Colonial Williamsburg Research Division Web Site

Freeing Religion

The “Freeing Religion” story line surveys religious life in colonial Virginia and explains how Native American, African, and European religions in the colony were shaped by the legally sanctioned Church of England, by the evangelical movement that inspired many Virginians to abandon the established church for dissenting sects, and by the philosophical, political, and social changes that culminated in the passage of a law guaranteeing the free exercise of religion. For further understanding, please read the key points for this story line.

The Benefit of Clergy Plea
This essay summarizes the application of the benefit of clergy plea in the courts of colonial Virginia and the evolution of its use and procedural requirements. Personal and societal values that regarded women and the poor and propertyless as dependent non-participants in government and treated enslaved persons as property influenced the formative institution of the law designed to control behavior through legal means. It was not until 1732, for example, that this method of reprieve from execution was extended to women and slaves (albeit on a limited scale for slaves).
A Biographical Sketch of Dr. John de Sequeyra
This biography highlights the importance of Dr. de Sequeyra to the Public Hospital, which he served as visiting physician from its founding in 1773. This formative institution was the first in North America established especially for the care of the mentally ill. A Sephardic Jew, de Sequeyra studied medicine at the Unviersity of Leiden in Holland. He immigrated to Virginia in 1745 and set up his medical practice in Williamsburg, which remained his home until his death in 1795. His manuscripts on local diseases and their treatments as well as his records of Williamsburg households during the 1747/8 smallpox epidemic remain among the most valuable documents on this topic from the period.
A Biographical Sketch of Bishop James Madison
This cousin of the U.S. President by the same name served as the first bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church in Virginia, as well as president of the College of William and Mary. As the leader of two such important and formative institutions, Madison exerted much influence over generations of students and churchgoers. At points in his career, the bishop was accused of forsaking religion for his science experiments—the accusation level at him said, in effect, that he had given up the church for the college.
A Biographical Sketch of Gowan Pamphlet
This African American leader had been enslaved most of his life and was eventually manumitted by his owner, but his preaching of the Baptist faith imperiled his bodily freedom. Even as a free black man in early Virginia, Gowan experienced partial freedoms at best. The Baptist organization had advised that no person of color was to be allowed to preach, so that Gowan was in danger of excommunication, or even imprisonment for following his calling to minister to his congregation. His diligence eventually resulted in the First Baptist Church in Williamsburg, which he led into the Dover Association’s acceptance of them as a full-fledged member of the Baptists in the Commonwealth.
A Biographical Sketch of Selim
This remarkable Algerian, educated at Constantinople and resident of Virginia for much of his adult life, epitomized the diverse peoples who came together to form America. Captured near Gibraltar and sold into slavery in New Orleans, Selim escaped his master and began a wandering life. Eventually, he learned English, displayed his extensive education, converted to Christianity, was patronized for a time by John Page of Rosewell, traveled widely, descended into madness, and became an inmate of the Public Hospital in Williamsburg where he died in 1825.
A Biographical Sketch of Mrs. Ann Wager
This local woman taught at the Bray School in Williamsburg, one of the several such establishments in the American colonies set up by English philanthropists for training African-American children. As the only school mistress there during its fourteen years of existence, Mrs. Wager instructed her charges in a conventional curriculum of cleanliness, manners, obedience, and Anglican religion. Most of her pupils were enslaved children sent to the school by their owners, but a few were free African-Americans whose parents wished their young ones to gain at least a modicum of education. These shared valued were made manifest by the Bray School itself and by Mrs. Wager’s dedication to the project and her numerous charges.