Political and Religious Life in Eighteenth-Century Virginia
Before the American Revolution, voting requirements in Virginia generally excluded women, African Americans, and the poor. Although many voters came from the middle ranks of society, they tended to elect political leaders from among the plantation gentry. Even after the Revolution, voters usually continued to elect representatives to the General Assembly from among the gentry. Yet the elected representatives held a republican ideal of responsive government in which public service was both the duty and the responsibility of the privileged. They shared many of the concerns of those who elected them and were able to consider issues relevant to other localities with common interests.
The Church of England (or Anglican Church) was the established church in Virginia until 1786, though after American independence it was incorporated as the newly named Protestant Episcopal Church. Parish affairs were governed by elected vestries composed almost entirely of gentry and overseen at a distance during colonial times by the royal governor and the bishop's commissary. The vestries maintained a great deal of control over local religious life, and usually retained their positions for long periods unless dissolved by some higher authority.
Over the course of the eighteenth century, as the colonies sought more control over their own policies, general authority to regulate church affairs shifted to the Virginia legislature. Laws to divide parishes or redraw parish boundaries in order to equalize the tax base, as well as decisions to overturn vestry decisions or dissolve unpopular vestries, became increasingly common. Petitions played a vital role in originating most of this legislation.
Before 1740, Virginia had few dissenters, as those who dissented from the beliefs of the Church of England were called. They were generally tolerated as long as they obeyed colonial laws and did not seem to threaten the Anglicans' dominance. Although both Anglicans and dissenters frequently petitioned the legislature to address a variety of religious concerns, the relationship of church and state did not assume great importance until the Revolutionary period. As the number of dissenters and their political needs increased, and as Enlightenment ideals gained ground among certain political leaders, complete religious freedom emerged as a common goal for a heterogeneous group of Virginians.