More on the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom

This is a blog that will make more sense if you check the previous entry. The bottom line is, as Governor of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson pushed for a plethora of bills related to religion. Rather than prove him to be an anti-Christian zealot, many of these bills showed a respect for the faith. Bills #83 through #86 (please see previous blog) are essential to form a balanced view of what separation of church and state meant at that time. In light of these other bills in the package, the words of Bill #82 on religious freedom (i.e., the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, written by Jefferson in 1777 and passed in 1786) become more understandable in their intent. The original draft in 1777 reads in part: …Almighty God hath 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 burdens, or by civil incapacitations…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……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 comfortable 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… …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 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 no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities…

Religion was to neither “diminish” nor “enlarge” a person’s civil capacities and government was to be excluded from controlling it in any way. It should be noted that although the example of Jesus was indirectly cited as the model for this act, nonetheless, Jefferson said in his Autobiography (1821) about a half century later that …its protection of opinion was meant to be universal…an amendment was proposed by inserting the word “Jesus Christ” so that it should read “A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;” the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend within the mantle of its protection the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.”

This was certainly true and commendable—that everyone, regardless of their religious persuasion, would find religious freedom. The leading dissenting clergy agreed with this idea. That this bill was presented together with bills punishing Sabbath breakers and authorizing the governor to proclaim public days of prayer, clearly shows that it meant only to prevent the coercion of specific beliefs and did not restrict non-denominational expressions of the majority faith in public life. And as with the marriage law, Jefferson was not universally trying to keep the Bible out of the law.

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