the Enlightenment legacy of Freedoms

An Act for Establishing Religious Freedom
(Virginia, 1779; 1786)

The following Bill was prepared and proposed by Thomas Jefferson "as part of the Revised Code" of Virginia, in 1779:

   "Well aware that Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burdens, 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 presumptions 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 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 temporal rewards which, proceeding from an approbation of their person conduct, are an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labors for the instruction of mankind; that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, 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 the 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 to corrupt the principles of that very religion it is meant to encourage, by bribing with a monopoly of worldly honors 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 the 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 actions 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.

   "Be it therefore 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 beliefs; 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 nowise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

   "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 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."

In the autumn of 1784, the "Protestant Episcopal Church," favored by prominent Virginians such as Patrick Henry, alleging "a decay of public morals," introduced a bill into the General Assembly of Virginia assessing a tax for religious teachers, "A Bill Establishing a Provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion." James Madison (Jefferson being absent in France) protested against the bill. The importance of this protest is that it helps to define what the Founding Fathers meant by "establishment of religion" in the First Amendment:

"The assessment bill exceeds the functions of civil authority . . . ."

After the bill's publication, the people of Virginia spoke with an authority equaling the "We, the people . . ." of the later U.S. Constitution, in a noble and ringing Remonstrance through their representative, James Madison declaring that "in matters of religion no man's right is abridged by the institution of civil society, and that religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance" (Remonstrance of the people of Virginia, Section 1, 1784). With compelling eloquence they rejected both the principle and the consequences of church-state establishment, thus paving the way for a secular U.S. Constitution:

Remonstrance of the people of Virginia, Section 3, 1784:

   "Because it is proper to take alarm at the first experiment upon our liberties. We hold this prudent jealousy to the first duty of citizens, and one of the noblest characteristics of the late Revolution. The freemen of America did not wait until usurped power had strengthened itself by exercise, and entangled the question in precedents. They saw all the consequences in the principle, and they avoided the consequences by denying the principle. We revere this lesson too much to soon forget it. Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish, with the same ease, any particular sect of Christianity, in exclusion of all other sects? that the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute threepence only, of his property, for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?"

This vigilance succeeded. The assessment bill failed. Reassembly of the Legislature of Virginia brought no new attempts to push it. James Madison selected the "religious freedom" bill for immediate action. In December 1785, the House voted nearly 4 to 1 to adopt it. After minor preamble adjustments, the Virginia Senate passed the bill into law, January 16, 1786.

   "No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; opinion in matters of religion shall in nowise diminish, enlarge, or affect civil capacities. The rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind."

(quoted in George Bancroft's History of the Constitution, Vol. I, pp. 215-216).

The 1779 Virginia Statute to establish religious freedom was one of the most important foundations of freedom of religion in the future United States of America.

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