Thomas Jefferson has been closely associated with religious freedom for more than two centuries. In the first Supreme Court case addressing the religion clauses of the First Amendment, Reynolds v. United States, the Court unanimously agreed that Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom “defined” religious liberty and “the true distinction between what properly belongs to the church and what to the State.”1
Jefferson’s commitment to religious freedom grew from several inter-related sources.
For Jefferson, an Enlightenment rationalist, reason had to govern in all areas, including religion. “For the use of … reason… every one is responsible to the God who has planted it in his breast, as a light for his guidance, and that, by which alone he will be judged,” Jefferson explained.2 His declaration to Benjamin Rush that “I have sworn upon the altar of god eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man,” was made in the context of religious freedom: any government effort to control religious beliefs was “tyranny over the mind of man.”3
Politically, Jefferson believed that the new nation required complete religious freedom and separation of church and state. Many historians note that the broad diversity of ethnicities and religions in the thirteen colonies meant that religious freedom was necessary if the union was to be successful. This is true, but for Jefferson the political necessity of religious freedom went further. Before the Revolution, Virginia had an official church – the Church of England – and dissenters from that Church (primarily Presbyterians and Baptists) were discriminated against and seriously persecuted. This deeply disturbed Jefferson. Later in life, Jefferson referred to the early battles in this conflict as “the severest contests in which I have ever been engaged.” Ultimately, this political controversy resulted in the adoption of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, one of the three items that Jefferson wished to have preserved on his grave marker.4
Jefferson saw religious freedom as essential for a functioning republic. Without religious freedom and a strict separation of church and state, “kings, nobles, and priests” threatened to create a dangerous aristocracy. As Peter Onuf explains, “Jefferson defined the old regime as an unholy alliance of ‘kings, nobles, and priests’ that divided the people in order to rule them. Jefferson’s Bill for Religious Freedom, … [made] possible the progressive development of that ‘entire union of opinion’ that alone could guarantee the survival of republican government.”5
Third, there may also have been a strong theological reason, shared with many dissenters, for Jefferson to insist upon religious freedom and separation of church and state. Many believed that while God desired human worship, devotions had to be completely a free will offering, not demanded or encouraged by temporal concerns (be that parents, society, or, certainly, government). Thus, John Leland, the great eighteenth century Baptist preacher, insisted that government must not give “indulgence, preferment, or even protection” to religion.6 Baptists of Buckingham County warned that government leaving churches alone “is the only way to convince the gazing world, that Disciples do not follow Christ for Loaves, and that Preachers do not preach for Benefices.” 7 Given Jefferson’s devout theism and belief that his relationship with God was a very personal matter, his declaration that “religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God; that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship” might be read in this context.8
Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom and its history demonstrates the nature of Jefferson’s commitment. After the American Revolution, there was a strong effort in Virginia to reinstitute church taxes to promote religion, led by Patrick Henry and supported by Edmund Pendleton, Spencer Roane, Benjamin Harrison, John Marshall, and Richard Henry Lee among others. That effort almost succeeded in having a General Assessment adopted - a tax to benefit all Christian sects. This proposal was opposed by James Madison and, in absentia, Jefferson (serving in Paris as ambassador). Beating back the effort to impose religious taxes in a sometimes bitter legislative battle, the triumphant Madison was able to have Jefferson’s Statute adopted, one of the great successes of Jefferson’s life. Jefferson reported triumphantly that the legislative effort to insert “Jesus Christ” in the preamble to the Virginia Statute was defeated, establishing that religious freedom was “meant to comprehend, within the mantle of it’s protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo and infidel of every denomination.”9
Jefferson’s demand for strict separation and religious freedom does not mean that he was irreligious. In fact, this canard irritated Jefferson. He explained:
the priests indeed have heretofore thought proper to ascribe to me religious, or rather antireligious sentiments, of their own fabric, but such as soothed their resentments against the Act of Virginia for establishing religious freedom. they wished him to be thought Atheist, Deist, or Devil, who could advocate freedom from their religious dictations. but I have ever thought religion a concern purely between our god and our consciences, for which we were accountable to him, and not to the priests.10
Jefferson wanted a strict separation of church and state, but he fully expected a vibrant, public religion on the “other” (non-governmental) side of that wall.
Controversies: Historical and Modern
It is often remarked that Jefferson was involved with several government proclamations of a day of prayer. In the first, in 1774, Jefferson was among a group of young patriots who proposed a day of fasting and prayer in response to the British imposition of the Intolerable Acts after the Boston Tea Party, but he later referred to this as a proclamation “cooked up” for political reasons.11 The second incident occurred when Jefferson was governor and accepted the Continental Congress’s request that each governor issue a proclamation for a day of prayer.
A mature Jefferson believed that any official call to prayer was unconstitutional and a violation of the separation of church and state. When President Jefferson was heavily criticized for refusing to issue a prayer proclamation during a national crisis (as both of his predecessors had done), he explained that his refusal
results … from the provision that no law shall be made respecting the establishment, or free exercise, of religion, … But it is only proposed that I should recommend, not prescribe a day of fasting & prayer…. It must be meant that this recommendation is to carry some authority, and to be sanctioned by some penalty on those who disregard it; not indeed of fine and imprisonment, but of some degree of proscription perhaps in public opinion…. I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct it’s exercises, it’s discipline, or it’s doctrine….12
Jefferson believed it violated the First Amendment for government to even create a “degree of proscription … in public opinion.” In other words, the government could not even imply that “good citizens” or “patriotic citizens” were religious.
Yet, Jefferson prayed publicly in both of his inaugural addresses. For Jefferson, there was a clear distinction between a particular official making a public, but personal, profession of faith and an “official” endorsement or call to prayer. Thus, Jefferson referred to the claim that he wished “government without religion” as a “slander;” not only did he expect a vibrant religion on the “private” side of a wall of separation, but he fully expected that most government officials would be, in their private capacity, religious.13
Use of Public Facilities (including UVA) for Religious Purposes
As president, Jefferson often attended Sunday church services in the House of Representatives building. (The House leadership had authorized the use of the building by different denominations and for some civic functions when Congress was not meeting.) In retirement, he attended church services in the Albemarle Courthouse (which rotated services among the local ministers of different denominations). This, too, has led to the suggestion that Jefferson did not really support a strict separation of church and state.
Jefferson’s views on use of public facilities for religious purposes can best be understood in the context of the treatment of religion at his beloved University of Virginia, a public institution.
While UVA was still in a planning phase, and state funding had not yet been fully obtained, Jefferson’s plan was heavily criticized because he did not wish to have a professor of theology (inevitably a minister) or a chapel. Faced with a threat to funding for the university because of this omission, Jefferson had the board of visitors recommend that while the state would not itself establish a religious institution, various sects could create “religious schools on the confines of the University, … enabling the Students … to attend religious exercises with the Professor of their particular sect…” He added emphatically, though, that this was done “always understanding that these schools shall be independent of the University.” There would also be a building (the Rotunda) which, “under impartial regulations,” could be used for religious exercises and other activities when not otherwise in use.14
After funding was obtained, and with the legislature having taken no official action on the proposal for private seminaries, both Jefferson and Madison seemed to retreat somewhat from their conciliatory proposal and to take a firmer position on separation. For example, with the financial threat to the school removed, they suggested that private religious schools might be established “near” grounds, but not actually on the university’s property. Similarly, Jefferson later argued that “the buildings of the Univ. belong to the State, that they were erected for the purposes of an University and that the Visitors … have no right to permit their application for any other,” and refused to allow any religious services in the Rotunda during his lifetime.15
How, then, can Jefferson’s participation in religious services in public buildings and insistence on separation of church and state in the case of UVA be reconciled?
Jefferson’s earlier suggestion that the public facilities at UVA might be used by religious organizations “under impartial regulations” may be the key to understanding his views. In an important precedent, in 1995 the Supreme Court ruled that UVA had to be neutral between religious and nonreligious activities on campus; since UVA provided funding for a host of different student organizations, it could not deny funding to a student religious organization.16 Perhaps Jefferson saw something similar at work in the case of the use of public buildings for Sunday worship: while the House of Representatives could not single out religious services (or a particular sect) for use of its building, since it allowed the building to be used by various organizations when Congress was not in session, it could not discriminate against religion.
Religious Exemptions from Laws
Noting a difference between beliefs – which are exempt from government regulations – and actions – which can be regulated by government for the general welfare – Jefferson rejected claims that a person’s religious beliefs justified an exemption from a “neutral” law (i.e. one that did not directly regulate religion). He addressed this issue at some length:
whatsoever is lawful in the Commonwealth … cannot be forbidden to him for religious uses; & whatsoever is prejudicial to the commonwealth in their ordinary uses & therefore prohibited by the laws, ought not to be permitted to churches in their sacred rites. for instance, it is unlawful in the ordinary course of things or in a private house to murder a child. it should not be permitted any sect then to sacrifice children: it is ordinarily lawful (or temporarily lawful) to kill calves or lambs. they may therefore be religiously sacrificed. but if the good of the state required a temporary suspension of killing lambs (as during a siege); sacrifice of them may then be rightfully suspended also… if any thing pass in a religious meeting seditiously & contrary to the public peace, let it be punished in the same manner & no otherwise than as if it had happened in a fair or market.17
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… 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….
Discussing the new Constitution and a possible Bill of Rights, Jefferson wrote to Madison that “The declaration that religious faith shall be unpunished does not give immunity to criminal acts dictated by religious error.” His insistence that there be no religious exemption from neutral laws does not apply to direct efforts to regulate religion (whether expressly or implicitly) which would themselves be unconstitutional. Thus, Jefferson might note that when evangelical dissenters in Virginia were arrested for disturbing the peace before the Revolution, they were not seeking a religious exemption but, rather, neutrality in the enforcement of the law.18
“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”19
“If the freedom of religion, guaranteed to us by law in theory, can ever rise in practice under the overbearing inquisition of public opinion, truth will prevail over fanaticism, and the genuine doctrines of Jesus, so long perverted by His pseudo-priests, will again be restored to their original purity. This reformation will advance with the other improvements of the human mind.”20
“But our rulers can have authority over such natural rights only as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. ... Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error.”21
“Perhaps the single thing which may be required to others before toleration to them would be an oath that they would allow toleration to others.”22
12. Jefferson to Rev. Samuel Miller, January 23, 1808, Ford 9:174-75. Transcription available at Founders Online. Madison, under considerable political pressure during his presidency, did issue prayer proclamations at Congress’ request, but later expressed his belief that they were unconstitutional. James Madison, “Detatched Memoranda,” in The Papers of James Madison, Retirement Series, ed. David B. Mattern, J. C. A. Stagg, Mary Parke Johnson, and Anne Mandeville Colony (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2009-) 1:600–627. Transcription available at Founders Online.
13. Jefferson to DeWitt Clinton, May 24, 1807, in Ford 9:63. Transcription available at Founders Online.
14. Jefferson, Minutes of the Board of Visitors, October 7, 1822, in L&B, 19:414-16. Transcription available at Founders Online.
15. Madison to Edward Everett, March 19, 1823, in The Papers of James Madison, Retirement Series, ed. David B. Mattern, J. C. A. Stagg, Mary Parke Johnson, and Katherine E. Harbury (Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2016), 3:15–18. Transcription available at Founders Online. Jefferson to Arthur Spicer Brockenbrough, April 21, 1825, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. Transcription available at Founders Online.