Book Review: Wellspring of Liberty: How Virginia's Religious Dissenters Helped Win the American Revolution and Secured Religious Liberty

By Derek H. Davis, University of Mary Hardin-Baylor

It is generally well known that post-Revolutionary War political developments in Virginia were central to the progress of the American principle of separation of church and state. Thomas Jefferson's Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which won passage in 1786 following James Madison's vigorous campaign (during which his famous Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments drove home to Virginia's citizenry the merits of Jefferson's proposal), was a landmark document for the maturation of religious liberty in America. But while this basic scenario is familiar to many observers, most of the background to the passage of Jefferson's Statute is not well known. In this regard, John A. Ragosta's book is remarkably detailed and informative. Indeed, no one has told the story better.

As Ragosta argues, no colony before the war protected its established church (Anglican) more rigorously or persecuted its dissenters (mostly Baptists and Presbyterians) more aggressively than Virginia. Before the American Revolution, and to some degree after, the colony routinely arrested or jailed dissenters for preaching without a license, baptizing converts, attending non-Anglican services, participating in non-Anglican marriages, and the like. In fact, a valuable contribution Ragosta makes is compiling a comprehensive list (included as an appendix), discovered in a thorough review of court records, dissenter pamphlets, and church records, of all arrests and formal prosecutions against dissenters from 1763 to 1786. The list is longer than most might have imagined.

Nevertheless, the greatest contribution this book makes is explaining how religious dissenters made their own participation in the war effort contingent upon concessions from Virginia lawmakers to ease restrictions on their ability to enjoy various aspects of religious freedom. These concessions were granted progressively during and after the war. For example, once the war commenced, dissenters secured exemption from taxes collected for the Anglican establishment; these taxes were not discontinued completely until 1779. They also gradually won the right to conduct their own worship services unmolested, to conduct marriage ceremonies, to own church property, to incorporate their dissenting churches, and to administer, alongside Anglican churches, government funds distributed to the poor. None of these concessions came easily, and Ragosta presents the drama and intense negotiations impressively.

These contentious developments were essential to the passage of Jefferson's Statute. Jefferson himself reported that the debates on religious liberty leading to final passage were "the severist conflicts in which have ever been engaged" (p. 8). The central question underlying the struggle was a timeless one: will society survive without governmental support of religion? While it became clear rather early during the war that the Anglican establishment would have to end, the alternative obvious to most observers was a "general assessment" statute that would provide nondiscriminatory, nonpreferential support to all Protestant denominations. Initially, this measure had strong support, and a working model already existed in South Carolina. Patrick Henry, whose advocacy to end prosecutions against dissenters during the war is underappreciated, is nevertheless sometimes criticized for backing this proposal. He believed the syllogism that government must have virtue, that virtue comes primarily from religion, and therefore government must support religion. Ragosta presents Madison's counter thusly: "Madison did not question the necessity of civil virtue or of religion to promote it; rather, he explained that historically establishments had done more harm than good to the cause of religion. Thus, whereas a republic needed civic virtue, and civic virtue, religion, religion most emphatically did not need (indeed it suffered from) government intervention" (p. 130). Madison's argument won over a majority of the people of Virginia and those in the Virginia assembly. Virginia's commitment to church-state separation became the model for the same principles enshrined in the federal Constitution and eventually other state constitutions as well. It remains instructive today in the ongoing debate between advocates of separationism and nonpreferentialism.

Ragosta's book should become a staple among those books that examine the early history and development of the American ideal of separation of church and state. Works like this one that inform and help clarify a complex issue are of considerable value to scholars and students alike.

Wellspring of Liberty: How Virginia's Religious Dissenters Helped Win the American Revolution and Secured Religious Liberty Author: John A. Ragosta New York: Oxford University Press. 2010. Pp. viii, 261. $34.95.