The Role of Religion in Colonial Williamsburg

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we will learn about the role of religion in colonial Williamsburg. We will examine the critical impact religion had upon life in the colonial capital, and we will highlight key terms relevant to this theme.

Background: Religion in Early Colonial Virginia

As we know, religion played a critical role in Colonial America. The Pilgrims who landed in Plymouth in 1620 came to the New World to escape religious persecution. Now, if you remember, the first permanent English settlement in the New World wasn't Plymouth but actually Jamestown, Virginia, established in 1607. The settlers of Jamestown didn't come specifically for religious reasons. In fact, one of the main reasons they came was to find gold. That said, religion was still a vital part of their lives. So much so, that a primitive chapel was constructed at Jamestown even as the the actual fort was being built.

The Virginia settlers belonged to a Protestant denomination called the Church of England, or the Anglican Church. In fact, a 1624 law mandated that white Virginians must worship in the Anglican Church and support it with their taxes. So in contrast to the New England colonies, Virginia actually did not allow much religious freedom, at least early on.

Religion in Colonial Williamsburg

In 1699 the capital of Virginia was moved from Jamestown to Williamsburg. Central to the religious life in Williamsburg was Bruton Parish Church, an Anglican Church that was established in 1660 and continues to this day. The current brick building is the third house of worship that the congregation has had and dates to 1715. If you ever have the opportunity to visit Colonial Williamsburg, be sure to check out Bruton Parish Church. It is a major historic site and is on the National Register of Historic Places. There is a cemetery behind the church with graves dating back to the 18th century. It's a very cool place to visit.

Bruton Parish Church as it looks today. This brick building was constructed in 1715.
Bruton Parish

The worshipers of Bruton Parish Church have included such men as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Richard Henry Lee, and Patrick Henry. Slaves were allowed to worship in the church as well, although they had special seating. During the colonial era, the church was a focal point of community life and severed not only as a spiritual center but also a center for social activity. For example, during the Revolutionary War, the church functioned as hospital for a time.

While the Anglican Church was the official church in the colony of Virginia, by the 1750s, other Protestant sects were beginning to become more accepted. Also, during this time, deism was beginning to attract followers. Deism is the belief that God exists but does not interact supernaturally with the universe. Instead, God leaves the universe to function according to cause and effect, or natural law. Desist often conceive of God as a clock-maker, who created the universe but then left it to run on its own.

Deism was a product of Enlightenment thinking and was an alternative to orthodox Christianity. Thomas Jefferson was a well-known deist. Deism shaped the religious climate of Williamsburg by providing a blend of Christianity and rationalism.

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