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Establishing Religious Freedom

Jefferson's Statute in Virginia
Thomas E. Buckley

BUY Cloth · 376 pp. · 6.125 × 9.25 · ISBN 9780813935034 · $39.50 · Jan 2014
BUY Ebook · 376 pp. · ISBN 9780813935041 · $35.00 · Jan 2014
BUY Paper · 376 pp. · 6.125 × 9.25 · ISBN 9780813943589 · $35.00 · Aug 2019

The significance of the Virginia Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom goes far beyond the borders of the Old Dominion. Its influence ultimately extended to the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the separation of church and state. In his latest book, Thomas Buckley tells the story of the statute, beginning with its background in the struggles of the colonial dissenters against an oppressive Church of England. When the Revolution forced the issue of religious liberty, Thomas Jefferson drafted his statute and James Madison guided its passage through the state legislature. Displacing an established church by instituting religious freedom, the Virginia statute provided the most substantial guarantees of religious liberty of any state in the new nation.

The statute's implementation, however, proved to be problematic. Faced with a mandate for strict separation of church and state--and in an atmosphere of sweeping evangelical Christianity--Virginians clashed over numerous issues, including the legal ownership of church property, the incorporation of churches and religious groups, Sabbath observance, protection for religious groups, Bible reading in school, and divorce laws. Such debates pitted churches against one another and engaged Virginia’s legal system for a century and a half.

Fascinating history in itself, the effort to implement Jefferson’s statute has even broader significance in its anticipation of the conflict that would occupy the whole country after the Supreme Court nationalized the religion clause of the First Amendment in the 1940s.


A brilliant book--Buckley’s most wide-ranging work to date on church and state in Virginia. Establishing Religious Freedom deepens and adds texture to a story that others have overlooked or oversimplified. Buckley’s book will immediately become the go-to source in the field.

Sarah Barringer Gordon, University of Pennsylvania, author of The Spirit of the Law: Religious Voices and the Constitution in Modern America

Thomas Buckley has provided in this book—by far—the deepest and most comprehensive analysis of what many believe is the political and religious foundation of the First Amendment. His careful attention to primary sources, his fluid writing style, and his rare ability to derive his interpretation from the facts themselves are all brought to bear on this fascinating story of how Virginians wrestled with Jefferson’s now-iconic statute over the course of more than a century. This is new, important, and really interesting.

Donald Drakeman, author of Church, State, and Original Intent

Given that so much has been written about the Virginia statute, it is truly remarkable that Buckley has revealed so much for the first time. Establishing Religious Freedom: Jefferson's Statute in Virginia is well written, accessible, and well worth the forty-year wait.

Journal of Southern History

Buckley has left almost no stone unturned; Establishing Religious Freedom is a comprehensive and impressive account of one episode in the long and contentious history of religious liberty in America.

Andrew R. Murphy, Rutgers University

Establishing Religious Freedom offers wise lessons about the relationship between past and present and about the writing of history to illuminate the past versus the writing of history to guide the present....Buckley's book is essential reading for all who wish to deepen their understanding of a host of subjects, in particular the complex struggle to order the world of law and religion with words.

Virginia Magazine

Buckley wonderfully traces the political and legal struggles over a variety of critical questions and these elite and state-level battles are well narrated and explored... Establishing Religious Freedom is that wonderful historical work that calls readers to think about seemingly settled issues in new, contingent, and complex ways.

Roy Rogers, Early Americanists

About the Author(s): 

Thomas E. Buckley, Professor in Residence at the Department of History of Loyola Marymount University, is the author of Church and State in Revolutionary Virginia, 1776-1787 (Virginia).

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