Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom

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When the Virginia General Assembly enacted the Statute for Religious Freedom on 16 January 1786, it was the most comprehensive statement on religious freedom in the new American nation. Thomas Jefferson had originally drafted this measure during the Revolution as part of a general revision of Virginia's laws. It comprised three sections. The preamble provided a long and eloquent argument for the absolute right of religious conscience. It defined religion as a matter of opinion that could properly be formed only by reason and persuasion. No legislature or magistrate, therefore, had any legitimate authority to establish or compel religious belief or to require people to contribute to it. Jefferson concluded the preamble with a ringing affirmation that the human mind set free would ultimately discover the truth for itself. Then came a brief enabling clause that forbade any restraint on conscience, guaranteed complete free exercise of religion, and declared religion irrelevant to one's civil rights. The final section stated that religious freedom was a matter of natural rights, and that any future legislature which revoked or limited the freedom inherent in the statute would violate those rights.

Jefferson's statute was first introduced in the legislature as part of the revised law code on 12 June 1779, but consideration of it was postponed. Later that year the assembly considered another measure that would have effectively established Christianity as the state religion. That, too, was tabled, but religion was revived as a major concern when the war ended in 1783. Some definitive settlement was needed. During the colonial period, the Church of England had been established in the Old Dominion. Public taxation and grants of public lands had supported its clergy, colonial law had required attendance at its services, and lay vestries in the parishes had managed both civil and religious affairs. Dissenters from the established church, mainly Baptists, Presbyterians, and Quakers, had enjoyed only limited toleration. The sixteenth article of the Virginia Bill of Rights, approved by the Revolutionary Virginia convention in June 1776, had acknowledged the right to "free exercise of religion" but failed to appreciate the implications of that right. The following autumn, the new state legislature did not disestablish the church, nor did it remove all restrictions on other religious groups. The only major change during the Revolution was the decision to end religious taxes.

By the time peace came the established church, newly renamed the Protestant Episcopal Church in Virginia, was in desperate financial and organizational straits. A clergy convention in June 1784 petitioned the legislature for an act of incorporation so that it could manage church affairs. The following fall the General Assembly did just that. Meanwhile, Patrick Henry proposed a general assessment bill to support "Teachers of the Christian Religion" that would allow each person to designate the clergyman or religious body that would receive the tax money. With Jefferson serving as American minister to France, James Madison led the anti-assessment forces. Before Henry's measure could pass, he maneuvered the election of Henry into the governor's seat and out of the legislature. He then persuaded the assembly to postpone the assessment bill until the people could be consulted.

In the spring and summer of 1785 a massive petition campaign swept Virginia. Madison drew up his Memorial and Remonstrance against the assessment and it was widely circulated. But for every person who signed Madison's protest, ten others signed explicitly religious petitions (petitions that expressed a predominately religious [ecclesial, scriptural] set of arguments), principally the work of Baptists and Presbyterians, that also opposed the assessment. To those who had been labeled dissenters, the incorporation of the Episcopal Church appeared as a sign of renewed legislative favor for what had been an oppressive colonial establishment. Now the assessment seemed deliberately designed to enable that church to revive. Their petitions asked that religion be made entirely voluntary. When the assembly met in the autumn of 1785, the petitions to the legislature overwhelmingly opposed the assessment. The assessment bill was never even considered. Instead, Madison brought forward Jefferson's statute and, after minor revisions to the preamble, it became law in January. In 1787 the assembly voided the incorporation act and in 1799 it repealed all laws concerning religion except Jefferson's statute, which it made the sole basis for interpreting the state's bill of rights and constitution. At the state's next constitutional convention in 1829–1830, Jefferson's work was formally incorporated into Virginia's constitution.

The Virginia statute provided for complete religious freedom in Virginia. It also served as a major impetus for the passage of the religion clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution and as an important reference for that amendment's subsequent interpretation by the U.S. Supreme Court. Jefferson was so pleased with his accomplishment that he ordered his authorship inscribed on his tombstone.

See alsoBill of Rights; Disestablishment; Jefferson, Thomas; Madison, James; Religion: The Founders and Religion; Religious Tests for Officeholding .


Buckley, Thomas E. Church and State in Revolutionary Virginia, 1776–1787. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1977.

Dreisbach, Daniel L. "A New Perspective on Jefferson's Views on Church-State Relations: The Virginia Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom in Its Legislative Context." American Journal of Legal History 35 (1991): 172–204.

Miller, William Lee. The First Liberty: Religion and the American Republic. New York: Knopf, 1986.

Peterson, Merrill D., and Robert C. Vaughan, eds. The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom: Its Evolution and Consequences in American History. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Thomas E. Buckley

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Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom

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Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom