Reading

Thomas Jefferson and the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom

The text of the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom spells out the revolutionary premises upon which Thomas Jefferson builds his argument for religious freedom for all. In the bill, the author of the U.S. Declaration of Independence declares his foundational beliefs about religion and liberty:

Be it therefore enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in nowise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.1

What did Jefferson base his ideas on? What were the political and religious assumptions he employed?

 

At the heart of his argument is the belief that the “Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested his supreme will that free it shall remain.” We could wonder why, in Jefferson’s mind, God has created us free — free to form ideas about our world and to make moral choices. In part, Jefferson’s answer is that people who aren’t free cannot be held morally accountable for their thoughts and actions. For a religious person, this distinction is especially important, because redemption (and, for some, the afterlife) is only promised to the righteous. Every soul had to be left free to earn grace, not follow the conscience of another individual.

But there is another side to Jefferson’s argument. Jefferson argues that no human authority (civic or religious) should impose its religious views on individuals. Such impositions, according to Jefferson, “are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion,” and they “tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness” among the believers.

Civil or religious leaders have no business imposing their view on the community, he reasons, since they are “fallible and uninspired men.”  They possess limited knowledge, he believes, as do all humans except those whom God has spoken to or inspired directly—and many in Jefferson's circle questioned whether the prophets described in scripture were actual historical persons. It is therefore morally wrong and religiously false for a church to dictate what people ought to believe in. (It is important to note that Jefferson did not believe that the text of the Bible reflected the direct voice of God.)

In the 1780s, Jefferson's ally James Madison—then a member of the Virginia House of Delegates—had worked to secure the Baptists’ right to worship freely. Jefferson’s proposed bill was the right antidote to the attempt to impose religious uniformity in Virginia, Madison believed. In a now famous defense of the bill, Madison elaborated on Jefferson’s understanding of religion:

We hold it for a fundamental and undeniable truth, ‘that religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.’ The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right.

It is unalienable, because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds cannot follow the dictates of other men: It is unalienable also, because what is here a right towards men, is a duty towards the Creator. It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society. Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe . . . We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no man's right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance.2

Madison, like Jefferson, rejects the idea that any individual has a monopoly over truth. He links the right to follow one’s belief to the duty to serve God in the best possible way—honestly and with deep conviction. The duty to God supersedes the duty to one’s government, for salvation and eternal life weigh more than transitory life on earth. As Madison puts it, “This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.”

Jefferson’s third argument for religious liberties discounts the use of coercion and violence to force people to believe (as we saw, he holds that this can only lead to hypocrisy and resentment, betraying God’s intentions). Jefferson, a son of the Enlightenment, believed that only through reason can humans come to understand God’s truth.3 It follows then that reason and rational arguments are the “tools” that individuals should use to convince others of their opinions. Coercion, he wrote,  is “a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do, but to extend it by its influence on reason alone.”

Jefferson then argues against “tyrannical” governance—a government that oversteps its boundaries. This argument was developed by John Locke during the early modern struggle of Parliament to limit the power of the British monarchy. From the perspective of Locke, which Jefferson embraced, governments that make decisions conflicting with the interests of their citizens are tyrannical. One such act of “tyranny” or transgression was forcing a person to support disagreeable causes, such as a faith in which he or she does not believe.

Using the “power of the purse,”  the English Parliament had indeed been able to limit the executive power of the king in Great Britain and define its relative autonomy as a political force. Jefferson employs this precedent to argue against the use of American taxpayers’ money to support a church with which some citizens were at odds. By forcing Virginian Baptists and Presbyterians to pay Anglican clerics, Jefferson noted, the state was making citizens from other faiths less able to pay their own ministers, depriving those ministers of “an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labours for the instruction of mankind.” Jefferson thus recognized the importance of religious diversity and the spread of religious opinion as a vital social force.

Jefferson also outlines his views about the relationship between religion and civil rights. He states, “Our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics of geometry.”  Taking away people's right to participate fully in civic life because of their religious beliefs deprives them “injuriously of those privileges and advantages” to which everyone is entitled as their “natural rights.” This crucial statement separates the possession of civil rights and duties from the realm of religion and grounds them, following John Locke, in a natural state that precedes any social or political organization. The bill therefore reads: “the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right.”

Jefferson also expressed concern that established churches led to religious “corruption.”4 By this term, he and other critics of established religion meant the distortion of Christianity via superstition, ignorance, or presumption—the hallmarks of religious institutions that claimed to know God’s truth and tried to force this truth on others. This effort to compel belief, Jefferson feared, would create a social and political system that encouraged individuals to hide their true beliefs and profess to believe in the established faith. As Madison elaborated in his defense of Jefferson’s bill:

[E]xperience witnesseth that eccelsiastical establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of Religion, have had a contrary operation. During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.

Madison observed, “Torrents of blood have been split in the old world, by vain attempts of the secular arm, to extinguish Religious discord, by proscribing all difference in Religious opinion.” Religion and government, he concluded, ought to be strictly separated.  

The final clause in the bill connects Jefferson and Madison to the Enlightenment’s optimistic belief in the power of reason and the progress of history. “[T]ruth,” Jefferson argued, “is great and will prevail” over ignorance, superstitions, and prejudices “if left to herself.” Truth will prevail, in other words, if humans are left alone by government to form their own opinions and beliefs. Truth does not need coercion or compulsion. It provides its reasons and evidence via “free argument and debate,” even when it comes to something as spiritual and unprovable as religious faith.

 While this post, and the others before it, have explored questions of religious freedom and civil rights, our next post will explore another exchange about differences in early America, this time about issues of racial differences. We will consider the exchange of letters between Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Banneker and consider its implications for our discussion of religious differences in the United States.

  1. Citations

    • 1 Thomas Jefferson, Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom (1786)
    • 2 James Madison, Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments (1785)
    • 3 "Reason and free inquiry are the only effectual agents against errors…. Give a loose to them and they will support the true religion by brining every false one to their tribunal.” Quoted by Gary Kowalski, Revolutionary Spirits: The Enlightened Faith of America’s Founding Fathers (New York: Blue Bridge, 2008), 137.
    • 4 "Corruption” became a code name for the social and doctrinal ills of the English Church. The topic was discussed extensively by the natural philosopher Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), who was chased out of England because of his dissenting views in 1794. Jefferson not only attended some of his sermons after Priestley settled in Philadelphia, but also read his influential The Corruptions of Christianity (1782)“over and over.” Kowalski, Revolutionary Spirits, 140.

Related Content

Reading
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Religious Freedom in Colonial Virginia

Explore the role of leaders and ordinary citizens in the history of religious freedom in colonial Virginia.

Reading
Race in US History

Created Equal: How Benjamin Banneker Challenged Jefferson on Race and Freedom

When the Bill of Rights was adopted in 1791, the liberties it provided were withheld from the hundreds of thousands of Africans living in slavery. In a public letter to Thomas Jefferson, a free African-American Benjamin Banneker challeneged the treatment of blacks and the continued existence of slavery.

Reading
Democracy & Civic Engagement

The Story Behind the Letters

Learn about George Washington’s 1790 Letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, an important moment in the history of religious freedom in America.

Reading
Democracy & Civic Engagement

Religion in Colonial America: Trends, Regulations, and Beliefs

Learn about the religious landscape of colonial America to better understand religious freedom today.

Search Our Collection

Everything you need to get started teaching your students about racism, antisemitism and prejudice.