After Thomas Jefferson passed away on July 4th, 1826, it was discovered that he had written his epitaph in advance. Accordingly his tombstone, when it was finally erected, bore only the simple inscription: Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and father of the University of Virginia. That he felt no need to mention his time in Congress, as an ambassador, as Secretary of State, Vice-President or President is telling of Jefferson’s opinion of the outcome of the American Revolution, the state of the American government in the 1820s, and his own professional legacy. Even more telling, however, are the three items he saw fit to commemorate, and in particular the second. Though at times stretched to the breaking point, the separation of church and state is one of the defining aspects of American political culture, and the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom (or Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, hereafter to be referred as just the Statute) is perhaps its finest articulation. Comparatively little known, it was originally drafted in 1777, introduced into the Virginia General Assembly in 1779, and became law in 1786. It’s also quite brief, with three sections covering a little over 730 words, yet it confronts one of the most controversial issues in human history, contravenes centuries of established relations between church and government, and handily encapsulates some of Jefferson’s views on mankind, the nature of free will, and the power of truth. It is, in many ways, a surprising document for how much it is able to cover in such a short span of words. And, as with any other I’ve covered in these posts, it is best appreciated in its proper context.
In the 1770s, on the eve of the Revolution, most of the colonies possessed what are referred to as established churches. These organizations received funding from the colonial governments, administered institutes of higher learning, and were generally sanctioned and endorsed by the political status quo. Citizens who were not congregants of one of these churches were usually excluded from political participation, often prohibited from owning property, and frequently harassed by members of the dominant social order. Connecticut and Massachusetts were both bastions of the Puritan faith, whose members had actually fled persecution by the established Anglican Church in England, while New York, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia were officially provinces of the Church of England. Maryland had initially been organized as a safe haven for English Catholics before being re-chartered as an Anglican colony in 1689, and Pennsylvania, Delaware, Rhode Island and New Jersey either prohibited any established church or made no mention of them in their charters. These latter four where exceptional in their promotion of religious liberty and had arrived at that position via a set of exceptional circumstances (which I won’t go into here). The promotion of an established sect and persecution of dissenters was far more common in British North America, and was one of the many cultural and political legacies of Britain itself.
The Church of England was founded in 1534 by Henry VIII, and for most of its history has been closely intertwined with the British state. As the formal head if the church, the British monarch has long held sway over the essential character of the clerical hierarchy, and different factions supporting different sets of practices have risen or fallen based on the backing they enjoyed from the sitting king or queen. Generally speaking, whichever form of Protestant worship was favored by the Crown was sanctioned and supported by the state, leaving all others to be either sidelined or persecuted. In the 1640s and 1650s, during the English Civil War and the formation of the English Commonwealth, the Church was radically reformed by the formally persecuted and now victorious Puritans. This reformation lasted until the restoration of Charles II in 1660, who reverted the Church to its traditional form. In the years that followed, a series of laws were passed by parliament in an attempt to finally and formally entrench the Church of England, establish a set of basic practices, and disenfranchise all “nonconformists” so as to ensure that they could no longer be a force in British politics.
These included the Corporation Act (1661) which made it necessary for all municipal officials to take Anglican communion, the Uniformity Act (1662) which made the Book of Common Prayer (the standard Anglican liturgical handbook) compulsory, the Conventicle Act (1664) which prohibited unauthorized worship by meetings of more than five people, the Five Mile Act (1665) which forbade nonconformist preachers from coming within five miles or incorporated towns or from teaching in schools, and the Test Acts (1673,1678) which declared that all persons (including members of both houses of Parliament) filling any military or civil office were required to take an oath of supremacy and allegiance to the monarch as the Supreme Head of the Church of England, and state a formal rejection of certain key aspects of the Catholic liturgy (transubstantiation in particular). So impenetrable were these acts and the Protestant stronghold they created that when Charles II’s Catholic younger brother and heir, James, Duke of York ascended the throne in 1685 and attempted to promote religious liberty for Catholics and nonconformists, he was deposed within three years by his daughter Mary and her Dutch husband William. 17th-century Britain was a decidedly Protestant land, and its political establishment increasingly of one mind as to how their faith was to be practiced, and how their fellow congregants were to maintain their hold on the reins of power.
It was ironically also during this era, while the Anglican Establishment was being erected in Britain, that the philosophical Enlightenment was flourishing in intellectual circles across Europe, and concepts like rationalism, empiricism, and religious liberty were being openly discussed. Religious liberty in particular became a favored topic of Enlightenment scholars and reformers who feared a return to the religious wars of the past (in particular the recent Thirty Years War that had devastated Central Europe between 1618 and 1648, to the cost of eight million lives) and saw the end of established religion and the simplification of complex religious doctrines as the surest way of avoiding future conflict. Among the ideas that were put forward, some promoted a formal separation of politics from religion and law, advocating instead that each person subscribe to whichever belief they found most convincing. Others advanced the theory of Deism, wherein God created the Universe and the physical laws by which it operates (gravity, friction, momentum, radiation, etc…), and gave man a mind capable of seeking out and discovering these things for himself without any need for divine intervention. Though there was something of a divide between those that viewed religion as absolutely necessary to the preservation of the existing social order, and those that saw religion as deeply personal, and concerning only the relationship between the individual and their creator, there seemed to be a loose consensus that religion functioned best without the use of force or coercion, when allowed to stand solely on the strength of its fundamental moral quality.
Interestingly enough, Thomas Jefferson sat at the confluence of these two competing religious traditions. On the one hand he was raised in late 18th-century colonial Virginia, and like most men of his social standing was brought up in the established Anglican faith. On the other he was a man of the Enlightenment, and a devotee of European (and particularly French) philosophy and culture. He was well-versed in the arguments of both sides, witnessed the operation of the Anglican Establishment in Virginia firsthand, and showed a particular concern for what he perceived as the corruption of Christianity’s superior moral principles by its continued association with government. His 1779 Statute, introduced during the first year of his tenure as Governor of Virginia, sought to address this concern, and its successful passage in 1786 remained for him one of the great triumphs of his lengthy public career.