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Thomas Jefferson 
Champion of Religious Freedom (1743-1826)

(Excerpted from, Great American Statesmen and Heroes,
copyright 1994 by Catherine Millard).


We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. Among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men and for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance upon the Protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.

     Excerpted from the Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776

     Thomas Jefferson, author of the famous Declaration of Independence, was a member of the Continental Congress. On January ll, 1776, he was appointed to the Committee of five assigned to draft the Declaration, which, in turn, unanimously selected him to actually write the document. Before submitting it to the Committee, he sought out the criticism of two of the Committee members, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, whose opinions he deeply respected. Jefferson wrote that they made only two or three verbal alterations. It was presented to the Committee and then to Congress on June 28, 1776.

Attacks on the Declaration of Independence

     In the debate which ensured in Congress over it, there were some who complained that it “contained no new ideas,” that it was a “common-place compilation, its sentiments hackneyed in Congress for two years before,” “its essence contained in Otis’ pamphlet,” and that “it was copied from Locke’s treatise on government.”

Jefferson Defends His Declaration

In a letter written to James Madison years later in 1823, Jefferson defended his work as follows:

Otis’ pamphlet I never saw, and whether I gathered my ideas from reading or reflection, I do not know. I now only that I turned to neither book nor pamphlet while writing it. I did not consider it as any part of my charge to invent new ideas altogether, and to offer no sentiments which had never been expressed before…

John Adams’ Valiant Defense of the Declaration

     In spite of the hesitation of some to embrace the bold venture, there were those who stood firmly with Jefferson. He wrote regarding John Adams:

…I will say for Mr. Adams, that he supported the Declaration with zeal and ability, fighting fearlessly for every word of it…

John Witherspoon Defends the Declaration

     And it was John Witherspoon, a minister of the Gospel and the president of Princeton College, who delivered the galvanizing speech that caused the members of the Continental Congress to rush forward to sign the Declaration of Independence, that historic July 4th in 1776. Prior to the vote, a member had lamented, “We are not ripe for revolution,” to which Witherspoon replied, “Not ripe, Sir, in my judgments, we are not only ripe, but unless some action is taken, we will be rotting.” It was followed by a riveting speech, which can be found in the chapter of this book on Witherspoon.

Abraham Lincoln on the Declaration of Independence

     Years later, and a short time before the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln referred to the significance of the Declaration stating that,

It was not the mere matter of the separation of the Colonies from the motherland, but that sentiment in the Declaration of Independence which gave liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the whole world, for all future time. It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights would be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance. This is the sentiment embodied in the Declaration of Independence… 

Religious Freedom in America

     Thomas Jefferson believed his greatest accomplishments were the writing of the Declaration of Independence and the passage of his Act for Establishing Religious Freedom in the state of Virginia in 1786. Jefferson fought against Virginia’s state-supported clergy and church, as had been common practice in Europe. He believed that each individual should be free to contribute according to his conscience to a pastor and church of his own choice, and that one’s religious beliefs should not in any way determine his suitability for civil government. Following are the introduction and conclusion to the Act:

…Well aware that Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments and burthens, or by civil incapacitations tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our Religion, who, being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do; that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers civil, as well as ecclesiastical who being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world, and through all time: That to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor whose morals he would like to pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness…be it therefore 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 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 maintain their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities…

The first Amendment Clause of the U.S. Constitution

     The following year, on September 17, 1787, the U.S. Constitution was written and signed. It included the important First Amendment Clause, that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of Religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Jefferson’s 1786 Act for Establishing Religious Freedom was a forerunner to the First Amendment of the Constitution.

Separation of Church From Interference by the State –
 Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists

     In recent years, those who would like to interpret the First Amendment in a manner our forefathers never intended, have made use of the term “Separation of Church and State” to mean that there could be no possible impact or influence of Christianity upon civil government – or even upon education.

     The true meaning of the Establishment Clause can be stated in these terms – “Separation of Church from interference by the State.” The only time the expression “Separation of Church and State” was used by a founding father, is in an off-the-record, non-political letter written by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association. He wrote this letter on July l, 1802 replying to their public address which applauded his stance for establishing Religious Freedom. Jefferson prefaces his statement with an assurance to the Danbury Baptists that he concurs with their belief of man being accountable to God alone for his mode of worship, without the government’s coercion or interference:

…Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “Make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church and State…

Religious Values Protected From Government Interference 

     The wall of separation between Church and state of which Jefferson speaks, is clearly in reference to protecting religious worship from the government’s interference, and not the government being encroached upon by religious values. Furthermore, the Declaration of Independence itself concludes with an emphasis upon this new nation’s dependence upon God’s protective care:

…with a firm reliance upon the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.

Biblical Principles and Christian Values – the Framework for Good Government

It is seen, again and again in the founding fathers’ writings, that they stressed the
need of biblical principles and Christian values as the framework for good government, as attested to throughout this book. While we do not have evidence of Thomas Jefferson having accepted Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior, the only way to salvation, we can affirm that he governed his life by many Christian values and principles. Following are some examples from his writings to illustrate this:

Jefferson’s Prayer for Peace, as it is called, is excerpted from his Second Inaugural Address, delivered on March 4, 1805, as follows:

I shall now enter on the duties to which my fellow-citizens have again called me, and shall proceed in the spirit of those principles which they have approved…I shall need, therefore, all the indulgence I have heretofore experienced…I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our forefathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessities and comforts of life,  who has covered our infancy with His Providence and our riper years with His wisdom and power, and to whose goodness I ask you to join with me in supplications that He will so enlighten the minds of your servants, guide  their councils and prosper their measures, that whatever they do shall result in your good, and shall secure to you the peace, friendship and approbation of all nations.

     Elaborating on the excesses inherent within the hierarchal state-controlled church, Jefferson writes to Moses Robinson on March 23, 1801, from Washington, D.C.:

…The Christian Religion, when divested of the rags in which they (the clergy) have enveloped it, and brought to the original purity and simplicity of its benevolent institutor, is a religion of all others most friendly to liberty, science, and the freest expansion of the human mind.

A letter to Samuel Adams, dated March 4, 1801:

…When I have been told that you were avoided, insulted, frowned on, I could but ejaculate: “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do.” I confess I felt an indignation for you, which for myself I have been able, under every trial, to keep entirely passive. However, the storm is over, and we are in port.

     Jefferson attended Christ Church in Philadelphia and Bruton Parish Church (Episcopalian) in Williamsburg, Virginia. Both were also attended by George and Martha Washington and many other founding fathers who professed themselves to be Christian.



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