Rewriting Laws for Religious Freedom in Post-Colonial Virginia

A general revision of all laws in Virginia was necessary once America was independent of England. Virginia’s leaders needed to decide how much of the English legal system they would keep as is, and what they would modify to more accurately represent them as independent Virginia Americans. Thomas Jefferson and his old law teacher George Wythe and a few others worked on the project but Jefferson especially took responsibility for the religious laws. After a couple years of work Jefferson became governor on June 1, 1779 and other finished the task of submitting the package of revised laws to the legislature. John Harvie, a fellow member of the Calvinistical Reformed Church in Charlottesville, was given the task of formally submitting to the legislature the bills to revise the religious laws on June 12. Church-state historian Daniel Dreisbach, professor at American University, is correct when he writes of Jefferson that being “chair of the Virginia Committee of Revisors, he was chief architect” of the set of religious bills that were “apparently framed by Jefferson.”

The bills on religion were first presented to the legislature as a package with consecutive numbering.  When one considers all these bills as a package, instead of just the bill for religious freedom isolated from the others, it certainly shows that Jefferson was not trying to remove all religion from public life nor to undermine religion. Quite frankly, if Jefferson had only written #82 (what we know as the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom), that alone was interpreted by the evangelical dissenting churches in the state to have been a very pro-Christian act on his part, but their awareness of the package of bills certainly cemented their positive view of him.

Next week, we’ll look at some of those bills.

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