Early Virginia Religious Petitions

About This Collection

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Religious petitions comprise a small portion of the extensive collection of legislative petitions held by the Library of Virginia in Richmond, Virginia. Those in Early Virginia Religious Petitions were selected for inclusion in American Memory as an online collection to accompany the Library of Congress exhibition Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, which was mounted in the Library's Jefferson Building during the summer of 1998. The online collection of religious petitions is a collaborative venture between the Library of Congress and the Library of Virginia.

Legislative Petitions at the Library of Virginia

 The Library of Virginia's database of legislative petitions

The collection of legislative petitions at the Library of Virginia is one of the most comprehensive of its kind. Unfortunately, the Library of Virginia does not have every petition ever submitted to the Virginia legislature. Many were quite legally withdrawn from the legislative clerk's office; others were lost. Nevertheless, the collection now contains more than twenty thousand items ranging in date from 1776 to 1865 as well as a few petitions made to the House of Burgesses in 1774 and perhaps half a dozen addressed to the Convention held during the Revolution, in 1775.

Exactly how the Library of Virginia acquired the collection is not clear. The Secretary of the Commonwealth's office and the State Library (as the Library of Virginia was then known) were reorganized by the House of Delegates in 1904. The State Library received custody of many of the records formerly in the secretary's office, and it seems probable that the petitions were transferred at that time.

Originally the legislative petitions were filed in chronological order as they were presented to each session of the General Assembly. In the first decades of the twentieth century, the petitions were rearranged by county or city of origin, chronologically within each location. The collection maintains this arrangement today.

A number of archivists and staff librarians have undertaken various projects to identify, date, and conserve the petitions. The collection includes a large file marked "Miscellaneous Petitions," containing dated petitions to which it has been impossible to assign a county or city, such as petitions from persons living outside Virginia, petitions from groups such as the Presbytery of Hanover, and petitions from individuals whose location is not identified.

State Library Building in Richmond
descriptive record icon enlarge image icon  State Library, Richmond, Va. Photographed by William Henry Jackson, [ca. 1900] Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection. Reproduction Number: LC-D4-13442


Religious Petitions at the Library of Virginia

A separate file of religious petitions was established within the collection during the Library's earliest years of archival custodianship. The complete collection of legislative petitions was searched for petitions pertaining to religion, which were then microfilmed at an undetermined date. Afterwards, many of these petitions were refiled within the larger collection, though a number of boxes of religious petitions remained separate. This early microfilm of religious petitions has been lost.

In response to numerous inquiries about them, the Library of Virginia decided to refilm the religious petitions in 1966. The religious petitions submitted between 1774 and 1802 were reassembled. 1802 was selected as the terminal date for petitions to be filmed because the major religious controversy in Virginia's history, that over the disestablishment of the Protestant Episcopal Church and the sale of the property it had inherited from the Church of England, had largely run its course by the end of 1802. After they were filmed, the religious petitions were again reintegrated into the larger collection of legislative petitions, filed by county.

The Library of Virginia also constructed a Calendar of Religious Petitions Submitted to the Colonial and State Legislatures, 1774-1802. The Calendar records the date on which each petition was filed and the place from which it was submitted, if known, as well as a brief summary of the petition's content. It also contains summaries of religious petitions submitted to the House of Delegates which have since been lost, drawn from the records of the Journal of the House of Delegates. Thus, the Calendar identifies 497 religious petitions submitted between 1774 and 1802, although only 423 petitions survive.


The Religious Petitions Online

The online collection Early Virginia Religious Petitions contains images of the 423 surviving petitions, scanned from microfilm, and a searchable database created from the Calendar, which contains the date, place, and summary of all 497 known religious petitions. A number of petitions were submitted in duplicate or in multiple copies, and in these cases all available copies have been reproduced.

Early Virginia Religious Petitions reveals the breadth and fervor of public opinion on a wide range of religious issues in the young Commonwealth, including the rights of Baptists and Presbyterians, and those of pacifist Quakers who sought military exemption. Not least among these issues was the Revolutionary-era debate over whether to assess citizens a general tax to support Christianity. Opposition to the assessment was led by James Madison, who mobilized public sentiment through petitions and succeeded in quashing the effort to levy religious taxes. Madison went on to marshal the legislative forces necessary for passage of Thomas Jefferson's landmark "Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom" in 1786, thereby ensuring the separation of church and state in Virginia.