Thomas Jefferson

On this date in 1743, Thomas Jefferson, who became third president of the United States, was born in Virginia. As a young attorney and member of the Continental Congress, Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson became Governor of Virginia in 1779, when the Anglican church was disestablished as the state religion. Jefferson wrote the Statute of Religious Freedom, whose preamble indicted state religion, noting that "false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time" have been maintained through the church-state. To "compell a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical." The heart of the Statute guarantees that no citizen "shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever." It was adopted in 1786 and is replicated in most other state constitutions. Jefferson spent five years in France as an ambassador, and therefore was out of the country at the time of adoption of the U.S. Constitution. He strenuously urged the addition of a Bill of Rights. Jefferson became the first Secretary of State in 1789, Vice-President in 1796, was elected president in 1800, and re-elected in 1804.

In his Notes on Virginia (1781), Jefferson wrote: "Millions of innocent men, women and children since the introduction of Christianity have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned. Yet have we not advanced one inch towards 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 . . ." The Deist wrote: "The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter." (Works, 1829 ed., Vol. IV, p. 365). Jefferson, who contemptuously rejected the trinity concept and regarded Jesus as a human teacher only, made a 46-page extraction of the teachings of Jesus that he accepted, discarding the rest. In an Oct. 12, 1813 letter to a friend, Jefferson explained that he had arranged "the matter which is evidently, his, and which is as easily distinguishable as diamonds from a dunghill." Writing to James Smith on December 8, 1822, Jefferson said, "Man, once surrendering his reason, has no remaining guard against absurdities the most monstrous, and like a ship without rudder, is the sport of every wind. With such persons, gullibility, which they call faith, takes the helm from the hand of reason and the mind becomes a wreck."

As President, Jefferson issued his famous letter to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut on Jan. 1, 1802, explaining that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment builds "a wall of separation between church and state." He refused to issue any days of prayer or thanksgiving, believing civil powers alone were conferred on public officials. Jefferson instructed that the epitaph on his tombstone read: "'Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom & Father of the University of Virginia,' because by these, as testimonials that I have lived I wish most to be remembered." He and John Adams died on the same significant anniversary of July 4, 1826.

"Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear. . . . Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is no God, you will find inducements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise, and the love of others which it will procure you."

—-Thomas Jefferson's letter to nephew Peter Carr, written from Paris, Aug. 10, 1787

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

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