Virtual Jamestown

Laws on Religion -- Seventeenth Century

March 1660/1--ACT XX. Provision for a College

[The shortage of ministers was a problem throughout the seventeenth century. The attempts to attract more qualified ministers to settle in the colony were not successful in alleviating the deficiency. The following law was passed as an effort to train more native-born Virginians to serve in the ministry.]

WHEREAS the want of able & faithfull ministers in this country deprives us of these great blessings and mercies that allwaies attend upon the service of God which want by reason of our great distance from our native country cannot in probability be a llwaies supplyed from thence, Bee itt enacted that for the advance of learning, education of youth, supply of the ministry and promotion of piety there be land taken upon purchases for a colledge and freeschoole and that there be with as much speede as ma y be convenient houseing erected thereon for entertainment of students and schollers.

Source: Hening, ed.,The Statutes at Large, II: 25.

March 1660/1

[The following law is indicative of the lengths to which the assembly would go to attract more ministers. It asked for individual financial support from members of the various parishes.]

FOR the supply of an able and orthodox Ministry in such parishes of Virginia which are destitute of ministers, It is ordered by this present Grand Assembly that the vestryes of the severall parishes soe destitute doe subscribe and procure from the severall other inhabitants such subscriptions as they shall be willing to make towards the support and maintenance of such ministers in their severall parrishes.

Hening, ed., The Statutes at Large, II:37.

March 1661-2--ACT I. Church to be built or Chappell of Ease

[The General Assembly decided to require each parish to build either a church or chapel of ease in early 1661/2.]

BEE it enacted for the advancement of Gods glory, and the more decent celebration of his devine ordinances, that there be a church decently built in each parish of this country, unles any parish as now setled by reason of the fewnes or poverty of the inhabitants be incapable of susteyning soe greate a charge, in which case it is enacted that such parishes shall be joyned to the next greate parish, of the same county, and that a chappell of ease be built, in such places at the particular charge of thatplace.

Hening, ed., II, The Statutes at Large, II: 44.

MARCH 1661/2--ACT IX. Sundays not to bee profaned.

[The mandatory observance of Sunday as a day of rest and worship was written into the laws of Virginia on a number of occasions. In the following law, penalties were made stiffer for Quakers and "other recusants" who would have been attending their own, unsanctioned religious services. Interestingly, half of the fine paid was to be given to the "informer."]

THAT the Lords day be kept holy, and that noe journeys be made on that day except in case of emergent necessity, And that noe other thing, be used or done, that may tend to the prophanation of that day, But that all and every person and persons inhabiting in this country haveing noe lawfull excuse to be absent shall upon every sunday and the fower holy days hereafter mentioned, diligently resort to their parish church or chappell accustomed then and there to abide orderly and soberly during the time of common prayers preaching or other service of God, upon penalty of being fined fifty pounds of tobacco by the county court upon presentment made by the churchwardens who are to collect the same with the parish levies, Provided alwayes that this act include not Quakers or other recusants who out of nonconformitie to the church totally absent themselves but that they shall be lyable to such fines and punishments as by the statute of 23d of Elizabeth are imposed on them, being for every months absence twenty pounds sterling and if they forbeare a twelve month then to give good security for their good behaviour besides their payment for their monthly absences, according to the tenor of the said statute, And that all Quakers for assembling in unlawfull assemblyes and conventicles be fined and pay each of them there taken, two hundred pounds of tobacco for each time they shall be for such unlawfull meeting taken or presented by the church wardens to the county court and in case of insolvency of any person amonge them, the more able then taken to pay for them, one halfe to the informer and the other halfe to the publique.

Source: Hening, The Statutes at Large, II: 48.

1670--Enquiries to the Governor of Virginia from the Lords Commissioners of Foreign Plantations; Answered by Sir William Berkeley in 1671

[The "lords commissioners of foreign plantations " sent a set of questions to the governor of Virginia, Sir William Berkeley, in 1670. He sent his answers to England the following year. In one of the more famous passages from this document, Berkeley reveals his distaste for education and printing, but also complains of the religious instruction being provided in the colony.]

23. What course is taken about the instructing the people, within your government in the christian religion; and what provision is there made for the paying of your ministry?

    Answer. The same course that is taken in England out of towns; every man according to his ability instructing his children. We have fforty eight parishes, and our ministers are well paid, and by my consent should be better if they would pray oftener and preach less. But of all other commodities, so of this, the worst are sent us, and we had few that we could boast of, since the persicution in Cromwell's tiranny drove divers worthy men hither. But, I thank God, there are no free schools nor printing, and I hope we shall not have these hundred years; for learning has brought disobedience, and heresy, and sects into the world, and printing has divulged them, and libels against the best government. God keep us from both!

Source: Hening, ed., The Statutes at Large, II:517

March 1675/6--ACT I. An act for the safeguard and defence of the country against the Indians.

[The General Assembly included "articles, rules and orders to be observed and kept by the army as well in the several garrisons as in the ffield." in the first act passed in the March 1675/6 session. Interestingly, the first provisions deal with religion; only later are such things as "obedience to officers" mandated. These laws reconfirm the close ties between government and religion in seventeenth-century Virginia. They seem to show that in the eyes of a colonial Virginian, obedience to one’s superiors depended first on one’s obedience to God.]

[1.] IF any shall blaspheme the name of God, either drunke or sober, shall for every offence runne the gantlett through one hundred men or thereabouts, either more or less, at the discretion of the commander, but he or they that shall willfully, notor iously and obstinately persist in this wickedness, shall be bored through the tongue with a hott iron.

2. If any person or persons in the army shall deride or contemne Gods word or sacraments, they shall suffer and undergo the aforesaid punishment.

3. If any man shall offend Gods name by swearing or notorious drunkeness, and shall be thereof thrice convicted by his officer, and shall still obstinately persist therein, he shall after the third offence, and for every such offence afterwards ride the wooden horse half an hour with a musket tyed at each foote, and ask forgiveness at the next meeting for prayer or preaching.

4. That publique prayers be duely read in the feilde or garrison every morning and evening, and he that shall upon the call of the drumm or other notice by order of the commander given, refuse or neglect to repair to the said place of prayer, preaching or reading of homilies or sermons shall be punished at the discretion of the commander.

Source: Hening, ed., The Statutes at Large, II: 333-334.

April 1699--ACT I. An act for the effectuall suppressing of blasphemy, swearing, cursing, Drunkedness and Sabbbath breaking.

[After the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the installation of William and Mary to the throne of England, the political and religious liberties of Englishmen were advanced. An act promoting the toleration of protestant sects outside of the Church of England was passed in the first year of their reign. This law was first implemented ina very limited way in Virginia in 1699, in a law that restated and revised—and in some senses strengthened—the various laws forbidding the profaning of the sabbath day.]

…if any person or persons dissenting from the church of england being every way qualified according to one act of parliament made in the first year of the reigne of our sovereigne lord the king that now is, and the late queen Mary of blessed memory, en tituled an act for exempting their majesties protestant subjects dissenting from the church of England from the penaltyes of certaine laws, shall resort and meet at any congregation or place of religious worship permitted and allowed by the said act of Parliament once in two months that then the said penaltyes and forf eitures imposed by the act for neglecting or refuseing to resort to their parrish church or chappel as aforesaid shall not be taken to extend to such person or persons, any thing in this act to the contrary notwithstanding.

Hening, ed., The Statutes at Large, III:171.


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