayer offered prayers for the monarch, beseeching God “to be his defender and keeper, giving him victory over all his enemies.” In 1776, those enemies of the King were American soldiers and friends and neighbors of American Anglicans. Loyalty to the Anglican church and to its head, the British monarch, was often seen as treason to the American cause, hence the need to disestablish the English Church in America. See “Religion and the American Revolution” at the Library of Congress site.
A description of these Virginia petitions and how they are tied to the Revolutionary War spirit for liberty is also at the Library of Congress web site, where is “Petitioning in Eighteenth-Century Virginia:”
Although both Anglicans and dissenters frequently petitioned the legislature to address a variety of religious concerns, the relationship of church and state did not assume great importance until the Revolutionary period. As the number of dissenters and their political needs increased, and as Enlightenment ideals gained ground among certain political leaders, complete religious freedom emerged as a common goal for a heterogeneous group of Virginians.
My three ancestors, Thomas Craig, John Jameson and Micajah Via, are amongst the signatories on this Albemarle County, Virginia petition, dated on 1 November 1776. This point in time was less than four months after the signing of the American Declaration of Independence. These Albemarle – Amherst petitioners were well aware of the threatening arrival of 30,000 British troops at New York and the enemy’s occupation of the city, that American forces had been roundly defeated at the Battle of Brooklyn, that the American ragtag army was routed at the Battle of Harlem Heights, defeated by the British at Lake Champlain, and that American troops were forced to retreat at the Battle of White Plains just three days prior.
In the face of all of that, they addressed their words to the “Delegates & Senators, Representatives of the Common Wealth of Virginia at the City of Williamsburg” stating “in consequence of our having thrown off our dependence on the Crown & Parliament of Great Britain.” They closed by ardently wishing that the new Virginia “Commonwealth may become the envy of the Nations & the Glory of the World.” I count these men as Patriots of the Revolution because, if the Rebels had lost the fight, as it indeed appeared they would, and England successfully stopped the rebellion, they would have been considered traitors and suffered consequences.
In pre-Revolutionary America, the Church of England was the staunch defender of the British monarchy. When England tried to strengthen the Church of England in the Colonies, in a ploy to turn the colonies into royal provinces, the locals became more antagonistic towards their own mother country.
In the colony of Virginia the Anglican Church was established by law; Virginia was the stronghold of the English system of church and state. The Anglican faith and worship were prescribed by law. The Anglican church was sustained by taxes imposed on all Virginians. Although Jews, Catholics, and Protestant dissenters were barely tolerated in Virginia, they slowly persisted, eventually gaining minimal acceptance. By the advent of the American Revolution, religious dissenters outnumbered adherents to the established English church.
The English Church had become powerful in the colonies because it was supported by the British government and the official ruling class sent to govern the colonials. The Anglican bishops and archbishops in England were appointed by the monarch, and church rituals and services were governed by acts of Parliament. The British government depended upon its loyal clergy to fend off or report to the authorities any rebellious spirits that might foment in America. The Church, therefore, served as a strong bulwark of the state, playing a political role in the Virginia Colony as well as in England. In the mid eighteenth-century, Revolutionary fervor was rising in Virginia, resulting in the English church redoubling its efforts to strengthen its influence in affairs of the Colony. These methods did not sit well with the larger number of dissenting Protestants, who had bitter remembrances of the religious conflicts they had experienced in Great Britain before immigrating. In addition, loyal members of the English Church in Virginia, witnessing the harsh treatment by their parish leaders against their Dissenter neighbors, became sympathetic.