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Teaching the significance, value of religious freedom

. . . We must make our influence felt by our vote, our letters, our teaching, and our advice. - President Ezra Taft Benson, "Our Divine Constitution," October 1987 general conference.

Larry W. Sidwell doesn't just believe in the above counsel of President Benson. He lives it.

Since his retirement from the U.S. Air Force in 1987, he has dedicated much of his personal time to studying the role that religious freedom in America played in the restoration of the gospel - and in sharing what he's learned with others through firesides and as a tour guide at Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson near Charlottesville, Va.

"One early morning, I got up and was saying my prayers," Brother Sidwell of the Charlottesville 2nd Ward, Waynesboro Virginia Stake, related during a Church News telephone interview. "There came a clarity of mind to me that I feel the Lord would be very pleased if we began to tell the world the real reason that this country was established."

The opportunity to do so came soon after his retirement from the Air Force as a cargo plane pilot. After having lived in several places throughout the United States, the native of Jerome, Idaho, and graduate of the Air Force Academy in Colorado and his wife, Leslie, began looking for a permanent home.

"Charlottesville came up as one of the best places to live in the United States," Brother Sidwell recalled. He had visited the area some years ago when touring Monticello. He loved the beauty and historical significance of the area, so he moved his wife and son, 14-year-old Philip Nathaniel, to Virginia. The Sidwells have four other grown children. At the same time, Brother Sidwell went to work as a pilot for American Airlines.

"I'd always been impressed with Thomas Jefferson as I studied his political studies and the establishment of the country, so when I went up to Monticello once or twice, I asked about volunteering. They said they didn't have volunteers, but they took applications [for tour guides]."

Brother Sidwell applied and was hired. He worked as an associate guide from 1988 to 1991. Today, although no longer an official guide, he still takes friends, family and acquaintances to Monticello, where current guides are aware of his expertise. Recently, he led a group of visiting General Authorities' wives through the historic home. He also gives firesides on American history and religious freedom in his home and has been asked to speak in ward firesides and in Church meetings.

While working as a guide, he naturally increased his study of Jefferson's life and politics. "I began to realize the pivotal role Jefferson played in the preparation of the western world for the restoration of the gospel.

"It put me on fire. The Lord could use good men who could do good things. You would not believe the laser sharp vision that Jefferson had when he read the Bible."

In fact, Brother Sidwell often quotes the nation's third president, who once said in an 1820 letter: "I look forward to the day when the genuine and simple religion of Jesus will one day be restored, such as it was preached and practiced by himself."

It was just such comments that drew Brother Sidwell's interest. While talking about Jefferson, he seems to be a walking history book. He can quote the historic figure and cite dates and events off the top of his head. Of the Declaration of Independence, penned by Thomas Jefferson, Brother Sidwell notes: "We know it's a political document, but a closer reading shows you it's a document declaring religious independence. Basically, [it's] a declaration there is no divine right of kings."

He explained that Jefferson's tombstone at Monticello notes what the statesman thought to be his three most notable achievements - among many. Those three things were the Declaration of Independence, the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom and founding the University of Virginia.

"[The statute] took 10 years of what [Jefferson] called the fight of his life to get passed," Brother Sidwell explained. "He was attacked on the church/state issue. The religious organizations in Virginia marshaled against it."

But the Statute of Religious Freedom was passed by the Virginia Assembly in 1786 - preceding the Constitutional Bill of Rights guaranteeing religious freedom in all the colonies. "It's an amazing document," Brother Sidwell said, speaking of the Virginia statute. "That's the first time in world history, as far as my research tells me, that the church was separate from state. Other states began to follow. In 1830, Massachusetts was the last to give up its state church."

Thus, Brother Sidwell added, the way was paved for the restoration of the gospel by the Prophet Joseph Smith, who was born in 1805, while Jefferson was president of the United States.

Brother Sidwell feels strongly about individuals continuing to defend freedom of religion. He suggests members of the Church can do their part by the following:

  • Working and serving within their community.
  • Taking positions of responsibility in the community.
  • Running for elected office.
  • Standing up and be willing to say what's right.

"If we do not defend our freedom of religion, we're likely to lose it. The most important way to do this is to live our religion, spread our religion and to keep the country serving God."

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