Jefferson Exposed to a Unitarian Church in England

At the very end of 1784, Jefferson sent a letter to his friend, lawyer James Madison (the later president), who was pushing for religious freedom in the Virginia legislature. Madison informed Jefferson that the Episcopal clergy were now advocating for legal incorporation status for their Church. Although sounding benign in modern times, it was new for Virginia churches and sounded to most dissenters as a way to gain a special relationship with government once again.

To most dissenters this was terrifying for their experience had proven that one denomination having a favored relationship with the government resulted in much persecution, imprisonment, fines and discrimination. Jefferson knew of this responded that “…the Episcopalians have again shewn their teeth and fangs…” Other than his Notes on Virginia, 1782, this was the first critical statement that Jefferson ever expressed about clergy in America. Most comments before then were about power-hungry priests in European history. Despite growing friendships with a handful of Catholic priests in France, Jefferson also wrote in a letter to Abigail Adams that he wished the French had a “better religion” than the Catholic expression he was seeing. This was not an opinion limited to Jefferson. Other founders made similar comments after going to Europe.

In a letter to Marquis de Chastellux on September 2, 1785, Jefferson defended (even though he was not responsible for) the Virginia Constitution’s prohibition of clergy in public office: “The clergy are excluded, because, if admitted into the legislature at all, the probability is that they would form its majority. For they are dispersed through every county in the state, they have influence with the people, and great opportunities of persuading them to elect them into the legislature. This body, tho shattered, is still formidable;…(and) merit a proscription from meddling with government.” Jefferson would reverse this opinion fifteen years later – when he sensed this danger no longer existed. A modified version of Jefferson’s original Statute for Religious Freedom, along with the Statute to Punish Sabbath Breakers finally passed in early 1786. Jefferson also mentioned “the Almighty” in a 1786 letter to George Wythe that also said: “Our act for freedom of religion is extremely applauded,” and Jefferson said this was in contrast with France where “people are yet loaded with misery by kings, nobles and priests.”

Jefferson visited London, England for six weeks in the spring of 1786 to confer with America’s envoy to that country—John Adams. While there Jefferson apparently for the first time went to a Unitarian church on March 12 that was frequented by John Adams. This Unitarian church was led by Rev. Richard Price in Hackney, with whom Jefferson had just recently corresponded. This first exposure to Unitarianism, supported warmly by his colleague John Adams, seemed to sow a seed that would later grow in significant ways.

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