“Church, State, and Property Confiscation,” November 5 MRSEAH with UVa Postdoctoral Research Associate Alyssa Penick


For the St. Louis leg of the Fall 2021 Missouri Regional Seminar on Early American History, participants will gather on November 5 to discuss UVa Jefferson Scholars Foundation Postdoctoral Research Associate Alyssa Penick’s work on, “Church, State, and Property Confiscation: Exploring the Material Dimensions of Religious Freedom in Virginia” (see abstract below). Proceedings will commence as usual, with a reception at 5pm, followed by dinner and discussion.


During and after the American Revolution, Virginians undertook a revolution of another kind: disestablishing the Anglican Church. Scholarship on disestablishment has primarily focused on the repeal of colonial statutes and the new guarantees of individual rights in state law and the First Amendment. However, disestablishment was not just a legislative process but also a material transformation. The established church had been a prosperous public institution, and its exclusive legal power was expressed in its wealth. Dismantling the religious establishment became a fight over property and the power to control it. As part of its efforts to disempower the Anglican establishment, the state seized parish property, including 35,000 acres of land, scores of enslaved people, sanctuaries, and valuable liturgical objects. Most counties used the resources raised from confiscation to offset local spending, but some elected to fund schools, poorhouses, and other civic projects. This paper will explore the appropriation of church property and consider how the state repurposed parish wealth for new public ends.

Alyssa Penick is the 2021-23 Postdoctoral Research Associate in the History of the Age of Jefferson at the Jefferson Scholars Foundation at the University of Virginia. She received her Ph.D. in history from the University of Michigan in 2020. Her dissertation draws together legal history, the history of slavery, the study of material culture, and the history of American religion for an innovative retelling of church and state in the era of the American founding.