Date of Award

Spring 1982

Document Type




First Advisor

Barry Ferst

Second Advisor

Richard Lambert

Third Advisor

Dennis Wiedmann


A brief biographical sketch of Thomas Jefferson's life before the passage of his Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom will serve as a foundation in examining Jefferson's conception of the separation of church and state. Thomas Jefferson was born in 1743 in Goochland County, Virginia. Jefferson's father lacked a formal education and hence planned to give his eldest son Thomas the best attainable. When he was five years old, Thomas Jefferson was sent to a fine English school in Virginia. At nine , Jefferson attended the Latin School of Mr. Douglas, a clergyman from Scotland. He stayed until the age of fourteen and learned French and the rudiments of Greek and Latin. These three languages proved to be instrumental in Jefferson's philosophical education, for during his college years, Jefferson was noted for his endeavors into primary Greek and Latin sources. In his later years, Jefferson was to become an advocate of various idea;, from the French philosophes. Thus, learning the fundamentals of these languages early in his life enhanced his access to philosophical sources. Upon his father's death in 1757, Jefferson went to the Reverend Mr. Murray, "a correct classical scholar."1 In the spring of 1750, Jefferson, a young man of seventeen, enrolled at William and Mary College. He enjoyed his two year stay at college and expressed his fondness for one teacher, Dr. William Small, by writing: It was my great fortune, and what probably fixed the destinies of my life, that Dr. William Small of Scotland, was then Professor of Mathematics, a man profound in most of the useful branches of science . . . Fortunately the philosophical chair became vacant soon after my arrival at college, and he was appointed to fill it per interim; and he was the first who ever gave, in that college, regular lectures in Ethics, Rhetoric and Belles Lettres.2 The significance of Dr. Small's influence on the "destinies" of Jefferson's life was due to the strain of natural science in his teachings of Ethics. Jefferson, in his later years, was known as a man dedicated to the advancement of science. He believed that science was important in all branches of education, in particular philosophy. We will see later that scientific methodology had a significant impact on Jefferson's approach to ethical questions and religion. Although Thomas Jefferson was pleased with his education at William and Mary, he was not happy with the presence of the Church of England in the school. In his autobiography, Jefferson makes note of the dominant nature of the church in the college. £ The College of William and Mary was an establishment purely of the Church of England; the Visitors were required to be all of that church; the Professors to subscribe its thirty-nine Ariticles; its students learn its catechism; and one of its fundamental objects was declared to be, to raise up Ministers for that church. 3

These facts about the dominant influence of the Church of England in the college were not fundamental to Jefferson's ideas on separation of Church and State. The college was a private educational institution that was founded by the Church. It was not a public school financed by the state government. Nevertheless, Jefferson observed the authoritarian nature of the Church in education. The Church demanded that the students,the professors and even visitors of the college submit to the Church doctrine. Thus, in his college years, Jefferson's eyes were opened to the power of religious authority. Through Dr. Small, Jefferson was introduced to George Wythe, a lawyer and member of the Virginia bar. Jefferson was accepted as a student of law with Mr. Wythe, for studying law was a private matter in colonial Virginia. In 1617 Mr. Wythe led Jefferson into the practice of law at the bar of the General Court of Virginia. In 1769, Jefferson became a member of the legislature and so continued until it was closed by the revolution. The time spent on the Virginia legislature was a trying experience for Jefferson. The legislature was under the complete authority of England and during the reign of this regal government, nothing 4 liberal could expect to succeed. For example, Jefferson had attempted.on several occasions to pass.laws that would emancipate slaves, but they were rejected. Jefferson's most important proposal as member of the legislative body was his bill for establishing religious freedom. After years of debate, the bill finally passed, ten years after the Declaration of Independence. This bill was a direct attack on the dominance of the Church of England in Virginia. The bill declared that religious freedom was one of man's natural rights. It also separated the Church of England from the state government. Moreover, the bill's influence spread throughout the nation and some years later religious freedom was written into the United States Constitution. Was this bill merely a product of history, a reaction to the dominant religious dogmas that ruled the new world? The answer to this question is yes and no. History played a big role in the passing of this law, for the American revolutionaries were fighting for their freedom. However, there was a whole new philosophical outlook toward religion among the Founding Fathers. In particular, Thomas Jefferson's ideas played the most signifi cant role in establishing absolute religious freedom and separating church and state in the United States.