Wellspring of Liberty: How Virginia's Religious Dissenters Helped Win the American Revolution and Secured Religious Liberty
John A. Ragosta
Oxford University Press, 2010
272 pp., $40.95
Thomas S. Kidd
America was still deeply unfree on the eve of the American Revolution. Slavery obviously contradicted the emerging American ideal of liberty, but in religion, too, persecution was widespread and sometimes brutal. No place had less religious freedom than Virginia. Dissenters there, especially evangelical Baptists, labored under a cloud of intimidation. Preachers were routinely mocked, whipped, and imprisoned. Angry Anglican sympathizers found creative ways to harass Baptists, even as the evangelicals languished in jail. One incarcerated preacher recalled how tormenters collected "disagreeable and ill-favored trash, and nauseous combustibles," and burned them at his cell window, almost suffocating him. Yet even after enduring such treatment, most Baptists and other dissenters seem to have supported the Anglican-dominated Virginia Patriot movement in the Revolution. John Ragosta's Wellspring of Liberty helps us understand why.
Ragosta argues that the Anglican establishment before the Revolution was formidable and unbending before dissenting demands for greater religious liberty. It was only the intense wartime negotiations between evangelicals and Anglican political leaders that integrated Baptists and Presbyterians into the political process, and led to full religious liberty with the passage of Thomas Jefferson's Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in 1786. Virginia's Patriots needed to mobilize all Virginians to support the war, and the dissenters craftily offered their help in exchange for more liberty.
Ragosta insists that political equality for religious dissenters was secured only during and after the war, but he underestimates the democratic momentum coming out of the Great Awakening in Virginia. I also believe that he exaggerates the contrast between his thesis and that of the late Rhys Isaac's brilliant The Transformation of Virginia, which remains the best book on religion in Revolutionary Virginia. Nevertheless, Ragosta clarifies the reasons behind the dissenters' contingent support for the American Revolution, making Wellspring of Liberty indispensable for understanding how evangelical faith influenced the Revolution.
Thomas S. Kidd (Baylor University) is the author of God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution (Basic Books).
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