We have long been told that the American “Founding” was a product of rationalism and of secularist political thought; that the states’ struggles for “disestablishment” and “religious freedom” were driven by a desire for “neutrality” among all religions, or for secularism; and that the states’ religiously “neutral” or secularist “disestablishment” and “religious freedom” were precursors of a religiously “neutral” or secularist First Amendment to our federal Constitution.  Advocates who use the Constitution’s First Amendment to establish “neutrality” among all religions, or secularism, have long used the battle for disestablishment of the Anglican Church in Virginia to advance their objective.

None of their arguments fit the evidence.  Let us consider the evidence of “disestablishment” in Virginia.

Virginia was the most famous victory for disestablishment of the Anglican Church.  The leaders of the debates in the Virginia legislature—Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, George Mason, and Patrick Henry—were all professing Christians: all Anglicans at that time.  Jefferson was still orthodox, financially supported several Christian ministries, and would not develop significant doubts about the Christian faith for a few decades.  When he did develop such doubts, he kept them secret: telling the recipients of such letters to keep their contents secret or not sending the letter.  Madison and Mason were orthodox.  Henry, the most influential man in the state, was a zealous Calvinist.

The main background of the struggle did not consist of any significant increase of rationalism (Deism, Unitarianism) or non-Christian thought, but of opposition to the spiritual laxity of the Anglican clergy by the numerous Baptists and Presbyterians, many Anglican laymen, and Methodists.  And of opposition to Anglican Church persecution of Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, and members of other “dissenting sects.”  Many Anglicans, like Madison, opposed this persecution.  Furthermore, the Anglican vestries wanted to rule their own churches, not to remain under the authority of the English church hierarchy.

The famous Rev. John Leland led the Baptists, and the Rev. Samuel Davies led the Presbyterians in the struggle for religious liberty.

Jefferson’s famous Act Establishing Religious Freedom opposed compulsory taxation of non-Anglicans to support things they didn’t believe.  Its ideas and rhetoric were clearly Christian, not rationalistic, nor religiously “neutral.”  Far from beginning the movement for disestablishment of the Anglican Church, Jefferson’s famous Act was a product of it.  Though Jefferson wrote it in 1777, it was not passed until 1786, under Madison’s, not Jefferson’s leadership.  At the time of his writing the act and his work for disestablishment, Jefferson was a professing Christian, not a closet Unitarian, nor a rationalist.  Jefferson’s religious views changed as he got older.  He was an orthodox Christian in at least the first half of his adult years—when he wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence (1776), served in the Virginia legislature, served as governor, and served as President (1800-1808).  The last decade or so of his life (ca. 1813-1826) he was a closet Unitarian.[1]  He was not a rationalist during Virginia’s struggle for disestablishment of the Anglican Church and for “religious liberty.”

Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments (1784) used Christian rhetoric and changed the Virginia public’s views from state support of “religion”—Christianity—through financial aid.  It was much more influential than Jefferson’s Act Establishing Religious Freedom.  That plus the removal of Patrick Henry, the most popular man in the state, its greatest orator, and the great advocate of state aid to Christianity—certainly not to “religion” in general—from the legislature by his being elected governor, enabled the bill to pass.

Anglicans were a distinct minority in the state, but were two-thirds of the legislature.  Most Anglicans in the legislature had been convinced by Christian writers that all churches should be equal before the law.  The dissenting ministers cleared the way for disestablishment.  The legislators who voted for disestablishment were mostly members of the Established Church.  The bill was not enacted to make Virginia law either “neutral” among all religions or secularist—and in fact did not do so.

Stokes credits Jefferson’s statement, in his 1821 Autobiography, that during the debate on his bill the “great majority” of Virginia legislators rejected a proposed amendment to the bill adding the name of Christ, so that it should read, “a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion,” and that this proves that they wanted to include protection for the free exercise of every religion—including “the Mahometan, the Hindoo, and the infidel of every denomination.”[2]  For several reasons, this is difficult to believe:  First, This would have given legal protection to such contradictions of Virginia laws, the Christian Common Law, and Christian morality as the Mohammedan harem, “honor killings,” and jihads against unbelievers in that religion; the Hindu sutee (immolation of the wife on her husband’s funeral pyre), caste system, and parents’ right to murder their children, especially newborn daughters, via child sacrifice.[3]  Not to mention other pagan religions’ orgies, human sacrifice and cannibalism.

Second, this would have been contradicted by Article 16 of the Virginia Bill of Rights’ statement that Virginians should practice “Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other.”  That placed Christian ethics in a position of superiority to those of all other religions: an obvious contradiction to the idea that all religions are equal.  To have accepted the old Jefferson’s remembrance of Virginia’s legislators’ intentions, Stokes would have to have believed that most of Virginia’s legislators were ignoramuses or thoughtless, or that they were carried away by the passion of the moment.  But Virginia’s legislators were not ignorant, nor were they intellectual or moral dunces.

Third, all churches in Virginia were not on the same legal basis until 1787, a year after approval of Jefferson’s bill, when the special law incorporating the Episcopal Church was repealed.  Not until 1802—17 years after Jefferson’s bill—did the Virginia Assembly remove control of the glebe lands from the Episcopal Church.  Not until 1840—54 years after Jefferson’s bill—did a state Court of Appeals decision finally sustain the 1802 act and make “separation of church and state” complete in Virginia.

Fourth, Jefferson’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom did establish religious freedom  in Virginia when it was enacted (1786), but it did not remove all state support for the Anglican Church.  And it was not intended to make Virginia’s laws “neutral” among all religions (a logical impossibility, for religions have contradictory beliefs and practices), or secular (separated from all religions’ influence), or to de-Christianize Virginia’s laws:  far from it!  Jefferson’s famous Bill, #82 was part of a set of bills concerning religion apparently framed by Jefferson and approved by the committee he chaired in the Virginia General Assembly.  Bill #83 was “…for Saving the Property of the Church Heretofore by Law Established” (the Church of England).  Bill #84 was “…for Punishing Disturbers of Religious Worship and Sabbath Breakers”.  Bill #85 was “…for Appointing Days of Public Fasting and Thanksgiving”.  Bill #86 was “…for Annulling Marriages Prohibited by the Levitical Law” (the law of God revealed in the Old Testament book of Leviticus).  This package of bills—and their enactment—make it very clear that neither Jefferson nor the Virginia legislature was trying to make Virginia laws “neutral” among all religions, or secular, much less de-Christianized.

“Disestablishment” in Virginia was only removal of all legal preference for the Episcopal Church.  It was not fully achieved until 1840—54 years after Jefferson’s bill.  It was accomplished—overwhelmingly—by the efforts of Christians, particularly of the former “dissenting sects.”  It obviously was not intended to create, and did not produce “neutrality” among all religions, secularism, or de-Christianization.  It therefore is not, and cannot be either a precedent or evidence for “neutrality” among all religions, secularism, or de-Christianization of American law.

Archie P. Jones, Ph.D., Teacher, Librarian, Author of The Gateway to Liberty: The Constitutional Power of the Tenth Amendment

[1] The development of Jefferson’s religious thought is carefully set forth in Mark A. Beliles and Jerry Newcombe, Doubting Thomas?; The Religious Life and Legacy of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Morgan James Publishing, 2015), 13-184.

[2] The full quotation is given in Beliles and Newcome, 222.

[3] George Grant and Gregory Wilbur, The Christian Almanac; A Book of Days Celebrating History’s Most Significant People and Events, Second Edition (Nashville, Tennessee: Cumberland House, 2004), 541.

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2 replies
  1. Publius Senex Dassault
    Publius Senex Dassault says:

    This essay contains many new, interesting and important facts to me. Thank you.

    The essay states, “And it was not intended to make Virginia’s laws “neutral” among all religions (a logical impossibility, for religions have contradictory beliefs and practices)” This is a very important point. So many post-modern secularists try to lump all religions into the same philosophical soup not realizing there many contradictory, irreconcilable beliefs between them. Thus, it is impossible to say one religion is false because others, possibly all others are false. Saying the baseball player Mendosa had a life time batting average of 200; therefore, all batters averaged 200 fails the test of logic. Whereas since all players averaged a 200 batting average; therefore, Mendosa averaged 200. Yet many argue just such when it comes to religion. As the author states, it is logically and I’ll add emotionally impossible to be neutral among all religions.


    • Archie P. Jones
      Archie P. Jones says:

      Thank YOU, Mr. Dassault! (And your first name is one of my favorites.)
      If our law (state or federal) were neutral among all religions, then either the national/central government would be able to define what is a “religion” and what isn’t, or there would be no law possible restricting “the free exercise of religion”, which would leave people free to practice such “religious” act as orgies, human sacrifice, cannibalism, and religious wars to exterminate those not of one’s own religion.
      Actually, I think some of the secularists of whose questionable activities you rightly complain are implying that all religions are false, but I agree with your point.
      But when it comes to batting averages, I’d loved to have had a 200 batting average when I played baseball! I was a pitcher, but my hitting didn’t improve when I played outfield or third base.


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