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January 2, 2009

Colonial-era issues of religious tolerance and dissent explored in new audio program at the Presbyterian Meeting House

Colonial Williamsburg guests can discover the 18th-century movement towards increased religious diversity through a new audio program at the Presbyterian Meeting House in the Davenport Stable near the Capitol in the Historic Area.

The program features narration by Patrick Henry –- portrayed in the Historic Area by Richard Schumann – who was greatly influenced by an evangelical Presbyterian, the Rev. Samuel Davies. Guests also hear a Presbyterian chaplain comfort a fallen American soldier on the battlefield at Yorktown and later preach to the French and American forces after the British surrender in 1781. Throughout the program, there are sounds of Presbyterians gathering in the meeting house and singing hymns.

In 1765, a local court agreed with Presbyterian petitioners –- 17 men, mostly skilled tradesmen -- that they be allowed to worship openly in Williamsburg, the capital of the Virginia colony where Anglican parish churches were the only legal places of public worship. The Presbyterian Meeting House serves as evidence that evangelical Presbyterians, Baptists and other religious dissenters in 18th-century Virginia disagreed with the idea of a single, authoritarian state-sponsored church and pushed legislators to disassociate religion from government in an independent Virginia and new nation.

In spite of increased toleration for dissenters by 1776, the free exercise of religion in Virginia was still a distant reality when the American Revolution began. During the war, Presbyterians and Baptists repeatedly petitioned the General Assembly, demanding repeal of laws that restricted dissenting worship and required payment of a tax to the Anglican Church. Dissenters kept the issue of religious freedom in the public mind during the Revolution and beyond. Their voices were essential to James Madison’s 1785 efforts to secure passage of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom to become effective the following year, even though it was written in 1777 by Thomas Jefferson and first submitted by him to the House of Delegates of Virginia meeting in Williamsburg in 1779.

Funds for the new audio program at the Presbyterian Meeting House and other related programs are made possible through the generous support of the Kern Family Foundation of Waukesha, Wis. Reconstruction of the Davenport Stable as the Presbyterian Meeting House was made possible through a grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. of Indianapolis, Ind.

Established in 1926, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation is the not-for-profit educational institution that preserves and operates the restored 18th-century Revolutionary capital of Virginia as a town-sized living history museum, telling the inspirational stories of our nation’s founding men and women. Within the restored and reconstructed buildings, historic interpreters, attired as colonial men and women from slaves to shopkeepers to soldiers, relate stories of colonial Virginia society and culture – stories of our journey to become Americans – while historic trades people research, demonstrate and preserve the 18th-century world of work and industry. As Colonial Williamsburg interprets life in the time of the American Revolution guests interact with history through “Revolutionary City®” – a dramatic live street theater presentation.

Williamsburg is located in Virginia’s Tidewater region, 20 minutes from Newport News, within an hour’s drive of Richmond and Norfolk, and 150 miles south of Washington, D.C., off Interstate 64. For more information about Colonial Williamsburg, call 1-800-HISTORY or visit Colonial Williamsburg’s Web site at

Media Contact:
Jim Bradley
(757) 220-7281