The Constitutional Principle: Separation of Church and State
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Jefferson, Religion, and the Public Schools

This extract is taken from Leonard Levy's book, Jefferson and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side, pp. 8 - 15, footnotes pp. 188 - 189.

Researched by Jim Allison

Jefferson's consistency in applying the principle of the separation of church and state was also evident in the field of education. It has been contended that he advocated the use of public funds in Virginia for a school of theology for the training of clergymen; that he approved of elaborate arrangements for the students of private theological schools to share the facilities of the University of Virginia; that he recommended that a room in the university be used for worship; and that he did not protest against the use by Virginia of tax monies on behalf of religious education. It has been contended, in other words, that his principle of total separation was not put into practice. (15)

In matters of education, however, Jefferson was a complete secularist, never deviating in any significant degree. In 1778 he submitted, in a Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge, a comprehensive plan for public education at the primary and secondary levels.(16) Religious instruction was completely absent from the proposed curriculum at a time when it was a prominent feature in schools everywhere else. The omission was deliberate; Jefferson wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia: "Instead therefore of putting the Bible and Testament into the hands of the children, at an age when their judgments are not sufficiently matured for religious enquiries, their memories may here be stored with the most useful facts from Grecian, Roman, European and American history."(17) Religion was also conspicuous by its absence from Jefferson's plan of 1817; his Bill for Establishing a System of Public Education enumerated only secular subjects. In an effort to eliminate possible religious influence in the public schools, Jefferson specified that ministers should not serve as "visitors" or supervisors, and provided that "no religious reading, instruction or exercise, shall be prescribed or practised" in violation of the tenets of any sect or denomination.(18) Clearly, Jefferson opposed the use of public funds for the teaching of religion in the public schools.

Jefferson's first proposal on higher education came in 1779. His Bill for the Amending of the Constitution of the College of William and Mary stated that the college consisted of "one school of sacred theology, with two professorships therein, to wit, one for teaching the Hebrew tongue, and expounding the holy scriptures; and the other for explaining the commonplaces of divinity, and controversies with heretics." There were six other professorships divided among a school of philosophy, one of classical languages, and another for teaching Indians reading, writing, and "the catechism and the principles of the Christian religion." Jefferson proposed to abolish both the school of theology with its professorships of religion and the school for teaching Indians. In place of the school for Indians he proposed that a missionary be selected by a newly constituted faculty who would not teach religion but investigate Indian "laws, customs, religions, traditions, and more particularly their languages." Jefferson's missionary was to be an anthropologist charged with reporting his findings to the faculty and preserving his reports in the college library. In place of the school of theology and the professorships of religion, Jefferson proposed simply a professorship "of moral philosophy" and another "of history, civil and ecclesiastical."'(19)

Jefferson's proposed bill failed because of Episcopalian opposition. However, in the same year, 1779, he and Madison as visitors of the college instituted such changes as could be made by executive authority without legislative approval. In 1821 he summarized the changes by writing: "When I was a visitor, in 1779 I got the two professorships of Divinity ... put down, and others of: law and police, of medicine, anatomy, and chemistry, and of modern languages substituted."(20) A comparable statement appeared in his Notes on the State of Virginia where he remarked that the school of divinity was "excluded."(21)

Jefferson was never satisfied with the education offered by the College of William and Mary. Failing to achieve adequate reform of the college, he turned to the establishment of a new state university. He also attempted in 1814 to transform Albemarle Academy, a small private school. He wanted an enlarged institution, offering instruction from the primary grades through college and post-graduate training, that would be supported in part by public funds. At no point in the entire curriculum before the professional level was there any provision for religious education. However, one of the "professional schools" was to be devoted to "Theology and Ecclesiastical History," to which would come the "ecclesiastic" as would the "lawyer to the school of law."(22) Here is an inconsistency, indicating Jefferson's support of the use of tax monies on behalf of religious education, although only at the graduate level. It is not irrelevant to stress, however, that Albemarle was privately established and endowed, though it was to be aided by public funds. More to the point is the fact that never again, after the failure of this proposal, did Jefferson renew it.

In 1818, for instance, his academic plan for the newly authorized state university included ten professorships and thirty-four subjects, none of them relating to religion. This curriculum, which was adopted, was laid out in a report, written by Jefferson as chairman of the commissioners for the University of Virginia, which stated: "In conformity with the principles of our Constitution, which places all sects of religion on an equal footing... we have proposed no professor of divinity ... Proceeding thus far without offence to the Constitution, we have thought it proper at this point to leave every sect to provide, as they think fittest, the means of further instruction in their own peculiar tenets." The report also stated: "It is supposed probable, that a building ... may be called for in time, in which may be rooms for religious worship ... for public examinations, for a library."(23) The very conditional phrasing of this sentence suggests that Jefferson was seeking to fend off an anticipated barrage of criticism against the university as a "godless" institution. In fact he was under constant pressure from church groups to make suitable provision for theological training and religious worship at the university. The "supposed probable" room which might in time be a place for worship was a concession to those, who, as Jefferson reported in a letter to Dr. Thomas Cooper, used the absence of a professorship of divinity to spread the idea that the university was "not merely of no religion, but against all religion."(24)

Opposition to the secular character of the university resulted in a postponement of instruction, forcing additional concessions to religious interests. In 1822 Jefferson, as rector of the university, and the Board of Visitors, among them Madison, proposed in the most reluctant language to accept a suggestion "by some pious individuals... to establish their religious schools on the confines of the University, so as to give their students ready and convenient access and attendance on the scientific lectures of the University." This report noted also that the religious schools would offer places where regular students of the university could worship as each other." The report concluded that 'if the legislature questioned "what here is suggested, the idea will be relinquished on any surmise of disapprobation which they might think proper to express."(25) The legislature did not, however, take the eager hint to scrap the plan which involved no public expense.

Jefferson explained that in order to silence the calumny that the university was atheistic, "In our annual report to the legislature, after stating the constitutional reasons against a public establishment of any religious instruction, we suggest the expediency of encouraging the different religious sects to establish, each for itself, a professorship of their own tenets, on the confines of the University.'(26) In 1824, shortly before the first classes, Jefferson and the Board of Visitors adopted formal regulations which provided that the "religious sects of this State" might "establish within, or adjacent to, the precincts of the University, schools for instruction in the religion of their own sect." Students of the university were "free, and expected to attend religious worship" at the "establishment" of their choice on condition that they did so in the mornings before classes, which began at 7:30 A.M. The same regulations also provided for the use of one of the university's rooms for worship as well as for other purposes, although the students were enjoined by the regulation of the previous paragraph to attend services in the theological seminaries surrounding the university."(27)

No part of the regular school day was set aside for religious worship. Possibly the proposal that a room belonging to the university be used for worship was intended originally as a makeshift arrangement until the various sects established their own schools of theology. None in fact did so for several decades, and Jefferson did not permit the room belonging to the university to be used for religious purposes. In 1825 he rejected a proposal to hold Sunday services on university property. The Board of Visitors, he wrote, had already turned down an application to permit a sermon to be preached in one of the rooms on the ground that "the buildings of the Univ. belong to the state, that they were erected for the purposes of an Univ., and that the Visitors, to whose care they are commd [commanded or committed] for those purposes, have no right to permit their application to any other." His position was that the legislature had failed to sanction a proposal to use university facilities for worship and that, consequently, an alternative plan had been adopted "superseding the Ist idea of permitting a room in the Rotunda to be used for religious worship."(28) The alternative plan was the one permitting the different sects to establish their own divinity schools, without public aid, independently of the university. The university did not even appoint a chaplain while Jefferson was its rector. "At a time when, in most colleges and universities of the country, ministers were presidents and common members of boards of control, daily chapel attendance was compulsory, courses in religion were required, and professors of theology and doctors of divinity had a prominent place on the faculties, the University of Virginia stood out sharply in contrast with its loyalty to the principle of separation of church and state."(29)

Jefferson cared very deeply about religious liberty. Diligent study and thought had given him a systematic theory, the most advanced of his age, and he put it into practice. His position was clearly defined, publicly stated, and vigorously defended. Although it exposed him to abusive criticism he carried on his fight for separation of church and state, and for the free exercise of religion, throughout his long public career without significant contradictions. In sum his thought on religious liberty was profoundly libertarian, and his actions suited his thought.


l3. Edward S. Corwin, "The Supreme Court as National School Board," Law and Contemporary Problems, 14:14 (Winter 1949).

14. Jefferson to Levi Lincoln, Jan. 1, 1802, in Lipscomb. X, 305.

15. See, for example, O'Neill, pp. 76-77, 205-206.

16. Boyd, II, 526-535.

17. Notes on Virginia, ed. by Peden, p. 147.

18. Lipscomb, XVII, 425.

19. Boyd, II, 535-542.

20. Jefferson to Joseph C. Cabell, Feb. 22, 1811, in Nathaniel F. Cabell, ed., Early History of the University of Virginia (Richmond, 1856), p. 207.

21. Notes on Virginia, ed. by Peden, p. 151.

22. Jefferson to Peter Carr, Sept. 7, 1814, in Lipscomb, XIX, 211-221. See also Roy J. Honeywell, The Educational Work of Thomas Jefferson (Cambridge, Mass., 1931), pp. '5-'6. 39-42; the letter to Carr is reprinted in Appendix E.

23. "Report of the Commissioners appointed to fix the site of the University of Virginia," in Honeywell, Educational Work of Jefferson, Appendix J, pp. 256, 249.

24. Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, Nov. 2, 1822. in Lipscomb, XV, 405.

25. Minutes of the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia, Oct. 7, 1822, in ibid., XIX. 414-416.

26. Jefferson to Cooper, Nov. 2, 1822, in ibid., XV, 405

27. Minutes of the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia, Oct. 4, 1824, in ibid., XIX, 449.

28. Jefferson to A. S. Brockenbrough, April 21. 1825, quoted in R. Freeman Butts, The American Tradition in Religion and Education (Boston. 1950), p. 129, citing Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress, vol. 229, fol. 40962.

29. Ibid., 130.