Ten years before William Shakespeare died, the colony of Virginia was named for the “Virgin Queen” Elizabeth.
Virginia’s first charter stated, April 10, 1606: “Greatly commending … their Desires for the Furtherance of so noble a Work, which may, by the Providence of Almighty God, hereafter tend to the Glory of His Divine Majesty, in propagating of Christian Religion to such People, as yet live in Darkness and miserable Ignorance of the true Knowledge and Worship of God.”
Thomas Jefferson wrote in his “Autobiography,” 1821: “The first settlers of Virginia were Englishmen, loyal subjects to their King and Church, and the grant to Sir Walter Raleigh contained an express proviso that their laws ‘should not be against the true Christian faith, now professed in the Church of England.'”
On April 26, 1607, English settlers landed at the site of Cape Henry, named for Prince Henry of Wales. Their first act was to erect a wooden cross and commence a prayer meeting. They ascended the James River, named for King James, and settled Jamestown, the first permanent English settlement in America.
The second charter of Virginia, May 23, 1609, stated: “The principal Effect which we can expect or desire of this Action is the Conversion and reduction of the people in those parts unto the true worship of God and the Christian Religion. … It shall be necessary for all such our loving Subjects … to live together, in the Fear and true Worship of Almighty God, Christian Peace, and civil Quietness, with each other.”
The third charter of Virginia, March 12, 1611, stated: “Our loving Subjects … for the Propagation of Christian Religion, and Reclaiming of People barbarous, to Civility and Humanity, We have … granted unto them … the first Colony in Virginia.”
The Church of England was established as the official denomination in Virginia from 1606 till 1786.
Noah Webster’s 1828 dictionary defined “establishment” of religion as: “The episcopal form of religion, so called in England.”
In 1699, the Virginia Assembly adopted the statutes of Monarchs William and Mary allowing for the toleration of some Protestant dissenters.
James Madison wrote to Robert Walsh, March 2, 1819: “The English Church was originally the established religion. … Of other sects there were but few adherents, except the Presbyterians who predominated on the west side of the Blue Mountains…”
Madison continued: “A little time previous to the Revolutionary struggle, the Baptists sprang up, and made very rapid progress. … At present the population is divided, with small exceptions, among the Protestant Episcopalians, the Presbyterians, the Baptists and the Methodists.”
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Lafayette Black wrote in Engel v. Vitale, 1962: “As late as the time of the Revolutionary War, there were established Churches in at least eight of the thirteen former colonies. … The successful Revolution against English political domination was shortly followed by intense opposition … in Virginia where the minority religious groups such as Presbyterians, Lutherans, Quakers and Baptists had gained such strength. …”
Justice Hugo Black continued: “In 1785-1786, those opposed to the established Church … obtained the enactment of the famous ‘Virginia Bill for Religious Liberty’ by which all religious groups were placed on an equal footing.”
The “Virginia Bill for Religious Liberty,” drafted by Jefferson, prevented the government from infringing on the rights of conscience, Jan. 16, 1786: “Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested his supreme will that free it shall remain by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments … are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do, but to extend it by its influence on reason alone. …”
Jefferson continued: “To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical … that … laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust … unless he … renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges … to which … he has a natural right … that the opinions of men are not the object of civil government, nor under its jurisdiction; that to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion … is a dangerous fallacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty, because he being of course judge of that tendency will make his opinions the rule of judgment, and approve or condemn the sentiments of others … that truth is great and will prevail if left to herself. …”
Jefferson concluded: “that no man shall be … molested … on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion.”
During the colonial times, only a small number of Catholics settled in the Anglican colony of Virginia. After the Revolution, the first Catholic church in Virginia was erected in 1795, St. Mary Church in Alexandria.
The first permanent Jewish synagogue in Virginia was built in Richmond in 1820. Named “Kehilah ha Kadosh Beth Shalome,” it is considered one of oldest colonial Jewish congregations in America, along with others in New York, Philadelphia, Newport, Savannah and Charleston.
Virginian George Washington wrote Nov. 27, 1783: “Disposed … to acknowledge … our infinite obligations to the Supreme Ruler of the Universe for rescuing our country from the brink of destruction; I cannot fail … to ascribe all the honor of our late success to the same glorious Being. … The establishment of Civil and Religious Liberty was the Motive which induced me to the Field. … It now remains to be my earnest … prayer, that the Citizens of the United States would make a wise and virtuous use of the blessings, placed before them.”
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