Primary Resource

Debate and Passage of "An act for establishing religious Freedom" in the House of Delegates and the Senate of Virginia (1785–1786)

In these excerpts from the Journal of the House of Delegates and the Journal of the Senate of the Commonwealth of Virginia, the General Assembly debates and finally passes the Virginia Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom, originally drafted by Thomas Jefferson.

Transcription from Original

House of Delegates, December 16, 1785

— page 95 —

[…] Mr. Alexander White reported, from the committee of the whole House, according to order, the amendment agreed to yesterday, to the bill "for establishing religious freedom;" which he read in his place, and afterwards delivered in at the clerk's table, where the same was again twice read, and agreed to by the House.

A motion was made, and the question being put to amend the said bill by striking out the preamble, and inserting the following words:

Whereas, it is declared by the Bill of Rights, "that religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore, all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience, and it is the mutual duty of all to practice christian forbearance, love and charity towards each other."

It passed in the negative.

Ayes, 38. Noes, 66.

[…] Ordered, That the said bill, with the amendment, be engrossed and read the third time.

Senate of Virginia, December 23, 1785

— page 61 —

[…] Mr. Harrison, according to order, reported, that the committee of the whole House, yesterday, had the bill "for establishing religious freedom," under their consideration, and went through the same, and made an amendment thereto, which he read in his place, and afterwards delivered in at the clerk's table, where the same was again twice read, and is as follows:

Strike out the whole of the first page, and to the end of the 22d line of the second page, and insert;

"Whereas, religion, or the duty which we owe to God, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force and violence; and therefore, all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all, to practice christian forbearance, love and charity towards each other."

And on the question thereupon put, agreed to by the House—Ayes 10—Noes 8.

[…] A motion was made and seconded, to strike out these words:

"And though we well know that this Assembly, elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts of succeeding Assemblies, constituted with powers equal to our own; and that therefore, to declare this act irrevocable, would be of no effect in law; yet we are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted, are the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present, or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right."

And on the question put thereupon, disagreed to by the House—Ayes 8—Noes 10.

[…] Ordered, That the said bill, as amended, be now read the third time.

The bill, as amended, "for establishing religious freedom," was read the third time; and on the question being put, that the same do pass,

It was resolved in the affirmative.

Ordered, That Mr. Harrison do acquaint the House of Delegates therewith, and desire their concurrence to the amendment.

House of Delegates, December 29, 1785

— page 117 —

[…] The House proceeded to reconsider the amendments of the Senate, to the bill "for establishing religious freedom;" and the same being read, is as followeth:

Strike out the whole of the preamble to the bill, and insert "whereas, religion, or the duty which we owe to God, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force and violence; and therefore, all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice christian forbearance, love and charity, towards each other."

And the question being put, that the House do agree to the said amendment;

It passed in the negative.

Ayes, 35. Noes, 56.

Resolved, That this House disagree to the said amendment.

Ordered, That Mr. Corbin do acquaint the Senate therewith.

Senate of Virginia, January 7, 1786

— page 80 —

[…] The House proceeded to consider the amendment to the bill "for establishing religious freedom," disagreed to by the House of Delegates; and the same being read, and the question put, that this House doth insist thereon,

It was resolved in the affirmative.

Ordered, That Mr. John Jones do acquaint the House of Delegates therewith, and desire a free conference with them on the subject matter of the said bill.

The managers on the part of this House are, Messrs. John Jones, Anderson, Ellzey, Rutherford, and Walter Jones.

House of Delegates, January 9, 1786

— page 135 —

[…] On a motion made,

Resolved, That this House doth agree to the free conference desired by the Senate on the subject matter of their amendment, disagreed to by this House, and insisted on by them, to the bill "for establishing religious freedom."

Resolved, That Messrs. Madison, Zachariah Johnston, and Innes, be appointed to manage the conference on the part of this House.

Ordered, That Mr. Madison do acquaint the Senate therewith.

Senate of Virginia, January 9, 1786

— page 81 —

[…] A message from the House of Delegates by Mr. Madison:

Mr. Speaker,—The House of Delegates agree to the free conference proposed by the Senate, on the subject matter of the amendment to the bill "for establishing religious freedom;" and the managers on the part of the House, will be ready to attend in the conference chamber, whenever the Senate will be pleased to appoint. And then he withdrew.

House of Delegates, January 12, 1786

— page 138 —

[…] A message from the Senate by Mr. Jones:

Mr. Speaker,—The Senate have appointed managers on the part of their House to meet the managers on the part of this House, in free conference on the subject matter of the amendment of the Senate, to the bill "for establishing religious freedom;" and they are now attending in the conference chamber. And then he withdrew.

Ordered, That the managers on the part of this House, do now withdraw.

The managers accordingly withdrew; and after some time, returned into the House and reported, that they had, according to order, met the managers on the part of the Senate, in free conference, and fully discussed the subject matter of the amendment of the Senate, to the bill "for establishing religious freedom."

House of Delegates, January 16, 1786

— page 143 —

[…] The House proceeded to consider the amendments proposed by the Senate, to the amendment made by the House of Delegates, to the amendments of the Senate, to the bill "for establishing religious freedom;" and the same being read, are as follows:

Page 1st, line 1st. Strike out from the word "whereas," to the word "civil," in the 8th line; and insert "Almighty God hath created the mind free, that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do; that the impious presumption of Legislatures and rulers"

Page 1st, line 27th. Strike out from the words "and abhors"

Page 3d, line 1st. Strike out the words "that the religious opinions of men are not the object of civil government, nor under its jurisdiction."

— page 144 —

The first and second amendments being again read were, on the question thereupon, agreed to by the House. The last amendments being again read were, on the question put thereupon, agreed to by the House.

Ayes, 53. Noes, 27.

Ordered, That Mr. Madison do acquaint the Senate therewith.

Senate of Virginia, January 16, 1786

— page 92 —

[…] A message from the House of Delegates by Mr. Turberville:

Mr. Speaker,—The House of Delegates have agreed to the Senate's amendment to the amendment made by that House, to the Senate's amendment to the bill "for establishing religious freedom;" […]