Wednesday (Jan. 16) is Religious Freedom Day — a day to celebrate the adoption of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom. Why celebrate it? We might start by remembering a history of religious discrimination and persecution.As the American Revolution approached, Virginia had a state-established church: Everyone, no matter their religion, paid taxes to support the local Anglican priest, and church attendance was mandatory. Baptist and Presbyterian ministers faced jail for preaching without a license — licenses were hard to get and many refused on principle.

By 1775, more than half of Virginia’s Baptist ministers had been jailed for preaching; others were pelted with stones or chased with hounds. One prayer meeting was broken up when a hornet’s nest was thrown among the congregants, another with a snake.

Things improved dramatically during the war — Anglican leaders needed Baptists and Presbyterians to fight — but after the war, the Anglican establishment sought to renew a tight government-religion link with a “general assessment” tax to be paid to all Christian sects.
Jefferson was appalled, but he was serving as ambassador to France. So James Madison picked up the fight, insisting upon a separation of church and state. He was joined by evangelical Baptists and Presbyterians, arguing that mixing church and state would corrupt both. “The unlawful cohabitation between Church and State, which has so often been looked upon as holy wedlock,” Baptist preacher Lewis Lunsford demanded, “must now suffer a separation and be put forever asunder.”
With support of freedom-loving evangelicals, Madison was able to push Jefferson’s Statute through the Virginia legislature; later it became a foundation for the First Amendment.
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