The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom

Note: This post is part of an assignment for my AP US History students. You are welcome to comment even if you are not a student.

Thomas Jefferson first proposed the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom in 1779. It was adopted by the Virginia General Assembly in 1786 and is now part of the Virginia Constitution.

The statute is often viewed as an inspirational piece for those in favor of religious freedom. At the same time, I’m hoping modern readers can remove themselves from the legacy of this statute for a moment and consider the following questions:

  1. What are Jefferson’s key points/ideas?
  2. Where did Jefferson get these ideas from?
  3. Can these ideas be adequately defended?
  4. Does this statute have any weaknesses?

Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free; 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; that the impious 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 endeavouring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the 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, 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, and is withdrawing from the ministry those temporary 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 dependence on our religious opinions, any more than 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 only to corrupt the principles of that 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 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 the 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.

II. 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, not 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 opinion in matters of religion, that that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

III. 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.

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  1. 1
    Noah Rodammer

    2) By 1777, people in both the Old World and the New World had begun to express their opinions towards religious tolerance. During the Enlightenment, philosophers preached religious tolerance; an incredibly relevant topic as religious wars ran rampant across Europe. One such philosopher, John Locke, wrote three key arguments for religious freedom in his letters, Letters Concerning Toleration (1689-1692). First, Locke argued that human beings are fallible and cannot evaluate claims between competing religions. He also argued that belief could not be enforced by violence. Finally, Locke believed that there would be more chaos creating a uniform religion rather than having different religions. Many of these ideas, notably the earliest, are clearly found in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Also, Locke frequently wrote about the natural rights of humans, which Jefferson writes about in the statute. It is important to note that Jefferson had already been influenced by Locke while writing the Declaration of Independence; while Locke wrote about “life, liberty, and property,” Jefferson wrote about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Since he clearly was influenced before, it is reasonable that he would use his ideas again. However, Jefferson could have been influenced in the New World, too. In 1636, theologian Roger Williams was breaking ground for religious toleration in New England as he created a colony, Rhode Island, with complete religious freedom; years of living in the strict Massachusetts Bay Colony had convinced the protestant that perhaps toleration was necessary. Jews, Catholics, and even Quakers were able to escape persecution in the midst of the prodigiously religious New England community. Yet years of persecution left the colony incredibly stubborn and independent minded. Nearer to Virginia, Maryland could boast religious tolerance towards all trinitarian Christians, including the persecuted Catholics. However, many other religions were treated no better in the southern colony. While neither colony may be perfectly what Jefferson envisioned, he easily could have been influenced by their novel forms of religious tolerance. Indeed it is clear that Jefferson had many different influences towards his highly valued work, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.

    3) Jefferson’s ideas can be adequately defended, by both Jefferson or an unbiased debater. Inside the document, Jefferson takes an early assumption that “Almighty God hat created the mind free.” While not all may agree with this statement, he can adequately create an argument around it. If an Almighty God, who would be infallible, never forced a single religion upon the human race, what right do flawed and corrupt people have to do so? Furthermore, why should a human being, who was given natural rights from the Almighty, be forced to give money or worship that which he disbelieves? Finally, how can an flawed human being assume he understands fully a situation as complex as religion enough to impose it on others? Clearly, religious freedom is clear from Jefferson’s perspective. The argument would be different from an unbiased perspective, but the result would be the same. The first point would be that although you may be able to convince others to pay for a religion, it is impossible to sway a determined person’s mind; as John Locke argued, religion cannot be enforced through violence. Also, it is impossible to support everybody’s religious viewpoints in a society; there is no way that would be a unified country. Wouldn’t it be more efficient to be unified in freedom? Finally, more specifically focused on America, could a country, or state, which had just undergone such a political upheaval withstand further conflicts, especially concerning a topic as debated as religion? From both perspectives, religious freedom seems to be the obvious choice; those who disagree and want a single religion could migrate elsewhere while the majority of people enjoyed the freedom from a lack of persecution.

  2. 2
    Ryley Stevens

    1. Jefferson’s key points are that people shouldn’t be forced to practice a certain religion. People should be allowed to choose their own religion and shouldn’t be legally forced to participate in religious activities. Religious activities can also not be restrained by government.
    2. He gets these ideas from the natural rights of all people. He thinks that freedom of religion is a right that everyone should have.
    3. His ideas can be defended by stating the natural rights of people. A problem in defending his ideas however is that the idea of natural rights cannot be firmly defended because they are only supported by society’s opinion of them.
    4. A weakness in this statute is that if government cannot restrain religious activities, they could not control unjust actions that involve religion. For example, if people from one religion feel that it is their religious duty to eliminate a group of people, then the government would not be allowed to stop the genocide.

  3. 3
    Graham Taylor

    1. Jefferson offers three main ideas:
    a. That any legislation attempting to coerce a man’s faith in one way or another is an entity that has no right to do so, for it is built upon the will of a man, and cannot judge another’s opinion as lower than his own. This leads to the will of a man in government attempting to control a man of the nation, and is seen as an infringement upon both natural rights and liberty.
    b. A man should not suffer for the religious beliefs he holds in any way, whether it be legal or simply residing within a community, and judging someone upon their faith is an immoral action.
    c. No government is allowed to infringe on the ideals of the statute or the religious freedom of citizens, and any attempt to do so will be recognized and overthrown by the people.

    2. Jefferson likely took these ideas from both development in the Enlightenment Era and the Colonial Era. Religious tolerance was in a fledgling state in the Enlightenment, and was being adopted by philosophers and began to weaken the immensely powerful hold of the established churches. Jefferson likely saw these religious philosophies develop in the colonies, in such places as Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, and probably admired the religious unity and moral righteousness of such communities.

    3. Yes and no, these ideas cannot be concretely defended, for there is no definitive statistic of how much religious freedom affects a nation. However, debating within philosophical grounds, it is easy to see the morality and benefits of religiously tolerant policies, and easy to see why no man should be able to hold judgment over the religious beliefs of another.

    4. I personally believe that this statute is not perfect, but the weaknesses are so miniscule, the philosophies in the statute so universal, that it is hard to expose these weaknesses, as the nature of the document itself is non-intrusive and so strongly morally and logically founded.

  4. 4
    CJ Crawford

    1. Jefferson points out that all people are made by God with the capacity to think and choose their own beliefs for themselves. He states that citizens have a right to follow whatever religion they choose, and their choice won’t interfere with their “civil capacities.” In closing, Jefferson references the natural rights mentioned in the Declaration of Independence. He wrote that repealing his statute in any way would violate those natural rights.

    2. The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom is based mainly on the Declaration of Independence, feeding off of the Declaration’s statement of man’s natural rights.

    3. I don’t think this can be adequately defended because Jefferson’s idea of natural rights is so intangible and it doesn’t have a solid basis of evidence supporting its existence. On the other hand, people have extremely strong convictions concerning their right to religious freedom so many would side with Jefferson and defend their religious liberties.

    4. I think one of the Statute’s main weaknesses is that it was written with a great deal of Christian bias. Seeing as this document promotes religious freedom, I think it should be religiously neutral in and of itself.

  5. 5
    Andrew Bihl

    1. Man has a natural right to freedom of religion, And if government enforces religion, both the government and the religion are adulterated, because the two are not meant to be implemented together.
    2. The idea of natural rights came from John Locke. I would guess that many of the ideals are from enlightenment thinkers. Mainly, however, the idea comes from the history of America and its people. Many of the immigrants came to escape religious persecution in Europe, and many of the issues that divided the nation were based on religious differences. At a time when Jefferson wanted to build a unified state, this was a good issue to address.
    3. Not necessarily. Because faith is such an intangible thing, it can’t be supported empirically. Objectively, he it would have been hard for him to support the idea through historical evidence because so few societies had tried it before. His only support was the use of others’ ideas and good rhetoric.
    4. It doesn’t instruct on what should happen if the rights are infringed. The constitution outlines the people’s right to revolution. This just says that it should not happen, not what to do if it does. Other than that, and its inherent inability to be supported objectively, it’s pretty solid.

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