Wellspring of Liberty: How Virginia's Religious Dissenters Helped Win the American Revolution and Secured Religious Liberty

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Before the American Revolution, no colony more assiduously protected its established church or more severely persecuted religious dissenters than Virginia. Both its politics and religion were dominated by an Anglican establishment, and dissenters from the established Church of England were subject to numerous legal infirmities and serious persecution. By 1786, no state more fully protected religious freedom.
This profound transformation, as John A. Ragosta shows in this book, arose not from a new-found cultural tolerance. Rather, as the Revolution approached, Virginia's political establishment needed the support of the religious dissenters, primarily Presbyterians and Baptists, for the mobilization effort. Dissenters seized this opportunity to insist on freedom of religion in return for their mobilization. Their demands led to a complex and extended negotiation in which the religious establishment slowly and grudgingly offered just enough reforms to maintain the crucial support of the dissenters.
After the war, when dissenters' support was no longer needed, the establishment leaders sought to recapture control, but found they had seriously miscalculated: wartime negotiations had politicized the dissenters. As a result dissenters' demands for the separation of church and state triumphed over the establishment's efforts and Jefferson's Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom was adopted.
Historians and the Supreme Court have repeatedly noted that the foundation of the First Amendment's protection of religious liberty lies in Virginia's struggle, turning primarily to Jefferson and Madison to understand this. In Wellspring of Liberty, John A. Ragosta argues that Virginia's religious dissenters played a seminal, and previously underappreciated, role in the development of the First Amendment and in the meaning of religious freedom as we understand it today.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Focused, persuasive, and meticulously researched .Helps us to more precisely understand the true implications of the Great Awakening as well as the threat of establishing an Anglican bishop as catalysts to American independence."—Episcopal History

"A timely and useful book. Ragosta's insistence on the agency of dissenters is refreshing and timely. This book makes a worthy contribution to the ongoing study of religious freedom in the United States." —Church History

"Relying on an impressive array of court records, letters, diaries, newspapers, sermons, denominational histories, and, most importantly, hundreds of petitions sent to the Virginia legislature... Ragosta leaves no doubt that dissenters were key players in Virignia's transformation from an Anglican stronghold to a bellwether of religious freedom. An innovative and important book that sheds new light on Revolutionary loyalty, military mobilization in Virginia, and the origins of religious liberty in America." —American Journal of Legal History

"This engaging, revisionist study reveals in new detail the contribution of dissenters-especially Baptists and Presbyterians-to the triumph of religious freedom in late-eighteenth-century Virginia. First bartering their support of the Revolution for greater toleration, the newly politicized dissenters turned after the war to public meetings and vast petitioning campaigns to push for the complete separation of church from state finally delivered in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. No one has examined this story with a sharper eye than John Ragosta."-Patricia U. Bonomi, New York University

"Combining wonderful research with significant insights into Revolutionary-era America, John Ragosta adds new support for the assertions that religious establishment, in any of its forms, resulted in extensive persecution of dissenters and that the process of disestablishment was extremely contentious. Ragosta's work will likely become required reading for scholars in the history of the separation of church and state." -Mark D. McGarvie, author of One Nation Under Law: America's Early National Struggles to Separate Church and State

"Wellspring of Liberty is a detailed and important study of how Virginia's religious dissenters demanded religious concessions in exchange for their support of the American Revolution, and it outlines the piecemeal, incremental nature of wartime and post-war religious reforms. This study significantly attributes much of the republicanization of Virginia to the dissenters who successfully negotiated, in a forced dialogue with establishment leaders, for disestablishment and religious freedom. Ragosta convincingly finds that the Revolutionary War was the wellspring of both republicanization and religious liberty."-Nancy L. Rhoden, The University of Western Ontario

"In addition to offering a compelling, well-documented narrative of dissenters' path to power, the author sheds light on the contemporary public discourse concerning the role of religion in the founding years of the American nation. This volume is a valuable addition to the shelves of historians, theologians, and the general public." — Baptist Studies Bulletin

"The great appeal of Ragosta's book lies in its ability to increase our understanding of the ideological genealogy of religious freedom...[it] presents an interesting and detailed portrait of the politicization of Virginia's religious dissenters that will undoubtedly be useful for students of Virginia's religious history." — Virginia Magazine of History and Biography

"Ragosta makes a valuable contribution to the field by showing how religious disestablishment in Virginia, which became the template for freedom of religion at the national level, was the hard-won product of political and military mobilization during the War of Independence and the early years of the peace. As a social history, it is a superb telling of an inadequately explored part of the revolution in Virginia. Wellspring of Liberty deserves to take a prominent place on the shelf of religious and social history during the American Revolution." — Reviews in History

"This creative and accessible work is required reading for scholars of the Revolution, and it offers important revisions to the history of church and state in early America." — North Carolina Historical Review

"Remarkably detailed and informative. Indeed, no one has told the story better...Ragosta's book should become a staple among those books that examine the early history and development of the American ideal of separation of church and state. Works like this one that inform and help clarify a complex issue are of considerable value to scholars and students alike." — American Historical Review

"Ragosta's focused, persuasive, and meticulously researched argument has the potential to change how we think about nonconforming religion and the struggle for independence...Wellspring of Liberty not only provides insight into the particulars of the conflict for the largest, most populous, and richest colony—sometimes contrasting the situation in Virginia with the situation in other southern colonies as well—it helps us to more precisely understand the true implications of the Great Awakening as well as the threat of establishing an Anglican bishop as catalysts to American independence."—Anglican and Episcopal History

"[Ragosta] presents a fascinating account for his readers about the established church's control slipping from its grasp, the dissenters' eventual success, and our inheritance of religious freedom."—Religioust Studies Review

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195388060
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press
  • Publication date: 5/19/2010
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 559,621
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

John A. Ragosta is an instructor at the University of Virginia School of Law and received his PhD in history from the University of Virginia.

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Table of Contents

1 Virginians dissent 15

2 Pleading for reform and demanding freedom 43

3 British plans for success 71

4 Did the dissenters fight? 87

5 After the war 109

6 What did they fight, and bargain, for? 137

Epilogue 161

App. A Persons persecuted for religion, eighteenth-century Virginia, post-1763 171

App. B Denominational support for mobilization in Virginia during the American Revolution 185

Notes 193

Bibliography 237

Index 255

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