Author: Thomas S. Kidd

an associate professor of history at Baylor University

Methodists in Early Virginia

Methodists had only a small presence in Virginia at the beginning of the American Revolution (1775–1783), but by the time of the American Civil War (1861–1865) they had become, along with the Baptists, one of the state’s dominant denominations. Organized at the University of Oxford in the 1730s by John Wesley and a group of fellow students, Methodism came to Virginia in the mid-1700s. Robert Williams arrived in the colony in 1772 and soon formed Virginia’s first Methodist circuit. The Brunswick Circuit, as it was called, hosted major revivals in 1775–1776, a time in which the colony’s Methodist population almost doubled. Following John Wesley’s lead, many Methodists were antislavery and, during the Revolution, loyal to the British government. In 1784, the group formed its own national church, the American Methodist Episcopal Church, and a second major revival occurred in Virginia from 1785 until 1788. Thousands of converts were won over by the promise of forgiveness of sins and a style of worship that emphasized trances, dreams, visions, and bodily movement. By the time of the Second Great Awakening, the Methodists, although still hosting revivals in Virginia, had become more politically and socially mainstream. Their presence transformed Virginia religion, however, by helping to usher in an era free from state-sponsored religion.


Devereux Jarratt (1733–1801)

Devereux Jarratt was the rector of Bath Parish in Dinwiddie County and the most influential evangelical leader in Virginia’s Anglican Church in the eighteenth century. At a time when critics regarded Virginia’s official denomination as lifeless, and many of its parsons as little more than bureaucrats, Jarratt summoned his parishioners to a heartfelt devotion to Christ. He was spurred on by, and also contributed to, the revivals of the Great Awakening in Virginia, which first began in earnest among Presbyterians in the 1740s. Jarratt himself experienced a life-changing conversion early in the 1750s through the ministry of evangelical Presbyterians, although he remained an Anglican throughout his career. In 1775 and 1776, Jarratt and other evangelical preachers helped to generate a massive revival of religion in south-central Virginia, the high point of his nearly forty years in ministry.


“Letter to the Inhabitants of Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina” (1740)

“Letter to the Inhabitants of Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina” by the Anglican priest George Whitefield was published in 1740 by Benjamin Franklin in Three Letters from the Reverend Mr. G. Whitefield. An important leader of the First Great Awakening, Whitefield used the occasion to address slave owners in the American South, including Virginia. He chastised them for mistreating their enslaved African Americans and for not attempting to convert them to Christianity. Rather than encourage slaves to run away, Whitefield argued, Christian views would make them better slaves. In the end, Whitefield himself owned a plantation and slaves in South Carolina, but his message of salvation for slaves became typical of white southern evangelicals.


Great Awakening in Virginia, The

The Great Awakening was the most significant cultural upheaval in colonial America. The term refers to a series of religious revivals that began early in the eighteenth century and led, eventually, to the disestablishment of the Church of England as the official church during the American Revolution (1775–1783). Triggered by the preaching of the Anglican itinerant George Whitefield, the Great Awakening began in New England and the Middle Colonies, where thousands converted to an evangelical faith centered on the experience of the “new birth” of salvation. It also featured intense, emotional scenes of penitential sinners and new converts being filled, as they saw it, with the Holy Spirit, with associated outcries, visions, dreams, and spirit journeys. The Great Awakening’s effects in Virginia developed slowly, beginning early in the 1740s. By the 1760s, evangelical Presbyterians and Baptists were making major inroads among Virginians, and challenging the established church in the colony. Perhaps the most notable historical result of the Great Awakening in Virginia was the end of the state’s establishment of religion, which was ultimately accomplished through the Act for Establishing Religious Freedom (1786). The cause of religious freedom was championed politically by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, but it depended on the popular support of legions of evangelicals, especially Baptists.


Act of Toleration (1689)

The Act of Toleration, or “An Act for Exempting their Majestyes Protestant Subjects dissenting from the Church of England from the Penalties of certaine Lawes,” passed by Parliament in 1689, represented the most significant religious reform in England since its break with the Roman Catholic Church in the 1530s. Instituted in the wake of the Glorious Revolution (1688–1689) that deposed the Catholic James II in favor of his Protestant daughter Mary and her Dutch Calvinist husband, William, the act exempted religious dissenters from certain penalties and disadvantages under which they had suffered for more than a century. Under the act’s provisions, Trinitarian Protestants (not Catholics) could operate without interference from the state if they swore an oath of allegiance to the government. This excluded those Anglicans who supported a return to the Stuart monarchy (the line of James II). Offering this toleration to Presbyterians, Baptists, and other orthodox dissenters built a stronger base of support for King William’s rule, but it also legally endorsed an unprecedented level of religious diversity in England. This reform would have cascading—if contested—consequences for religion in the American colonies, including Virginia.