In the period leading up to independence, Virginia took the lead in the cause of American religious freedom. Interestingly, prior to that time, Virginia had not been particularly tolerant of religious freedom. In 1774, 22-year-old James Madison had written to a college friend that he longed once again to breathe the “free air” of Pennsylvania. He complained that, in Virginia, the “diabolical hell conceived principle of persecution rages among” many lawmakers and clergy.
But attitudes in the Commonwealth soon changed, with efforts led by Madison and two other prominent Virginians, George Mason and Thomas Jefferson. Even before the Continental Congress voted for independence, Virginia composed and adopted its own constitution and Declaration of Rights. George Mason’s preliminary draft for the Virginia Declaration of Rights provided that “the exercise of religion” should receive “the fullest toleration.” Madison took the language further, proposing what would become a new standard for freedom of conscience. Virginia’s Convention of 1776 adopted Madison’s proposal, with only minor revisions, as Section 16 of its Declaration 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 that it is the mutual duty of all to practise Christian forbearance, love, and charity toward each other.Virginia Declaration of Rights