Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, 1777

Andrew Trees

Professor Andrew Trees, Roosevelt University

The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was one of only three accomplishments that Thomas Jefferson wanted listed on his tombstone. James Madison was the one to shepherd the bill through the Virginia House of Delegates and undoubtedly had it in mind when he was drawing up the freedom of religion clause for the First Amendment. Jefferson rested his defense for religious freedom on the grounds that it was a natural right. The idea that everyone should enjoy the freedom of belief at this time was still something that was not fully established. A number of states would continue to have established churches into the nineteenth century. Patrick Henry even proposed a bill in 1784 to provide tax-supported religious instruction for Virginians, and he argued that the state should actively promote Christian values.

Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom

Thomas Jefferson


The original manuscript in Jefferson’s hand no longer exists. The text of the act as drafted by Jefferson (and approved by the Revisors) as well as the changes adopted by the General Assembly follows (General Assembly deletions in italics, General Assembly insertions in brackets):

Well aware that the opinions and belief of men depend not on their own will, but follow involuntarily the evidence proposed to their minds; that [Whereas] 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 burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and 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, but to extend it by its influence on reason alone; that the impious

Jefferson’s argument that influence should rest on reason alone was both a central element of Enlightenment thinking and a key pillar of his own beliefs.

presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the

Jefferson believed, for example, that much of the New Testament was corrupted by later additions. He even went through the Bible with a razor and glue to extract what he saw as the essence, the doctrine of Jesus.

greatest part of the world and through all time: 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

Liberty was central to Jefferson not just as a political concept, but as a general principle. So, forcing religious belief and King George’s political actions both qualified as  “tyrannical.”

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; and is withdrawing from the ministry those temporal[ry] rewards, which proceeding from an approbation of their personal conduct, are an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labours for the instruction of mankind; that our civil rights have no dependance on our religious opinions,any more than on our opinions in physics or geometry; that therefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages to which, in common with his fellow citizens, he has a natural right; that it tends also [only] to corrupt

As always, Jefferson calls this a natural right. This anticipates the clause against religious tests in the Constitution.

the principles of that very religion it is meant to encourage, by bribing, with a monopoly of worldly honours and emoluments, those who will externally profess and conform to it; that though indeed these are criminal who do not withstand such temptation, yet neither are those innocent who lay the bait in their way; that the opinions of men are not the object of civil government, nor under its jurisdiction; that to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency is a dangerous fallacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty, because he being of course judge of that tendency will make his opinions the rule of judgment, and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or differ from his own; that it is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order; and finally, that truth is great and will prevail if left to herself; that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate; errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.

Above we have the classic Jeffersonian defense not just of freedom of belief but of speech as well–that truth will prevail against error in the free marketplace of ideas.

We the General Assembly of Virginia do enact [Be it enacted by the General Assembly] that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened 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.

In a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802, Jefferson famously called for a “wall of separation between church and state.”

And though we well know that this Assembly, elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts of succeeding Assemblies, constituted with powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act [to be] irrevocable would be of no effect in law; yet we are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right.

Here you get a very direct statement that this is a natural right which should never be infringed upon by the state.




Collaborative Curriculum: Bill of Rights Copyright © by Andrew Trees. All Rights Reserved.

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