Richard Nisley

Thomas Jefferson, on his birthday
History - American Released - Apr 09, 2017

April 13th is Thomas Jefferson’s birthday. At his request, Jefferson’s headstone says nothing of the fact that he was Governor of Virginia, America’s first Secretary of State, or third President of the United States. It says simply:

“Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of Independence, the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia.” Apparently, these three achievements brought him the most satisfaction. The Declaration of Independence was an obvious first choice, and the buildings that surround the quad at the University of Virginia were designed and built under his supervision, which makes this choice understandable as well. But why the Virginia statute for religious freedom? Why was separation of church and state so important to him?

For one, Europe had been roiled in religious conflict and persecution for over 500 years, where separation of church and state was unknown. One of the longest and most destructive religious conflicts was The Thirty Years War (1618 to 1648) that resulted in eight million casualties, devastation of entire communities including farms and forests in Central Europe, and bankrupted the treasuries of the competing powers. The war began when the newly elected Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand II, tried to impose his religious beliefs on the northern Protestant states. The conflict evolved into a long and bloody war of attrition marked by widespread atrocities, disease, and famine. Exhaustion, not victory, drove the participants to sign the treaties of Osnabruck and Munster, part of the wider Peace of Westphalia that restored peace to Europe.

In America, in the decade before independence, the authorities of church and state in Virginia had responded with persecution and violence to the evangelical challenge posed by the growing number of Baptists moving into that state. Jefferson, very much aware of Europe’s long and bloody religious conflicts, strongly opposed such intolerance. To Jefferson, a man barred from office for his religious opinions was a gross violation of his “natural right” to civic participation. “Our civil rights have no dependence on our religions opinions,” he said, “any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.” Nor was it necessary for the state to protect the sacred truths of Christianity. “It is error indeed which needs the support of the government,” he wryly observed. “Truth can stand by itself.”

Ahead of his time, Jefferson’s efforts were bitterly opposed by his fellow Virginia planters. Notwithstanding, he continued to insist on an immediate and strict separation of church and state. “The time to guard against corruption and tyranny,” he said, “is before they shall have gotten hold of us.” When Jefferson’s efforts finally bore fruit in the 1780s, with passage of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, he considered it one of the greatest accomplishments of his life.

The heart of the Virginian Statute is inscribed on a marble wall inside the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. The inscription reads: “Almighty God hath created the mind free. All attempts to influence it by temporal punishment or burdens . . . are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion . . . No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship or ministry or shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief. But all men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion. I know but one code of morality for men whether acting singly or collectively.”

Jefferson believed that in a democracy the best way to support and encourage religion in general was for the government to be completely neutral and impartial concerning religions in particular; and the best way to give religious freedom to all is to deny religious freedom to none, even those whose faith appears strange, suspicious, or just plain silly.

Largely because of Jefferson’s prestige and persuasive power, the system that America’s founders finally adopted and incorporated into the Bill of Rights in 1791 was the complete disestablishment of religion. The first one-third of the First Amendment reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” With these sixteen words, Congress effectively tied its own hands with respect to showing religious favoritism.

Of the three inscriptions Jefferson chose for his epitaph, only one is an actual physical accomplishment. The other two are ideas, ideas that are at the core of the experiment in democratic government we call the American Dream—freedom from religious intolerance, and freedom from arbitrary rule that is the heart of the Jeffersonian doctrine that all people are created equal and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

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