Roots of Religious Freedom
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Prior to the Revolution, colonial America was hopelessly stagnant. As she was still tied to England’s archaic laws and medieval traditions, she found herself imprisoned by a tyrannical king on the other side of the Atlantic. Whatever meager efforts of new ideas she attempted to introduce, she found them ruthlessly squashed by King George III or his unrelenting Parliament. Although many Americans eagerly yearned for freedom from the oppressive rule of the British, they had few ideas what to do with the liberty they so ardently craved. Yes, they wanted independence. However, what would they do with it once they had it? They were like teens who can’t wait to leave their secure nests in their parents’ homes. So anxious to leave, they have no plan how to survive on their own. Enter Thomas Jefferson. He was a man full of new ideas and an unwavering compulsion to sell them to his country’s leadership. However, change was not easy, even with those who so desperately craved independence from British rule. Jefferson was obsessed with his father’s dream to somehow, someday, capture the West all the way to the Pacific. However, his active mind was filled with many other dreams. Although he proposed all these during his lifetime, many of them were not realized until after the flowers he always cherished deteriorated on his grave. Those propositions accepted while he was alive took years after he had fought for them before they became the law of the land. Jefferson was taught in his youth by a passionate preacher who promoted religious liberty. As an adult, Jefferson stressed the radical idea of freedom from state-sponsored religion, giving all the opportunity to worship the way they wanted. This earned him the title of “Father of Religious Liberty.”

Because of the Declaration of Independence and the Revolutionary War that followed, the Anglican Churches quickly were losing members. During a war against England, it was unpopular and even dangerous to patronize England’s church. In Albemarle County, Rev. Matthew Maury, son of Thomas Jefferson’s former teacher, kept the doors barely open at the Fredericksville Parish. But Rev. Charles Clay was having more difficulty at his St. Anne’s Parish church, where Tom was a member of the vestry. Jefferson’s ardent obsession with religious freedom required the break with a state-sponsored church or religion. If that was accomplished, the clergy would no longer be supported by the government. Therefore, if they were going to be paid, they must receive their financial support from individual contributors or the voluntary offerings taken in their churches. Thomas Jefferson proved his desire for religious freedom by starting a new church at the courthouse, called the “Calvinistical Reformed Church.” A sign stands in front of the present-day Albemarle County Courthouse, Charlottesville, VA, which reads: “The courthouse was also a place of worship and Jefferson himself helped organize an independent congregation led by Rev. Clay beginning in 1777 called the Calvinistical Reformed Church. A member of this church, Col. John Harvie, introduced Jefferson’s famous Bill for Religious Freedom to the Virginia legislature that same year. Many years later Jefferson called the courthouse the “common temple” and proudly spoke of its use each Sunday by four Protestant denominations in turn.” Thomas Jefferson received so much opposition from religious leaders during his campaign for President that a preacher from the north came to Tom’s defense. John Leland, pastor of a Baptist church in Cheshire, Massachusetts, chose to use an unusual object lesson to illustrate his support for Jefferson. He encouraged the ladies of his church to create the largest block of cheese the world had ever seen. Dubbed “the mammoth cheese,” Leland and his Cheshire Baptist ladies planned to personally present this to Jefferson at the White House. This was to show their unwavering support for the religious liberty he had provided for America. They knew that without their hero, they might be imprisoned or banned for their uncompromising convictions. After arriving with the mammoth cheese on New Year’s Day, 1802, Leland asked, “Mr. President, I heard that church services are held at the Capitol each Sunday. Is that correct?” “That’s right. I was attending them while I was Vice President, but I must confess being lax after getting in the White House. However, if you will preach there this Sunday, I will promise to be there. We have a different church denomination that meets there each week. That gives each their opportunity to share their convictions.” “At your request, I would count it an honor to present the sermon this Lord’s day.” On Sunday morning, Elder John Leland arrived at the Capitol with his Bible in hand. He expected to see Thomas Jefferson come to church in a royal carriage. Instead, he spied him riding his horse to the meeting. The preacher’s sermon on January 3, 1802 was on the text, Luke 11:31: “Behold a greater than Solomon is here.” As a result of that message, Jefferson began the practice on Sunday of regular church attendance in the Capitol, always on horseback. He began referring to this as “the common temple” just as he had with the Albemarle County Courthouse as early as 1777.

This author of ten published books has an MA from Liberty University. He has spent his life as a pastor, a school counselor, and a genealogist. He has three children and five grandchildren. His love for America and her religious liberty framed the inspiration for this book.

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