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Such utterances as these form no small part of the permanent influence of Thomas Jefferson upon American “Church and State” thought. Nothing in Milton's “License of Public Printing” is more eloquent. Scarcely anything in Victor Hugo is more shortsentence-pithy. It was a decade probably after this utterance before he had stamped its essence upon the statute books of Virginia in the first written statute that the world ever knew, granting not toleration only, but absolute freedom of religion, and not only to all sects of Christians, but to all people.
Again Jefferson wrote:
"I never will by any word or act bow to the shrine of intolerance, or admit a right of inquiry into the religious opinions of others. On the contrary, we are bound — you and I, and everyone – to make common cause, even with error itself, in order to maintain the common right of freedom of conscience. ... For this reason, were my opinions up to the standard of those who arrogate the right to question me, I would not countenance that arrogance by descending to explain.”
Jefferson's views about the church are not more radical than those of Emerson. As the editor of the New England Magazine says:
“The curious thing about it all is that the pulpit fulminated as it did against Jefferson and let Adams alone, for as Parton truthfully says, 'there was not a pin to choose between the heterodoxy of the two candidates.'”
Why the difference? The answer is obvious. Jefferson legislated disestablishment and the loss to the clergy of glebes and salaries. John Adams never did though he once said with a spirit of hate that Jefferson never felt and therefore never indulged in: "Until this awful blasphemy (the doctrine of the Trinity] be got rid of there will never be any liberal science in the world.” But it was not until 1834 that church and state were completely divorced in Massachusetts.
Having, as I have shown in a previous chapter, dealt a great blow in Virginia for the freedom of the land and for freedom of social life from special privilege and incumbrance, Jefferson next dealt one in favor of freedom of faith and worship. He was a member of the standing committee of the Virginia House on religion, a committee which was directed to "meet and adjourn from day to day, and take under their consideration all matters and things relating to religion and morality, with power to send for persons, papers and records.” Upon this committee, as in the House of Delegates itself, the established church of Virginia predominated. Jefferson here began his resolute work for the declaration of the principles, which were afterwards expressed by him in the Bill for Religious Freedom, throwing off the domination of the church in Virginia, as the bills for the abolition of primogeniture and entail had thrown off the domination of the great families.
The curious inquirer may read what Jefferson says in his “Memoir" and in his “Notes on Virginia" on this subject; how the church had shown at once intolerance and incompetency, how the laws had been adapted to the purposes of the church by making heresy a capital offence, punishable by burning, and by very many other less, but oppressive penalties. Happily for Virginia, these laws were more honored in the breach than in the observance. The history of the slow and
gradual steps by which ecclesiastical influence in state affairs and political influence in church affairs were destroyed in Virginia is very interesting and it will pay any student to make a special study of it. It was a step-by-step performance, leading up through a series of years to the gradual climax, which was the Bill for Religious Freedom, concerning the authorship of which Jefferson took so much pride, that he had it inscribed on his tomb, as one of the three things, because of which he wanted to be remembered.
Under the Virginia Act of Assembly of 1705, if a person brought up in the Christian religion denied the being of a God, or denied the Trinity, or denied the Christian religion to be true, or denied the Scriptures to be of Divine authority, he was punishable, first, by deprivation of the right to hold office or employment; on the second offense, by disability to sue or to inherit, or to take any gift or legacy, etc., and by three years' imprisonment without bail. If the offender were a father, he was deprived of the right of the custody of his own children. The first step was to repeal the laws, which rendered criminal the maintenance of any religious opinions, or the failure to attend church, or the exercise of any mode of worship except that of the established church. The next was to exempt dissenters from contributions to the support of the established church. The next was to suspend levies on the members even of the established church for the salaries of their own ministers; but this last was limited in its operation until the next session of the House of Delegates. Jefferson's opponents, however, on November 19th, passed a declaration asserting that "assemblies ought to be regulated,” and that “legal provision ought to be made for the succession of th; clergy, and for superintending their conduct;' in othe: words, a legal declaration of the wisdom and righteousness of a qualified union of church and state. Pe.:mission was later secured for any person paying an assessment for the support of the clergy to designate a pastor of his choice, even though not a member of tlie Established Church, to whom his proportion of the assessment should go.
On the 15th the House agreed that the compulsory levies to support the established clergy should again be suspended for another session.
Thus, toe to toe, the pulling match continued — the disciples of liberty now losing, now gaining ground. Up to the time Jefferson left the Virginia Legislature, he had not yet accomplished his full purpose. He left his statute for Religious Freedom on strong ground, as a legislative legacy to his friends, and they finally won it. The law as it appears upon the statute books of the State of Virginia is not word for word as it was drawn by Jefferson. The changes were verbal. The words of the bill, as given in the “Notes on Virginia," are not the words of the original, but of the bill as amended, and as it was passed by the General Assembly. The original bill may be found in Randall's “Life of Jefferson," volume 1, pages 219 and 220, with the parts which the Legislature of Virginia struck out in italics, and the parts which they added in brackets, and some alterations placed in the margin. I will excerpt a part only of this great instrument, with the italics, brackets and marginal notes which go with it:
“A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom. “Well aware that the opinions and belief of men depend not on their own free will, but follow involuntarily the evidence proposed to their minds; that Almighty God had created the mind free, and manifested His supreme will that free it shall remain by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burdens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in His Almighty power to do, but to extend its influence on reason alone; that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world, and through all time; that to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor, whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness, and is withdrawing from the ministry those temporary rewards, which proceeding from an ap- temporal probation of their personal conduct, are an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labors for the instruction of mankind; that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than on our opinions in physics or geometry; that, therefore, the proscribing any citizen, as unworthy the public confidence, by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to (the) offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages to which, in common with his fellow-citizens, he has a natural right; that it tends also to corrupt the principles of that very religion, it is meant to encourage, by bribing, with a monopoly of worldly honors and emoluments, those who will externally profess