In Search of the Fountainhead of Religious Freedom in Virginia

by James Wyatt Whitehead, V

A recent trip to study the Civil War battlefield of Fredericksburg brought me to stately Washington Avenue in one of Virginia’s most historic cities. The street is adorned with grand Victorian mansions and Kenmore, the colonial home of Fielding and Betty Lewis (George Washington’s sister). Here stands a statue to Patriot Hugh Mercer, the famed officer who led the Continentals to victory at the Battle of Princeton and died from wounds received in battle.

Not far away stands a stone monument bearing bronze plaques memorializing the January 1777 meeting of Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, Edmund Pendleton, George Mason, George Wythe, and Thomas Ludwell Lee to draft the Bill Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia. I have traveled this street many times, and I knew of this famed meeting of luminary patriots, but I had never noticed this modest yet important memorial.

I couldn’t help but wonder: Had I stumbled onto the very fountainhead of religious freedom in Virginia? A brief search on my cell phone revealed that this memorial dated back to 1932. No fountain here, but I was close, for the memorial had originally been installed on George Street near the site of Weedon’s Tavern, where Jefferson and company began their earnest work. It was moved in 1977 to its current, more attractive location.

My journey next brought me to the site of Weedon’s Tavern. The building that stands there today looks like an old A&P Supermarket that is now an antique store. Old Weedon’s Tavern burned in 1807. The establishment was owned by one of Washington’s generals, George Weedon. (I have to assume Washington slept here too.) It is here that members of the Committee of Law Revisors began their task to remake the government of Virginia.

Jefferson did not tarry long after drafting his famous independence document in Philadelphia. He viewed the work at hand in Fredericksburg as far more important. I can only imagine what it must have been like to be seated at a table in Weedon’s Tavern with Jefferson and company. The debate and discussion are lost to time, but the finished work of Jefferson’s Statute of Religious Freedom was enacted nine years later. Those inspired words of religious freedom and the separation of church and government would be carried forward into the Bill of Rights by James Madison.

Perhaps the fountainhead of religious freedom rests with Jefferson’s body at the Monticello graveyard. His current tombstone is considered the second oldest memorial to the cause. Interestingly, Jefferson’s original tombstone can be found at the University of Missouri. That is where the oldest monument to religious freedom resides. His epitaph included the reference: “Author of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom.”

Curiosity led me to conclude that the source of religious freedom must be found somewhere else. What inspired patriots to take up the cause of religious freedom? Why would a confirmed deist such as Jefferson have interest in the free will to exercise the right of worship?

We are still in Fredericksburg, this time at the old Spotsylvania County Court House, where the old city court house now stands majestically on Princess Anne Street. On June 4, 1768 John Waller, James Reed, Elijah Craig, Lewis Craig, and William Marshall were jailed for preaching without a license at Craig’s Upper Spotsylvania Baptist Church. The prosecuting attorney added to the charge of exhorting without a license that “These men are great disturbers of the peace; they cannot meet a man upon the road, but they must ram a text of Scripture down his throat.”

Waller and his compatriots were disturbers indeed. Previously, these Baptist and Presbyterian dissenters had probed and pushed against the authority of Virginia’s colonial government, the landed gentry, and the established Church of England. Now it was open rebellion. The accused would be released with a bond of 1,000 pounds if they promised to refrain from preaching. Waller and company refused. They were held for 43 days until the court’s next meeting date. As the prisoners were walked down the streets to the “gaol,” Waller led them in the singing of the old hymn, “Broad is the Road that Leads to Death” — a warning to all of the dangers of hypocrisy.

But confining the dissenting Baptist ministers did not quell the disturbances. Large crowds gathered at the jail’s windows to hear Waller and the Craig brothers preach. The sheriff hired ruffians to break up the crowds, loudly beat on drums to drown out the exhorting, and stoned those who came to hear the Word. Yet, the longer Waller remained in jail, the larger the crowds of supporters became.

Lewis Craig was released early. His subsequent journey to Williamsburg to secure a letter of release from Acting Governor John Blair was a success. But the Court of Spotsylvania ignored the directive. What happened next includes two possibilities. One story claims that John Waller successfully defended himself and his fellow brothers in a jury trial and were promptly released. Another legend claims that Patrick Henry rode by horseback 50 miles to defend Waller and company. In the flourish of Henry’s oratory, the jury released the dissenters.

Scenes such as what happened in Fredericksburg were repeated throughout Virginia. In 1771, Waller was imprisoned again in Caroline County. His punishment was a public horsewhipping. The 20 lashes from the sheriff left scars that Waller carried to the grave. In another instance, landed aristocrats pulled the determined Waller from the pulpit. But despite being bloodied and beaten, he would not relent.

Elijah and Lewis Craig were also jailed for a lengthy period in Middlesex County. But incarceration only seemed to spread the revival flames further and further from Virginia’s Tidewater into the Piedmont. John Weatherford and the Apostles of Religious Liberty are memorialized at the Chesterfield County Courthouse. The Baptist preacher, James Ireland, was jailed for preaching without a license in Culpeper. Beaten, starved, and near death, Ireland signed every letter he wrote, “From My Palace In Culpeper.” His cruel jailor eventually became his defender and follower. The lock and key to the Culpeper jail are on display at the University of Richmond. A Baptist church occupies the former site of Ireland’s prison. In all, there are more than 50 documented accounts of dissenting ministers being jailed and thousands of accounts of abuses suffered by believers.

In 1776, Baptist dissenters sent a petition to the Virginia General Assembly seeking relief. It is a remarkable document with 10,000 signatures gathered from across the state.

The men who gathered at Weedon’s Tavern in January of 1777 knew the dissenters. Jefferson’s aunt was a Baptist and he had visited her meetinghouse. Patrick Henry heard the words of Presbyterian Samuel Davies at Pole Green Church. George Mason corresponded directly with dissenters. Washington proclaimed his “firmness that Baptists are our friends.” Madison wrote of his disgust at the jailing of William Marshall (John Marshall’s uncle) for preaching to a throng of 4,000 at Blue Run Church in Orange, Virginia. An important unwritten arrangement was made. Religious freedom was a powerful bargaining chip to persuade the dissenters to support the cause of revolution. Interestingly, the dissenters wished more for total separation of church and government than a guarantee of rights. Their distrust of authority could not be overcome.

My quest to locate the fountainhead of religious freedom in Virginia has led me across the state. As I have pursued the origination of religious freedom, I’ve discovered that nearly every part of the state can lay claim to the mantle of religious freedom. James Madison was right when he said, “Religion flourishes in greater purity, without than with the aid of government.”

James Wyatt Whitehead V is a retired Loudoun County history teacher.

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9 responses to “In Search of the Fountainhead of Religious Freedom in Virginia”

  1. Unfortunately, guarantees of religious freedom, even those enshrined in the Constitution, do not guarantee religious freedom. Religious freedoms must be continually defended, or they, like other freedoms, will be lost to future generations.

    “The Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority (HART) lumps in ‘religious affiliation advertising’ with others forms of advertising it forbids: ads for ‘tobacco, alcohol, or related products’ and ads containing ‘profane language, obscene materials,’ ‘images of nudity,’ or ‘depiction[s] of graphic violence,’ among others. By treating them alike, HART sends the message that religious speech is too controversial and too dangerous for public discussion. This is in direct conflict with the First Amendment’s dual guarantee of the freedoms of speech and religious exercise.”

    Our country was founded on the idea of religious freedom and the freedom of speech. The First Amendment is just that – the first – because it is absolutely critical to the American experiment. Government censorship of religious speech sends the message that religious expression is viewed as offensive and controversial, which is antithetical to the tradition of religious tolerance and the history of the United States,” said Attorney General Miyares.

    1. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
      Dick Hall-Sizemore

      The First Amendment addresses two aspects of religious freedom. First, it prohibits government from establishing a religion and, second, guarantees the free exercise of religion. A public transit system running religious ads would be involved in advocating the establishment of religion, which is prohibited by the First Amendment. Such a prohibition of ads does not infringe upon anyone exercising their freedom to worship.

      1. Appreciate the reply, but your analysis is wrong, and demonstrably so. I hope you will examine the evidence with an open mind.

        First, far from “free exercise of religion,” the actions in this case display open hostility to it. It would appear that you have not read the brief.

        “HART’s no-religious-advertisement policy singles out advertisements with a religious viewpoint for disapproval. In doing so, the policy is at odds with the history and tradition of the First Amendment, sends the perverse message that religious discourse is like the other subjects HART bans (alcohol, pornography, discriminatory messages, and the like), conflicts with modern First Amendment jurisprudence forbidding viewpoint discrimination, and flunks even HART’s preferred test for content-neutral speech restrictions”

        Proselytizing is a core element of many religions. It is impossible to have free exercise of religion without it.

        How is a religious message displayed on a public bus, substantially different from a religious message delivered on a public street?

        Taken from the above article:

        “These men are great disturbers of the peace; they cannot meet a man upon the road, but they must ram a text of Scripture down his throat.”

        You stated:
        “A public transit system running religious ads would be involved in advocating the establishment of religion…”

        Nonsense. Advertisements limited to a single religion would violate the law, clearly. That’s that’s not what’s this case is about, not at all.

        Paid religious messages on public busses are essentially the same as paid religious messages broadcast of the public air waves. Ever watch broadcast TV or radio on Sunday? Is that the establishment of a state religion?

        The Radio Act of 1927 established that the “Public” at large owned the radio spectrum and individuals would be licensed to use it.

  2. walter smith Avatar
    walter smith

    And this is yet another reason the BOV of UVA should be embarrassed
    UVA’s religious exemption for Covid violated federal law, violated the Va Constitution, and violated Jeffersonian religious liberty principles – part of what the BOV was supposed to protect.
    Ignore the first 2. Just the Jeffersonian should have been sufficient. The Va Constitution is pretty clear, too. UVA “trained” the people to judge religious claims only to the federal standard, which is offensive enough. I think the climate scam and CRT/DEI are new religions being established, but I digress…
    The first UVA Covid religious exemption form required an essay AND stated that the claim could not be based on philosophical or moral objections ( and maybe moral too, there were 3 adjectives – I’ll have to check my notes). Later, UVA “improved” the form by removing that sentence, but it still required an essay explaining why your religious beliefs precluded being an unwilling participant in a medical experiment! I must have objected a dozen times to the BOV, the Admin, the Med School, the Dean of Students…crickets.

    1. I think you are correct about new religions.

      Female gender trapped in a male body and vice versa? That’s metaphysics, and within the realm of religious dogma.

      Dr. John Finley for example disagrees with Aquinas’s understanding of gender distinction. Finley proposes that gender distinction (male and female) stems from the soul rather than from the body.

      The Metaphysics of Gender: A Thomistic Approach

  3. What a marvelous pilgrimage you have been on. And what a wonderful tribute to our founding fathers. I was well aware that the Anglican Church was the established church, living off tax dollars. I had no idea that so many dissenters were whipped, jailed and otherwise persecuted. Thanks for the history lesson!

    1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
      James Wyatt Whitehead

      This is just the tip of the iceberg. The rabbit hole is deep. At the turn of the century (1900) this was a subject of many books and scholarship. 100 years later this all important story is nearly forgotten.

  4. Dick Hall-Sizemore Avatar
    Dick Hall-Sizemore

    Thanks for the history lesson. I recently got a taste of all this while reading a new biography of Patrick Henry.

    1. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
      James Wyatt Whitehead

      Who started the fire of dissent? It very well could be Samuel Harris of Halifax County. An aristocrat, member of the House of Burgesses, and colonel of the county militia, Harris gave up all of his fame and fortune for the zeal of the Great Awakening. A very animated preacher, much like Samuel Davies or George Whitefield. He traveled all over Virginia, baptized thousands, and ordained most of the ministers who were leading the dissent. He is buried near Tight Squeeze south of Chatham. An important and nearly forgotten Virginian.,American%20Revolution%20and%20into%20the%20early%20Constitutional%20period.

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