Petition of Dissenters in Albemarle and Amherst Counties
[Before 1 November 1776]
To the Honourable, the Delegates and Senators, Representatives of the Common Wealth of Virginia, assembled at the City of Williamsburg,
The Memorial and Petition of the Descenters from the Church of England, and others, in the Counties of Abemarle and Amherst, humbly sheweth,
That your Memorialists have never been on an equal footing with the other good People of this Colony, in respect of religious Priviledge, having been obliged, by Law to contribute to the support of the established Church, while at the same Time they were moved from a Principle of Conscience to support that Church of which they called themselves Members: Yet in as much as this was the Mode of Government, established, either when they came into the Colony, or, being Natives, when they became Descenters from the Church of England, for the sake of good Order they have patiently submitted to their Grievances, continuing to be peacable and Loyal Subjects, always ready and willing to stand up with the foremost, in the support of Government and in the Defence of the just Rights and Property of the Subject.
That, when it became necessary, that the Form of Goverment should be new moddeled, in consequence of our having thrown off our Dependance, on the Crown and Parliament of great Britan, Your Memorialists flattered themselves, that, that Form of Goverment, that would secure just and equal Right to the Subject, would be the Choice of every Individual, both from the Consideration of the Justice, and good Policy, that would be contained in it, and also from the Consideration, that, by the Join’d, and strenous Endeavours of every one our Liberty, our all, must be defended against the unjust violators thereof and that therefore all should enjoy equal Priviledge.
That your Memorialists cannot disguise their real Concern to observe that instead hereof, there are many who are still violent for a reestablishment of the Episcopal Church, and to have been informed, that to this End there are sundry Petitions, about to be prefered to the House, sign’d by the Bulk of the People, Nor can they forbear signifying to this Honourable House, their Since [Sense] of the great Iniquity, contained in the Establishing of any one religious Denomination of People worshiping the same God, and all strugling in the same common Cause, in preference to all others, and that all and every other religious Sectary, should be obliged to contribute to the support of that Church, thus established, when it is with the greatest Difficuly that they can support publick Worship in that Way and manner that they rather choose. Your Memorialists judge however, that they may rest quite easy, on refering it to the known Wisdom, Candour and Integrity of this Honourable House, how far such Petitions should be heard and granted, and also how far such a Mode of Goverment should be established.
Your Memorialists conceieve, that to put every religious Denomination on an equal footing, to be supported by themselves independent one of another, would not only be a reasonable and just Mode of Goverment, but, would certainly have an happy Influence, on the greater Purity of the several Churches; on their more free and friendly Intercourse with each other; on suppressing any thing like Feuds, and Animosities amongst the People, and on attaching all, of every Denomination to Goverment.
Such a Form of Goverment is all that your Memorialists Desire, and what they Pray this Honourable House for, nor can they doubt of obtaining this, or any other reasonable Request from a Body so respectable, whom we trust have the equal Happiness of their Constituents in particular, and of the Common Wealth in general, as their highest Motive.
That all propitious Heaven may inspire this Hon. House with Wisdom equal to the Importance of the Business divolved upon them and that this Common Wealth may become the Invy of the Nations and the Glory of the World, shall ever be the ardent Wish of your Memorialists and humble Petitioners!
MS (Vi). Clerk’s copy, with signatures all in the same hand. Endorsed: “Dissenters Petn. 1776 Refd. to Com: of Religion.”
This petition was enclosed in the undated letter from William Irvin to TJ, printed under the present date. It was presented on 1 Nov., probably by TJ since he was a member of the Committee on Religion. This was one of a large number of petitions from dissenters presented shortly after the opening of the Assembly in October. Of these TJ wrote in his Autobiography: “the first republican legislature which met in 76. was crowded with petitions to abolish this spiritual tyranny. These brought on the severest contests in which I have ever been engaged. Our great opponents were Mr. Pendleton and Robert Carter Nicholas, honest men, but zealous churchmen. The petitions were referred to the committee of the whole house on the state of the country; and after desperate contests in that committee, almost daily from the 11th of Octob. to the 5th of December, we prevailed so far only as to repeal the laws which rendered criminal the maintenance of any religious opinions, the forbearance of repairing to church, or the exercise of any mode of worship” (Ford, description begins Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, “Letterpress Edition,” N.Y., 1892–1899 description ends I, 53). In the passage that follows, TJ points out that the petitions were invariably referred to the Committee on Religion, which was appointed 11 Oct. and consisted of 19 members, including TJ; on 9 Nov. that committee was relieved of this question and it was referred to the Committee of the Whole on the State of the Country. The petitions were the result of a concerted purpose: many of them were identical in phraseology (see notes to Notes and Proceedings, 11 Oct. to 9 Dec. 1776). Copies of three of these petitions, drawn from a very large number in the Virginia State Archives, are in the TJ Editorial Files. These are: (1) a petition from Albemarle, Amherst, and Buckingham counties, which was referred to the Committee on Religion, 22 Oct. 1776, and again referred to the Committee on the State of the Country on 9 Nov.; it is signed by 77 persons, including TJ’s neighbor and friend Philip Mazzei, as well as several other signers of the above petition; (2) a petition from Albemarle, Amherst, and Botetourt counties, also presented and referred to the Committee on Religion on 22 Oct., containing signatures of 73 persons; (3) a petition from the Presbytery of Hanover County, referred to the Committee on Religion, 24 Oct. 1776, signed by John Todd, Moderator, and Caleb Wallace, Clerk.