The Framers’ Debates on Religion

The First Amendment and the Utah Constitution

Lesson I. Historical Background

Step 6. Beyond Toleration

Welcome & Overview


Hi there, it’s Eleesha again. This part is about the historical background of religion in revolutionary America. I’m going to summarize and introduce how the new state of Virginia changed the law from toleration of religion to free exercise of religion. In the last part, you learned about how each colony treated religion in different ways. Some had established churches-churches run by tax money–and some didn’t. As the American Revolution got closer, more people rebelled against these established churches and did their own religious thing. In this part, you’ll learn how at the beginning of the American Revolution, Virginia changed its law from toleration, which meant that the government gave you permission to do your own religious thing, to free exercise, which meant that you had the human right to choose your religion without the government getting in the way. Join me as we learn what happened.

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From Toleration to Free Exercise in Virginia. Soon, the American colonies erupted into revolution. In 1776, Virginia was the first to declare separation from England and begin to reform its legal code. Ten weeks before the Continental Congress formally adopted the Declaration of Independence, the Fifth Virginia Convention began drafting the Virginia Declaration of Rights. George Mason, a respected lawyer among the delegates, wrote the first draft including this language about religion: “…all men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion…” Toleration meant that the government gave permission to worship outside of the established church. James Madison argued that toleration allowed the state to grant religious freedom to some people and justify the persecution of others. It meant the power to grant or deny religious rights rested within the state. Madison proposed new language, which passed the assembly: “…all men are entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience…” This change recognized the right of conscience as an inherent right or the natural right of a human being, not given by permission from the state. Ten years later, Virginia officially disestablished the Anglican Church, meaning it dissolved the relationship between the government and the established church. No more tax money supported an official government church and Virginia was the first to make this change. Other states would eventually follow and disestablish their state churches.

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Lesson I. Step 6 of 9


Learn more about how to promote the 3Rs — rights, responsibility, respect — in your school and community.