Our fourth President was one of the most important figures in the history of religious liberty. A Virginia Episcopalian, he attended the College of New Jersey, now Princeton, where he was influenced by the great Scottish Presbyterian religious theologian John Witherspoon, under whom Madison studied Hebrew and ethics.
As a young man Madison was shocked to see Baptist preachers jailed for preaching the Gospel without the permission of the established church. He early recognized the evils of religious establishments, even when the established church was his own. "Ecclesiastical establishments tend to create ignorance and corruption," he wrote.
Believing that "the right of every man is to liberty" and not merely to toleration, Madison was successful in getting the word "Toleration" in the 1776 Virginia Bill of Rights modified to read "all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience." One scholar has stated that this clause of Madison’s asserted "for the first time in any body of fundamental law, a natural right which had not previously been recognized as such by political bodies in the Christian world." After the American Revolution, Patrick Henry and other legislators proposed a bill to require all Virginia taxpayers to support "teachers of the Christian religion."
Madison saw the dangers in this proposal when he wrote, "It is proper to take alarm at the first experiment on our liberties..." Madison as a member of the House of Delegates of Virginia drew up "The Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments," which has remained for two centuries one of the most explicit warnings against church-state entanglement. Madison wrote "we hold it for fundamental and undeniable truths that religion, or the duty which we owe our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and a conviction, not by force or violence. The religion, then, of every man must be left to the conviction of conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate." Madison warned that "The same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all the religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians in exclusion of all other sects..." He also used historical reasons to strengthen his argument. He pointed out that "torrents of blood have been spilled in the Old World in consequence of vain attempts of the secular arm to extinguish religious discord by proscribing all differences in religious opinion," He affirmed that ecclesiastical establishments "instead of maintaining the purity and the efficacy of religion," actually led to "Ignorance, servility, superstition, bigotry and persecution."
One of Madison's biographers expressed the significance of this event when he wrote, "this was Indeed his great contribution to the cause of religious liberty - that he looked beyond the seemingly trivial levy in the aid of religious teachers, and saw its ultimate consequence in the denial of liberty and imposition of clerical control upon the state."
Madison was responsible for pushing Jefferson's magnificent Bill for establishing Religious Freedom through the Virginia House of Delegates, seven years after it was originally proposed. He was the primary architect of the First Amendment of the Federal Bill of Rights, delivering an eloquent address before Congress on June 8, 1789, in support of religious liberty, (As a member of the Continental Congress in 1785, Madison also opposed a committee plan to designate one section of federal land in each township of the Northwest Territory for a church.)
As President he was consistent in his advocacy of religious freedom. He opposed a Thanksgiving Day Proclamation, a religious question in the census, and opposed a publicly financed chaplaincy for Congress. Similarly, he vetoed proposals to incorporate the Episcopal church in the District of Columbia and the granting of federal land in Mississippi territory to a Baptist congregation.
Here is a statement from Madison’s later years which indicates some of his religious sentiments? "The source to which I look is... that Almighty Being whose power regulates the destiny of nations, whose blessings have been so conspicuously dispensed to this rising Republic, and to whom we are bound to address our devout gratitude for the past, as well as our fervent supplication and best hopes for the future."
Anson Phelps Stokes' summation of the achievement of Madison is an appropriate conclusion to this portrait: "Among leaders in America Roger Williams and William Penn were pathmakers in darker days, and Jefferson may have had more intuitive flashes of genius in dealing with the subject; but for logical and consistent development of the constitutional ideal of religious freedom, Madison still ranks in many ways as supreme among our statesmen."
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