The Fate of the Parish: Religion and Government in the Chesapeake, 1720-1820

Responding to: Religious Freedom Research Project Summer 2018 Fellowship Reports

By: Alyssa Penick

July 9, 2018

In many ways, the separation of church and state is a historical truism; it is widely revered and often invoked, but many of its specifics remain opaque. My dissertation offers greater insight into the story of American religious freedom by closely examining the established Anglican Church in several of the American colonies and how these churches were dismantled after the American Revolution.

Part I of my dissertation explores the powerful role of the established Anglican Church in the colonial South. The two oldest colonies in the southern portion of English America—Virginia and Maryland—established the Church of England in the seventeenth century, in 1607 and 1692 respectively. Parishes were the geographic unit that organized Anglican communities on both sides of the Atlantic. Without a resident bishop in the colonies, the Anglican Church operated most powerfully on the local level. Anglican parishes mediated property disputes, collected taxes, built churches, and administered welfare. By overseeing these realms of public life, parishes fulfilled the guiding mission of the established church to serve the common good. Moreover, I emphasize the material wealth of parishes. Using public funds, parishes purchased lands, buildings, slaves, and other assets. I argue that parishes acted as powerful public corporations; they bought and sold property and could sue and be sued. This acquisition of wealth went hand in hand with the church's mandate to supervise morality and order.

Recognizing the civic power and material resources of the colonial church drastically changes the story of religious disestablishment. Most narratives of disestablishment unfold at the national or statewide level and portray Revolutionary leaders like Madison and Jefferson as triumphant victors in the struggle to separate church and state. These accounts tend to emphasize the legislative process and suggest that disestablishment expanded religious freedom while curbing the state's power to compel religious adherence. Instead, I focus on the local level of the parish and reimagine disestablishment as a transfer of property and power from church to state.     

In Part II of my dissertation, I explore how the Anglican establishment was dismantled and stripped of its public power and property. First, I highlight the transfer of civic responsibilities from parishes to counties. This handover of civic power transformed the roles of religion and government in daily life. Secondly, I consider the fate of church property after the Revolution. In 1802, sixteen years after formally disestablishing the church, Virginia's legislature authorized counties to seize and sell church lands. This massive transfer of wealth from church to state act state recalled the Henrician dissolution of the monasteries in the 1540s during the English Reformation and the biens nationaux confiscated in the 1790s during the French Revolution.

Ultimately, I argue that disestablishment did not merely separate church from state but went much further in transforming the state's obligation to care for its citizens from a divine ordinance into a secular duty. This process cemented a new definition of the common good, rooted in the ethos of republicanism rather than in an established religion, and dramatically reframed the roles of church and state. Consensus over the extent of disestablishment remained elusive in the nineteenth century. Persistent uncertainty suggests that disestablishment was not a single event; instead, it was, and still is, an ongoing negotiation over the proper relationship between religion and government in public life and the boundaries of religious freedom in a diverse society.

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The Fate of the Parish: Religion and Government in the Chesapeake, 1720-1820