“It behooves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself to resist invasions of it in the case of others, or their case, by change of circumstances, become his own. It behooves him too, in his own case, to give no example of concession, betraying the right of independent opinion by answering questions of faith, which the laws have left between God and himself.” –Thomas Jefferson, April 21, 1803
Thomas Jefferson was born on this day in 1743. He died on July 4, 1826, only hours before John Adams. He dedicated his life to education, the law, and envisioned a nation where people would rely on reason rather than faith to maintain it. He cut up six bibles to create one, eliminating any reference to supernatural phenomena, the virgin birth, or rising from the dead after being buried three days before. In fact, the Jefferson Bible ends with the death of Jesus on Good Friday. The purpose of Jefferson’s Bible was to eliminate any claim that Jesus was the son of God.
Thomas Jefferson grew up attending church and studying at church-run schools. Those were the only schools available in the colonies before the United States came into existence. That changed after the Revolution, and people like Jefferson worked to create a secular, publicly-funded school system in the nation. When he founded the University of Virginia, he established an institution of higher learning that was completely secular. The central building at the University of Virginia is the library. Unlike other western universities of the time, it was not connected to any church and students did not have religious studies.
Jefferson’s contributions to the founding of the United States includes penning the Declaration of Independence and serving in the Continental Congress. He also held office in the Virginia House of Burgesses and as Governor of the state. One of his noted accomplishments during this time was the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom.
Be it enacted by 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 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. 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.
The separation of church and state for Thomas Jefferson was so important, he considered coercion into belief in any religion an act of treason. A person’s relationship with the Creator was to never extend past that person’s own opinion or belief. Of the three things put on Jefferson’s tombstone, the House Statute of Religious Freedom is one of them. The other two are the writing of the Declaration of Independence, and the establishment of the University of Virginia.
Thomas Jefferson’s strong commitment to establishing the United States to be a nation ruled by law is a commitment all patriotic Americans needs to remember today. Jefferson’s understanding of American religious freedom resonates in his own words when he wrote in 1777, “That our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions any more than our opinions on physics or geometry.” On his birthday today, everyone needs to remember this man’s words and work to make sure the United States of America remains a secular nation ruled by law, and not by any religion or church.