Thomas Jefferson on Religion

Thomas Jefferson

For Thomas Jefferson, religion was a matter between a man and his god, with no interference in between. Listen to Bill Barker’s portrayal.


Harmony Hunter: Hi. Welcome to the podcast. April is Religion month at Colonial Williamsburg, and this week we present part two of our series on the religious views of two prominent founding fathers: Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson. Last week we heard from Patrick Henry, and this week we bring you Thomas Jefferson’s rebuttal in his bill for establishing religious freedom.

Bill Barker as Thomas Jefferson: Well, thank you, Mr. Henry, and, Mr. Henry I thank you as well for your introduction to all of us reminding us indeed of your noble attentions to freedom for the individual and as well for the maintenance of freedom and what is required of the individual, particularly as a citizen now of this – as the ancient Romans would call it – novus ordo seclorum, a new order of the ages in which we venture forth on the American experiment, an experiment, sir, in self-government.

As you have provided us a reminiscence of your own life, allow me if you will a certain reflection on mine. As you know, Mr. Henry, I have been always of the Church of England. I was baptized in that church as my father and my grandfathers were before me. As my father sat on the vestry of St. Anne’s parish in Albemarle County, so did I sit in the very same vestry, in the very same parish and county. That, of course, since the war has become more of the American Episcopacy, and so I am a vestryman of the Episcopal Church now in St. Anne’s parish, Albemarle County.

You know that despite over the years being called a heretic, a blasphemer, an infidel and often times an atheist, that I am an ardent and frequent churchgoer. In fact, I bemuse many that while on the road I carry my church stool with me so that when I may attend to a church on a Sunday or even otherwise I might not displace anyone in their own pew.

However, I inquire of no person’s religion, nor do I bother any with my own for I firmly believe a person’s religion is solely between him and his Maker. And that is what I desire may be protected, defended, and secured here as we venture into this new world order, that we might be considered the first people in the history of the world to found a nation upon principle rather than upon monarchy or aristocracy.

Mr. Henry, I know that both you and I agree. We fought a war over principle – principles of human freedom, principles and liberties that we know are vested in the natural laws. These are the laws that are given to the family of man across this globe – not by any government, not by any chief magistrate, nay sir, we realize they are given to mankind by nature and nature’s God.

And therefore it is our duty in His eyes, surely, to protect and defend these natural rights for all His family of Man. I know you would agree that the first and foremost amongst them is the right to hold an opinion freely and to freely express that opinion. Oh, Mr. Henry, I shall never forget that day in May of 17and 65 when I bore witness to your free expression of opinion in retaliation to the Stamp Act here in Williamsburg in our old Capitol in the old House of Burgesses, oh that day, sir, indeed you convinced me that not only do you speak as Homer wrote but that you set an impetus to the ball of revolution.

In fact, in conversation often times with Mr. John Adams of Massachusetts we’ve reflected upon precisely the moment the revolution might have begun. Mr. Adams said “Oh, I believe it began in the minds of many Americans 10 years before Lexington and Concord.”  Well, for him, indeed, through his own cousin Mr. Samuel Adams in Boston, but for me, Mr. Henry, through you here in Williamsburg that day in May 1765.

Are we to ignore the preservation of the right of any individuals to hold their opinion freely, to pursue their opinion freely, expressing it freely and whatever, the particular venue they should choose, speaking their mind, writing their thoughts by pen to paper, writing as well in the newspapers…all of these, the freedom of speech, the freedom of the press, and, yea, Mr. Henry, the freedom for religion are vested in that natural right to hold an opinion freely. Now, I must be adamant that I speak solely on a point of freedom for religion. As you recall, and you reminisced well the growing number of dissenters here in Virginia. This dissent was met with a special committee formed in the old House of Burgesses. A committee for religion that we might seek – as you said – a greater freedom for religion than had heretofore been known – certainly heretofore been known by our ancestors.

There, not only in the Great Britain but throughout the ancient kingdoms of Europe, where as we know they were not only governed by monarchies, but they were governed by churches. And should we ignore the fact that our ancestors sought the shores of North America surely as a new promised land, oh, not only to indulge their prosperity but their improvement, to be able to worship as they should choose, and yes, we brought many of the ancient habits and customs here to these shores. We established the Church of England in Virginia, many of our sister colonies, save of course – and this I think has been the greatest evidence that if freedom for religion can survive and prosper well beyond the constraints of the laws of man, for we saw that Roger Williams prohibited a free expression of his particular religious opinion in Massachusetts Bay, removed himself from that former colony to be settled in Rhode Island and the Providence plantations, there welcoming any who would care to carry their religious opinion freely. And what have we seen but a greater freedom for religion in that former colony, that new state, than we had ever seen before amongst even the other colonies.

We saw the same in Pennsylvania, where William Penn brought the Quaker beneficence    to the shores there, and inspired a freedom for religion among many, in fact to this day Philadelphia remains the city of churches.  

My point, Mr. Henry, is that we have already seen a freedom for religion prosper within a political entity. And therefore as you speak of a greater freedom for religion – and I am very much in your camp upon that subject – I seek further the greatest freedom for religion, and that is the purpose of my bill – a statute of Virginia for religious freedom.

You know I have often times said a freedom for religion provides the greatest energy for any civilization, and therefore how could we possibly go wrong when we allow the greatest freedom for any individual to carry his communion with his Maker as he should choose, and that he should not be prohibited or preempted by any law of government. Mr. Henry, you mention Montesquieu. I am in favor of his philosophy, in favor as well of the philosophy of Montaigne, the philosophy of Rousseau, the philosophy of the ancient authors – Aristotle and Cicero, the philosophy of Algernon Sydney, and most particularly the philosophy of Mr. John Locke.

You would know, Mr. Henry, that my statute of Virginia for religious freedom follows almost ver batum Mr. Locke’s letter on toleration, with one very important exception. I have not included the word “toleration” once, for fear that it might imply intoleration.  

No, my statute of Virginia begins clear that the Almighty has created our minds free, and free He intends it to remain, incapable of any temporal restraints. We should recognize, as I say further that whenever any government attempts to coerce the mind of their citizen body, to coerce them to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of one religious opinion that an individual may disbelieve or abhor, or compels a citizenry to attend one particular church that they might disagree with, well then, Mr. Henry, my point, and the point of my bill is that is an instance of tyranny, and it must be thwarted. It must be prohibited. For if we allow it, sir, we have gone back, we have gone back to the days of the old regime, we have gone even further back into the feudal times of a monarchial system that grew to become a tyrannical system.

Mr. Henry, should we expect to go back to the ages of the darkest ignorance to discover the greatest enlightenment, to think that everything that occurred in the past was better than could be improved upon in the present? Oh, I hope not, Mr. Henry. We have seen now nearly 200 years of a growing enlightenment of the mind of Man. This should be encouraged, should be pursued, that it might prosper the further for the benefit of all. For I believe a principle of our Revolution was simply the recognition that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs. Nor a few booted and spurred ready to ride him by their own political devices or by the grace of their own particular God.

If we allow for our new government to coerce a citizen body towards one particular religious opinion, well then surely we will begin down the path of corruption. We shall follow the example of what we have seen in European history of late – tumults and calumnies, bloodshed, insurrection, and these but surely are a divergence from the plan of our Holy Author.

No, this is my concern, Mr. Henry, and the further a concern that you are want to purport and promote a sense of fear – a fear Mr. Henry, as you say, that since the victory of our Revolution these last several years we have seen a rampant immorality. Mr. Henry, we are gentlemen in the government of this new order of the ages. We must not begin to provoke our citizen body that they cannot trust their government. And is this not indeed a point of trust? It was Mr. Locke who wrote that should we discover anyone to be immoral, unjust, dishonest in government, will they not be so in any walk of life? And if we tolerate it in any walk of life, well then surely we will elect it to government. My point being further it is not the duty of government to purport religious opinion. The sole duty of government and its laws is simply to protect us from injury by one another – otherwise to leave us free, that we might pursue our own industry and as well our own improvement.

And therefore, Mr. Henry, again I purport that my bill establishes the greatest freedom for religious opinion. Now, one point further, Mr. Henry, you make mention what should happen if we disallow the ecclesiastical laws that will continue to support our poor and our indigent. Well, Mr. Henry, there is not one word in my bill that prohibits any church, any congregation, any society of people to pursue their own poor houses, let alone their own academies of instruction, their own schools. That is the point of my bill, that we are free to pursue our religious opinion as we choose – each and every one of us – or Mr. Henry, we are free to hold no religious opinion should we choose.

I still find it indeed a recognition that one may be virtuous, one may be moral without holding a religious opinion. For I believe that the sum of all religion is simply to do unto others as we would desire to have done unto ourselves, and to love our neighbor as we should love ourselves. No, this is the simple truth that any individual may comprehend, the simple truth that Aristotle spoke millennium before Jesus of Nazareth walked the globe, that yes, Man is born with a dichotomy of nature. He is born either to fear, or he is born to trust. 

My belief is that the word of all the great world’s divines is to trust one’s fellow man. I hold to that trust, Mr. Henry, I hold to what Aristotle said that though we fear Man may be corrupt, we know he may be good. For we know that when Man engages any instance that he feels is good and beneficent unto his fellow man, well, it quite naturally makes him feel good.  And therefore we naturally desire to pursue a feeling of good, the sentiments of beneficence.

Oh, I do not deny that, yes, man may be corrupt, but when man is free to pursue his religious opinion as he chooses, he has the greatest opportunity to make improvement of his nature. And, as you know within the last several centuries, Mr. Hobbs rising to the occasion to say that man’s nature is corrupt in his leviathan to suggest that it is a short time on this planet, that we lead a dog’s existence, that we are base in our nature, and therefore strong and central governments are necessary in order to control and to protect us from one another. I have greater faith in Mr. Locke’s answer to Mr. Hobbs. And that is simply that government governs best which governs least.

My bill, Mr. Henry, in conclusion to my comments here states squarely at its end that we should not suspect that what may be enacted by the present legislature may continually remain so, but know that in the future other legislative bodies elected directly of the people in their interest as well may repeal this act should it pass in our House of Delegates. But let it be known should another legislative body seek to either repeal or to narrow the intention of my statute for religious freedom, then it will have boldly denied a natural right.

Mr. Henry, it was but a short time ago we fought our Revolution over the preservation, let alone the recognition of our natural rights. Let us seek to maintain them, not to erode them, and to recognize, as I have said boldly. I have already sworn on the altar of Almighty God eternal hostility against any forms of tyranny over the mind of man.


  1. It is always a pleasure to hear Mr. Barker speak as Jefferson. I have visited Colonial Williamsburg many times and hope to return for the 4th of July. I want to see the Jefferson and Adams performance.
    Thank-you for these podcast.

    • Thank you for listening! We’re in awe of Mr. Barker, too. We look forward to having you on the 4th and on many more future visits.

  2. Hello,
    I’m interested in learning more about what religions the people of the original 13 colonies practiced….I know the Native peoples probably practiced their own religion as well as different versions of Christianity….I think the Quakers were some of the first settlers….Can you add to this? Best; Mary Baker

  3. What might Jefferson’s ‘church stool’ have looked like? And, please tell more about pews and pew rental.
    Weren’t the family pews, with the high walls, rather isolating?

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