Public Square

The Surprising Link between James Madison, Baptists, and True Religious Liberty

Madison understood that religious liberty means more than having the freedom to worship.
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A young college graduate living at home with his parents discovers a great injustice that shapes the future of a nation.

Sounds unbelievable, right?

It’s true, and it’s an incredibly important, often overlooked moment in American history.

James Madison and the Baptists

Sometime between the years of 1772-1775, James Madison heard about a number of Baptist preachers who were imprisoned for preaching and publishing their religious views in Culpeper County, miles from Madison’s home, Montpelier.

Madison’s indignation over the situation is evident in a letter to his friend William Bradford:

That diabolical Hell conceived principle of persecution rages among some and to their eternal Infamy the Clergy can furnish their Quota of Imps for such business. This vexes me the most of any thing whatever. There are at this [time?] in the adjacent County not less than 5 or 6 well meaning men in close [jail] for publishing their religious Sentiments which in the main are very orthodox.

The imprisonment of Virginia Baptists made a significant impact on Madison. He was still writing about “the persecution instituted in his County… against the preachers belonging to the sect of Baptists” in his eighties.

How Madison’s Education Shaped His Views of Religious Liberty

Historians have ignored Madison’s collegiate education and the influence it would have on his life and his concern for religious liberty. Madison decided to go out of state and attend the College of New Jersey (later known as Princeton). The College was an evangelical seminary with a reputation for being a stronghold for republicanism and a harbor for dissenting Presbyterianism.

Reverend John Witherspoon, the College’s president, had a tremendous influence on Madison. Roger Kimball describes Madison’s intellectual roots in one article, writing,

The two great formative influences on Madison’s outlook were his own Calvinist beliefs and Witherspoon’s tutelage… Jack Scott was right when he observed that no teacher was “so influential in shaping [Madison’s] thought as Witherspoon.”

Witherspoon combined the Scottish Enlightenment and Locke’s views of political governance with the Reformation to produce a unique vision of man and government within a new American context. Witherspoon also opposed the power and sway of the Anglican Church and believed that the establishment of a national church would conflict with religious freedom.

The influence Witherspoon and his college had on the forming of our government should not be underestimated. The University of Edinburgh reports that from among his students came twelve members of the Continental Congress, forty-nine congressmen, twenty-eight senators, thirty-seven judges (three of whom would serve as justices of the U.S. Supreme Court), ten cabinet officers, and one president: James Madison. With these influences, it is easy to see how Madison would have been indignant over the treatment of the Virginia Baptists, even though Madison himself had been raised Anglican.

In the crafting of the Virginia Declaration of Rights, Madison objected to the word “tolerance”. He believed it implied that the government controlled our religious freedom, and what the government gave it could also take away. Instead, Madison maintained that our religious freedom was an inalienable right. He suggested that George Mason rewrite the section to read, “All men are entitled to the full and free exercise” of religion. Mason agreed.

What Madison Means for Christians Today

Madison staunchly supported religious freedom for the rest of his career. Perhaps his most important and lasting contribution is the opening statement of the First Amendment to the US Constitution:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

Scholar Joseph Laconte writes that some historians have tried to describe Madison as an anti-religious rationalist who fought to protect the republic from the problematic effect of faith. Others have tried to describe him as a born-again evangelical who championed the rights of Christians. Neither one of these positions is correct. Laconte points out that all we can really say about Madison is that Christianity influenced both his political rhetoric and activity, particularly around religious liberty.

The foundational principles that support religious freedom are only found in Scripture. The development of religious freedom can clearly be seen in church history in the writings of men like Tertullian, Lactantius, St. Augustine, and later Martin Luther.

In 1521, Luther stood before the Diet of Worms and professed:

Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me, Amen.

Through the influence of a Christian worldview in both his upbringing and formal education, Madison was able to weave together numerous threads to create a world-changing view of religious freedom.

Near the end of his life, at the age of 74, Madison wrote a letter to Rev. Frederick Beasley which in part read,

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.

Christians today need to embrace our Christian heritage and work toward preserving religious liberty as proposed by Madison. He clearly understood that religious liberty reached well beyond the freedom to worship.

Like Madison, we should be appalled by the injustice that infringes on the religious freedom of others. Madison once wrote:

That Religion or the duty we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, being under the direction of reason and conviction only, not of violence or compulsion, all men are equally entitled to the full and free exercise of it according to the dictates of Conscience.

We should take his words to heart.

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  • doug sayers

    Thanks Hugh, I enjoy these history lessons.

    This one makes me wonder how long it will be before the Baptists, in America, are in trouble again!

  • It should be pointed out that the religious freedom envisioned at the time of Madison was of an explicit Christian kind. Essentially it was Christian Liberty, not the freedom to worship any and all gods. Our political architects were well aware of the Divine injunction, “You shall have no other gods beside Me.” The Christian context of religious freedom is apparent in George Mason’s original draft which he later modified at the request of Madison. This is still part of our Virginia Constitution today. Mason’s original statement was as follows:

    “That as Religion, or the Duty which we owe to our divine and omnipotent Creator, and the Manner of discharging it, can be governed only by Reason and Conviction, not by Force or Violence; and therefore that all Men shou’d enjoy the fullest Toleration in the Exercise of Religion, according to the Dictates of Conscience, unpunished and unrestrained by the Magistrate, unless, under Colour of Religion, any Man disturb the Peace, the Happiness, or Safety of Society, or of Individuals. And that it is the mutual Duty of all, to practice Christian forbearance, Love and Charity towards Each other.” —George Mason

    “Toleration” was indeed objectionable to Madison for the reasons you stated, but it should also be pointed out that the objection was not what is objected to today in regards to “toleration.” Today, “toleration” is objected to because it implies the superiority of one religion over others. As Christians we should consider this objection to “tolerance” …objectionable. Christ is superior, and that is what we proclaim when we proclaim Jesus as Lord. It is not an historical position of Christianity to support the freedom to worship any god. Nor is it the position of Scripture.

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