“Practical Godliness”: Toleration Without a Theory

THE VAST EXTENT of the Virginia parishes naturally affected the quality of their religious experience. By 1740 a small parish measured about twenty miles in length and possessed a scattered population of about seven or eight hundred white persons gathered in about a hundred and fifty families. A larger parish might be sixty miles long, or even more if it extended southwestward toward the dim border between Virginia and North Carolina. Churches were ten or more miles apart. “Their large extent,” the Rev. Alexander Forbes (whose own parish was sixty miles long and eleven miles wide) complained in 1724, “is not only the cause of the omission of Holy days; but very often I have found that labor to be fruitless, which I have imployed in room of their observation; for sometimes after I have travell’d Fifty Miles to Preach at a Private House, the Weather happening to prove bad, on the day of our meeting, so that very few or none have met; or else being hindred by Rivers & Swamps rendered impassable with much rain, I have returned with doing of nothing to their benefit or mine own satisfaction.” As a quantitative measure of religious zeal, he added that while parishioners were faithful enough to go five or six miles to church, ten or fifteen miles were simply too much for them. The large numbers of recently arrived Africans or unassimilated white indentured servants made cautious planters reluctant to leave their plantations unattended by an adult male of the family.

The lack of any central church authority to enforce uniformity of ritual, and the scarcity of church “ornaments,” bred an informality alien to the spirit of the English Church. “After the minister had made an end,” a Sunday visitor to a tidewater church noted in 1715, “every one of the men pulled out his pipe, and smoked a pipe of tobacco.” We do not know for sure how many, like those later parishioners of neighboring Carolina who so annoyed the Rev. Charles Woodmason, actually brought their dogs to church. But we do know that in some places there was no font for baptizing; in others no surplice for the minister; elsewhere it became common for people to take communion in their seats instead of kneeling before the altar. “Every Minister,” the Rev. Hugh Jones wrote, “is a kind of Independent in his own Parish, in Respect of some little particular Circumstances and Customs.” Many rituals of the church came to be performed at home.

The Parishes being of great Extent … many dead Corpses cannot be conveyed to the Church to be buried: So that it is customary to bury in Gardens or Orchards, where whole Families lye interred together, in a Spot generally handsomly enclosed, planted with Evergreens, and the Graves kept decently: Hence likewise arises the Occasion of preaching Funeral Sermons in Houses, where at Funerals are assembled a great Congregation of Neighbours and Friends; and if you insist upon having the Sermon and Ceremony at Church, they’ll say they will be without it, unless performed after their usual Custom. In Houses also there is Occasion, from Humour, Custom sometimes, from Necessity most frequently, to baptize Children and church Women, otherwise some would go without it. In Houses also they most commonly marry, without Regard to the Time of the Day or Season of the Year.

The vast American spaces were accomplishing in Virginia what in England had required decades of theological controversy. In their own peculiar way, and even without intending it, Virginians were “purifying” the English church of its atmosphere of hierarchy and of excessive reliance on ritual. And were not these the very defects which Massachusetts Puritans had strenuously and stridently attacked?

While space “purified,” it also diffused the religious spirit. The more we learn of the spirit of the Church of Virginia, the more natural it seems that Virginia should have become a haven of toleration in the 18th century, and even that Virginia should have been among the first of the colonies with established churches to disestablish them. In Virginia this process began in 1776; while in Connecticut, Church and State remained united until 1818 and in Massachusetts until 1833. We need not look abroad to violent winds of doctrine to explain the moderation of Virginians.

The key to toleration in Virginia was the practical compromising spirit which built the Church of England in its English home and gave it new vitality when transplanted. It was Edmund Pendleton, devoted supporter of the Established Church, and others like him who organized the government and held Virginia together during the anarchic days of the Revolution. Pendleton, as Philip Mazzei, the traveling Florentine, recorded, was popularly known by the nickname of “Moderation.” Virginians were not passionate about religious dogma, for the simple reason that they often knew nothing about it. George Washington, though an active vestryman, probably could not have told the difference between the Church of Virginia and any other, except that the Established Church stood for moderation in all things and was the bulwark of decency in his community.

Virginians had founded their community, not as religious refugees held together by a common fanaticism, but as admirers of the English way of life who hoped to preserve its virtues on this side of the water. Their desire to increase their population and their lack of interest in theology made them generally lax in enforcing laws against dissenters. They were tolerant even of Papists and Quakers so long as they kept the peace. William Fitzhugh, himself a devoted Anglican, lived happily beside George Brent, a Catholic; he even developed a scheme for importing Catholics to a settlement of their own. Yet he also sought to attract French Huguenots. Many other leading Virginia Anglicans tried to make their colony a haven for all decent Christians. A Quaker, John Pleasants, despite the letter of the law, was elected to the House of Burgesses, and only because he refused to take the oath of office did he vacate his seat. When King James II in 1687 issued his edict suspending the laws against non-conformists (both Protestant and Roman Catholic), the news was received with such enthusiasm in Virginia that it occasioned the beating of drums and the firing of guns! The Council prepared an address of thanks. The Burgesses approved, and a Roman Catholic was duly elected a member from Stafford County. Against the Quakers, who had shown their usual unwillingness to help defend the community, and whose itinerant ways made them a source of information for the colony’s French and Indian enemies, Virginians remained ready to use force. But they distinguished even among Quakers; when Thomas Story early in the 18th century won their confidence, they permitted him to wander at will preaching heterodoxy.

Men who wished to strengthen their colony with a solid citizenry—of English non-conformists, of Scots, Irish, Huguenots, Germans, and Dutch—could not split theological hairs. “With regard to the affair of Mr. Davis the Presbyterian,” the English Board of Trade wisely advised the Council of Virginia in 1750, “A Toleration and a free exercise of Religion is so valuable a branch of true Liberty, and so essential to the improving and enriching of a Trading Nation, it should ever be held Sacred to his Majesty’s Colonies.” From time to time, of course, they had to restrain religious troublemakers who menaced the peace or security of the colony. Virginians forbade the coming of Puritans in 1640 and the assembly of Quakers in 1662; a hundred years later (1770) they imprisoned wild Baptist preachers. But these were emergency measures which expressed no general spirit of persecution.

Before the middle of the 18th century, dissenting sects—Presbyterians, Baptists, and even Quakers—had acquired a recognized place in the life of the colony. “If there are among you any dissenters from this Church with consciences truly scrupulous,” Gooch declared in his inaugural address as Lieutenant-Governor in 1728, “I shall think an indulgence to them to be so consistent with the genius of the Christian Religion that it can never be inconsistent with the interest of the Church of England.” The laws against Quakers seem to have been enforced not to insure religious orthodoxy but rather to prevent violence or to guard against their helping the colony’s military enemies under their guise of itinerant preaching. In 1721, the court of King George County dismissed charges against persons presented for not going to the Anglican parish church, because the defendants called themselves Presbyterians. In 1724, Hanover parish in that same county actually erected a chapel for a group of dissenters and provided a salary for their minister, instead of requiring them to attend the parish chapel. By 1744, the colony embodied its attitude in law: the Act of that year, while still requiring all to attend church regularly, permitted any Virginian to satisfy the law by attending the church of his choice.

When the militant, sometimes called “New Light,” Presbyterians invaded Virginia in the 1740’s, the Rev. Patrick Henry (uncle of the famous Patrick, and Anglican minister of the parish of St. Paul’s, Hanover) described their ways:

They thunder out in awful words, and new coin’d phrases, what they call the terrors of the law, cursing & scolding, calling the old people, Greyheaded Devils, and all promiscuously, Damn’d double damn’d, whose [souls] are in hell though they are alive on earth, Lumps of hell-fire, incarnate Devils, 1000 times worse than Devils &c and all the while the Preacher exalts his voice puts himself into a violent agitation, stamping and beating his Desk unmercifully until the weaker sort of his hearers being scar’d, cry out, fall down & work like people in convulsion fits, to the amazement of spectators, and if a few only are thus brought down, the Preacher gets into a violent passion again, Calling out Will no more of you come to Christ? thundering out as before, till he has brought a quantum sufficit of his congregation to this condition, and these things are extoll’d by the Preachers as the mighty power of God’s grace in their hearts, and … they who don’t are often condemn’d by the lump as hardened wretches.

Ministers like these, he warned, would stop at nothing. “Enthusiastick Preachers,” who said that they were “as sure of going to Heaven at last, as if they were there already,” could inspire criminals with the confidence that no crime prevented salvation. Despite this threat to public order, the Rev. Henry did not give up hope of domesticating the New Lights. He even allowed one of their leaders, George Whitefield, to preach from his pulpit—on condition that the Book of Common Prayer be read before the sermon!

The Virginians can hardly be blamed if they trembled at revivalist antics. Was it tyrannical simply to require erratic preachers to register the places of their preaching? Many refused even to do this. The cause célèbre during this wild evangelical campaign was the “case” of the Rev. Samuel Davies, whom the authorities had willingly licensed as the minister of seven meeting-houses in five different counties in 1748. But they refused to license him as minister of any more congregations. Did he, they wondered, envisage a new kind of itinerant absenteeism, or a network of religious agitators presided over by some super-pastor to keep them stirred up?

The so-called Separate Baptists invaded Virginia around 1767. The Regular Baptists had lived in peace in Virginia for a decade and were undisturbed by the law; in fact there was no record in Virginia of a Baptist suffering any punishment for his religion until the later Baptist itinerants came into the colony. In this new group, many were lay preachers who were ineligible for licensing: the others, who were ordained by their denomination, refused to obey the simple requirement that they register for licenses as ministers, and that they list their “preaching-points” and meeting-houses. The nearly fifty Separate Baptist preachers who were sent to jail between 1768 and 1776 were imprisoned not on ecclesiastical charges, but for “disturbing the peace” or refusing to give bond to keep the peace in the future.

“I apprehend the Gospel of Christ will justify no other than mild and gentle arguments,” Col. William Green, Culpepper County justice of the peace and a vestryman, wrote on Feb. 7, 1767, to the Baptist minister who was preaching in his parish. “And whoever proceeds further, however fond he may be of his own Opinions, and whether he be Churchman or Anabaptist, or by whatever Name or title he may be called has not, I humbly conceive a True Christian Spirit in him.” His explanation might well have been the manifesto of Virginia’s “Practical godliness”:

For my part, I think I Could Live in Love & Peace, with a good Man of any of the various Sects Christians; Nor do I perceive any necessity for differing or quarreling with a Man, because he may not Think exactly as I do. I might as well quarrel with him for not being of the same Size or Complexion with myself. For the different Operations of the Mind are not to be accounted for…. God is no Respector of persons; therefore it is a high Presumption and Folly, for us to pretend to confine God’s Mercies to any particular Nation, or Sect.

Only a few months later, Col. John Blair of Williamsburg, a member of the Governor’s Council, urged forbearance on his fellow Anglicans because, he said, these very Baptists had done some good: they had reformed some sinners, had brought some to repentance, and, by censuring idlers, had made them provide for their families.

In Quaker Pennsylvania, Franklin also rejoiced in the happy diversity of doctrine by which different gods led men in diverse ways to decent and productive lives. But Virginians had become accustomed to another way of thinking. Their first thought was to include all within their church: to transform the Church of Englishmen into the Church of Virginians. Their church was not a fellowship of visible saints, nor a society of the pure of conscience, nor even a communion of possessors of the True Dogma. It was a loose practical affiliation of those whose Christianity, in different and inarticulate ways, helped them to be good Englishmen and decent Virginians. It was a convenient umbrella for all men of good will.

The drama of the Rev. Patrick Henry lending his Anglican pulpit to the heterodox George Whitefield was reenacted in a thousand different ways. When confronted by the movers and ranters of the so-called Great Awakening, the Virginians’ first instinct was to draw them into the Church of Virginia, to learn from them whatever was good, and to infect them with a contagious respectability and decorum. From neighboring Maryland, whose established Church was substantially indistinguishable from that of Virginia, the Rev. Hugh Jones reported in 1741 that within the Church he found “enthusiasm, deism, and libertism.”

In a country without a bishop, or without even a church assembly, who would enforce orthodoxy? The religious doctrine of many of the leading Virginians, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and James Madison, was nondescript. This did not mean that they were unorthodox Anglicans; no one knew for sure what one had to believe to be a good member of the Church of Virginia. They were members of a catholic church: “catholic” not in the sense that it possessed a dogma for all men (for its dogma was vague and inarticulate), but in the sense that all, excepting only fanatics and agitators, could live within it while holding their own private dogmas. This was, indeed, a foreshadowing of the interdenominationalism of 20th-century American religious life.

In England the higher clergy of the 18th century wrote books of great intellectual distinction. One of the most impoverished eras in the spiritual life of the church was one of the richest in philosophic works by churchmen; Bishop Berkeley, Bishop Butler, and Bishop Hoadley modernized theology for the battles of a new age. But as each defined his ideas and clarified his distinctions he separated himself from his neighbors. Virginia was barren of such products, not only because it had no bishops, but also because such distinctions did not interest its leaders. The very “weaknesses” of intellectual life in Virginia thus helped save the community from theological division.

The College of William & Mary was established by charter in 1693 “for the breeding of good Ministers,” and its first president was Commissary James Blair, technical head of the Church of Virginia. The orthodox Anglican clergy came to think of the college as “an advantageous and laudable Nursery and strong Bulwark against the contagious dissentions in Virginia,” but it never acquired that clerical or theological orientation which some of its English founders looked for. Instead it became a bulwark of the moderate, catholic, and secular culture which was the life of Virginia in the 18th century. Thirty years after the founding of the College, the Rev. Hugh Jones prescribed the ingredients of successful clergymen in Virginia:

They likewise should be Persons that have read and seen something more of the World, than what is requisite for an English Parish; they must be such as can converse and know more than bare Philosophy and speculative Ethicks, and have studied Men and Business in some measure as well as Books; they may act like Gentlemen, and be facetious and good-humour’d, without too much Freedom and Licentiousness; they may be good Scholars without becoming Cynicks, as they may be good Christians without appearing Stoicks. They should be such as will give up a small Matter rather than create Disturbance and Mischief….

But from the fact that Virginia was barren of religious acrimony we must not conclude that she was barren of religious sentiment. Among the leaders of Virginia, religion itself nourished tolerance and an unwillingness to contend over the dots on theological I’s. The catholic and compromising spirit of their Anglican church had made toleration a religious institution in Virginia long before its Act for Religious Freedom. Luckily, Virginia—appropriately called “The Old Dominion”—had become a community before the hundred-and-one dissenting sects had separated from the Church of England, before the 17th century had made England a jungle of religious monstrosities. And even in the 17th century she remained happily remote from the cut-throat enthusiasms and fanatic fervor of the Age of the Puritans. In Virginia, moreover, there was ample time to consolidate this catholic spirit of the Established Church.

“Persecution, religious pride, the love of contradiction,” Crèvecoeur observed in late 18th-century America, “are the food of what the world commonly calls religion. These motives have ceased here; zeal in Europe is confined; here it evaporates in the great distance it has to travel; there it is a grain of powder inclosed, here it burns away in the open air, and consumes without effect.” Moderation has too often been confused with lukewarmness. Since it is easier to measure the odium theologicum than the love of God, the ages and nations in which men are readiest to kill for religion acquire the reputation of being the most religious.

That liberal spirit in religion which we properly honor, and whose American patron saints were the great Virginians, need not be explained by any desire to displace tradition by something new and “enlightened.” Without clericalism there cannot be anti-clericalism. The identification of the great Virginians with French “atheism” and “rationalism” was mostly accomplished long after the fact, by theological enthusiasts like Timothy Dwight who could not imagine a decent society surviving doctrinal diversity. But the life of Virginia had given the lie to library distinctions. Just as the faith of many Virginians in republican government stemmed from their happy experience with gentlemen freeholders in a planting aristocracy, so men raised under the broad Virginia Church could not be horrified by diversity of religious belief. They had seen diversity in their own well-ordered community.

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