Thomas Jefferson & Religious Freedom

Early Life and Politics

Thomas Jefferson was born on April 13, 1743 in Shadwell, Virginia. He was born into a good family, with thousands of acres of land from his father and high social standing from his mother, and he began to learn at a young age. At nine years old and under the tutorage of James Maury he learned Latin, Greek, and French, and by the time he was an adult, Thomas Jefferson was fluent in five languages. From the ages of 16 to 19 Thomas Jefferson attended the College of William and Mary, and then studied law under George Wythe.

By all standards, Jefferson was an intelligent, educated man. When Thomas Jefferson was 26, he passed the bar in Virginia and was elected to the House of Burgesses. He was drafting the Declaration of Indepence less than a decade later, and twenty years later he was Secretary of State under President George Washington.


The Revolution of 1800 and Jeffersonian Democracy

Thomas Jefferson first ran for president of the United States in 1796 against John Adams, and though he lost and became Vice President he ran again in 1800 and was elected as the third president of the United States. Thomas Jefferson’s election was seen as a revolution because it ended federalist control of the United States.

Jefferson was a Republican-Democrat who believed strongly in a small central government and that the will of the people was the most important piece of a democratic society. Jefferson also believed strongly in separation of powers, the limited power of the government, and the necessity of civil liberties, which was visible both in letters that he wrote and in his firm stance on the separation of church and state. Jefferson’s ideals are often referred to as Jeffersonian Democracy.

…our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.

Thomas Jefferson in James Curries (1786)


Religious Freedom

In 1779 Thomas Jefferson drafted The Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, though it wasn’t passed by the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia until 1786. This document was plainly and clearly in support of the separation of religion and government.

…Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do…

From The Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom

Jefferson expressed his fervent belief in the importance of the separation of religion and government in many personal letters and official documents, but one of the most famous instances was in his letter to the Danbury Baptists. In this letter Jefferson quoted the First Amendment in his agreements with the Danbury Baptists that states should not have established governments and that all religion and government should be separate. Jefferson then goes on to say the famous line, “…thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”

Jefferson’s strict interpretation of the First Amendment as a “wall of separation,” implying that church and state should be completely separate, which is much more stringent than the Amendment’s phrasing, has had a very lasting effect on the way Americans interpret the Constitution. This shows that Jefferson truly believed that a government should have no say in the personal religion of its subjects.


Jefferson’s Religion

Whether Thomas Jefferson’s support of religious freedom was due to an unorthodox religion of his own is still obscure today. Thomas Jefferson, raised Anglican, was reluctant to reveal his own religion to the public. Historians theorize that Thomas Jefferson was a deist, but he never publicly declared himself as such.

I inquire after no man’s, and trouble none with mine…”     -Thomas Jefferson to Miles King (1814)

Many aspects of Jefferson’s life have lead modern historians to believe that he was a pious Christian. As president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson regularly attended Capitol church. Jefferson even included prayers in many of his letters, such as the one he wrote to the Danbury Baptists.

I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection & blessing of the common father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves & your religious association, assurances of my high respect & esteem.

-Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptists (1802)

Alternatively, many historians today see Jefferson’s beliefs as very Deist. Thomas Jefferson was definitely a thinking, logical man. While his particular religious beliefs are hard to pin-down, he was supportive of the morality embodied in religion as shown in the letter he wrote to Unitarian Jared Sparks.

The religion of Jesus is founded in the Unity of God, and this principle chiefly, gave it triumph over the rabble of heathen gods then acknowledged. Thinking men of all nations rallied readily to the doctrine of one only God, and embraced it with the pure-morals which Jesus inculcated.”  – Thomas Jefferson to Jared Sparks (1820)

As shown in this quote, Jefferson supported the “pure-morals” of Christianity and the belief in the morals of a religion without the supporting belief in the supernatural elements of that religion. This is often attributed to Deism, especially in the 18th century.

Jefferson was very critical toward established religion, even going so far as to fear the tyrannical danger of established clergy men. In a letter Jefferson wrote to his nephew Peter Carr in 1787, he even said “Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.”   As a logical man who readily questioned Christianity and vocally promoted the need for a separation between religion and government, Jefferson was a cut-and-dry devout Christian. Unfortunately, no one can truly known what Jefferson’s personal beliefs were. Modern historians can simply review how Jefferson acted through letters and first hand accounts and offer speculation.


What is Deism?

Deism wasn’t a widely popular religion in 18th century America, but it did have a small, influential pool of followers. Deism began in Europe in the 17th century along with the Enlightenment. Deists of the 17th and 18th centuries often attempted to downplay the differences in their beliefs to traditional Christianity to keep debate from breaking out into a larger controversy.  While deism follows many of the beliefs of Christianity, it rejects the supernatural aspects. Deists believe in the moral teachings of Jesus Christ, but they do not believe that he was the son of God who could perform miracles or that he was raised from the dead. Deism revolves around the idea that religious truths are subject to human reason and, as such, is often referred to as the “Religion of nature” and the “thinking man’s religion”. Jefferson himself produced a Bible in which he simply cut out the supernatural elements of Christ’s life, evidence that Jefferson likely held Deism as his personal religion.


Discussion Questions

  1. Did Thomas Jefferson’s political beliefs correspond to and/or affect his views on religious freedom? How so?
  2. Did Thomas Jefferson’s personal religious beliefs affect his views on religious freedom? How so?
  3. What is Jeffersonian Democracy, what are the ideals, and what political party would these ideals match up with today?