Opinion: Editorial: Yes, America, Religious Freedom Began in Fairfax County

Opinion: Editorial: Yes, America, Religious Freedom Began in Fairfax County

The Vienna Metro station is the epicenter of suburban northern Virginia. Thousands of commuters come and go every morning, dropping off loved ones or catching the Orange Line into the urban core of the DMV. None of them are aware that just a few hundred yards away one of the most significant (and least known) Americans lived 250 years ago on a modest farm.

Jeremiah Moore was typical of English settlers who migrated to rural Fairfax County in the colonial era to clear fields and establish farms. Unlike most of his neighbors in Anglo-dominated Tidewater Virginia, he was a religious dissenter who found inspiration in the “Baptist” movement that spread through Great Britain in the mid-18th century.

The Baptists were not welcome in colonial Virginia. Its political and economic structure was based upon allegiance to the Church of England, which was the only permitted church. Indeed, a pastor could not open a church or preach without a license from the Church. Regardless, Moore in the early 1770s became an itinerant preacher fearlessly promoting the Gospel, without a license, to the farmers and tradesmen in northern Virginia.

When the Fairfax County Sheriff found out about Moore, he confined him in the County jail, then located at the County seat of Alexandria. According to family lore, Moore continued to preach through the cell bars, thereby undoubtedly driving his captors to distraction.

This incident would have been forgotten but for one remarkable fact – colonial Virginia in 1773 was changing rapidly and Moore’s neighbors did not agree with his imprisonment. Indeed, when the case came to trial, a Fairfax County jury acquitted Moore and sent him back to farm and presumably his speaking engagements.

A movement was starting. Inspired by Moore’s notorious case, another Fairfax County landowner and attorney, George Mason, added “freedom of religion” to his “Fairfax County Resolves” which was read to the Fairfax County militia when they mustered to join General Washington in May 1775. A member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, Mason added the same language to his Virginia Declaration of Rights, which later became part of the Virginia Constitution.

During the Revolutionary War, as the cause of liberty became national, Moore re-emerged as a spokesman for religious minorities. In 1779, he presented a petition signed by 10,000 Virginia freeholders – an impressive number in an era without mass media or big cities – to Gov. Thomas Jefferson asking Virginia to adopt Jefferson’s Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom. In 1786, after years of Moore’s lobbying, the Assembly finally did so.

Moore never backed off. In his senior years, he was still writing letters to now-President Jefferson decrying the “the most glaring violation of Rights that has ever disgraced a Free People,” namely Virginia’s requirement that eligible voters own at least 50 acres.

Moore died in 1814 at his farm. His grandson Thomas became a prominent attorney in the town of Fairfax and his great-grandson Walton Moore served in the U.S. Congress. Descendants continue to live in the area as attorneys, Virginia lawmakers and even as Anglican clergy.

Jeremiah Moore’s real legacy, of course, has been the idea of religious freedom which has been enshrined in the U.S. Constitution since 1791, when Mason’s “Fairfax County Resolves” found their home in the Federal Bill of Rights. Indeed, the “establishment of religion” prohibition in the First Amendment directly harkens back to Moore’s imprisonment in 1773.

Today, the American ideal of freedom of religion is still a work in progress. Yet it also provides a beacon to billions around the globe who seek to practice their faith in peace. And it all begins in Fairfax County.