"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."
Source: Letter of Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association, Connecticut, January 1, 1802.
For a period of time I was ensconced at Mr. Jefferson’s University as the Corporate Compliance Officer. I was responsible for leading the University’s efforts in complying with all laws and regulations governing every aspect of the University. It was a daunting responsibility and one that put me in opposition to some of the faculty at times. Moreover, living in the heart of our country’s founders was a great privilege and caused me to contemplate our history often.
The above quote from Thomas Jefferson, our third president and founder of the University of Virginia, is the one taken that established the “separation of church and state.” I note from the outset that Mr. Jefferson was simply saying that the State or Federal Government should not establish a national religion or denomination thereof. It is clearly saying, however, that everyone has the God- given right to worship as he pleases, which is the freedom of religion, not from religion. This straightforward letter has sadly been misinterpreted as putting a damper on speaking and living out our religious freedoms in this country.
It is true that Jefferson did not have a good opinion of religion. Frankly, I don’t have a great opinion of religion either. As I define religion, it is a “system of established faith or doctrine.” (Webster College Dictionary). In other words, man establishes religion, and man is fallible. Faith is an individual’s relationship with his Creator, lived out as he pleases. I believe Jefferson is endorsing such practice in his statement. He does,however, often have a problem with clergy trying to enforce behavior.
"History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes."
Source: Letter of Thomas Jefferson to Alexander von Humboldt, Dec. 6, 1813. This quote shows clear opposition to his experience with clergy and government.
"The clergy, by getting themselves established by law and in-grafted into the machine of government, have been a very formidable engine against the civil and religious rights of man."
Source: Letter of Thomas Jefferson to Jeremiah Moor, 1800.
Jefferson’s experience was not helped by the clergy of the day apparently; however, this did not change his position on freedom of religion.
"I am for freedom of religion, and against all maneuvers to bring about a legal ascendancy of one sect over another."
Source: Letter of Thomas Jefferson to Elbridge Gerry, 1799.
The above clear statement and opinion flies in the face of many who portray Jefferson as a religious hater. He did seem to have a problem embracing the New Testament and concept of the Trinity as well as Jesus as God and Son of God. He found Him mostly rich with beneficence, but not the incarnate Christ it seems.
"Among the sayings and discourses imputed to him (i.e. Jesus) by his biographers, I find many passages of fine imagination, correct morality, and of the most lovely benevolence; and others again of so much ignorance, so much absurdity, so much untruth, charlatanism, and imposture, as to pronounce it impossible that such contradictions should have proceeded from the same being."
Source: Letter of Thomas Jefferson to William Short, April 13, 1820.
Jefferson was indeed outspoken about religion, which was perhaps most indelicately personified with his thoughts about the book of Revelation:
"It is between fifty and sixty years since I read it (i.e. the Book of Revelations), and I then considered it merely the ravings of a maniac, no more worthy nor capable of explanation than the incoherence of our own nightly dreams."
Source: Letter of Thomas Jefferson to General Alexander Smyth, Jan. 17, 1825.
Having recently completed a rather exhaustive study of Revelation, I find humor in Jefferson’s thoughts. Clearly, he was a man who did not believe in the concept of the Bible being the inspired and inerrant Word of God. But remember, he did not wish to cause anyone else not to indulge in the Truth of the Gospel and all other Scripture. Isn’t “the freedom of speech” a wonderful right?