The current exhibit at the Library of Virginia, First Freedom: Virginia’s Statute for Religious Freedom, explores the meaning and evolution of this significant legislation. Written by Thomas Jefferson in 1777, it was not enacted into law until January 16, 1786, when it was passed by the Virginia General Assembly. The statute disestablished the Church of England, allowed citizens the freedom to practice any religion and assured the separation of church and state–innovative precepts later incorporated into the US Constitution’s First Amendment.
By showing episodes from Virginia’s past which involved questions of religious tolerance and practice, the exhibit raises important and often difficult questions, such as what actually constitutes the separation of church and state? How is “establishment of religion” defined? And how have perceptions of “religious freedom” changed since the statute was written?
In recognition of First Freedom, the Virginia Newspaper Project spotlights the Library of Virginia’s large collection of religiously affiliated newspapers which offer insight into religion’s role in local culture, morality and life. The papers also show how the understanding of religious tolerance and separation of church and state have changed over the past 200 years. For example, this article from the Lutheran weekly Our Church Paper of Feb. 16, 1904, fully endorsed church involvement in the development of the public educational system. “What part shall she play in the education of the youth of this country,” it asked, “and how shall she play it?” It warned that without the church’s intervention, public education might become “completely secularized.”
Virginia has a long and rich tradition of religious press with Episcopalian, Baptist, Jewish, Methodist, Presbyterian, Lutheran and Catholic publications, dating back well over one hundred years. Virginia Chronicle, the Library of Virginia’s digital newspaper repository, contains an impressive number of such publications, including: Afro-American Churchman, Children’s Friend, Christian Observer, Church Advocate, Church Bells, Our Church Paper, Southern Religious Telegraph, Baptist Union, Missionary Weekly, The Jewish South, and The Roanoke Baptist Union.
Others can be found on microfilm or in original format, like the Religious Herald, Virginia Episcopalian, Catholic Virginian, Catholic Visitor, the Jewish News, Southern Jewish World, Virginia Carolina Jewish Messenger, Presbyterian of the South (which will also be available digitally in the near future), and the Clinch Valley Baptist, to name a few.
We invite you to visit Virginia Chronicle to explore the many religious newspapers the Library of Virginia has to offer and encourage you to visit First Freedom: Virginia’s Statute for Religious Freedom, on display until March 2, 2017.