worked great hardship on the Anglicans. By 1776, the Anglicans were in an embattled position, even though they continued to control the colony's legislature. Under pressure from the dissenters, the Virginia Convention of 1776 declared, under its Declaration of Rights, all persons entitled to the free exercise of religion according to the dictates of conscience. But this declaration left the privileges of the Anglican Church and clergy untouched. Popular opposition to these limitations on toleration arose immediately from the Baptists and from the Presbyterians of Hanover County, bodies that had grown substantially during the Awakening and that were providing staunch support for the Revolutionary cause. The dissenters pressed their case under the expert leadership and guidance ofJames Madison and Thomas Jefferson, and during the next ten years they won successive debates concerning the issues of tithes, marriage, a general assessment for the support of religion, and the control of public charities. Jefferson's Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom was debated from 1779 to 1785 and finally became law in January of 1786. It stated that all persons shall be free to profess their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.26
The debate in Virginia concluded on the eve of the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, and in the course of the nationwide debate over the Constitution it became clear that the goal of a stronger national government could not be realized without a Bill of Rights that would guarantee the separation of church and state at the federal level. The establishment clause of the First Amendment, ratified in 1791, forbade Congress from making any law 'respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.27 But since powers not specifically delegated to the federal government remained with the states, the Congregational establishment was retained in three New England states until the first decades of the next century and then abolished only after fierce and costly struggles.
Most of the states of Europe and the North Atlantic witnessed some movement towards greater toleration in the eighteenth century which would eventually lead to full religious equality, but it was a movement that progressed in patterns both unpredictable and uncertain. The arguments of Enlightened thinkers, from Limborck to Locke to Jefferson, did anticipate the practice of religious freedom. But in every case in which we find substantial social and political change, the arguments for religious freedom were accompanied by the unremitting claims of religious minorities. This complex interplay between intellectual defences of toleration, the claims of dissenters, and the durability of the confessional states accounts for both the progress of toleration and the halting and incomplete nature of that progress.
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