Jefferson and Religious Freedom—a Concern of His as a Virginia Legislator (Burgess)

In the capital of Williamsburg on October 11, 1776 Thomas Jefferson joined the committee on religion in the legislature and began meeting with many dissenting clergymen. A Dissenter was one who was not part of the government-favored denomination (i.e. Anglicans) and who wished the laws to be revised in favor of religious freedom for all denominations equally. Rev. John Todd, the moderator of the Hanover Presbytery, led the Presbyterian effort to bring in petitions that fall.

Since petitions and declarations written by these dissenters are found in Jefferson’s papers, it is likely that Jefferson obtained these through meeting them while at the assembly. One petition was drafted by a local Charlottesville Presbyterian minister named William Irvin, sometime before the end of October, titled “Petition of Dissenters in Albemarle and Amherst Counties.” Rev. Irvin sent the petition to his “friend” Jefferson and included a personal letter.

Another petition dated October 16, 1776 and signed by over 10,000 people was put in Jefferson’s hands by Baptist Rev. Jeremiah Moore and other clergy leaders. Baptist ministers who lobbied Jefferson and the legislature included Rev. John Waller, Rev. Elijah Craig of Orange, and Rev. John Leland of nearby Louisa, who had presented Jefferson a “Declaration of the Virginia Association of Baptists.”

It is worth noting that these orthodox Christian leaders sought out Jefferson, not vice-versa, and they found a reliable friend for their cause. In late 1776, the state legislature finally suspended the law that required dissenters to support the state church, and launched a total voluntary system in its place. Denominationalism had been strong in European culture for several centuries, but in America, due especially to the Great Awakening, it was waning – at least in the frontier areas such as Jefferson’s home county. And as diverse denominations were gaining acceptance, so also followed a new era. Once free from England’s control the Americans began shifting toward a society having no state-established churches where all citizens were required to worship or at least financially pay taxes to support one particular denomination.

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