The Pittsylvania Petitions
Opposing Religious Assessment:
Roots of Religious Freedom
November 1785

By Herman E. Melton

Author's Note: This article discusses the actions of some 18th-century Pittsylvanians who believed in religious freedom and in the separation of church and state. This little-known episode is one of the most interesting events in Pittsylvania County history.

Madison, Jefferson's Virginia Statute:
Forerunner to First Amendment

On January 16, 1786, James Madison accomplished passage through the Virginia Legislature of Thomas Jefferson's Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom. The bill struck down the practice of taxing citizens in order to support an established church. The principles articulated in the statute paved the way toward a national policy of separation of church and state and became the basis for the guarantees of religious freedom found in the First Amendment to the Constitution. The Constitution was adopted in 1787 and ratified in 1788. The Bill of Rights began its ratification journey immediately thereafter and when the Commonwealth of Virginia ratified the ten amendments, the necessary three-fourths of the states was accomplished and they became the law of the land. A reenactment of the signing of the Virginia Statutes for Religious Freedom occurred in the Virginia General Assembly on the Bicentennial date January 19, 1986. This and other commemorative events took place across Virginia on the anniversary of Madison's introduction of Jefferson's document to the General Assembly in the Fall of 1785.

There is indisputable evidence that the Virginia Religious Statute was the forerunner of the First Amendment and therefore justified the surge of interest on the eve of the celebration of the Bicentennial of the adoption of the United States Constitution.

Growing Conflict with the Established Anglican Church

Modern Virginians, accustomed to religious freedom, may be ignorant of, or choose to ignore the fact that 18th-century Virginians were far from being free to practice religion in complete freedom of conscience. One could be arrested for doing so.

The established church in Colonial Virginia was, of course, the Anglican Church. Its lay power structure and its clergy disdained both the new beliefs and the enthusiasm of the revivalists. Ranks of dissenters began to grow. Church Vestrymen controlled the lives and salaries of the Clergy who were sworn to support the Church of England and the Crown. Conflict was inevitable on the eve of the American Revolution, of course. Perhaps the most unpopular facet of the system was the practice and power of the Vestry to levy taxes to support the poor and maintain the church.

Workings of Pittsylvania's Camden Parish

In the Pittsylvania Court House are records of Camden Parish near old Peytonsburg in Pittsylvania County. The minutes of Vestry meetings indicate that it was a quasi-church/state institution in the care for the poor, census-taking, land surveys, etc., only. No records of other secular authority are noticeable.

Wardens of Camden Parish were, without exception, men of prominence in Pittsylvania County history. Typical were the names listed as present at the Camden Parish Vestry Meeting at Pittsylvania Courthouse in November 1760. The following are excerpts from the minutes:

At a Vestry meeting at Pittsylvania courthouse on the [obscured] day of November, 1766 for laying the parish levy. Present: John Donelson, John Pigg, Hugh Jones, George Rowland, Crispen Shelton, John Wilson, Peter Perkins, Thomas Dillard, Jr., and Abraham Shelton.

Following this was a proposed budget of expenditures for the coming period. Nearly 40 percent of the budget was for the care of the poor and the indigent. All commitments were made, not in money, but in pounds of tobacco as if it were the medium of exchange, and typical of these proposed expenditures were:

The 1,387 tithables in 1787 were assessed 13 lbs. of tobacco. (Note: No hints are given as to who is subject to the tithe or why.) A surplus in “last year's depositum” of 867 lbs. was noted.

At other Camden Parish meetings, Samuel Harris was to receive 800 pounds of tobacco for keeping Elizabeth Prewitt.

Evidence of the church's important role in the secular life of the community by today's standards are certainly apparent. One year the levy of 30 lbs. of tobacco was assigned to the 2,131 tithables. That same years Samuel Harris was paid 2,000 lbs. of tobacco for supporting Lawrence Barker for three years, then burying him. The levy varied drastically, being 7 one year, 13 another, and 30 another. Still, one must assume that Camden was probably more democratic than most in Virginia.

Growing Tension Involving Anglican Clergy

The clergy in colonial Virginia's Anglican church parishes were dependent on the good will of the gentry. This created a feeling of insecurity among the clergymen. Consequently, there existed in the clergy a sense of disparity between their actual status and the dignity to which they felt their sacred office and expected proficiency in higher learning entitled them. Disputes arose naturally between the Vestry and Clergy. The consequence was that the General Assembly felt moved to “take steps to regularize the Clergy's position.” The response was pressure from the clergy to enact laws making their salaries inviolable rights.

Suppression and Persecution of Dissenters

Compounding this conflict was the emergence of a militant clergy and irate colonial squires. Resentment of British authority sparked secular dissent and resulted in an increase in the number of people absenting themselves from church. There were increased in the number of people who held their own religious services where readings of religious tracts were conducted by such craftsmen as bricklayers. The establishment reacted with horror at the thought of uneducated oafs preaching the gospel. The government under Governor William Gooch subsequently issued a stiff proclamation calling for “all itinerant preachers to be restrained.” Proclamation after proclamation followed attempts by the established clergy to curtail the influence of the evangelicals.

The religious uprisings of Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians continued to disrupt the status quo and therefore provoked ever expanding repressive measures by both church and state. The conflict finally manifest itself in the most violent confrontations consisting of physical attacks, arrests, imprisonment and torture.

Lewis Peyton Little, who wrote Imprisoned Preachers and Religious Liberty in Virginia, cites one hundred fifty-four instances of arrests, jailings and inflictions of violence on seventy-six evangelicals between 1760 and 1778. Acts of persecution perpetrated on them consisted of the use of incarceration, mob violence, live snakes and hornets' nests at revival meetings, dragging from pulpit, kicking, poisoning, blowing up with gunpowder and whipping severely. These, when combined with public ridicule, rupture of friendship, business restraints and other unpleasantries, make for a less than acceptable environment for evangelicals.

Remarkable Pittsylvania Chronicles

Little lists four instances of persecution applied to Dutton Lane who founded the first Separate Baptist Church in Virginia. This was on land donated by Nicholas Perkins on the Dan River. Three of those acts occurred in Pittsylvania County.

Eight counts of persecution hit Samuel Harris. One took place in Pittsylvania County. Richard Elkins was detained in Pittsylvania County in a bizarre incident. The following is an experpt from page 9 in Notes by Morgan Edwards:

James Roberts was going to Col. Gordon for a warrant in 1769 against Richard Elkins. As Roberts and another were travelling for the warrant in the night, a strong glare of light shone about them in so much that the horses squatted on the ground; and was succeeded by such thick darkness that they could not see anything.

John Weatherford, buried near Shockoe Baptist Church, was a Baptist martyr of the period. He had been jailed for five months for preaching. He continued to preach from his jail cell, while guards retaliated by slashing his hands as they appeared through the jail bars. That he carried to his grave the scars on the back of his hands and wrists has been verified by people who later reported having viewed his remains at the funeral at Shockoe Church in January, 1833.

Revolution Ushers Change in Religious Conditions

Objection to any institution which represented the interest of the British Crown was common after 1776. One significant piece of such legislation passed the General Assembly soon after the Declaration of Independence.

Henings' General Statutes: Laws of Virginia, publishes “An act for exempting the different societies of Dissenters from contributing to the support and maintenance of the church as by law established, and its ministers, and for other purposes therein mentioned.”

This act probably had more far reaching effects than intended by some of its supporters. Whereas it was meant to curb British power and abuses, its principles carried over into the post-revolutionary war society and served to weaken the church after its separation from England. The result, as churchmen saw it, was a decline in attendance, financial support, public corruption and moral decay. The concern by zealots is believed to be the motivating force behind the attempt to establish a general assessment bill in the Fall of 1784. This in turn brought on the deluge of opposition petitions including two from Pittsylvania County. Some scholars believe the shock wave reached all the way to Philadelphia two years later. Correspondence between Samuel Harris, the fearless religious dissenter and George Washington on the subject, indicates widespread interest. It is perhaps understandable that the First Amendment was indeed the first on the list of amendments.

Not to be ignored, however, are certain documents found in Henings' Statutes which vested the church with perpetual power. For example: When the General Assembly created Camden Parish for Pittsylvania County out of old Antrim Parish in Halifax County, it was given a sort of quasi-government status in the sale of the glebes (church land) for example. The law laid down conditions for the sale and determined distribution of the proceeds. The law further made certain that power to levy and collect taxes was passed on to Camden Parish.

The subject of the glebe was a galling one for Baptists and others. Here were State lands being given over to Anglican Clergymen for their use and enrichment. Some apparently retained ownership for life.

Smouldering resentment certainly continued to spread and was ultimately detected by Assemblymen.

Even in October of 1776, the supporters of a general assessment act were evidently hedging on their commitment to push it through. Perhaps the Colonials' hatred for Mother England (to whom the church was tied) was an inhibiting force.

Pittsylvania's Petitions Historically Relevant

It is therefore understandable that petitions from 51 counties including Pittsylvania County descended on Richmond. They made a difference, to put it mildly. The message reached Philadelphia eventually and accounts of the events of that day illuminate the history of the struggle for religious freedom. The importance of this chain of events was again recognized as the country approached the bicentennial of the ratification of the Constitution of the United States in 1986. Pittsylvania County was the home base of too many martyrs to be ignored as a historical site in the study of religious liberty. The Pittsylvania Petitions opposing religious assessment are historically important.

Signatures from Pittsylvania's Petitions

The Pittsylvania Petitions

Shown here are specimens of the actual signatures of John Wilson, Robert Harrison, Thomas Duncan, William Ward, Peter Wilson and W. Ramsey. Others of the 311 who boldy affixed their signatures included Samuel Harris, Edmond Fitzgerald, Jesse Carter, Bryan Ward Nowlin, William Atkinson, Hardin Weatherford, John Keesee, William Dix, Thomas Hardy, Joshua Abston, and J. J. Berger.


Books by Herman Melton

(Available from the sponsor.)

Pittsylvania's Eighteenth-Century Grist Mills

Pittsylvania's Eighteenth-Century Grist Mills

Pittsylvania's Nineteenth-Century Grist Mills

Pittsylvania's Nineteenth-Century Grist Mills

Thirty-Nine Lashes, Well Laid On

Thirty-Nine Lashes, Well Laid On

Pittsylvania County's Historic Courthouse

Pittsylvania County's Historic Courthouse

Other Books Concerning Pittsylvania County History

(Available from the sponsor.)

History of Pittsylvania County, VA

Clement: History of Pittsylvania County

Pittsylvania: Homes and People of the Past

Fitzgerald: Pittsylvania: Homes and People of the Past

Eighteenth Century Landmarks of Pittsylvania County, VA

Hurt: Eighteenth Century Landmarks of Pittsylvania County

An Intimate History of the American Revolution in Pittsylvania County, Virginia

Hurt: An Intimate History of the American Revolution in Pittsylvania County

Footprints from the Old Survey Books

Dodson: Footprints from the Old Survey Books

Histories of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina (Dover)

Byrd: Histories of the Dividing Line Betwixt Virginia and North Carolina

Tales About People in a Small Town

Jones: Tales About People in a Small Town

Herman Melton's online articles are posted by Mitchells Publications as part of an effort to document Pittsylvania County, Chatham, and Danville, Virginia.