The Act of Toleration of 1689 and its Significance
Updated: Jan 2
From its early beginnings, the Virginia colony was maintained by the state-church relationship of Great Britain and the Anglican Church. Legally Intertwined, they supported each other in governing Virginia politically and ecclesiastically. The rules this establishment enforced were deemed unreasonable by many, while others whole heartily embraced them. Eventually, this would be one of the reasons why Virginians decided to break off from Great Britain during the American Revolution.
Their most well-known policy; however, proved to be one of the most controversial issues of the era. Allowing the Anglican Church to be the official Christian denomination in Virginia, other religious groups were categorized as “dissenters” or “nonconformists” by the British government. This decision would have devastating effects on those who refused to attend Anglican worship services. This was especially true for the Quakers, or commonly known as, The Society of Friends.
While Presbyterians were also penalized, Quakers experienced some of the worst punishments. Because of their refusal to take oaths, refusal to own slaves, and their refusal to participate in war, they were targeted the most. From being deported out of the colony, fined, or jailed, they were seen as the most threatening by the establishment. It wasn’t until the Act of Toleration in May 1689 that the seeds of change were planted.
With the approval of William of Orange, “a non-Anglican Calvinist,”1 the Act of Toleration only granted limited rights to religious dissenters. Excluding “Catholics, Jews, atheists, or non-Trinitarian Protestants,” these groups could not legally worship. However, those who did qualify had to swear an oath of allegiance before they could freely worship. Swearing before “God and the world,” they pledged, “that I will be true and faithful to King William and Queen Mary; and…that no foreign prince, person, prelate, state, or potentate, hath or ought to have, any power, jurisdiction, superiority, pre-eminence, or authority ecclesiastical or spiritual within this realm.”2 In Virginia, though, officials debated whether or not this proclamation applied to the colony. As a result, there was little relief for those who dissented from the Anglican Church.
As the years passed, this ruling gradually became accepted in Virginia, but there remained a portion of the population who disagreed with it. However, this was just the first step to religious freedom. It wasn’t until after the American Revolution that complete religious rights were granted. It is due, in-part, to the persistence and dedication of religious nonconformists in Virginia that America is what it is today.
1. University of Wisconsin, Act of Toleration, May 1689 (Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin), 1-2; digital images, University of Wisconsin (https://www.ssc.wisc.edu/~rkeyser/wp/wp- content/uploads/2015/06/TolerationAct1689.pdf: accessed 21 11 2017).
2. University of Wisconsin, Act of Toleration, May 1689, 1-2.