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Thomas Jefferson and Freedom of Religion

by Rev. F. J. Zwierlein, D.Sc.M.H.


An examination of the work of Thomas Jefferson regarding the freedom of religion.

Larger Work

Ecclesiastical Review, The


39 - 58

Publisher & Date

American Ecclesiastical Review, Lancaster, PA, July 1943

The 200th anniversary of the birth of Thomas Jefferson calls for a commemoration of the epoch-making work of this Founding Father, particularly in view of the present global war for freedom. We will concern ourselves with the freedom of religion, although he also insisted upon the adoption of a Bill of Rights by the United States as well as by his own State of Virginia to guarantee, besides freedom of religion, freedom of the press and freedom of person — this last especially by means of Habeas Corpus laws and trials by jury. At that time American freedom of religion meant a clean break from the past. For Thomas Jefferson himself confessed that he had moved out of the "narrow limits" of "an habitual belief that it was our duty to be subordinate to the mother country" so as "even to observe a bigoted intolerance for all religions but hers." The religious situation in his own State of Virginia helped him thus to emancipate his mind.

By the time of the Revolution a majority of its inhabitants had become dissenters from the Church of England established in the Province. Nevertheless, they were obliged by law to contribute to the support of the Clergy of that Church. While Thomas Jefferson was attending Congress at Philadelphia, he thought of relieving these dissenters of this grievance by proposing a text of a State Constitution, drafted by himself, to a General Convention of Delegates and Representatives from Virginia at Williamsburg. It provided that "all persons shall have full & free liberty of religious opinion nor shall any be compelled to frequent or maintain any religious institution." Although Jefferson's preamble to his proposed constitution, with its indictment of the King's "detestable and insupportable tyranny" as a justification for the creation of a separate and independent government in Virginia, was prefixed to its constitution adopted June 29, 1776, his article on religion in the body of his proposed constitution came too late, as the Convention had already composed and adopted a Bill of Rights in which the matter of religion found a place within the concluding sixteenth section. While this did not contain a provision freeing dissenters from the obligatory support of another religion, it did declare

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; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other.

This phrased, better than Jefferson's text, the fundamental principle of religious freedom. It did not exclude other shortcomings from the Constitution, which, however, were partly remedied in Virginia's first Republican Legislature that was flooded with petitions for relief from religious grievances. These were first referred to the Committee of Religion, consisting of nineteen members, including Jefferson, which was appointed October 11, 1776, and discharged of this question the following November 9th, when it was referred to the Committee of the Whole House upon the State of the Country. It took until 5 December before the House of Delegates passed "An act for exempting the different societies of Dissenters from contributing to the support and maintenance of the church as by law established and its ministers, and for other purposes therein mentioned." Late in life Thomas Jefferson wrote of the tremendous effort that the passage of this act, in which the Senate concurred four days later, had cost him, beginning with the petitions submitted:

These brought on the severest contests in which I have ever been engaged. Our greatest opponents were Mr. Pendelton & Robert Carter Nicholas, honest men, but zealous churchmen . . . After desperate contests in that committee almost daily from the 11th of October to the 5th of December, we prevailed so far only as to repeal the laws which rendered criminal the maintenance of any religious opinions, the forbearance of repairing to church, or the exercise of any mode of worship; and further, to exempt dissenters from contributions to the support of the established church; and to suspend, only until the next session, levies on the members of that church for the salaries of their own incumbents. For, although the majority of our citizens were dissenters, as has been observed, a majority of the legislature were churchmen. Among these, however, were some reasonable and liberal men who enabled us, on some points, to obtain feeble majorities.

But our opponents carried, in the general resolutions of the committee of Nov. 19, a declaration that religious assemblies ought to be regulated, and that provision ought to be made for the continuing the succession of the clergy and superintending their conduct. And in the bill now passed was inserted an express reservation of the question whether a general assessment should not be established by law on every one to support the pastor of his choice; or whether all should be left to voluntary contributions; and on this question, debated at every session from 76 to 79 (some of our dissenting allies, having now secured their particular object, going over to the advocates of a general assessment), we could only obtain a suspension from session to session until 79, when the question of a general assessment was finally carried and the establishment of the Anglican church entirely put down.

In justice to the two honest, but zealous opponents, who have been named, I must add that altho', from their natural temperament, they were more disposed generally to acquiesce in things as they are than to risk innovations, yet, whenever the public will had once decided, none were more faithful and exact in their obedience to it.

Thomas Jefferson also felt that the Legislature should have promptly backed up the guarantee of religious freedom in the Declaration of Rights by appropriate legislation. He therefore prepared, as he himself later declared, " the act for religious freedom in 1777, as part of the revisal, which however was not reported to the Assembly till 1779, and that particular law not passed till 1785, and then by the efforts of Mr. Madison." At that time Jefferson was absent in Europe, representing the United States government at Paris. There a passage from a letter by M. le Comte de Mirabeau came to his notice, in which it was asserted that there was "not a country on earth, I except not the new American Republics, where it suffices that a man practice the social virtues to participate in all the advantages of society." This moved Thomas Jefferson to write Mirabeau 20 August, 1786:

A person, who esteems highly the writings and talents of the Count de Mirabeau and his disposition to exert them for the good of mankind, takes the liberty of inclosing him the original and a translation of an act of one of the legislatures of the American republics, with which the Count de Mirabeau was probably not acquainted when he wrote the above. It is a part of that general reformation of their laws on which those republics have been occupied since the establishment of peace and independence among them. The Count de Mirabeau will perhaps be able, on some occasion, to avail mankind of this example of emancipating human reason.

The main work of preparing the Virginia Act for religious freedom had been done by its author years before the establishment of peace. Proof of this is furnished by Jefferson's Notes on Religion which he himself endorsed as "scraps early in the Revolution." The notes were nearly all excerpts from Milton, Locke, Middleton, Broughton, and Louis Cousin's translation of the Greek historian Zonaras besides two citations from the preface of a History of Primitive Christianity.

For his notes on Christianity as a system, Jefferson did not go directly to the Scriptures themselves, but to John Locke's treatise on The Reasonableness of Christianity as Delivered in the Scriptures. This author had found "little Satisfaction . . . in most systems of Divinity" and so betook himself "to the sole reading of the Scriptures (to which they all appeal) for the understanding of the Christian Religion." The results of his "attentive and unbiassed Search" Locke set forth as "the sense and tenor of the Gospel." It was this that Jefferson summarized as Locke's system of Christianity, beginning with Adam's sin punished by the loss of immortality and the redemption of mankind by the Son of God. Its fundamentals were to be found primarily in the Gospels, which give the preaching of our Savior, and only incidentally in the Epistles where fundamentals are mixed with other truths, written occasionally for edification and explanation, adapted to the notions and customs of the people addressed. Assent to these other truths, though written by inspired men, ought not to be demanded, according to Locke, for admission into the communion of the Christian Church here or to God's Kingdom hereafter inasmuch as "the Apostles' Creed was by them taken to contain all things necessary to Salvation, and consequently to a communion."

Jefferson, furthermore, found Locke reducing the fundamentals of Christianity in the Gospels to two things: to faith in Jesus as the promised Messiah, and to repentance sincerely proved by good works. Now those who did not have the Gospels were not therefore lost to salvation; for "the Jews had the law of works revealed to them . . . and a lively faith in God's promises to send the Messiah would supply defects;" "the Gentiles have the law written in their hearts, i.e., the law of nature to which adding a faith in God . . . that, on their repentance, he would pardon them, they also would be justified." While Jews and Gentiles could thus be saved even without the Gospel, the Savior's mission brought mankind the following advantages, as Jefferson summarized them:

1. The knowledge of one God only.

2. A clear knowledge of their duty, or system of morality delivered on such authority as to give sanction.

3. The outward forms of religious worship wanted to be purged of that farcical pomp and nonsense with which they were loaded.

4. An inducement to a pious life by revealing a future existence in bliss, and that it was to be a reward of the virtuous.

Despite all effort to put Christianity into a system, Thomas Jefferson then noted that there was no uniformity, but dissent from every religious establishment in Christendom. Under the word Heretics he found in Thomas Broughton's Historical Dictionary of all Religions from the Creation of the World to the Present Times (1742) "an enumeration of 48 sects of Christians pronounced Heretics." For the definition of an Heretic he excerpted a passage from a tract by Conyers Middleton, entitled: Some Remarks on a Story by the Antients Concerning St. John the Evangelist and Cerinthus the Heretic and on the Use which is made of it by Moderns to enforce the Duty of Shunning Heretics.

Here the difficulty, which is emphasized but left unsettled by Middleton, is to determine precisely what are fundamentals, "doctrines clearly and precisely delivered in holy Scriptures", an impugner of which is called a heretic by Protestants. Against Dr. Waterland, Middleton pretends that the Trinity was not such a fundamental in the teaching of the Fathers or of the Church before the first General Council (325). Although this Council defined the divinity of the Son of God against Arius who made him only a creature, Middleton cites words from a letter of Constantine, written before the Council, when this first Christian Emperor was not well informed. In this Constantine rashly characterized the whole controversy "as vain, foolish, and impertinent, as a dispute of words without sense which none could explain nor comprehend." Middleton finds this line commended by Eusebius and Socrates, two ancient church historians.

After this passage Thomas Jefferson added another note so as also to cover the question of the divinity of the Holy Spirit, the third Person of the Blessed Trinity, as it was defined in the Second General Council of the Church at Constantinople (381) against its heretical Archbishop, Macedonius. This note he excerpted from Louis Cousin's translation of the old Greek historian, Zonaras, which this translator had published, together with Xilphilin and Zosimin, in his Histoire Romaine (1678) at Paris. A concluding note to this conciliar history of Trinitarian Doctrine is taken by Jefferson from the preface of a History of Primitive Christianity which mentions a Council of Antioch that flatly contradicted the Council of Nicaea by declaring that "our Savior . . . was not consubstantial to the Father." Jefferson forgot to note, what is obvious, that this Council of Antioch was an Arian Council. Apparently the whole arrangement of this Conciliar History is anti-Trinitarian, which is very significant in the light of Jefferson's own defection from the Church of England to Unitarianism.

The great number of different religious sects in the world, with which he became familiar in his study of heretics, led Thomas Jefferson to draw a practical conclusion in his Notes:

From the dissensions among sects themselves arises necessarily a right of chusing and necessity of deliberating to which we will conform, but if we chuse for ourselves, we must allow others to chuse also . . . This establishes religious liberty.

Such freedom of choice, such religious liberty was not admitted "in countries where the law settled orthodoxy", where "uniformity of opinion . . . is made the very object of government itself." Jefferson's note denounced this as "a new sort of policy which considers the future lives and happiness of men rather than the present, has taught to distress another, and raised an antipathy" that was not to be found, at least so he thought, in the Ancient World where there was "permitted a free scope to philosophy as a balance to tolerated visionaries and enthusiasts of all kinds." Consequently, on the one hand, "reason had play and science flourished"; on the other hand, "superstition and enthusiasm thus let alone never raged to bloodshed, persecution, &c." Contrary to this contention, Jefferson might have noted down, not to mention other acts of repression, three centuries of intermittent persecution of Christians by the Pagan Roman Empire. However, his mind was mainly preoccupied with conditions as they developed later, and so one of his notes claimed:

In the middle ages of Xty opposition to the State opins was hushed. The consequence was, Xty became loaded with all Rhomish follies. Nothing but free argument, raillery, and even ridicule will preserve the purity of religion.

This attack on so-called "Rhomish Follies" seems to be an echo of Middleton's introduction to a Letter from Rome which was written by him to brand as Pagan Superstition "that system of Ceremonies and doctrines which is peculiar to the Rhomish Church as distinguished from other Christian Churches." Part of these Middleton artfully claimed to collect "not so much to expose the folly of them to my Protestant readers as to admonish our Papists by unquestionable facts and instances, drawn from the present practice of Rome, into what a labyrinth of folly and impiety their principles will naturally lead them . . . and to lay before them the forgeries and impostures which are practiced in their Church to support the absurd doctrines which she imposes as the necessary terms of Catholic communion." Middleton's work is thus a fine illustration of traditional English No Popery, from which even Thomas Jefferson was never able to clear his mind.1 However, he did not permit it to restrict freedom of religion. In fact, he made the State responsible for the alleged "Rhomish Follies" during the Middle Ages inasmuch as it established Uniformity in Religion by law to the exclusion of freedom of opinion. All this helps to understand why Thomas Jefferson's provision for religious liberty in his proposed Virginia Constitution was content to declare that "all persons shall have full and free liberty of religious opinion." He should also have guaranteed the freedom of religious profession and worship to all mankind, which was not to be found in the Age of Reformation that followed the Middle Ages, and particularly not in England.

Although the Church of England was by law established there, Jefferson noted out of Locke that Henry VIII had imposed one religion upon England, and Edward VI and Elizabeth still another. Despite Acts of Uniformity, there was dissent, not only on the part of Catholics, but also on the part of Protestants. These Protestant Dissenters differed somewhat in faith from one another, but especially in Church Polity. The Church of England was Episcopal; Puritan dissenters wished to make it Presbyterian. The religious conflict arising thence became complicated politically so that the Puritan Ascendency cost Charles I his head, which illustrated the saying: "No Bishop, no King". Thus a "plea for Episcopal government in Religion in England" had been "its similarity to the political government by a king." Jefferson's notes concluded here as follows:

This then with us is a plea for government by a presbytery which resembles republican government.

The clergy have ever seen this. The bishops were always mere tools of the crown.

The Presbyterian spirit is known to be so congenial with friendly liberty that the patriots after the restoration, finding that the humour of people was running too strongly to exalt the prerogatives of the crown, promoted the dissenting interest as a check and a balance, and thus was produced the Toleration Act.

Jefferson's note to the contrary notwithstanding, Bishops were not "always the tools of the crown" even in England, nor was Presbyterianism there so friendly to liberty. He must have known the proof of this last thing particularly from the Standard of Presbyterian Faith, the Confession of the Westminster Assembly in 1647, which treats of the civil magistrate as follows:

The civil magistrate may not assume to himself the administration of the Word and Sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven; yet he hath authority, and it is his duty to take order that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed, and all the ordinance of God duly settled, administered, and observed. For the better effecting whereof he hath power to call synods, to be present at them, and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God.

The functions ascribed here to the civil magistrate, if executed to the letter, would have killed religious liberty for every one but Presbyterians whose religion would have been maintained exclusively by State Authority. This meant State Uniformity in religion to which a Jefferson note had ascribed the origin of so much evil in the past.

The question of Church Polity in the controversy between Episcopalians and Presbyterians moved Jefferson also to collect some notes on the subject. From Milton's two tracts of 1641: The Reason of Church Government urged against Prelaty and Of the Reformation in England and the Causes that hitherto have hindered it, Jefferson took Patristic texts and other historical notes. According to Milton these established that the title of clergy belonged to all God's people at first and not only to priests; that Bishops were originally elected by the whole Church, had no certain diocese, and were not lords over fellow presbyters; that consequently "a modern bishop, to be moulded into a primitive one, must be elected by the people, undiocest, unrevenued, unlorded."

In principle, a Protestant should not have bothered with tradition at all, but should have relied on Scripture alone. One of Jefferson's notes did, in fact, collect texts from the Epistles of St. Paul to Timothy and to Titus and from the epistle of St. James, to which were added the original Greek words used to designate the ministers of the Church in Apostolic days. From the occasional use of Bishop and Presbyter as synonyms in Scripture there is drawn here an inference that there is not only identity of names, but also of office, which is a bad fallacy.

Although such study seemed to have undermined Jefferson's Episcopalian Faith, it did not make a Presbyterian of him. The Notes on the Trinity are clearly anti-Trinitarian, and he himself became a professed Unitarian in course of time. Under these circumstances, it is rather peculiar that Jefferson failed to note that the Act of Toleration (1689), which gave liberty to Dissenters from the established Church of England, excepted from this not only "any papists or popish recusant whatsoever", but also "any person that shall deny, in his preaching or writing, the doctrine of the blessed Trinity as it is declared in the . . . Articles of Religion." These exceptions were due not only to the influence of Protestant Episcopalians, but also of Presbyterians, who were therefore not so "congenial with friendly liberty" as Jefferson's note intimated.

When the restoration of the Stuarts led, upon the death of Charles II, to the accession of James II, a professed Catholic, the latter "upon divers occasions . . . declared that conscience ought not to be constrained, nor people forced in matters of mere religion." Finally, 4 April, 1687, he proclaimed the Declaration of Indulgence. This suspended "the execution of all . . . penal laws in matters ecclesiastical", gave all his "loving subjects . . . leave to meet and serve God after their own way and manner", abolished "the oaths of supremacy and allegiance, and also the several tests and declarations of the 25th and 30th years of his brother's reign that had been required for any office or place of trust, either civil or military. At the same time, however, it also maintained the "archbishops and bishops and clergy and all other subjects of the Church of England in the free exercise of their religion as by law established, and in the quiet and full enjoyment of all their possessions, without any molestation or disturbance whatsoever."

Protestant prejudice, both conformist and nonconformist, was not ready in England to accept equal religious liberty that also comprehended Catholics, and so the Declaration of Indulgence became another grievance, added to others of a civil nature, which produced organized rebellion until the Catholic James II had to abdicate and was forced out of England and the Protestant William and Mary put into his place on the throne. The change of rulers also brought John Locke back from Holland to England. He wrote his Dutch friend, Philip a Limborch, 12 March, 1689, from London:

They have already begun to treat of tolerance in Parliament under a two fold title, Comprehension namely and Indulgence. The first signifies that the limits of the Church are to be extended so that it shall comprehend many more by abolishing a part of the ceremonies. The other signifies a tolerance of those who are either unwilling or unable to join the Church on the conditions offered. I hardly know how lax or strict these shall be; at least I am of the opinion that the Episcopal Clergy do not favor much these and other things, which are being done here.

The Act of Toleration, which passed both Houses of Parliament with little difficulty, became law 24 May, 1689, granting "some ease to scrupulous consciences" in order "to unite their majesties' Protestant subjects in interest and affection." Dissenting Protestants were thus freed from all penalties for dissent from the established Church of England and given freedom of religious worship in open, unlocked meeting places, registered with the Bishop of the diocese, or the archdeacon of the archdeaconry, or the justices of peace at the general or quarter sessions of peace for the county, city, or place, provided they took the oaths of allegiance and of supremacy, subscribed the declaration which denied transubstantiation in the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper, and added that "invocation or adoration of the Virgin Mary or any other Saints and the sacrifice of the Mass, as they are now used in the Church of Rome, are superstitious and idolatrous." While the oath of allegiance simply promised fidelity to King William and Mary, the oath of Supremacy had been framed and was now renewed also to make effective No Popery propaganda amongst Protestants, reading as follows:

I do from my heart abhor, detest, and renounce, as impious and heretical, that damnable doctrine and position, that princes excommunicated or deprived by the pope, or any authority of the see of Rome, may be deposed or murdered by their subjects, or any other whatsoever. And I do declare that no foreign prince, person, prelate, state, or potentate, hath or ought to have any power, jurisdiction, superiority, pre-eminence, or authority ecclesiastical or spiritual within this realm.

Quakers were dispensed from taking the oaths of fidelity and supremacy, but were obliged to make a declaration of both in the same terms as the body of the oaths. They were also to make a profession of faith in the Trinity and an acknowledgement of the inspiration of the Old and New Testaments. Furthermore, all these Protestant Dissenters were not exempted by this Act of Toleration "from paying of tithes or other parochial duties, or any other duties to the church or minister, nor from any prosecution in any ecclesiastical court or elsewhere for the same." After the passage of this act, Locke again wrote his Dutch friend, Philip a Limborch, 6 June, 1689:

No doubt, you have heard before this that tolerance has been finally established amongst us by law, perhaps not with that breadth with which you and those like you, who are indeed true Christians, also without ambition, desired it. But it is something to advance foreward. With these beginnings I hope that there have been laid the foundations of liberty and peace on which the Church of Christ was established of old.

No one at all is excluded from his own worship except Roman /Catholics/ unless they are willing to take the oath of fidelity and renounce transubstantiation and certain dogmas of the Roman Church. However, Quakers have been dispensed from the oath; nor was there obtruded on them, by bad example, that confession of faith you will see in the law, if any of them did not offer that confession of faith. Many of the wiser amongst them much regret the imprudence with which this was done.

I thank you for the copies of the tract on Tolerance and ecclesiastical peace which you sent me . . . I understand that an Englishman is already engaged upon the translation of the booklet on tolerance. It is my desire that this opinion, which fosters peace and probity, obtain everywhere.

The booklet on tolerance was Locke's own Letter, the first of a series of four, Concerning Toleration. This entered largely into Thomas Jefferson's notes. It had been first printed in Latin the Spring of 1689 in Holland and had already been translated into Dutch and French. An English translation was very much needed, as the notice to its Reader explained:

There is no Nation under Heaven, in which so much has already been said upon the Subject, as Ours. But yet certainly there is no People that stand more in need of having something further said and done amongst them, in this Point, than We do.

Our Government has not only been partial in Matters of Religion; but those also, who have suffered under that Partialty and have therefore endeavoured by their Writings to vindicate their own Rights and Liberties, have for the most part done it upon narrow Principles, suited only to the Interests of their own Sects.

This narrowness of Spirit on all sides has undoubtedly been the principal Occasion of our Miseries and Confusions. But whatever have been the Occasions, it is now high time to seek for a thorow Cure. We have need of more generous Remedies than what have yet been made use of in our Distemper. It is neither Declarations of Indulgence, nor Acts of Comprehension, such as yet have been practised or projected amongst us, that can do the Work. The first will but palliate, the second encrease our Evil.

Absolute Liberty, Just and True Liberty, Equal and Impartial Liberty, is the thing we stand in need of. Now tho' this has indeed been much talked of, I doubt it has not been much understood. I am sure not at all practised, either by our Government towards the People in general, or by any dissenting Parties of the People towards one another.

I cannot therefore but hope that this Discourse, which treats of that Subject, however briefly, yet more exactly than any we have yet seen, demonstrating both the Equitableness and Practicableness of the thing, will be esteemed highly seasonable, by all Men that have Souls large enough to prefer the true Interest of the Publick before that of a Party.

It is for the use of Such as are already so spirited, or to inspire that Spirit into those what are not, that I have translated it into our Language. But the thing itself is so short, that it will not bear a longer Preface. I leave it therefore to the Consideration of my Countrymen and heartily wish they make the use of it that it appears to be designed for.

Thomas Jefferson had the spirit described in this Notice to the Reader and was determined to make good use of this Letter Concerning Toleration in the formative days of our country and even to improve upon it. His Notes on Religion show how diligent he was in this work. He copied Locke in questioning the policy of persecution for difference of religious opinion on the pretence of love of person or tendency of opinions. For he claimed that persecution was directed not to the repression of "moral vices . . . diametrically against Christ and obstructive of salvation of souls", but "of fantastical points . . . often very questionable . . . , as we may be assured by the very different conclusions of people." This statement is substantially in Locke's Letter, though not literally, as is also the argument drawn from Christ's own example:

Our Saviour chose not to propagate his religion by temporal punishments or civil incapacitation; it was in his almighty power. But he chose to extend it by its influence on reason, thereby showing others how they should proceed.

Locke therefore declared that the genius of Christianity was the very reverse of persecution for differences of religious opinion which had "produced all the bustles and wars on account of religion" so that Christians seemed to have "been distinguished above all people, who ever lived, for persecution." Jefferson, paraphrasing Locke, continued:

It was the misfortune of mankind that, during the darker centuries, the Xn priests, following their ambition and avarice, combining with the magistrate to divide the spoils of the people, could establish the notion that schismatics might be ousted of their possessions & destroyed. This notion we have not yet cleared ourselves from. In this case, no wonder the oppressed should rebel, and they will continue to rebel and raise disturbances until their civil rights are fully restored to then and all partial distinctions, exclusions, and incapacitations removed.

Despite historical error in this statement about the origin of the exercise of coercive power by the State in religion, Jefferson was right in citing, with evident approval, Locke's teaching that "neither Pagan nor Mahomedan, nor Jew ought to be excluded from civil rights of the Commonwealth because of his religion." Religious errors, whether amongst Christians or non-Christians, were not thus to be coerced. For Locke, whom Jefferson again excerpted, was convinced that

Truth will do well enough if left to shift for herself. She seldom has received much aid from the power of great men to whom she is rarely known and seldom welcome. She has no need of force to procure entrance into the minds of men. Error indeed has often prevailed by the assistance of power or force. Truth is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error.

Jefferson seems to have been more convinced of this than even Locke himself. For he refused to follow Locke when the latter denied toleration to those who held "that faith is not to be kept with those of another persuasion, that Kings excommunicated forfeit their crowns, that dominion is founded in grace, or that obedience is due to some foreign prince, or who will not own or teach the duty of tolerating all men in matters of religion, or who deny the existence of a god." Thomas Jefferson confessed what Locke himself had said of Parliament that framed the Act of Toleration. After declaring: "But where he stopped short, we may go on," Jefferson added the following important note:

Will not his own excellent rule be sufficient here too; to punish these as civil offences, e. gr., to assert that a foreign prince has power within this Commonwealth is a misdemeanor. The other opinions may be despised. Perhaps the single thing, which may be required of others before toleration to them, would be an oath that they would allow toleration to others.

Some of the propositions, the holders of which Locke thought had no right to be tolerated by the Magistrate, were really calumnies against the body of English Catholics. It is rather interesting to note that the expedient of an oath, which Jefferson mentioned, was precisely the measure adopted in England a little later, enabling Catholics to attest their allegiance to George III; to "reject and detest as unchristian and impious to believe that it is lawful to murder or destroy any person or persons whatsoever, for or under the pretence of their being heretics, and also that unchristian and impious principle that no faith is to be kept with heretics;" to declare "that it is no article of my faith, and that I renounce, reject, and abjure the opinion that princes excommunicated by the pope and council, or by any authority of the see of Rome, or by any authority whatsoever, may be deposed or murdered by their subjects, or by any person whatsoever"; and to declare further "that I do not believe that the pope of Rome, or any other foreign prince, prelate, state, or potentate, hath or ought to have any temporal or civil jurisdiction, power, superiority, or pre-eminence, directly or indirectly, within this realm."

Fundamentally the trouble here was with the two different institutions on earth, the Church and the State, which had, however, become closely united. Jefferson tried to get to the bottom of the problem by a close study of these two institutions according to Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration. He literally quoted Locke's definition of a church as "a voluntary society of Men, joining themselves together of their own accord, in order to perform the public worshipping of God in such manner as they judge acceptable to him and effectual to the Salvation of their Souls." From its voluntary character the conclusion was drawn here that a man was "as free to go out as he was to come in," and that "its laws extend to its members only, not to those of any other voluntary society," every church being "to itself orthodox, to others erroneous or heretical." The laws were such as were necessary for a church's regulation as a society, namely time and place of meeting. Admitting and excluding members &c." This last was put by Jefferson, following Locke, as "the utmost limit of power" in a church, which was not "bound by the duty of toleration to retain within her bosom obstinate offenders against her laws." For Locke limited the arms of a religious society or church to "exhortation, admonitions and advice, and ultimately expulsion or excommunication."

If a civil magistrate joined or left it, nothing was thereby gained or lost to church power inasmuch as "it neither acquired the right of the sword by the magistrate's coming to it, nor does it lose the rights of instruction or excommunicaiton by going from it." Consequently, "we have no right to prejudice another in his civil enjoyments because he is of another church." A church, however, should not require anything not required by Christ either in church polity or communion. Locke did not think that Christ required a church to have a bishop or presbyter, and so Jefferson, following Locke, thought "a gathering of two or three in the name of Christ sufficient without them for the Salvation of Souls." Furthermore Locke thought he could not call that "the Church of Christ which excludes such persons from its communion as He will one day receive into the kingdom of heaven." Without any manifestation of dissent Jefferson excerpted all this teaching from Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration for his Notes on Religion.

In these Jefferson also excerpted Locke's definition of the Commonwealth as "a society of men constituted for protecting their civil interests", namely "life, health, indolency, liberty, and property." The Declaration of Independence puts it more compactly: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. With Locke, Jefferson maintained that "the magistrate's jurisdiction extends only to civil rights", inasmuch as "the magistrate has no power but wt ye people gave" and "the people havent givn hm the care of souls . . . , because no man hs right to abandon ye care of his salvation to another. No man has power to let another prescribe his faith." Locke here cautiously inscribed a word omitted by Jefferson. For he declared that "no Man can so far abandon the Care of his own Salvation as blindly to leave it to the choice of any other, whether Prince or Subject, to prescribe to him what Faith or Worship he shall embrace." However, Jefferson improved on Locke's phraseology in giving the reason for this by stating that "the life and essence of religion consist in the internal persuasion or belief of the mind". This did not prevent the magistrate, in the judgment either of Locke or Jefferson, from making "use of argument and so" drawing "the heterodox to truth", as "everyman has a commission to admonish, exhort, convince another of error." This did not, however, justify State enforced Uniformity in Faith or Worship. How inadmissable such compulsion was, is strongly indicated by one of Jefferson's Notes:

Compulsion in religion is distinguished peculiarly from compulsion in every other thing. I may grow rich by art I am compelled to follow, I may recover health by medicines I am compelled to take against my own judgment, but I cannot be saved by a worship I disbelieve or abhor.

Even if a person neglected the care of his soul, the law could not force him to do so any more than if he neglected the care of his health, or estate, both of which concern the State more closely. In his presentation of this case, Jefferson practically quoted Locke, which he also did when he gave the reason for it, declaring: "Laws provide against injury from others, but not from ourselves. God himself will not save men against their wills." Besides, if the magistrate should err, "what indemnification can he give for the kingdom of heaven?" He can indemnify for merchandize or a commodity, and so can command a man to bring it to a public store. This does not mean that religion is entirely exempt from State authority in the mind of Locke or Jefferson. While the magistrate cannot forbid for religious uses "whatsoever is lawful in the Commonwealth or permitted to the subject in the ordinary way", he ought not to permit, but forbid to churches in their sacred rites, by laws, "whatsoever is prejudicial to the Commonwealth in their ordinary uses." Finally, he ought to punish as it happened in a fair or market "if anything pass in a religious meeting seditiously and contrary to the public peace. These meetings ought not to be sanctuaries for faction and flagitiousness."

With all this in mind, as it attested by his Notes on Religion, Thomas Jefferson drafted the Bill for establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia, which reads as follows:

Section I. Well aware that the opinion and belief of men depend not on their own will, but follow involuntarily the evidence proposed to their minds; that Almighty God has created the mind free, and manifested his supreme will that free it shall remain by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments, or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are 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 exalt it by its influence on reason alone; that the impious presumption of legislature and ruler, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time: That to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the conformable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness; and is withdrawing from the ministry those temporary rewards, which proceeding from an approbation of their personal conduct, are an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labours for the instruction of mankind; that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions in physics or geometry; and therefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence of laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust or emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injudiciously of those privileges and advantages to which, in common with his fellow-citizens, he has natural right; that it tends also to corrupt the principles of that very religion it is meant to encourage, by bribing with a monopoly of worldly honors and emoluments, those who will externally profess and conform to it; that though indeed these are criminals who do not withstand such temptation, yet neither are those innocent who lay the bait in their way; that the opinions of men are not the object of civil government, nor under its jurisdiction; that to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his power into the field of opinion and principles on supposition of their ill tendency is a dangerous fallacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty, because he, being of course judge of that tendency, will make his opinions the rule of judgment, and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or suffer from his own; that it is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government, for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order; and finally, that truth is great and will prevail if left to herself; that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate; errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.

Section II. We, the General Assembly of Virginia do enact that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall he be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, or 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 no wise diminish, enlarge, or effect their civil capacities.

Section III. And though we well know that this Assembly, elected by the people for their ordinary purposes of legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts of succeeding Assemblies, constituted with powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act to be irrevocable would be of no effect in law; yet we are free to declare, and do declare that 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 operations, such act will be an infringement of natural right.

Although Jefferson's preamble was mistaken in assuming that there had been no infallible ecclesiastical authority established in religion, and that the establishment of such an authority would be destructive of religious liberty throughout the world, his statute for religious liberty did reach Mirabeau's ideal, making "it sufficient for a man to practice the social virtues in order to participate in the advantages of society." While re-echoing much of Locke's teaching, it was catholic, admitting no exceptions whatsoever, and so was a great advance upon the Letter Concerning Toleration as well as the Act of Toleration. This deserves to be emphasized all the more inasmuch as an effort had been made in the Virginia Legislature to amend the preamble, where it declared that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, by inserting the words Jesus Christ, so that it would read: "a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion." According to Thomas Jefferson, the amendment "was rejected by a great majority in proof that they meant to comprehend within the mantle of its protection the Jew and Gentile, the Christian and the Mohametan, the Hindoo and the infidel of every denomination." It thus made the step from Religious Toleration to Religious Liberty. When it became law in Virginia and the printed statute reached Thomas Jefferson in Europe, he took great delight in being able to write James Madison from Paris, 16 December, 1786:

The Virginia Act for religious freedom has been received with infinite approbation in Europe and propagated with enthusiasm, I do not mean, by governments, but by individuals which compose them. It has been translated into French and Italian, has been sent to most of the courts of Europe, and has been the best evidence of the falsehood of those reports, which stated it to be in anarchy. It is inserted in the new Encyclopedie, and is appearing in most of the publications respecting America. In fact, it is comfortable to see the standard of reason at length erected after so many ages during which the human mind has been held in vassalage by kings, priests, and nobles: and it is honorable for us to have produced the first legislature who had the courage to declare that the reason of man may be trusted with the formation of his own opinions.

Thomas Jefferson was indeed as proud of being the author of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom as he was of being the author of the Declaration of American Independence and the Founder of the University of Virginia. He therefore placed all three in his brief autobiographical inscription for his tombstone. Even if we discount somewhat his enthusiastic appreciation of his own work, Jefferson's statute meant the progressive downfall of No Popery in the United States as soon as its principles came to be recognized in every State of the Union.


1 A striking example of this is given as late as June 24, 1826, ten days before his death, when Thomas Jefferson wrote to Roger C. Weightman of the Declaration of Independence as "the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition have persuaded them to bind themselves, and assume the blessings and security of selfgovernment." Quite a collection could be made of parallel passages out of Jefferson's writings.

©1943 American Ecclesiastical Review

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