James Madison’s defense of religious freedom began when he stood with his father outside a jail in the village of Orange and heard Baptists preach from their cell windows. What was their crime? They were unlicensed – preaching religious opinions not approved by the government.
Madison wrote on the fate of Baptist ministers to William Bradford, Jan. 24, 1774: “There are at this time in the adjacent Culpeper County not less than 5 or 6 well meaning men in jail for publishing their religious sentiments which in the main are very orthodox.”
On Oct. 31, 1785, James Madison introduced in the Virginia Legislature a Bill for Punishing Disturbers of Religious Worship, passed 1789.
James Madison assisted George Mason in his drafting of Article 16 of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, ratified June 12, 1776: “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 practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity, towards each other.”
The phrase “Christian forbearance” is in contrast to other ideologies, including apartheid, atheistic communism, state-enforced secularism or sharia Islam.
James Madison wrote in “Religious Freedom – A Memorial and Remonstrance,” June 20, 1785: “It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage, and such only, as he believes to be acceptable to Him. … Much more must every man who becomes a member of any particular civil society, do it with a saving of his allegiance to the Universal Sovereign. We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no man’s right is abridged by the institution of civil society, and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance. …”
Madison continued: “Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess, and to observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us. If this freedom be abused, it is an offense against God, not against man: To God, therefore, not to man, must an account of it be rendered. … ‘The equal right of every citizen to the free exercise of his religion according to the dictates of his conscience’ is held by the same tenure with all our other rights.”
James Madison sought George Mason’s advice, as he commented to Jefferson in 1783: “I took Colonel Mason in my way and had an evening’s conversation with him … on the article of convention for revising our form of government, he was sound and ripe and I think would not decline participation in such a work.”
Another Virginia delegate to the Constitutional Convention was Edmund Randolph, who wrote of the plans for the new government: “Those proposed by George Mason swallowed up all the rest.”
Though George Mason was a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, he refused to sign the U.S. Constitution because it did not put enough limits on the new federal government, stating: “There is no declaration of rights, and the laws of the general government being paramount to the laws and constitution of the several states, the declarations of rights in the separate states are no security.”
George Mason proposed a list of Amendments to handcuff the government’s power, giving rise to his title “Father of the Bill of Rights.”
George Mason’s suggested wording of what would be the First Amendment was: “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 have an equal, natural, and unalienable Right to the free Exercise of Religion according to the Dictates of Conscience, and that no particular religious Sect or Society of Christians ought to be favored or established by Law in preference to others.”
George Mason’s role was acknowledged by Jefferson, April 3, 1825: “The fact is unquestionable, that the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution of Virginia, were drawn originally by George Mason, one of our greatest men, and of the first order of greatness.”
With inspiration from George Mason, James Madison introduced his wording for the First Amendment, June 7, 1789: “The Civil Rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, nor on any pretext infringed.”
James Madison entered in his journal, June 12, 1788: “There is not a shadow of right in the general government to inter-meddle with religion. … The subject is, for the honor of America, perfectly free and unshackled. The government has no jurisdiction over it.”
James Madison stated in his first inaugural address, March 4, 1809: “To avoid the slightest interference with the rights of conscience or the function of religion, so wisely exempted from civil jurisdiction.”
In proclaiming the U.S. should take possession of the land east of the Mississippi River and south of the Mississippi Territory extending to Perdido River, President Madison wrote, Oct. 27, 1810: “The good people inhabiting the same are … under full assurance that they will be protected in the enjoyment of their liberty, property, and religion.”
When the War of 1812 began with Britain, James Madison proclaimed a national day of public humiliation and prayer, July 9, 1812: “I … recommend the third Thursday of August … for … rendering the Sovereign of the Universe … public homage … that He would inspire all … with a reverence for the unerring precept of our holy religion, to do to others as they would require that others should do to them.”
After the British burned the U.S. Capitol, James Madison proclaimed a national day of fasting, Nov. 16, 1814: “I … recommend … a day on which all may have an opportunity of voluntarily offering … their humble adoration to the Great Sovereign of the Universe, of confessing their sins and transgressions, and of strengthening their vows of repentance.”
When the War of 1812 ended, James Madison proclaimed a national day of thanksgiving, March 4, 1815: “To the same Divine Author of Every Good and Perfect Gift we are indebted for all those privileges and advantages, religious as well as civil. … I now recommend … the people of every religious denomination … unite their hearts and their voices in a freewill offering to their Heavenly Benefactor of their homage … and of their songs of praise.”
James Madison ended his seventh annual message, Dec. 5, 1815: “… to the goodness of a superintending Providence, to which we are indebted … to cherish institutions which guarantee their safety and their liberties, civil and religious.”
James Madison wrote to Edward Everett, 1823: “That there has been an increase of religious instruction since the revolution can admit of no question. The English Church was originally the established religion. … Of other sects there were but few adherents, except the Presbyterians who predominated on the west side of the Blue Mountains. A little time previous to the Revolutionary struggle, the Baptists sprang up, and made very rapid progress.”
Madison continued: “Among the early acts of the Republican Legislature, were those abolishing the Religious establishment, and putting all sects at full liberty and on a perfect level. At present the population is divided, with small exceptions, among the Protestant Episcopalians, the Presbyterians, the Baptists and the Methodists … I conjecture the Presbyterians and Baptists to form each about a third, and the two other sects together of which the Methodists are much the smallest, to make up the remaining third. … Among the other sects, Meeting Houses have multiplied and continue to multiply. … Religious instruction is now diffused throughout the Community by Preachers of every sect with almost equal zeal. …”
Madison added: “The qualifications of the Preachers, too among the new sects where there is the greatest deficiency, are understood to be improving. On a general comparison of the present and former times, the balance is certainly and vastly on the side of the present, as to the number of religious teachers the zeal which actuates them, the purity of their lives and the attendance of the people on their instructions.”
James Madison wrote to Frederick Beasley, Nov. 20, 1825: “The belief in a God All Powerful wise and good, is so essential to the moral order of the World and to the happiness of man, that arguments which enforce it cannot be drawn from too many sources.”
Bishop William Meade, whose father had been an aide-de-camp to George Washington’s aides during the Revolution, wrote in Old Churches, Ministers and Families of Virginia (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1857, Vol. II, p. 99-100): “Madison on the subject of religion … was never known to declare any hostility to it. He always treated it with respect, attended public worship in his neighborhood, invited ministers of religion to his house, had family prayers on such occasions.”
James Madison had Presbyterian ministers preach at his Montpelier estate, such as Samuel Stanhope Smith and Nathaniel Irwin, of whom he wrote: “Praise is in every man’s mouth here for an excellent discourse he this day preached to us.”
Madison reportedly met with Baptist preacher John Leland in Orange County, Virginia. Leland considered running for Congress, but when Madison promised to introduce an amendment protecting religious liberty, Leland persuaded Baptists to support him.
John Leland wrote in “Rights of Conscience Inalienable,” 1791: “Every man must give account of himself to God, and therefore every man ought to be at liberty to serve God in a way that he can best reconcile to his conscience. If government can answer for individuals at the day of judgment, let men be controlled by it in religious matters; otherwise, let men be free.”
Presbyterian Rev. James Waddell preached in Charlottesville, Virginia, as attorney William Wirt wrote in 1795: “Every heart in the assembly trembled in unison. His peculiar phrases that force of description that the original scene appeared to be, at that moment, acting before our eyes. … The effect was inconceivable. The whole house resounded with the mingled groans, and sobs, and shrieks of the congregation.”
When Rev. James Waddell spoke at St. Thomas Anglican Church James Madison wrote praising his sermons: “He has spoiled me for all other preaching.”
St. Thomas Anglican Church was built with help from Colonel James Taylor II, the great-grandfather of President James Madison and President Zachary Taylor. In a national proclamation of public humiliation and prayer, July 23, 1813, James Madison explained: “If the public homage of a people can ever be worthy of the favorable regard of the Holy and Omniscient Being to whom it is addressed, it must be … guided only by their free choice, by the impulse of their hearts and the dictates of their consciences … proving that religion, that gift of Heaven for the good of man, is freed from all coercive edicts.”
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