Thomas Jefferson and the Value of Religious Liberty: A Brief Look at American History


“Keep religion to yourself,” or “religion is a personal or private matter, not a public one,” argue some people — they however, are deeply misinformed or not informed at all about what religious liberty is and what it entails for all people, everywhere and anywhere. What is religious liberty? Why is religious liberty important and valuable? Does the separation between Church and State mean that people cannot share their religious beliefs in public?

Brief History of How Religious Liberty Arose in America

Jeremiah Moore, a Christian Baptist brought the Ten-Thousand Name petition on October 1776 to the Virginia Assembly, which demanded the right for Christian Baptists to freely worship without dreading persecution. Moore was a Christian minister and evangelist who was arrested and imprisoned, like many others, because he would go around Colonial Virginia preaching without a license. Janet Moore Lindman, Professor of History at Rowan University writes in her book Bodies of Belief: Baptist Community in Early America, “Persecution occurred because Baptists preached out-of-doors before the general public, which was a violation of civil and ecclesiastical law. Baptist ministers were required to apply to the General Court for a special license to preach.” In today’s world, if Baptist preachers wanted to go around evangelizing, they would of had been arrested and presumably fined for violating the established law, unless of course, they would of had obtained the proper permit to be able to do so.

The petition garnered ten thousand signatures (hence the name), representing the voices of Christians who wanted religious liberty and equality. The advocate that the Christian Baptists chose was Thomas Jefferson, then a member of the Virginia General Assembly. Jefferson met with the leaders of the Christian Baptists to hear their case and decided to defend their right—the right to freely worship as one chooses. Jefferson went on to draft what became the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, a bill that was adopted in 1786, with the help of James Madison, and “established the legal right to complete freedom of worship in the Commonwealth of Virginia.”

The Value of Religious Liberty

Why is religious liberty valuable? Do we really need religious liberty in America or anywhere else in the world? Jefferson wanted to open up the platform for any religions and let these faiths compete in the marketplace of ideas. Surely, no idea or belief can compete against other ideas or beliefs if only certain ones have the liberty to surface while others are coerced into silence or privacy. In this case, the Church of England was the established church in Colonial Virginia and thus held a sort of superiority over other religions. Jefferson wrote:

… 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 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.

Jefferson recognized the value of religious liberty and rightly so. Jennifer A. Marshall, the vice president of the Institute for Family, Community and Opportunity at The Heritage Foundation, says, “Religious faith is not merely a matter of ‘toleration’ but is understood to be the exercise of ‘inherent natural rights,’” which is why “religious liberty is a fundamental human right.” Religious liberty recognizes the right of people to perform the activities or pursue ends to which they are entitled by conscience; in this case, “religious freedom recognizes the right of people to pursue transcendent ends,” says Marshall. Also, this is not to say that there are no just limits on freedom of religion because there certainly are just limits.

Moreover, Robert Audi, the John A. O’Brien Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame writes in his book, Democratic Authority and the Separation of Church and State, “Without liberty, people cannot truly govern themselves, and they would likely be at best agents of others who control them.” Further, Audi adds, “Where there is liberty, there is room for pluralism.” Surely religious liberty is a precondition for a pluralistic democracy. Because we live in a pluralistic democracy, any religion, worldview, or belief should have the right to enter into the marketplace of ideas — this is what intellectual diversity is all about afterall.

What is the ‘Separation of Church and State’?

Do the words ‘Separation of Church and State’ actually mean that religious beliefs should be kept private or away from the public life? Jefferson penned the words “separation of Church and State.” When Jefferson had assumed presidency, he wrote a letter to Christian Baptists assuring them that the government was going to “’make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”

Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University says,

                 The words ‘separation of church and state’ are meant to capture the spirit of the idea that there will not be a national establishment of religion. In separating the institutions of church and institutions of state, there was never a thought, nor should we entertain the idea that there’s a separation between religion and public life or religion from politics.

Similarly, Stephen Prothero, Professor of Religion at Boston University has also said,

The metaphor (separation of Church and State) is so strong that people often think that the first amendment means that there should be a wall of separation between Church and State. And it doesn’t mean that at all. It says that we are not going to establish laws that favor one religion over another.

Although some might think that the words ‘Separation of Church and State’ means religious beliefs cannot cross into the public sphere, such thinking is clearly wrong, especially in light of their historical context and intended purpose — Christian Baptists were being persecuted and prosecuted due to their beliefs in Colonial Virginia, this had to be stopped. Indeed, what is the point of valuing ideas if we are coerced by the law to dispose of our beliefs about reality for the purpose of aligning our conscience with the reigning ideas of the time?

Last Remark

Religious liberty is valuable—Jefferson made this clear in 1779. His bill also served as the grounds for both, the Establishment and Free Exercise Clause in the First Amendment. Let’s not forget our history.


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