Saturday, March 29, 2014

Using Comparative History at Historic Polegreen Church in Mechanicsville, Virginia

by Elizabeth Baker, Director of Education and Outreach, and Kyle Meadows, Curator of Historic Resources, Historic Polegreen Church Foundation

The fight for religious freedom in Virginia began in Hanover in the early 1700s led by Samuel Morris and his group of dissenters against the Anglican Church. Between 1747 and 1759, Presbyterian minister Samuel Davies led the same group of dissenters in worship at Polegreen Church, the site of which now belongs to the Historic Polegreen Church Foundation. It is our goal at Polegreen to educate the public about the lengths Davies and the Hanover dissenters went to in order to gain freedom of religion--the freedom to practice any religion, or no religion at all.

One of the major comparative themes that we touch on in our interpretation of Historic Polegreen Church is the issue of church and state. In the 1770s, the Hanover dissenters fought for complete separation between the established Anglican Church and the state, in part claiming that a nation desirous of freedom had to include the freedom to believe according to one's own conscience. Their work was an important stepping-stone for Jefferson's Statute for Religious Freedom and the First Amendment.

Open up a modern newspaper, turn to a cable news channel, or go online, and people can find any number current events that relate to separation of church and state. Issues such as the Affordable Care Act and gay marriage often delve into religion, causing us to question what the Founders intended by the separation clause of the First Amendment, and how accommodating should the government be towards those with strongly held beliefs? We at Historic Polegreen find that it is not only useful, but also critical to our education goals to ask our visitors to think about the modern incarnation of religious freedom and how it compares to the struggles of Samuel Davies and the Hanover dissenters.

This summer, we are hosting a teacher institute in partnership with the First Freedom Center that will focus on the importance of religious freedom today, and how best to objectively teach religious freedom in the classroom. We'll ask teachers to engage in dialogue comparing the dissenters' fight to present-day struggles for freedom, and we'll discuss ways to tie religious freedom and the Polegreen story into SOLs for public schools. Comparing the experience of Davies and his followers to global and national struggles for freedom today makes history relevant to visitors of all ages.

No comments: