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Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom

Written by: Bill of Rights Institute

By the end of this section, you will:

  • Explain how and why colonial attitudes about government and the individual changed in the years leading up to the American Revolution

Suggested Sequencing

Use this Narrative to give students an overview of the idea of religious liberty in the United States and how it was founded.

In 1783, Washington reflected that the “establishment of civil and religious liberty was the motive which induced me to the field” of battle. Many Americans agreed that these two freedoms were among the constitutional and natural rights of all human beings. For more than a decade, Washington’s Virginia pursued a new understanding of religious liberty as a universal natural right.

Colonial Virginians were required by law to attend an established Anglican Church to which all citizens, including dissenters, had to pay taxes. Dissenting ministers could not preach without a license; they even suffered physical abuse from mobs and were jailed. Baptists were publicly ridiculed by ritual dunkings in rivers that mocked their practice of adult baptism.

In June 1776, George Mason led a committee drafting the Virginia Declaration of Rights at the Virginia Convention that was writing a state constitution. The document declared the natural rights of all humans and proclaimed essential civil liberties, including religious freedom. Influenced by John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration, Mason wrote that “All men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.”

However, a young committee member named James Madison argued that merely tolerating minority religious beliefs was not enough. Having witnessed religious persecution in Virginia, he offered an amendment expressing a revolutionary ideal of religious liberty as an inalienable right: “All men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.”

Madison’s amendment was enshrined in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, but his proposal to disestablish Anglicanism as the official state religion was rejected. Yet ordinary Virginians from dissenting denominations, including Baptists, Presbyterians, and Lutherans, soon added their voices and flooded the Virginia Assembly with petitions calling for disestablishment, meaning the end of an officially sanctioned government church – and of its funding.

In early 1777, Jefferson became a leader in the cause of religious liberty and drafted his Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, which would end the government’s sponsorship of the Anglican Church and allow Virginians to practice any faith however they chose.¬†Influenced by the Enlightenment, Jefferson believed religion was a matter of personal conscience and equated religious liberty with freedom of thought. His bill opened with the principle that “the opinions and belief of men depend not on their own will, but follow involuntarily the evidence proposed in their minds; that Almighty God hath created the mind free.” Thus, the mind was free from government restraint, and the “opinions of men are not the object of civil government.” The General Assembly debated Jefferson’s bill in 1779 but then shelved it for several years.

From left to right, portraits are shown of George Mason, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson.

(a) George Mason’s “Declaration of Rights” influenced his fellow Virginians (b) James Madison and (c) Thomas Jefferson to advance the cause of religious liberty in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.

In 1776, the Assembly had temporarily suspended the taxes used to support the established church; by 1779, it had permanently repealed them. That same year, the Assembly began considering a general assessment bill for nondiscriminatory taxes to support various religious denominations. Many believed public taxes could support religion in a nondiscriminatory manner and without restricting religious freedom. Funding churches with tax money could help bolster citizens’ virtue, a necessary ingredient of successful republican government.

In 1784, Patrick Henry introduced a resolution into the General Assembly for a general religious tax assessment, which was supported by members of several denominations. Taxpayers could allocate their money to the denomination of their choice or even to schools and education. Proponents of the resolution sought to support religion in general, rather than a particular denomination, to remind citizens to respect basic ethical principles, such as those embodied in the Ten Commandments. Without these, how could the Revolutionary experiment in self-government succeed? Some of the leading statesmen in Virginia, including Richard Henry Lee, John Marshall, and Washington, supported Henry’s resolution. Most Anglicans and Presbyterians supported the bill. Yet Baptists, Methodists, and Quakers joined Madison and Jefferson in opposing it. Government, they thought, could not force belief. No matter how well-intentioned, it could only force hypocrisy – the false profession of belief.

On November 11, 1784, the House of Delegates passed the resolution and appointed Henry to chair a committee to draft the bill. At that point, however, Madison maneuvered the powerful Henry out of the debate by getting the Assembly to choose him as governor. Madison also wrote an anonymous pamphlet arguing that religious assessments were a violation of natural rights. “The religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man,” Madison asserted, “and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right.” The tide turned against assessment. Congregations sent dozens of petitions against the bill, killing the idea.

In 1785, there was a groundswell of support for disestablishing the Anglican Church, which, during the War for Independence, started to become known as the Episcopal Church. Presbyterian congregations switched sides and joined the other dissenters against the established church and in favor of religious liberty. Jefferson was in Paris as ambassador to France; therefore, Madison was the primary advocate in the legislature for the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. He rallied enough support for the bill to have it pass into law on January 16, 1786. Dissenters would no longer suffer civil penalties for their religious beliefs. Freedom of conscience, as a matter of natural right, gained ground as something no government should violate. As the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom read:

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. . . . We are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind.

Madison and Jefferson had proven themselves indispensable in advancing the idea of religious liberty. Their state’s stand helped to shape the First Amendment against national establishments of religion. The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom also served as a model for other states that would disestablish government-sanctioned churches in the coming decades in accord with the republican ideas of limited government and the natural right of religious liberty. Two hundred years after its founding by Puritans seeking religious refuge, Massachusetts was the last of the original states to complete this process, in 1833.

Review Questions

1. The Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom represents adherence to which of the following constitutional principles?

  1. Due process
  2. Trial by jury
  3. Natural rights
  4. Federalism

2. Which of the following best explains the difference between George Mason’s principle of religious tolerance and the principle of religious liberty championed by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison?

  1. Mason wanted the majority to accept dissenters, whereas Jefferson and Madison believed in liberty of conscience as a natural right.
  2. Mason wanted to disestablish the Anglican Church as the official state religion, whereas Jefferson and Madison wanted to retain it.
  3. Mason advocated for a religious statute to be included in the Virginia Declaration of Rights, whereas Jefferson and Madison wanted to remove all references to religion.
  4. Mason wanted to reform the Anglican Church, whereas Jefferson and Madison wanted to add protections through legislation.

3. Patrick Henry advocated a religious tax assessment that would

  1. require each citizen’s taxes to support a religion of their choice
  2. inform churches that they must collect taxes from their congregations and turn them over to the state government
  3. create controversy by forcing each citizen to choose a religion and document it with the state for tax collection purposes
  4. only apply to those Virginia citizens who went to church, possibly resulting in economic discrimination against churchgoers

4. Which of the following was not an effect of Virginia’s established Anglican Church before the Revolution?

  1. All residents of the state had to pay taxes to support that church.
  2. Any preacher not of that established church could not preach without a license.
  3. Public ridiculing of minority religions was common.
  4. Dissenters, those who didn’t agree with the established religion, were able to practice their own religion as long as they paid a tax assessment.

5. Which of the following best explains how the idea of religious freedom evolved in Virginia?

  1. Over many years, the idea of having an established church gave way to the idea of no established church, then to tolerating multiple churches, and finally to having no government interference whatsoever.
  2. From the start of the colony, many protested an established religion, and it was overthrown during the Revolution.
  3. After the disestablishment of a state-sponsored church, Virginia ensured its residents would remain devout by creating tax incentives for them to support a church of their choice.
  4. As early as 1619, the Virginia Act of Religious Toleration promised the opportunity for any Christian to worship, which was extended to members of other religions after the Revolution.

6. The Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom did all the following except

  1. provide an example for the other states that wanted to discontinue an established church
  2. inspire James Madison to include it in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights
  3. end the established church in Virginia
  4. create a severe backlash from devout Baptists, who continued to protest the loss of religious influence on government for decades

Free Response Questions

  1. Contrast the differing views on whether a general tax supporting teachers of religion (clergy) could coexist with religious liberty.
  2. What two components of the First Amendment relate to religious freedom? The First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

AP Practice Questions

“Because we hold it for a fundamental and undeniable truth, that Religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.’ The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right. It is unalienable, because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds cannot follow the dictates of other men: It is unalienable also, because what is here a right towards men, is a duty towards the Creator. It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.”

James Madison, Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments, June 20, 1785

“Be it 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 opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

Thomas Jefferson, Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, January 16, 1786

Refer to the excerpt provided.

1. Which of the following is an accurate statement about the views of Jefferson and Madison?

  1. The two authors represent opposing arguments in the debate over the inclusion of a statute for religious freedom in Virginia’s government.
  2. Both authors agreed that religious liberty was a natural right that should be protected for all citizens.
  3. Both authors agreed that, although people may differ in their beliefs, the Anglican Church should remain the official church of Virginia.
  4. Jefferson posited a compromise with the radical idea of total religious liberty, which was promoted by Madison.

2. Which of the following least influenced the sentiments expressed in the excerpts provided?

  1. The Enlightenment
  2. The Great Awakening
  3. The American Revolution
  4. The Mayflower Compact

3. Which of the following present-day development contradicts the sentiments in the excerpt provided?

  1. The number of U.S. citizens attending worship services has declined.
  2. Most public schools primarily recognize Christian holidays but not others.
  3. Immigrants entering the United States are able to continue their worship.
  4. American citizens are not required by national law to tithe their income.

“Whereas the general diffusion of Christian knowledge hath a natural tendency to correct the morals of men, restrain their vices, and preserve the peace of society; which cannot be effected without a competent provision for learned teachers, who may be thereby enabled to devote their time and attention to the duty of instructing such citizens, as from their circumstances and want of education, cannot otherwise attain such knowledge; and it is judged that such provision may be made by the Legislature, without counteracting the liberal principle heretofore adopted and intended to be preserved by abolishing all distinctions of pre-eminence amongst the different societies or communities of Christians;

Be it therefore enacted by the General Assembly, That for the support of Christian teachers, ________ per centum on the amount, or ________ in the pound on the sum payable for tax on the property within this Commonwealth, is hereby assessed, and shall be paid by every person chargeable with the said tax at the time the same shall become due; and the Sheriffs of the several Counties shall have power to levy and collect the same in the same manner and under the like restrictions and limitations, as are or may be prescribed by the laws for raising the Revenues of this State.”

Patrick Henry, A Bill Establishing a Provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion, December 24, 1784

4. Refer to the excerpt provided. According to Patrick Henry’s bill to collect tax money for the support of Christian denominations,

  1. it is possible to maintain civil society without a virtuous people
  2. it is important to cultivate unity in society by having everyone help pay the expenses of the established religion
  3. such a tax would enhance people’s morals and virtues, helping to preserve a self-governing republic
  4. nations that have an established religion are more peaceful and safer than those that do not

“Article the third . . . Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

First Amendment, Bill of Rights

5. Refer to the excerpt provided. Which of the following foundational documents influenced the excerpt provided?

  1. Declaration of Independence, written by Thomas Jefferson
  2. Common Sense, written by Thomas Paine
  3. Declaratory Act, written by British Parliament
  4. Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, written by Thomas Jefferson

Primary Sources

Henry, Patrick. A Bill Establishing a Provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion. December 24, 1784. Library of Congress.

Jefferson, Thomas. “Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.” January 16, 1786. Virginia Museum of History and Culture.

Madison, James. “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments.” June 20, 1785. In The Papers of James Madison, edited by William T. Hutchinson et al. 298-304. University of Chicago Press.

Suggested Resources

Dreisbach, Daniel L., Mark D. Hall, and Jeffry H. Morrison, eds. The Founders on God and Government. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2004.

Hutson, James H. Religion and the Founding of the American Republic. Washington, DC: Library of Congress, 1998.

Hutson, James H., ed. Religion and the New Republic: Faith in the Founding of America. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2000.

Isaac, Rhys. The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982.

Miller, William Lee. The First Liberty: America’s Foundation in Religious Freedom. Rev. ed. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2003.

Ragosta, John A. Wellspring of Liberty: How Virginia’s Religious Dissenters Helped Win the American Revolution and Secured Religious Liberty. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Waldman, Steven. Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America. New York: Random House, 2008.

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