Top Ten Thomas Jefferson Quotes On Religious Freedom

Author: June 16, 2013 1:05 pm

Today is Independence Day, a day in which we reflect on the bravery of Will Smith and Randy Quaid, engage in sodium nitrate vertical distribution, and blow off major appendages. Freedom in America is and has been under assault for quite some time by right-wing ideologues. Sadly, the conversation regarding the flagrant erosion of individual freedoms has been hijacked by a million moron army of stupid white people on Rascals and a penchant for wearing teabags.

The biggest and most salient of freedom encroachment would have to be in the arena of religion. Not to make Sean Hannity cry, but our nation was founded not by Christians (Sorry, Fox News) but rather Deists. These were great men and products of The Enlightenment, thus men who did not believe the bible was true and therefore relied on reason over faith. These deep thinkers and skeptics believed the universe had a creator, but that providence does and should not concern himself with the daily lives of humans, and does not directly communicate with humans, either by revelation or by sacred books. They did not deny the existence of Jesus but they did not accept him as divine. Chief among them was Thomas Jefferson.

Okay, so Thomas Jefferson was too slave happy and rubbed knickers way too much with them, but that is but one blemish on an otherwise outstanding history of ardently advocating for religious liberty and secular thought. After all, it was Thomas Jefferson who invented the notion of a church and state divide and argued for a “wall of separation” quite vigorously in his letter to The Danbury Baptists. Flash forward 200 plus years later and America is looking more in the image of Saladin or Tomás de Torquemada (Google them), with its focus on combining fundamentalist Christianity with militarism. Further, today’s Republican politicians are taking their cues from false prophets and phenomenally uninformed and hateful charlatans such as Pat Robertson, Bryan Fischer, and Tony Perkins as opposed to following the will and LAW of Thomas Jefferson. Indeed, Thomas Jefferson is probably rolling over on his slaves right about now.

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Here are the top ten quotes from Thomas Jefferson on religious freedom:

1. “Among the most inestimable of our blessings is that … of liberty to worship our Creator in the way we think most agreeable to His will; a liberty deemed in other countries incompatible with good government and yet proved by our experience to be its best support.”– Thomas Jefferson, Reply to Baptist Address, 1807

2. “The rights [to religious freedom] are of the natural rights of mankind, and … if any act shall be … passed to repeal [an act granting those rights] or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right.” – Thomas Jefferson, Statute for Religious Freedom, 1779. Papers, 2:546

3. “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.” – Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781-82

4. “Subject opinion to coercion: whom will you make your inquisitors? Fallible men; men governed by bad passions, by private as well as public reasons. And why subject it to coercion? To produce uniformity. But is uniformity of opinion desirable? No more than of face and stature.”Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, 1782

5. ” Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, and imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch toward uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one-half the world fools and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth. — Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781-82

6. “I know it will give great offense to the clergy, but the advocate of religious freedom is to expect neither peace nor forgiveness from them.Thomas Jefferson, to Levi Lincoln, 1802. ME 10:305

7. I am really mortified to be told that, in the United States of America, a fact like this [that a bookseller is prosecuted for selling books advocating what was then presumed by the statusuo to be pseudoscience] can become a subject of inquiry, and of criminal inquiry too, as an offence against religion; that a question about the sale of a book can be carried before the civil magistrate. Is this then our freedom of religion? and are we to have a censor whose imprimatur shall say what books may be sold, and what we may buy? And who is thus to dogmatize religious opinions for our citizens? Whose foot is to be the measure to which ours are all to be cut or stretched? Is a priest to be our inquisitor, or shall a layman, simple as ourselves, set up his reason as the rule for what we are to read, and what we must believe? It is an insult to our citizens to question whether they are rational beings or not, and blasphemy against religion to suppose it cannot stand the test of truth and reason. If M de Becourt’s book be false in its facts, disprove them; if false in its reasoning, refute it. But, for God’s sake, let us freely hear both sides, if we choose….” Thomas Jefferson, letter to N G Dufief, Philadelphia bookseller (1814), after being prosecuted for selling de Becourt’s book, Sur la Création du Monde, un Systême d’Organisation Primitive, which Jefferson himself had purchased (check Positive Atheism’s Historical library for a copy of the entire letter).

8. “I am for freedom of religion, & against all maneuvers to bring about a legal ascendancy of one sect over another.” – Thomas Jefferson, letter to Elbridge Gerry, 1799 (see Positive Atheism’s Historical section)

9. “I never will, by any word or act, bow to the shrine of intolerance, or admit a right of inquiry into the religious opinions of others.”– Thomas Jefferson, letter to Edward Dowse, April 19, 1803

10. Because religious belief, or non-belief, is such an important part of every person’s life, freedom of religion affects every individual. Religious institutions that use government power in support of themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths, or of no faith, undermine all our civil rights. Moreover, state support of an established religion tends to make the clergy unresponsive to their own people, and leads to corruption within religion itself. Erecting the “wall of separation between church and state,” therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society.” -Thomas Jefferson, to the Virginia Baptists (1808) ME 16:320. This is his second kown use of the term “wall of separation,” here quoting his own use in the Danbury Baptist letter. This wording of the original was several times upheld by the Supreme Court as an accurate description of the Establishment Clause: Reynolds (98 US at 164, 1879); Everson (330 US at 59, 1947); McCollum (333 US at 232, 1948)

Michael is a comedian/VO artist/Columnist extraordinaire, who co-wrote an award-nominated comedy, produces a chapter of Laughing Liberally, wrote for NY Times Laugh Lines, guest-blogged for Joe Biden, and writes a column for affiliated Cagle Media. Follow him on Twitter and FacebookYoutube, and like NJ Laughing Liberally LabSeriously, follow him or he’ll send you a photo of Rush Limbaugh bending over in a thong.

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  • The “The Founding Fathers” are those that signed the Constitution. MOST of them were enlightened Liberal thinkers, not hide-bound religionist. If the Conservative thinkers of the day would have had their way, there would be no Bill of Rights attached to and a basic part of the Constitution. Good article, Michael. I am saving this for future reference when my conservative friends try to quote Jefferson to me.

  • Well we got rid of slavery.

    The Conservatives want to bring it back.

    • While this a wonderful article that all Americans should read and understand before they leave middle school, there is an error that must be clarified. Thomas Jefferson was NOT the first person to advocate for the separation of church and state. It was Marquis de Montesquieu (1689-1755), a Deist from France who heavily influenced the ideas of Liberty and the ubiquitous Rule of Law. I remembered him from my college days as an Economics and History double major. The hyperlink with primary and secondary sources is

      If I remember correctly–it’s been a few decades–earlier, John Locke also argued the necessity of separating church from ruler or rather imposing the ruler’s wishes upon the populace if citizens in a free society could truly exercise their freedoms without the interference of the state.

      Lord knows how many million innocents were killed in Europe following the Reformation and Counter-Reformation and intellectuals were to remember the devastation wrought by Christians of “differing sects” setting upon one another like animals. (from memory, no citation unless somebody doesn’t believe the 30-Years War on the Continent; or Cromwell in Ireland/Scotland, & England actually occurred).

      WRT a good John Locke source, try IMO, a must-read by anyone wishing to consider him or herself a student of The Founders.

      Thanks to all. Please respond if you can edify one and all. –J.R.

  • “After all, it was Thomas Jefferson who invented the notion of a church and state divide”

    That’s incorrect. The idea was born when Roger Williams founded Rhode Island on the notion a century earlier–the first government founded on the notion. Other governments in the New World experimented with “toleration” regimes, which gave legal privilege to the majority religion, and the only “rights” anyone else had were those magnanimously offered them by that majority. Advocates of this sort of regime lost the argument two centuries ago, but are still trying to impose their favored approach on the U.S. and its several states. The argument that eventually carried the day was that of religious liberty, wherein everyone has an inherent right to their religious views, one government can not touch. The separation of church from state became a mainstay of Enlightenment-era liberal thought. Jefferson, Madison, Franklin and the rest adopted this as their own, added to it, and actually put it into operation in government. The Virginia Declaration of Rights, then, later, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (authored by Jefferson and pressed through the state legislature by Madison) became the model for the U.S. government, and the states–those who hadn’t already adopted the notion–eventually followed.

    Here’s a good little primer on these ideas:

    • Asheville Jack

      It’s interesting to note that Roger Williams was originally exiled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. That population was strongly Puritan, and its governance was dominated by a small group of leaders who were strongly influenced by Puritan religious leaders. Although its governors were elected the governors themselves were examined for their religious views. As a consequence, the colonial leadership exhibited intolerance to other religious views, including Anglican, Quaker, and Baptist theologies.

      Sounds rather more like a theocracy (think modern day Iran) than a true democracy.

  • Richard & Scott … great discussion in a respectful manner! Thank you … it is great to see on the internet … keep up the great work … you are expanding knowledge backed up with factual information …

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