Religious Freedom and Jefferson’s Disestablishment of Virginia’s Official Religion

President Thomas Jefferson

By Nancy D. Egloff from Blog:

Public incidents in this past month provided reminders of the freedoms instituted in America’s founding documents such as freedom of the press, freedom to assemble or speak openly about one’s convictions. National Religious Freedom Day on January 16 commemorated another. On that day in 1786, the Virginia General Assembly adopted Thomas Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom, which states, “No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, . . . [or] shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess . . . their opinions in matters of religion.” This document became the basis for the First Amendment clause of the 1791 U.S. Constitution, ensuring that all Americans have the right to worship freely and follow their conscience.

Along with establishing profit-making activities, the charter also required the first colonists to Christianize Virginia’s Indians, whose religious practices certainly differed from those of English settlers. Settlers considered the Virginia Indians to be in “miserable ignorance of the true knowledge and worshippe of God.” However, the English rarely witnessed or understood the practices and rituals conducted by the local Powhatan people who did not worship the one God of the English. Virginia Indians fiercely resisted early attempts to force Christianity upon them and when, in the late 18th century, some groups began to adopt Christianity, most connected with the Baptist Church, not the Church of England.

The first Africans brought to Virginia in 1619 quickly learned that they could not worship as they had in their African homeland. As a result of a Portuguese presence in West Central Africa since the late 1400s, many Africans mingled the practices of the Roman Catholic Church with their own. Although arriving as forced immigrants, the religious rituals practiced in English Virginia may have seemed familiar to them.

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