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Wellspring of Liberty: How Virginia's Religious Dissenters Helped Win the American Revolution and Secured Religious Liberty [Hardcover]

John Ragosta

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Book Description

3 Jun 2010
Before the American Revolution, no state more seriously discriminated against and persecuted religious dissenters than Virginia. Over 50 dissenting ministers, primarily Baptists, were jailed, and numerous Baptists and Presbyterians were beaten or harassed. African-American congregants were treated particularly viciously. By the time the U.S. Constitution was adopted, no state provided more extensive protection to religious freedom, nor did so in terms nearly so elegant as Thomas Jefferson's Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom. This dramatic change occurred because Virginia's dissenters, constituting as much as one-third or more of the population, demanded religious freedom before they would mobilize for the American Revolution; Virginia's establishment leaders, the same gentry leaders who led much of the persecution, had little choice but to grant that freedom. In return, dissenting ministers played an important role both in encouraging enlistments during the Revolution and themselves joining in the fighting. By comparison, British efforts to co-opt religious dissent were wan and failed to gain significant support in Virginia.

By the end of the war, though, religious liberty was not yet complete, and with the necessity of mobilization eliminated, establishment leaders, led by Patrick Henry, sought to reinvigorate the formerly established church through a general tax to benefit all Christian denominations. This proved too much for the dissenters who had demanded religious freedom based on both their politics and theology; politicized by the negotiations during the Revolution and with James Madison coordinating legislative efforts, they rose up to quash the idea of a religious tax and insisted upon adoption of Jefferson's Statute. In doing so, these eighteenth century evangelicals demanded a strict separation of church and state. The impact of their joining the polity and the robust religious liberty which they left as a legacy still resonate today.

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More About the Author

Dr. Ragosta is a historian, lawyer, and beekeeper living in Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the 2010-11 Gilder Lehrman Junior Research Fellow at the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello where he will be working on a second book tentatively titled "The Virginia Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom: Jefferson's Legacy, Our Heritage." He has taught history at the University of Virginia and Randolph College and law at the University of Virginia and George Washington University. Before returning to academia, Dr. Ragosta was an international trade and litigation partner at Dewey Ballantine LLP where he was deeply engaged in work for the U.S. lumber, steel, semiconductor, motion picture and cable, and satellite launch industries. Dr. Ragosta has degrees in early American history, law, and physics-chemistry.

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A superb telling of an inadequately explored part of the revolution in Virginia. (Daniel Clinkman, Reviews in History)

About the Author

deserves to take a prominent place on the shelf of religious and social history during the American Revolution.

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  4 reviews
13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wellspring of Liberty - An Excellent Survery of VA's Journey to Separation of Church and State 19 July 2010
By Dr. Bruce T. Gourley - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
John A. Ragosta offers a valuable contribution to the story of America's transition from a collection of largely theocratic colonies to a nation founded upon religious liberty and separation of church and state.

Focusing on Virginia in the 1770s and 1780s, Ragosta mines the data and documentary evidence from political leaders, establishment church preachers, and dissenters (Baptists and Presbyterians) pertaining to the fight for religious liberty and separation of church and state in Virginia. Virginia's political leaders in turn (including Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Washington and Patrick Henry) utilized the Virginia model, encapsulated in Thomas Jefferson's 1786 Virginia Act For Establishing Religious Freedom, in successfully campaigning for religious liberty and separation of church and state at the federal level, enshrined in 1791 in the First Amendment.

Thus, Virginia is pivotal to understanding why America was founded as a secular nation upon the principles of religious liberty and separation of church and state, and Ragosta systematically dispels contemporary evangelical mythologies that posit America's founding as a Christian nation.

More to the point, however, Ragosta's work examines the manner in which minority, persecuted, Christian dissenters in Virginia transitioned from a position of powerless within a theocratic colony (the established church was Anglican) in the early 1770s, to successfully dethroning Virginia's theocracy by the late 1780s.

In Ragosta's narrative, Virginia's need for rifles in the revolution against Great Britain provided an opening for dissenters to emerge from prisons and disenfranchisement and engage political processes. Despite efforts by the establishment church to harness the newfound political muscle of suddenly-important dissenters, dissenter demands for religious liberty and separation of church and state, upon entering into serious political discourse, persevered. When establishment church leaders in the immediate post-war years tried to squash the momentum of dissenters' agenda, Madison and Jefferson sided with Baptists and many Presbyterians. Collectively, dissenters and political opponents of state religion snatched victory from the clutches of the establishment church and altered the course of American history.

Ragosta's thesis, in short, counters the argument that the Great Awakening, focusing on individualism and challenging the prevailing social order, made inevitable the demise of Virginia's establishment church. To the contrary, the Revolutionary War set in motion a chain of events that empowered dissenters and defeated the establishment, Ragosta asserts.

In addition to offering a compelling, well-documented narrative of dissenters' path to power, the author sheds light on the contemporary public discourse concerning the role of religion in the founding years of the American nation. This volume is a valuable addition to the shelves of historians, theologians, and the general public.


Dr. Bruce T. Gourley
Executive Director
Baptist History & Heritage Society
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars 4th Great grandson of a Virginian rebel preacher reviews Wellspring of Liberty 16 May 2011
By Eric James - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Slow start, strong finish 14 May 2011
By W. L. LaCroix - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I almost despaired of finishing this book at first. In fact I was going to quit after chapter 4 but then it switched to "After the War" and became the book I'd expected and hoped for from the title.

The author must have felt the need to really back up and justify his conclusions so made sure there was no doubt he'd done his research. But research can be dry and I didn't want to retrace every step of his learning process, however I did want to know what he learned. I expect to be able to look at the notes (of which there are plenty) at the back of the book and check it out if I doubt him. After reading those first 4 chapters, I didn't doubt his research.

If you counted the words "dissent" and "dissenters" and eliminated them from the book, it would be half as long. Where was an editor to make this less cumbersome and more interesting?

Chapters 5, 6 and the Epilogue were very good, partly because by that time I had complete faith that he'd done his homework and partly because it was such a relief to read something interesting.

I'd recommend the book, but advise people to skim the first part and enjoy the last part, unless you're really, really interested in dry facts about the dissenters (Presbyterians and Baptists) in Virginia. I'm glad they were smarter than the current Puritans in our country, at least, or we WOULD be a Christian nation, whether we liked it or not.
2 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Wellspring of Liberty: How Virginia's Religious Dissenters Helped Win the American Revolution and Secured Religious Liberty 18 May 2010
By RaeAnn - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Amazingly detailed and a true eye-opener on American history in regards to separation of church and state.
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