The path of true piety is too plain to want any political direction.





WHILE candid and informed historians and other writers in the christian church, confess and lament the spirit of intolerance which has frequently degraded their religion, it is hoped that the follow­ing invaluable extracts from the works of that excellent man, Thomas Jefferson, the present Vice President of the United States, will be an accept­able tribute of respect for true religion, correct animosities among sectarians, and extend universal peace and confidence through our country.

This publication, appeared to be more needful at this time, when the professors of christianity in the United States, lament that fasts, prayers and sermons, have been perverted to the purposes of war, and the animosities of party.

The truly religious man, impressed with due reverence for the author of his existence and constant preserver, invariably obtains respect, dignity and usefulness, by avoiding the overtures of hypocrisy, and specious pretexts of piety.

[Page ii] Assuming no dominion over the faith of others, he respectfully resigns the rites of religion and acts of piety to the acceptance of all men, according to the light they have received, and the dictates of their own consciences.

To put an end to persecutions, jealousies, rancors and delusions, resulting from the union of church and state, by political establishments, has been the aim of those who secured independence and law for us, as a nation, with the aid of our own valour and wisdom.

Upon the preservation of these sacred and ines­timable rights, depends a large proportion of our felicity and prosperity at all times.



THE first settlers in this country were emi­grants from England, of the English church, just at a point of time when it was flushed with com­plete victory over the religious of all persuasions. Possessed, as they became, of the powers of making administering, and executing the laws, they shew­ed equal intolerance in this country with their Presbyterian brethren, who had emigrated to the northern government. The poor Quakers were flying from persecution in England. They cast their eyes on these new countries as asylums of civil and religious freedom; but they found them free only for the reigning sect. Several acts of the Virginia assembly of 1659, 1662 and 1693. [Page 2]bad made it penal in parents to refuse to have their children baptized; had prohibited the un­lawful assembling of Quakers; had made it penal for any master of a vessel to bring a Quaker into the state; had ordered those already here, and such as should come thereafter, to be imprisoned till they should abjure the country: provided a milder punishment for their first and second re­turn, but death for their third; had inhibited all persons from suffering their meetings in or near their houses, entertaining them individually, or disposing of books which supported their tenets. If no execution took place here, as did in New-England, it was not owing to the moderation of the church, or spirit of the legislature, as may be inferred from the law itself; but to historical cir­cumstances which have not been handed down to us. The Anglicans retained full possession of the country about a century. Other opinions began then to creep in, and the great care of the government of support their own church, having begotten an equal degree of indolence in its cler­gy, two-thirds of the people had become dissent­ers at the commencement of the present revolu­tion. The laws indeed were still oppressive on them, but the spirit of the one party had subsid­ed into moderation, and of the other had risen to a degree of determination which commanded respect.

The present state of our laws on the subject of religion is this. The convention of May 1776, in their declaration of rights, declared it to be a truth, and a natural right, that the ex­ercise of religion should be free; but when they proceeded to form on that declaration the ordi­nance of government, instead of taking up every principle declared in the bill of rights, and guard­ing [Page 3]it by legislative sanction, they passed over that which asserted our religious rights, leaving them as they found them. The same convention, however, when they met as a member of the ge­neral assembly in October, 1776, repealed all acts of parliament which had rendered criminal the maintaining any opinions in matters of reli­gion, the forbearing to repair to church, and the exercising any mode of worship; and suspended the laws giving salaries to the clergy, which sus­pension was made perpetual in October 1779. Statutory oppressions in religion being thus wip­ed away, we remain at present under those only imposed by the common law; or by our own acts of assembly. At the common law, heresy was a capital offence, punishable by burning. Its de­finition was left to the ecclesiastical judges, before whom the conviction was, till the statute of the 1 El. c. 1. circumscribed it, by declaring, that nothing should be deemed heresy, but what had been so determined by authority of the canoni­cal scriptures, or by one of the four first gene­ral councils, or by some other council having for the grounds of their declaration the express and plain words of the scriptures. Heresy, thus cir­cumscribed, being an offence at the common law, our act of assembly of October, 1777, c. 17. gives cognizance of it to the general court, by declaring that the jurisdiction of that court shall be general in all matters at the common law. The execution is by the writ De hoeretico comburendo. By our own act of assembly of 1705, c. 30. if a person brought up in the Christian religion denies the being of a God, or the Trinity, or asserts there are more gods than one, or denies the Christian re­ligion to be true, or the scriptures to be of divine authority, he is punishable on the first offence by in­capacity [Page 4]to hold any office or employment ecclesias­tical, civil, or military; on the second by dis­ability to sue, to take any gift or legacy, to be guardian, executor, or administrator, and by three years imprisonment without bail. A father's right to the custody of his own children being founded in law on his right of guardianship, this being tak­en away, they may of course be severed from him, and put by the authority of a court, into more orthodox hands. This is a summary view of that religious slavery, under which a people have been willing to remain, who have lavished their lives and fortunes for the establishment of their civil freedom.* The error seems not suf­ficiently eradicated, that the operations of the mind, as well as the acts of the body, are subject to the coercion of the laws. But our rulers can have no authority over such natural rights only as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. If it be said, his testimony in a court of justice cannot be relied on, reject it then, and be the stigma on him. Con­straint may make him worse by making him a hypo­crite, but it will never make him a truer man. It may fix him obstinately in his errors, and will not cure them. Reason and free inquiry are the only effectual agents against error. Give a loose to them, they will support the true religion, by bring­ing [Page 5]every false one to their tribunal, to the test of their investigation. They are the natural enemies of error, and of error only. Had not the Roman government permitted free inquiry, Christianity could never have been introduced. Had not free inquiry been indulged at the aera of the reformation, the corruptions of Christianity could not have been purged away. If it be restrained now, the present corruptions will be protected and new ones en­couraged. Was the government to prescribe to us our medicine and diet, our bodies would be in such keeping as our souls are now. Thus in France the emetic was once forbidden as a medicine, and the potato as an article of food. Government is just as infallible too when it fixes systems in physics. Galileo was sent to the inquisition for affirming that the earth was a sphere: the government had declared it to be as flat as a trencher, and Galileo was obliged to abjure his error. This error how­ever at length prevailed, the earth became a globe, and Descartes declared it was whirled round its axis by a vortex. The government in which he lived was wise enough to see that this was no question of civil jurisdiction, or we should all have been involved by authority in vortices. In fact, the vortices have been exploded, and the Newtonian principle of gravitation is now more firmly estab­lished, on the basis of reason, than it would be were the government to step in, and to make it an article of necessary faith. Reason and experiment have been indulged, and error has fled before them. It is error alone which needs the support of govern­ment. Truth can stand by itself. Subject opinion to coercion: whom will you make your inquisitors? Fallible men; men governed by bad passions, by private as well as public reasons. And why subject it to coercion? To produce uniformity. But is unifor­mity [Page 6]of opinion desirable? No more than of face and stature. Introduce the bed of Procrustes then, and as there is danger that the large men may beat the small, make us all of a size, by lopping the former and stretching the latter. Difference of opinion is advantageous in religion. The several sects perform the office of a censor morum over each other. Is uniformity attainable? Millions of innocent men, woman, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not ad­vanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? to make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth. Let us reflect that it is inhabited by a thousand millions of people. That these profess probably a thousand different systems of religion. That ours is but one of that thousand. That if there be but one right, and ours that one, we should wish to see the 999 wandering sects gathered into the fold of truth. But against such a majority we cannot effect this by force. Reason and persuasion are the only prac­ticable instruments. To make way for these, free inquiry must be indulged; and how can we wish others to indulge it while we refuse it ourselves. But every state, says an inquisitor, has established some religion. No two, say I, have established the same. Is this a proof of the infallibility of establishments? Our sister states of Pennsylvania and New-York, however, have long subsisted with­out any establishment at all. The experiment was new and doubtful when they made it. It has answered beyond conception. They flourish infinitely. Religion is well supported; of vari­ous kinds, indeed, but all good enough; all suf­ficient to preserve peace and order: or if a sect [Page 7]arises, whose tenets would subvert morals, good sense has fair play, and reasons and laughs it out of doors, without suffering the state to be troubled with it. They do not hang more malefactors than we do. They are not more disturbed with religious dissensions. On the contrary, their harmony is unparalled, and can be ascribed to nothing but their unbounded tolerance, because there is no other circumstance in which they differ from every nation on earth. They have made the happy discovery, that the way to silence religious disputes, is to take no notice of them. Let us too give this experiment fair play, and get rid, while we may, of those ty­rannical laws. It is true, we are as yet secured against them by the spirit of the times. I doubt whether the people of this country would suffer an execution for heresy, or a three years imprison­ment for not comprehending the mysteries of the Trinity. But is the spirit of the people an infal­lible, a permanent reliance? Is it government? Is this the kind of protection we receive in return for the rights we give up? Besides, the spirit of the times may alter, will alter. Our rulers will become corrupt, our people careless. A single zealot may commence persecutor, and better men be his victims. It can never be too often repeated that the time for fixing every essential right on a legal basis is while our rulers are honest, and our­selves united. From the conclusion of this war we shall be going down hill. It will not then be necessary to resort every moment to the people for support. They will be forgotten, therefore, and their rights disregarded. They will forget them­selves, but in the sole faculty of making money, and will never think of uniting of effect a due res­pect for rights. The shackles, therefore, which shall not be knocked off at the conclusion of this [Page 8]war, will remain on us long, will be made heavier and heavier, till our rights shall revive or expire in a convulsion.

An ACT for establishing RELIGIOUS FREEDOM, passed in the Assembly of Virginia, in the be­gining of the year 1786.

WELL aware that Almighty God hath crea­ted the mind free; 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 propogate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do; that the impious presump­tion of legislators and rulers, civil as well as eccle­siastical, who, being themselves but fallible an 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 endeavouring 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 propogation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his [Page 9]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 seels most per­suasive to righteousness, and is withdrawing from the ministry those temporal rewards, which, pro­ceeding from an approbation of their personal con­duct, are an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labours for the instruction of mankind; that our civil rights have no dependance on our re­ligious opinions, more than 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 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 honours and emoluments, those who will externally profess and conform to it; and though indeed these are criminal who do not withstand such temptation, yet neither are those innocent who lay the bait in their way; that to suffer the civil magistrate to in­trude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propogation of principles, on supposition of their ill tendency, is a dangerous fallacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty because he being of course judge of that tendency, will make his opinions the rule of judgment, and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or differ from his own; that it is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government, for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace [Page 10]and good order; and finally, that truth is great and will prevail if left to herself, that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be danger­ous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.

Be it therefore enacted by the 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 he 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.


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