“The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was one of the most important documents in early U.S. religious history. It marked the end of a ten-year struggle for the separation of church and state in Virginia, and it was the driving force behind the religious clauses of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1791.
The Statute was first attempt to remove government influence from religious affairs
Drafted by Thomas Jefferson in 1776 and accepted by the Virginia General Assembly in 1786, the bill was, as Jefferson explained, an attempt to provide religious freedom to “the Jew, the Gentile, the Christian, the Mahometan, the Hindoo, and [the] infidel of every denomination.” In effect, it was the first attempt in the new nation to remove the government’s influence from religious affairs.
Jefferson created law to undo established churches in Virginia
When the bill was first introduced during the legislative session in 1779, the Episcopal Church, which had just recently declared its independence from the Church of England, was the state-sponsored or established church in Virginia. Tax monies were used to support the church, and colonial laws compelled mandatory church attendance. Enlightenment thinkers such as Jefferson and James Madison had long opposed established churches, because they believed that religion was a natural right best protected without governmental coercion. Furthermore, they objected to the limited religious freedom available to other religious entities in Virginia—most notably Baptists, Quakers, and Presbyterians—although they confined their protest to a few friends during the early years of the American Revolution. The situation changed, however, in 1779, as the war was winding down. That year, Jefferson’s bill was introduced in the Virginia General Assembly, but it was soon postponed. In response, in 1784 the fiery, headstrong Patrick Henry countered Jefferson’s bill with a bill of his own that called for a general assessment tax to support “Teachers of the Christian Religion.” Each taxpayer was allowed to choose what church or minister could receive his tax money. It was, then, a proposal to replace the Episcopal Church with “multiple establishments” of religion, creating a tight church-state network in Virginia that would use government dollars to support all Christian churches, not just Episcopalian Christianity. With Jefferson in France serving as American minister during the 1780s, the task of opposing Henry’s bill fell to Madison, Jefferson’s close friend and collaborator. Madison proceeded to pursue successfully three goals, which led to the defeat of Henry’s bill and the passage of Jefferson’s. First, Madison secured an alliance with evangelical sects that were opposed to the assessment bill. Second, he supported Patrick Henry’s election to the governorship in 1784, thereby removing him from the legislature. And, third, he penned a finely crafted pamphlet called “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessment,” opposing Henry’s bill, supporting Jefferson’s, and calling for a separation of church and state.
James Madison supported the Statute in a pamphlet
In the “Memorial” Madison eloquently articulated the principles at stake: “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects? That same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever.” The pamphlet was an instant hit. It was widely circulated in Virginia, and it was signed by over two thousand Virginians, many of whom were Presbyterians and Baptists who thought Henry’s bill posed a threat to religious liberty in the Old Dominion. In addition to the pamphlet, Madison guided Jefferson’s bill to passage; it was finally enacted on January 16, 1786 by the Virginia General Assembly.”
The Statute affirmed freedom of conscience
The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom stands for the proposition that no human authority (civil or religious) should impose its religious views or opinions on individuals. It confirms the natural rights of all men to form their own religious beliefs and to exercise freedom of conscience. In its opening sentence Jefferson wrote that, “Almighty God hath created the mind free.” James Madison fully agreed, arguing that men have property not only to earthly possessions, but also property in their “opinions and the free communication of them...” and stated that, “conscience is the most sacred of all property.” Attesting to this principle Thomas Jefferson declared that he had, “sworn on the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”
Writing his own epitaph, Thomas Jefferson wanted to be remembered as the author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, as the author of the Declaration of Independence, and as father of the University of Virginia [photo above of Jefferson's grave at Monticello].
Thomas Jefferson, Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, January 16, 1786
Section I. Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or 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 it 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 make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness, and is withdrawing from the ministry those temporary rewards, which proceeding from an approbation of their personal conduct, are an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labors for the instruction of mankind; that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry; that therefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence, by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess, or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously, of those privileges and advantages, to which, in common with his fellow-citizens, he has a natural right; that it tends only to corrupt the principles of that religion it is meant to encourage, by bribing with a monopoly of worldly honors and emoluments, those who will externally profess and conform to it; that though indeed these are criminal who do not withstand such temptation, yet neither are those innocent who lay the bait in their way; that to suffer the civil Magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion, and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency, is a dangerous fallacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty, because he, being of course judge of that tendency, will make his opinions the rule of judgment, and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or differ from his own; that it is time enough for the rightful purposes of Civil Government, for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order; and finally, that truth is great and will prevail if left to herself; that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them:
Section II. Be it 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 his 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 to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.
Section III. And though we well know that this Assembly elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts of succeeding Assemblies, constituted with powers equal to our own, and that therefore to effect in law; yet we are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted, are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present, or to narrow its operation, such act shall be an infringement of natural right.
 The First Amendment Encyclopedia https://www.mtsu.edu/first-amendment/article/880/virginia-statute-for-religious-freedom (2009) by: Matthew Harris (professor of history and director of legal studies at Colorado State University-Pueblo. He teaches and writes on the US Constitution, with a particular emphasis on Religion and the Law and Race and Religion), accessed 19 Nov 2020.
 James Madison, Writings, ed. Jack N. Rakove (New York: Library of America, 1999) pp. 515-517.
 Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Rush, September 23, 1800, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Julian Boyd (Princeton University Press, 1950) 32:168.
 Thomas Jefferson: Writings, ed. Merrill D. Peterson (New York: Library of America, 1984), 346-348.