Religion In Early Virginia Essay Research Paper

Religion In Early Virginia Essay, Research Paper

In a harsh new world, Virginia’s English colonists were supported by an

ancient and familiar tradition, the established church. The law of the land from

1624 mandated that white Virginians worship in the Anglican church (The Church of

England) and support its upkeep with their taxes. Where religion was an

integral part of everyday life in Virginia, the lines blurred between religious and

civil authority. Virginia gentlemen, who supported establishment but disliked

centralized church authority, gained control of parish vestries and county

courts to secure their power over religious matters. Despite establishment, the

religious life of white Virginians was not without diversity. Dissenters from many

Protestant groups had settled in the colony from early on, and had long resented the

legal restrictions placed on their own practice of religion. Finally, after about

1750, evangelical Christians started a struggle for religious freedom parallel to

and often opposite from the wider struggle for political independence.

Although Anglicans tolerated Protestant dissenters, they found the

traditional religious views of Native Americans and Africans beyond sanction. But English

colonists made only fitful efforts to bring blacks and Indians into the

established church. The Powhatans and Indians further inland proved resistant to

Christianity. For blacks, the oppression of slavery inevitably forced them to abandon a

purely African worldview. Still, they did not come to Christianity in great numbers

until evangelicals began gathering Christians from both races after the

mid-eighteenth century. Although some blacks and whites formed bonds through their shared

evangelical experience, Virginia’s celebrated statute for religious freedom

would have only limited meaning for African-Americans until after the Civil War.

The Anglican gentry in Virginia long had a reputation for shallow faith

and attendance at church was more of habit and a desire for social contact than

piety or zeal. Historians have begun to reevaluate this oversimplified view. They now

characterize many of Virginia’s elite as sincere attachments to a moderate

faith that provided a standard for judgment. Faith was only a private and family

affair. Reflections on a minister’s sermons, for example, were discussed within the

family group or recorded in diaries, such as those of William Byrd II and John

Blair of Williamsburg.

The spread of religion in eighteenth-century life inspired the motifs

used in the design of some household furnishings. Inscriptions on this pot encouraged

the hostess, as she poured coffee, to "keep her conversation as becometh the

lord" and her company to remember the comforting words of the twenty-third psalm, "the

lord is my Shepherd Ishall not want." Studies of the religious lives of the

middle and lower classes, although harder to pursue, have tended to focus on the

period after 1750, when evangelical Christianity pulled in Virginia’s "lesser folk,"

including many slaves. Recent research indicates that small planters and

their families made up the bulk of the congregations in Anglican churches and that

thesecolonists held values similar to those of their betters. While accepting

difference in social rank, they came to expect a certain civility and recognition from

the gentry that likely extended to the parish church and churchyard.

The seeds of faith planted in Anglican homes and churches often lay

dormant under routine worship, but later flourished under the influence of

evangelical preachers. These men remodeled familiar biblical themes into a message of

spiritual renewal and of a personal God who intervened in human affairs.

Slaves in great numbers were drawn to evangelical Christianity, particularly the

Baptist groups. After the mid-eighteenth century, evangelical Christians (Baptists,

Presbyterians, and Methodists) challenged the establishment’s discriminatory practices by

flaunting licensing laws and refusing to be restricted to particular meetinghouses or

locales. As the Revolution approached, they formed an unlikely partnership

with apostles of the Enlightenment among the Revolutionary generation. Both were

bent upon disestablishing the Anglican church in Virginia.

The diversification of religion in Virginia up to and through the Revolutionary

period was relatively peaceful. Conflicts did occur. Anglican agents

sometimes forcibly broke up evangelical meetings in the 1770s, and the sight of Baptist

ministers preaching from their jail cells galvanized James Madison to give

full support to disestablishment. But it seems as if the very number of religious

groups in Virginia (and America) precluded the religious persecutions and sectarian

warfare that had plagued England and the rest of Europe for centuries. Virginians

proved to be less tolerant of non-Christian faiths, however. Most notably,

slavery constituted a form of violence that deprived Africans of their traditional

religious systems.

Native Americans clashed with colonists not only over land but in resisting

conversion to the Christian faith. As settlers pushed back the Indians and as

Anglican parishes spread out over Virginia, the gentry were able to gain control of

the established church on the local and county levels as well as in the colonial

legislature. Anglican elites proved to be tough opponents to evangelical Christians

and the Revolutionary leaders who joined them in supporting disestablishment.

African-Americans also made common cause with the evangelicals after 1750.

Before that time, few blacks had joined the Christian fold. In the 17th century,

small numbers of slaves had recognized that they could gain their freedom through

baptism, but the General Assembly closed this loophole in 1667. Over the next

century, most slave owners and Anglican ministers ignored the spiritual lives

of African-Americans.

Throughout the colonial period, the established church was supported and

reinforced by other formal and informal institutions. Virginia lacked a bishop.

Therefore, control of religious matters was largely left in the hands of local

institutions ruled by the gentry. Vestrymen became the dominant influence on

church affairs by the end of the 17th century. They paid the clergy, built and

repaired church buildings, and provided support for the needy. Justices of the

peace, sitting on the bench of county courts, heard cases having to do with

attendance at Anglican church services and adultery, and other moral offenses. In

consolidating control over civil and religious matters on all levels, the leading men

of the county further enhanced their power, and at the same time imparted their

authority to the church.

Virginia’s General Assembly protected the established church in law. It

enforced laws that penalized dissenters: for example, requiring all officeholders to

be Anglican. The legislature also exercised authority over such matters as the

creation of new parishes and the setting of ministers’ salaries. It was in the

legislature that the battle over disestablishment was waged and eventually

won, but informal institutions also supported the religious lives of Anglicans and

dissenters alike. Families transmitted values and religious teachings. Reflecting the

evolution of family relationships, by the mid-18th century, white women had become the

primary guardians of the religious lives of their families. For dissenters, traveling

preachers and local congregations played an important role in affirming their faith.


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