Religious freedom, as Thomas Jefferson understood it, was best served by having states not have any particular state-church—by law established. He helped Virginia disestablish its state-church (Anglican) by writing the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (written in 1777, passed when he was in France in 1786). That Statute calls on Jesus (whom he called “the holy author of our religion”) as an example of religious liberty that should be emulated. Christ gave us freedom to choose or reject Him, instead of forcing us to accept Him: “who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was his Almighty power to do.” Jefferson wanted other states to disestablish their state-churches. One scholar told me recently that at the beginning of the Revolution (1775), 10 of the 13 colonies had state-churches.
Here is a portion of our book, DOUBTING THOMAS, on Jefferson’s faith and his later skepticism. Connecticut in 1817 was working on a new constitution that would finally in 1818 do away with a state-established, coercive law-religion. John Adams and Jefferson had completely different experiences with religion and clergy in their respective states. Jefferson’s state had already made these steps over 30 years earlier, but Adams’s New England churches were far more resistant, and he therefore more pessimistic about change. To Jefferson a world without the teachings of Jesus would be “a hell.”
It should be noted that Jesus’ teachings are described as “deism” here, meaning, as shown previously to be equivalent with monotheism and not to be confused with modern concepts of Deism.
Jefferson also clearly affirmed again at this time the religious basis of human rights. Dr. John Manners of New Jersey wrote Jefferson inquiring about the origin of American civil liberties and Jefferson replied: “…our right to life, liberty, the use of our faculties, the pursuit of happiness, is not left to the feeble and sophistical investigations of reason, but is impressed on the sense of every man. We do not claim these under the charters of kings or legislators, but under the King of kings. If He [i.e., God] has made it a law in the nature of man to pursue his own happiness, He has left him free in the choice of place as well as mode…” King of kings, of course, is a biblical phrase describing Jesus Christ.
Jefferson’s home town and state, like Pennsylvania’s, was also in great contrast to New York. He wrote politician Albert Gallatin on June 16, 1817, about a new law there saying: “… This act…contrasts singularly with a contemporary vote of the Pennsylvania legislature, who, on a proposition to make the belief in God a necessary qualification for office, rejected it by a great majority, although assuredly there was not a single atheist in their body. And you remember to have heard, that when the act for religious freedom was before the Virginia Assembly, a motion to insert the name of Jesus Christ before the phrase, “the author of our holy religion,” which stood in the bill, was rejected, although that was the creed of a great majority of them.”
Jefferson entertained some doubts on key Christian doctrines later in life. And then the Episcopal Church opened in Charlottesville in the last six years of his life, and he faithfully attended church there. How he reconciled his doubts with weekly standing up, with the rest of the congregation, and publicly reciting the Apostles’ Creed week after week, is not up to us. Meanwhile, DOUBTING THOMAS documents two things about the faith of Jefferson: 1) He was not a lifelong skeptic, and 2) He did not believe in banishing Christianity from the public square.