Painting of Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) by Rembrandt Peale in 1800
Thomas Jefferson lived his life convinced that government had no business coercing religious conformity. As a young man, his heroes were Enlightenment philosophers Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton and John Locke. To these great thinkers, the mission of philosophers was not simply to reflect the world, or contemplate another, but to change it. And this Jefferson set out to do.
A main focus of his life’s work was to create a society in which an individual can think and believe free from the dictates of church or state. With respect to religion, Jefferson wrote in his Notes on Virginia:
The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god.
Jefferson endeavored to spread religious liberty far and wide, working for ten years to pass the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom. It is a succinct expression of Jefferson’s belief in freedom of conscience and the principle of separation of church and state. It begins:
Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishment or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness…
Passed by the Virginia General Assembly in 1786, the statute is the precursor of the Constitution’s First Amendment protections for religious freedom. The second paragraph of the Virginia statute declares that no person can be compelled to attend any church or support it with his taxes, and that an individual is free to worship as he pleases without discrimination.
Jefferson wanted to be remembered for his lifelong commitment to Enlightenment ideals such as the right to believe freely. Before his death, he left explicit instructions regarding the major accomplishments to be engraved on his tombstone: author of the Declaration of American Independence, founder of the University of Virginia, and author of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom.
For more information about Jefferson and Religious Freedom, you can explore the following:
Virginia Historical Society: Thomas Jefferson and the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom
Jefferson and Religious Freedom, by Merrill D. Peterson published in The Atlantic Monthly
PBS Series: God in the White House