Jefferson's Religious Freedom
by Michael Aubrecht [Nov. 4, 2008]
In today's age of divisive and unashamedly biased politics, it is very easy for our nation's citizens to become confused with regard to the principles upon which our country was founded. Both liberals and conservatives routinely lay claim to historical doctrines that they believe support, and in some cases mandate, their own political agendas. Perhaps no other government legislation is more misunderstood or contested than that which describes the "separation of church and state." Non-believers have traditionally argued that this declaration prohibits the recognition of any religion in the public arena, while believers from a variety of faiths argue that it does the exact opposite.
Most bothersome is the lack of knowledge that many people on both sides of the argument possess on the matter. The fact is that the U.S. Constitution, a completely secular document, contains no references to God, Jesus, or Christianity. It says absolutely nothing about the United States being officially founded as a Christian nation. On the other hand, the Declaration of Independence clearly refers to "the Creator" when it states, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
That is as close as we come to a formal ‘God' endorsement. The fact of the matter is, the literal phrases "church and state," or "separation of church and state" do not appear anywhere in our nation's founding documents. Unfortunately, far too many people today believe that it does.
This does not mean that the Framers were anti-religious. In fact, many of the Founding Fathers belonged to one of the following denominations: Episcopalian/Anglican, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Quaker, Dutch/German Reformed, Lutheran, Catholic, Huguenot, Unitarian, Methodist, and Calvinist, although not all were actively practicing. Many would more likely be considered Deists more than traditional Christians, and some even believed that the practice of organized religion was a sin in itself. Other Founders practiced a more traditional bible-based lifestyle and considered the open practice of a chosen faith a "must" for the new country. Freedom from England meant freedom from the Church of England.
In order to fully understand what freedoms and limitations exist in America within the "separation of church and state," it is essential that one studies the intentions and beliefs of the principle's creator. The original source of this directive was the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, which Thomas Jefferson first proposed in 1779. The General Assembly adopted it in 1786. This act was passed by both houses and has since become a part of the Virginia Constitution. The principles and language of this unique document have inspired supporters of religious freedom around the world to adopt similar principles.
READ: Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom (annotated transcript)
Jefferson originally agreed to author a bill for religious liberties in America while visiting the small town of Fredericksburg, Virginia. After attending a meeting with his contemporaries at an establishment known as ‘Weedons Tavern,' he penned the statute which separated church and state and gave equal status to all faiths. It became the basis for the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, giving all Americans the freedom to practice their religion, or none at all.
He wrote that "The rights [to religious freedom] are of the natural rights of mankind, and... if any act shall be... passed to repeal [an act granting those rights] or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right."
Jefferson himself proclaimed this bill to be one of his three most gratifying achievements, along with authoring the Declaration of Independence and founding Virginia University. Today, the Religious Freedom Monument proudly stands in Fredericksburg as a testament to that event. The simple marker was first unveiled in 1932 and was moved to its present location in the town at Washington Avenue Mall at Pitt Street in 1977. The monument consists of small obelisk made of hewn stone blocks and pays tribute to Jefferson's words. There are perhaps hundreds of statues, paintings, and monuments spread all across the nation that salute the remarkably fruitful life of Thomas Jefferson. This one is perhaps the most overlooked.
Truly an enlightened man of the 18th-century renaissance, Thomas Jefferson remains one of the most celebrated and examined politicians in the history of our nation. Some experts have even gone as far as to state that he was the most "civilized" citizen ever to come from the American Revolution era. The roles of a rebel and a politician were only two of his many talents. He was also a brilliant statesman, inventor, architect, philosopher, lawyer, author, agriculturalist, farmer, scientist, surveyor, educator, violinist, chess master, correspondent, traveler and diarist. He is directly credited with helping to create an infinitely prosperous nation that is rich in individual potential, liberty, and freedom.
Jefferson is also a perplexing personality when considering the practice of faith. In a letter written to his associate, John Adams, in January of 1817, he boldy states, "Say nothing of my religion. It is known to my god and myself alone."
Born in Albemarle County (formerly Goochland), Virginia in April of 1743, Thomas Jefferson's original intention was to study the principles of law at the College of William and Mary and become an attorney. During this period, he also developed an intense interest in both science and philosophy. With apparent literary and diplomacy skills, Jefferson also showed an early aptitude for politics. As a delegate to the Continental Congress, he drafted the Declaration of Independence. In 1776, he entered the Virginia House of Delegates and initiated a comprehensive reform program for the abolition of feudal survivals in land tenure and the separation of church and state. Reform and limited government were mainstays in Jefferson's dogma through the years.
His list of political positions held is staggering and include: member of the Virginia House of Burgesses, county lieutenant, county surveyor, deputy delegate of the Second Continental Congress, member of the Virginia House of Delegates, governor of Virginia, delegate to Congress, commissioner to France, minister to France, secretary of state, vice president and president of the United States. He was the third American president, and the first to be inaugurated in Washington, DC.
As a Democratic-Republican, Jefferson's most notable achievement while in office was the purchase of the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803. In retrospect, the weighty transaction was surely in violation of his earlier constitutional scruples and although it significantly expanded the nation's acreage, the question remained as to whether or not the government had a right to buy it in the first place. Reelected in 1804, with the Federalist Charles Pinckney opposing him, Jefferson tried desperately to keep the United States out of the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, employing, to this end, the unpopular embargo policy.
After his retirement, he eagerly returned to his beloved estate, Monticello, in 1809 where he developed an interest in education, founding the University of Virginia and watching its development with great interest. He died at Monticello on July 4, 1826, which ironically was the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
So what were Jefferson's personal feelings on spirituality, and why was his statute for religious freedom one of the three things that he deemed worthy enough to inscribe on his grave marker? Certainly in addition to authoring the Declaration of Independence and founding Virginia University, this act remained so near and dear to his heart that he wanted to preserve it for eternity.
Religion remains a hotly debated aspect of Thomas Jefferson's legacy. Some claim that he was simply a Deist, while others have accused him of having no faith at all. Jefferson would have been "officially" categorized as a reformed Protestant and was raised as an Episcopalian (Anglican). However, his tendency for wanting to posses a broader knowledge and understanding of all things led him to be influenced by English Deists who believed in the concept that a higher power did indeed exist, but that man's affairs were not under its influence.
He also held many beliefs in common with Unitarians of the period, and sometimes wrote that he thought the whole country would eventually become a Unitarian society. Jefferson recorded that the teachings of Jesus contain the "outlines of a system of the most sublime morality which has ever fallen from the lips of man." He added, "I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know."
Although his specific denominational and congregational ties were limited in his adulthood and his ever-evolving theological beliefs were distinctively his own, Jefferson was by his own admission, a progressive "Christian" if only in intent. He attended Episcopalian services as president, but his manipulation and rewriting of the Christian bible certainly speaks to a man who was both curious and conflicted. He once wrote, "I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished anyone to be..." This aspect of Jefferson's personal belief system remains among the most controversial and debated of all. Bible scholars have accused him of being both a genius and an atheist. Only the former is true.
Jefferson rejected the "divinity" of Jesus, but he believed that Christ was a deeply interesting and profoundly important moral or ethical teacher. He also subscribed to the belief that it was in Christ's moral and ethical teachings that a civilized society should be conducted. Cynical of the miracle accounts in the New Testament, Jefferson was convinced that the authentic words of Jesus had been contaminated.
His theory was that the earliest Christians, eager to make their religion appealing to the pagans, had obscured the words of Jesus with the philosophy of the ancient Greeks and the teachings of Plato. These so-called "Platonists" had thoroughly muddled Jesus' original message. Firmly believing that reason could be added in place of what he considered to be "supernatural" embellishments, Jefferson worked tirelessly to compose a shortened version of the Gospels titled "The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth." The subtitle stated that the work was "extracted from the account of his life and the doctrines as given by Matthew, Mark, Luke & John."
On April 21, 1803, Jefferson sent a letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush, who was a fellow ‘Founding Father' and devout Christian, explaining his own interpretation of scripture.
In some of the delightful conversations with you in the evenings of 1798-99, and which served as an anodyne to the afflictions of the crisis through which our country was then laboring, the Christian religion was sometimes our topic; and I then promised you that one day or other I would give you my views of it. They are the result of a life of inquiry and reflection, and very different from that anti-Christian system imputed to me by those who know nothing of my opinions. To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed, but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished anyone to be: sincerely attached to his doctrines in preference to all others, ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other. At the short interval since these conversations, when I could justifiably abstract my mind from public affairs, the subject has been under my contemplation. But the more I considered it, the more it expanded beyond the measure of either my time or information. In the moment of my late departure from Monticello, I received from Dr. Priestley his little treatise of "Socrates and Jesus Compared." This being a section of the general view I had taken of the field, it became a subject of reflection while on the road and unoccupied otherwise. The result was, to arrange in my mind a syllabus or outline of such an estimate of the comparative merits of Christianity as I wished to see executed by someone of more leisure and information for the task than myself. This I now send you as the only discharge of my promise I can probably ever execute. And in confiding it to you, I know it will not be exposed to the malignant perversions of those who make every word from me a text for new misrepresentations and calumnies. I am moreover averse to the communication of my religious tenets to the public, because it would countenance the presumption of those who have endeavored to draw them before that tribunal, and to seduce public opinion to erect itself into that inquisition over the rights of conscience which the laws have so justly proscribed. It behooves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself, to resist invasions of it in the case of others; or their case may, by change of circumstances, become his own. It behooves him, too, in his own case, to give no example of concession, betraying the common right of independent opinion, by answering questions of faith which the laws have left between God and himself. Accept my affectionate salutations.
- Th: Jefferson
In 1820 Jefferson returned to his controversial New Testament research. This time, he completed a much more ambitious work titled "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted Textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French and English." The text of the New Testament appears in four parallel columns in four languages. Jefferson omitted the words that he thought were inauthentic and retained those he believed were original. The resulting work is commonly known as the "Jefferson Bible."
READ: The Jefferson Bible (online edition)
Clearly, religion played a major role in the intellectual life of Thomas Jefferson. Whether his views and practices failed to fit into a traditionally-organized Christian-Judea doctrine, his exhaustive examination, dissection, and authoring of religious studies prove that spirituality mattered to him. Therefore, for anyone to imply that his statute of freedom was created to stifle the practice of religion is completely illogical.
Thomas Jefferson was a believer. He absolutely believed in a God by referencing "the Creator." And he believed that everyone within America's borders deserved the right to believe and worship, or not believe and disregard. He also believed in the teachings of Jesus Christ, whether he was the Messiah or not. In a letter sent to Harvard Professor Benjamin Waterhouse in 1822, Jefferson stated, "The doctrines of Jesus are simple, and tend all to the happiness of man."
So it is entirely within reason to believe that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom to empower and protect believers and non-believers alike and not to impose restrictions on them. The key word to understanding this document is contained in its very title, "Freedom." Freedom was the most important attribute that the Founding Fathers wished to achieve. Freedom was the keystone in the foundation of the United States of America.
Freedom of religion meant that all people had an equal right to practice their spiritual doctrines without having to worry about the government challenging, or even limiting them.
In his mind, this free will of spiritual expression belonged to Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and what we would refer to in modern times as New Age practitioners. At the same time, Atheists and Pagans also shared in the very same freedom to either reject or pursue their own beliefs. Thanks to the foresight and brilliance of Thomas Jefferson and his contemporaries, we all have the freedom to believe or not; the freedom to attend church or not; and the freedom to pray or not.
This means that all believers have the exact same liberties, regardless of the fact that their belief systems are completely opposed to one another. For example, the Christian is protected from the government mandating that he or she has to follow a particular denomination and the Atheist is protected from the government mandating that he or she believe at all. It's a brilliant and liberating concept when exercised in the manner it was intended.
The "common-sense" practice of uninhibited religious freedom continued until the late 20th-century when individual special-interest groups began to take offense to public religious practices and what appeared to be governmental sanctions of religious holidays. Many petitions appeared in court where groups of believers and non-believers alike argued whether the other side had any right to express their beliefs at all. This litigious conflict spilled out into the public square where religious symbology came under scrutiny. Public prayer and displays were removed in some sectors. Religious slogans and events were also contested.
Unfortunately, like many of our nation's principles, this one has been skewed, even corrupted at times, to imply that the "separation of church and state" means that all forms of religion cannot be celebrated and/or expressed within the public square. These misguided and ultimately petty arguments would no doubt irritate our Founders, especially Thomas Jefferson who fervently believed the opposite.
Here was an open-minded man who had the foresight to see a unified society, where people of different faiths lived secure in knowing that they all shared the same liberty to express their beliefs (or not) without worrying about the intolerance or interference of the government.
The irony of this debate is that in challenging the spiritual beliefs of others, we have, as a country, inevitably stifled the very freedom that is granted to us by the "separation of church and state." Mr. Jefferson did not want his prized statute to result in the forced removal of all religious practices and references from the public square. He wanted it to allow all people the option to practice religion according to their beliefs, or not practice religion at all, because according to his own pen, "we all are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable Rights," no matter who that Creator is, or is not, to us.
Historian Michael Aubrecht is a Presbyterian, Libertarian from Fredericksburg, VA. For more, visit his website at www.pinstripepress.net.
FROM THE AUTHOR: As a child, I distinctly remember traveling to Monticello and becoming hypnotized by the story of the man who had designed and built that magnificent estate. The house tour greatly impressed me as I had never known any individual to be so broad in his talents, so ingenious in his invention, and so driven in his zeal for enlightenment. Thomas Jefferson was a Renaissance man in every sense of the word and as I grew older, I began to study his unique life. My favorite book about him is the one he penned himself, and I am currently re-working my way through the classic "The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson." It is not surprising that a man this brilliant and complex is still studied and examined to this very day. The Thomas Jefferson Foundation is involved in a variety of major projects that preserve and present the celebrated history of the man some refer to as the "most civilized civilian" of that era. It may surprise some readers that a Christian historian, such as me, can admire a man who was far from being a traditional believer himself. However, I believe that his exhaustive study of religion and the liberty in which he endowed us to practice it is a blessing. Therefore I have set out to answer some of the questions that surround the impact of Jefferson's own beliefs in my first blog offering. I welcome your reactions and rebuttals.