In Virginia, Thomas Jefferson drew up a Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, which was introduced in the House of Burgesses in 1779 and adopted, after considerable controversy, in 1786. “I have sworn on the altar of God,” he would later write, “eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” Jefferson viewed established churches as a major example of such despotism and, as his statement reveals, believed that religious liberty served God’s will. Jefferson’s bill, whose preamble declared that God “hath created the mind free,” eliminated religious requirements for voting and officeholding and government financial support for churches, and barred the state from “forcing” individuals to adopt one or another religious outlook. Late in life, Jefferson would list this measure, along with the Declaration of Independence and the founding of the University of Virginia, as the three accomplishments (leaving out his two terms as president) for which he wished to be remembered.
A draft of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, published in 1779 in order to encourage public discussion of the issue. The bill was enacted in 1786.
Religious liberty became the model for the revolutionary generation’s definition of “rights” as private matters that must be protected from governmental interference. In an overwhelmingly Christian (though not necessarily churchgoing) nation, the separation of church and state drew a sharp line between public authority and a realm defined as “private,” reinforcing the idea that rights exist as restraints on the power of government. It also offered a new justification for the idea of the United States as a beacon of liberty. In successfully opposing a Virginia tax for the general support of Christian churches, James Madison insisted that one reason for the complete separation of church and state was to reinforce the principle that the new nation offered “asylum to the persecuted and oppressed of every nation and religion.”