When Religious Freedom Was Dangerous

By Bill Sullivan

“A commitment to religious freedom is one of the most important achievements of the founding era precisely because it could be dangerous,” said James Sidbury, Andrew W. Mellon Distinguished Professor of Humanities at Rice University, in a talk at the Dewitt Wallace Museum. But dangerous to whom? Sidbury was a featured speaker during Religion Month at Colonial Williamsburg, which features a special emphasis on the role of faith in the nation’s founding.

His lecture, “Religious Liberty in the Virginias of Jefferson and Gabriel,” explored the nature and limits of faith and freedom in the late 1700s. Sidbury suggested that the prominence of religious conflicts in today’s world has made it easier to understand the divisiveness of religion in the founding era. It is easier to imagine the “fear of religious or sectarian violence that hung over the 18th century.”

In pre-Revolution Virginia, where the Anglican church was officially sanctioned, Protestant dissenters faced intimidation and violence for their evangelizing. More than half of Virginia’s Baptist preachers faced legal action for preaching in public. Dissenters were part of “a leveling spirit” that changed Virginia and contributed to the egalitarian impulses of the American Revolution.

But what of Jefferson and Gabriel? As visitors to Williamsburg quickly learn, Thomas Jefferson is central to any such discussion. Sidbury noted Jefferson’s instructions for his epitaph, which listed only three accomplishments he wanted to be remembered for: writing the Declaration of Independence, founding the University of Virginia, and authoring Virginia’s Statute for Religious Freedom, which disestablished the Church of England and helped pave the way for the separation of church and state in America.

Jefferson, according to Sidbury, “sought to save government from the pernicious influence of religious sectarianism.” In his mind, separating church and state made the world safe for representative government. The dissenters shared Jefferson’s goals for exactly the opposite reason: they sought separation so that they might “preach and worship in safety.”

Jefferson hoped that the removal of religion from the public sphere would “open the door to alternate visions” for unifying citizens. Gabriel Prosser, a blacksmith and enslaved African American from Richmond, had different ideas. “Most black Christians,” said Sidbury, “worshipped in biracial churches with white ministers.” It was at one of those Baptist churches where Gabriel plotted a slave rebellion in 1800.

Here is where religious liberty could become dangerous. Gabriel had been steeped in the revolutionary language of equality. He would have seen slavery as an infringement of that liberty, said Sidbury. “If one believes that God is calling those of faith to rise up and transform society, then surely preventing them from doing that” would be wrong.

Gabriel’s Rebellion failed. He and more than two dozen accused conspirators were hanged for their resistance. In the aftermath, many wondered if egalitarian religious doctrines had helped to encourage him. When asked what he thought of the justice that had been dispensed, Thomas Jefferson wrote “there is strong sentiment that there had been hanging enough.”

Religion-themed programs are staged all year long, but the special emphasis runs through April. On April 30 at 4 p.m., Michael Meyerson, Wilson H. Elkins Professor of Law at the University of Baltimore School of Law, will speak on the subject of “America’s Second Revolution: How Our  Founders Won the Battle for True Religious Freedom.” He will be signing copies of his book, Endowed by Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Freedom in America, after the lecture.

Religion Month activities, including these lectures, are generously supported by a gift from the Kern Family Foundation.

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