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.

Application in Virginia

It was not immediately clear whether the Act of Toleration should apply to the colonies. English political philosopher John Locke, in A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), argued that colonists should enjoy full toleration—even liberty—just as the people of England should: “No man whatsoever ought therefore to be deprived of his terrestrial enjoyments upon account of his religion. Not even Americans, subjected unto a Christian prince, are to be punished either in body or goods for not embracing our faith and worship. If they are persuaded that they please God in observing the rites of their own country, and that they shall obtain happiness by that means, they are to be left unto God and themselves,” Locke wrote.

Virtual Tour of Christ Church

At the beginning of the eighteenth century, dissenting congregations were rare in Virginia, and the long-established Anglican Church remained comfortably dominant. In 1702, there were three Quaker meetings in the colony, and three Presbyterian churches—there was probably no Baptist church in Virginia until 1714. In 1699, one of the Presbyterian ministers, Francis Makemie, became the first dissenting pastor in Virginia (in Accomack County, on the Eastern Shore) to achieve official certification as a pastor under the Act of Toleration.

The presence of this handful of Presbyterian, Quaker, Baptist, and other non-Anglican congregations did not fundamentally disrupt the Anglicans’ hegemony. A Virginia author exaggerated only slightly in 1736 when he wrote that “all the Subjects here agree in Uniformity of Worship, according to the doctrine of the Church of England, which is here by Law established; and we have among us no Conventicles or meetings.” Nothing shook the colonial-era Anglican church more than the Great Awakening, which began in force among Virginia Presbyterians in the mid-1740s. This upheaval raised new questions about whether Virginia would really tolerate rapidly growing non-Anglican churches.

Samuel Davies

Evangelical Presbyterian pastors began traveling to Virginia from the Middle Colonies in 1743, leading to a great number of conversions among nominal Anglicans, as well as people who had no Anglican church nearby (which was the case for many in the Virginia backcountry), who now wished to attend Presbyterian churches. The area of greatest Presbyterian ferment was Hanover County, Virginia, where the celebrated preacher Samuel Davies came to reside in 1748. Davies cast himself and his followers not as radical incendiaries, as their Anglican critics charged, but as reasonable, moderate, and orthodox Protestants who deserved the protection of the Act of Toleration, especially in order to serve Christians who did not live close to an Anglican Church. In a 1752 letter to the Bishop of London, Davies asked whether the American colonists did not deserve the same toleration offered to English dissenters, and whether “they may not, according to the true intent and meaning of that Act, obtain as many houses licensed as will render public worship accessible to them all? And whether if this liberty be denied them, they can be said to be tolerated at all?” That same year, Davies elicited an opinion from the British attorney general that the Act of Toleration did, in fact, apply to the colonies.

Obstacles Faced by Dissenters

Davies’s argument seemed to clinch the applicability of the Act of Toleration to Virginians in principle, but dissenters still suffered a number of disadvantages, most notably the requirement that they pay taxes to support the Anglican Church, even if they already gave funds to support their own church and pastor. In order to operate legally, both dissenting pastors and their meetinghouses had to receive licenses from the colony’s General Court, which met only twice a year in Williamsburg. This presented considerable logistical difficulties, especially since most of the dissenting churches were sprouting in the backcountry.

The Dunking of David Barrow and Edward Mintz in the Nansemond River

Some dissenters, especially the Separate Baptists, found the requirements not only onerous, but also ethically unacceptable, and they often refused to comply. The most obvious problem for some evangelicals was that the requirements forbade the licensing of itinerants who would preach in various locations, a hallmark of the revivalists’ ministry during the Great Awakening. But many Baptists also believed that the state had no right to dictate where and to whom believers could preach the gospel. The Baptists became the fastest-growing denomination in Virginia by the early 1770s, which subsequently led to their heightened persecution by colonial authorities, including the jailing of a number of Baptists for illegal preaching.

In 1772, a bill sent to the House of Burgesses sought to clarify that dissenters would be left alone if they met the standards of the Act of Toleration, if they did not carry on their meetings in a clandestine manner, and if they did not encourage slaves to revolt (a persistent concern about the evangelicals, especially the Baptists). Although the bill failed to pass due to opposition from traditional Anglicans, in a few years the tide of the American Revolution (1775–1783) swept Virginia forward into acceptance of a broader concept of religious liberty.

Full Religious Liberty

In June 1776, the Virginia Convention adopted the Declaration of Rights as a statement of principles behind its recently declared independence from Britain. In the sixteenth article, the Convention proclaimed “That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore, all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other.” This was a major step away from 1689’s notion of simply tolerating religious dissent, to an endorsement of religious pluralism under law.

>Virginia did not yet move decisively to change the established status of the Anglican Church, however. That step wouldn’t come until after the war, when Patrick Henry and other friends of established religion proposed a “general assessment,” under which Virginians would have to pay taxes to support a church of their choice, including those of dissenters. Henry knew that the state would never go back to one established church, but he believed that a plural Christian establishment would honor both the importance of religion and the state’s religious diversity. James Madison, along with thousands of evangelical dissenters, insisted that the state embrace full religious freedom instead.

A Bill for establishing Religious Freedom

In 1786, Madison managed to have the legislature adopt Thomas Jefferson‘s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, the signature moment in which the state completely repudiated the principles of establishment and toleration in favor of liberty for all denominations. The new statute declared that “no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious Worship place or Ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief, but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.” This set a critical precedent for the religion clauses of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified in 1791.

John Locke publishes A Letter Concerning Toleration in England, arguing that American colonists should enjoy full religious toleration and liberty.
May 24, 1689
In the wake of the Glorious Revolution, Parliament passes the Act of Toleration, which exempts religious dissenters from certain penalties and disadvantages in England. It is not immediately clear how it will be applied in Virginia.
Eleven years after Parliament's passage of the Act of Toleration, Francis Makemie, a Presbyterian, receives certification as the first officially recognized dissenting minister in Virginia.
In a letter to the Bishop of London, Presbyterian pastor Samuel Davies of Hanover, Virginia, argues that colonial dissenters should be protected under the Act of Toleration (1689).
June 12, 1776
The Virginia Convention adopts the Declaration of Rights, including the sixteenth article, which guarantees citizens the "free exercise of religion."
January 16, 1786
The General Assembly passes the Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom. Written by Thomas Jefferson and championed in the House of Delegates by James Madison, the bill effectively severs the connection between church and state.
  • Beneke, Chris. Beyond Toleration: The Religious Origins of American Pluralism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
  • Hutson, James H. Church and State in America: The First Two Centuries. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
  • Ragosta, John A. Wellspring of Liberty: How Virginia’s Religious Dissenters Helped Win the American Revolution and Secured Religious Liberty. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
  • Shochet, Gordon J. “The Act of Toleration and the Failure of Comprehension: Persecution, Nonconformity, and Religious Indifference.” In The World of William and Mary: Anglo-Dutch Perspectives on the Revolution of 1688–89, edited by Dale Hoak and Mordechai Feingold, 165–187. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1996.
APA Citation:
Kidd, Thomas. Act of Toleration (1689). (2020, December 07). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/act-of-toleration-1689.
MLA Citation:
Kidd, Thomas. "Act of Toleration (1689)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (07 Dec. 2020). Web. 19 Jun. 2024
Last updated: 2020, December 07
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