JEFFERSON, Thomas, "Religion" Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVII

(written 1781-82), Writings, Library of America, 1984.

By Robert Brow (

Jefferson's five page note on the need for freedom of religion is right on target for our day. He was writing in the context of the continuing persecution of dissenters by the Church of England in his own state of Virginia. This is how he begins.

"The first settlers in this country (Virginia) were emigrants from England, of the English church, just at that point of time when it was flushed with complete victory over the religions of all other persuasions. Possessed, as they became, of the powers of making, administering, and executing the laws, they showed equal intolerance in this country (Virginia) with their Presbyterian brethren, who had emigrated to the northern government (New England)" (283).

His description of the rules they made, and the horrendous persecution of Quakers (imprisonment for any who welcomed them,  burning of books, etc.) reminded me of the Taliban in Afganistan in our day.

He points out that the May 1776 American declaration of rights "declared it to be a truth, and a natural right, that the exercise of religion should be free." In October 1776 all acts of parliament preventing this freedom were repealed. But in practice rules to enforce religion could still be made by local assemblies and imposed by common law. Heresy was still a capital offence, punishable by burning (284).

This was not the case in the two states of Pennsylvania and New York, which "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 arises, whose tenets would subvert morals, good sense has fair play, and reasons and laughs it out of doors" (286-87).

If Pennsylvania and New York flourished under freedom of religion, it would be good for every country to ask themselves whether the rule of priests, mullahs, and religious authorities has ever done much good to anyone.

As I read Jefferson, I realized that our concern should not be whether a country is democratic or autocratic, but whether it permits freedom of religion. Trying to force others into submission to their form of religion is what terrorism is really about.

Jefferson also saw that people are fallible, and a democracy can easily change (287) to demanding that their majority religion be enforced on others (as in present day Indonesia). Making freedom of religion part of a nation's constitution is important to prevent democratic bigotry.

Here are some great quotes that should be translated into every language of the world, and taught in every school. "It is error alone which needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself. Differences of opinion are advantageous in religion. Reason and persuasion are the only practical instruments. To make way for these, free inquiry must be indulged" (280).

And governments would do well to post this in their legislature: "The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg" (285).

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