"religion is a matter which lies solely between Man and his God..."

-Thomas Jefferson, 1802

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Jefferson and Religion

A Closer Look

The Idea

Thomas Jefferson sought to create a “wall of separation between Church & State,” rejecting the historical entanglement of government and religion he believed denied people a fundamental right of conscience and the right to think and decide for oneself so essential to a republic.

Jefferson was not anti-religious, but felt that religion was a private matter, not to be interfered with by government, or by others. He believed people should exercise forbearance in matters of religion, writing: “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.” 

Throughout our history as a multi-religious country, Americans have faced challenges in the safe-guarding of religious freedom, and it remains a relevant issue in American society today. 

Jefferson on Religious Beliefs

"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. "

-Thomas Jefferson, "Notes on the State of Virginia," Query XVII

Making the Idea a Reality

Jefferson considered the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom one of his three greatest achievements. James Madison ushered the statute through the Virginia legislature and incorporated its commitment t0 religious freedom and the separation of church and state into the Bill of Rights. These principles would end state-sponsored religion in the United States and the denial of full rights to its citizens of other faiths. Today, Americans may take this right for granted, yet it was the hard-won result of a decade-long effort by Jefferson and Madison.

The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom

"...that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry... 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." (Thomas Jefferson, Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom 1786)

Jefferson first proposed the Statute of Religious Freedom in 1779 and was met with resistance. Years later, while Jefferson was in France, James Madison appealed to the Virginia Assembly to finish the ideals of the American Revolution to fully break with British practices, reject government support of religion, pass Jefferson's statute, and embrace religious freedom in the new nation. The new law would protect the rights of all faiths and was finally enacted in 1786.

Religious Practices and Freedom

For Virginia's enslaved population, there was power in religious congregating that often lead to political movements, including events like Nat Turner's Rebellion or later in election campaigns for Black candidates. To suppress resistance, many states passed laws to prohibit religious meetings among both free and enslaved Blacks. The establishment of Black churches afforded sociopolitical standing not often open to the Black community.

The Legacy

"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."

-Thomas Jefferson to the Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut, January 1, 1802

Monticello’s enslaved community engaged in a vital spiritual life of different faiths, from Christian prayer meetings to the use of a local practitioner of African traditional beliefs. After freedom, many freedmen from Monticello and their descendants became ministers and lay readers. 

Commodore Uriah Levy

The first person of the Jewish faith to attain the rank of Commodore in the U.S. Navy, Uriah Phillips Levy (1792-1862) highly valued Jefferson’s commitment to freedom of religion. It inspired him to protect and preserve Monticello as a memorial to Jefferson. Levy's own values as one of the first officers to condemn corporeal punishment led him to be honored by the U.S. Navy. In 2005, the Commodore Uriah P. Levy Center and Jewish Chapel at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland was dedicated in Levy’s honor.

Moving Forward

Uriah Levy said, "[Jefferson] did much to mold our Republic in a form in which a man's religion does not make him ineligible for political or governmental life."

Freedom of religion -from prayer in school and government funding of religious groups, to private businesses refusing to provide services- remains a controversy in American life. Religious views, practices, and rights continue to play a role in all aspects of public life and politics.

How can we continue to use Jefferson's principles to find the proper relationship between church and state for a vibrant democracy?

"...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..."

-Thomas Jefferson, 1802


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