Some insurance policies award damages for lost fingers, eyes and other vulnerable body parts. What is a tongue worth in your contract? What are your ears valued at? For many centuries, people gave up their ears and tongues for their faith.
The problem was monopoly. A single denomination would control the faith of a country and everyone was taxed to support it. These established churches were often opposed to reforms, because they wanted to hang onto their privileges. Governments also preferred to have just one church because a single church is easier to oversee.
Authorities were severe with anyone who threatened church monopolies. A man might have his tongue cut off for preaching without a license. A citizen might lose his ears for listening to unapproved preaching. In the worst cases, rulers burned people to death for teaching children the Ten Commandments or the Lord's Prayer.
But above all, church monopolists were afraid of commoners having access to the Bible. Religious authorities feared the laity would misinterpret Scripture, opening the door to spiritual and civic anarchy. For centuries, the Roman Church blocked ordinary people from laying eyes on Scripture. Even after the Protestant Reformation began, governments tried to keep the Bible away from commoners. For example, on this day, January 16, 1543, nine years after King Henry VIII became the head of the Church of England, Parliament passed a law making it illegal for any "women or artificer's prentices, journeymen, serving men of the degree of yeomen, or under, husbandmen or laborers to read the New Testament in English." Commoners were hit!
Even after commoners won the right to read the Bible, established churches remained the norm. Germany and Sweden made Lutheranism their state churches. England had the Church of England. In Massachusetts, the Puritans ruled with severity toward Baptists and Quakers, whom they jailed, whipped exiled, or hanged. In Virginia, the Anglican Church was the established church until 1779. Anglican priests did not hesitate to demand the authorities jail Baptist preachers who competed with their monopoly.
Thomas Jefferson, then governor of Virginia, was disgusted. If you tell a man what to believe and punish him if he doesn't, you may not change his mind but you might make a hypocrite of him. You are guilty for putting bait in his path, said Jefferson. For seven years, sometimes allied with Baptists and Presbyterians, Jefferson battled to pass an act establishing complete freedom of religion in his state. The Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty passed on this day, January 16, 1786, two hundred and forty three years to the day after Parliament passed its act making Bible reading illegal.
Jefferson's act argued that to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical. If you make an office available only if people will hold or renounce certain ideas, you encourage men to betray themselves for money. "Truth," he said, "is great and will prevail if left to herself..." No one should suffer from the government on account of his religious beliefs. Everyone should be free to spread whatever religious opinions convince him. Jefferson did not argue that religion should be suppressed but only that the state must not make any form of it mandatory.
So proud was Jefferson of his role in obtaining this piece of legislation that he asked that his tombstone record it as one of his three great achievements. "Author of the Declaration of Independence, Founder of the University of Virginia, and Author of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom."
- Based on an earlier Christian History Institute story.
- Commanger, Henry Steele. Documents of American History. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1968.
- Russell, Phillips. Jefferson, Champion of the Free Mind. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1956.
Last updated May, 2007.