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The Founders on Respect for Religious Belief The Bill of Rights Institute Memphis, TN October 28, 2010 Artemus Ward Department of Political Science Northern.

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Presentation on theme: "The Founders on Respect for Religious Belief The Bill of Rights Institute Memphis, TN October 28, 2010 Artemus Ward Department of Political Science Northern."— Presentation transcript:

1 The Founders on Respect for Religious Belief The Bill of Rights Institute Memphis, TN October 28, 2010 Artemus Ward Department of Political Science Northern Illinois University

2 Religion in Early America Throughout America, as throughout Europe, religious life and political life were intimately tied during the 17 th and 18 th centuries. Debates over religious toleration generally concerned whether people holding minority beliefs—be they Catholics in a Protestant country, Protestants in a Catholic nation, or dissenting Protestant groups within either—should be allowed to practice their religion without criminal sanction.

3 Virginia: A Case Study in Persecution and Toleration In Virginia, religious persecution, directed at Baptists and, to a lesser degree, at Presbyterians, took place both before and after the Declaration of Independence. The perpetrators were members of the Church of England, sometimes acting as vigilantes but often operating in tandem with local authorities. Physical violence was usually reserved for Baptists, against whom there was social as well as theological animosity. One Baptist elder was jailed for praying in a private home; for good measure, his host was also jailed. Elijah Craig, later to work with James Madison on religious issues, was arrested while “at the plough,” jailed, and fed rye bread and water. He preached to all who came to the jail and was released after one month. A notorious instance of abuse in 1771 of a well-known Baptist preacher, "Swearin Jack" Waller, was described by the victim: "The Parson of the Parish [accompanied by the local sheriff] would keep running the end of his horsewhip in [Waller's] mouth, laying his whip across the hymn book, etc. When done singing [Waller] proceeded to prayer. In it he was violently jerked off the stage; they caught him by the back part of his neck, beat his head against the ground, sometimes up and sometimes down, they carried him through the gate... where a gentleman [the sheriff] gave him... twenty lashes with his horsewhip."

4 Unlawful Preaching Many Baptist ministers refused on principle to apply to local authorities for a license to preach, as Virginia law required, for they considered it intolerable to ask another man's permission to preach the Gospel. As a result, they exposed themselves to arrest for "unlawful Preaching," as Nathaniel Saunders ( ) allegedly had done. Saunders, at this time, was the minister of the Mountain Run Baptist Church in Orange County, Virginia.

5 Dunking of Baptist Ministers David Barrow was pastor of the Mill Swamp Baptist Church in the Portsmouth, Virginia, area. He and a "ministering brother," Edward Mintz, were conducting a service in 1778, when they were attacked. "As soon as the hymn was given out, a gang of well-dressed men came up to the stage... and sang one of their obscene songs. Then they took to plunge both of the preachers. They plunged Mr. Barrow twice, pressing him into the mud, holding him down, nearly succeeding in drowning him... His companion was plunged but once... Before these persecuted men could change their clothes they were dragged from the house, and driven off by these enraged churchmen."

6 James Madison The persecution of Baptists made a strong, negative impression on many patriot leaders, whose loyalty to principles of civil liberty exceeded their loyalty to the Church of England in which they were raised. James Madison was not the only patriot to despair, as he did in 1774, that the "diabolical Hell conceived principle of persecution rages" in his native colony. Madison’s first notable public action was to secure an amendment to the Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776), altering the article that originally promised “the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion” to the broader affirmation that “all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience.” However, Madison’s greatest contribution to religious liberty came a decade later.

7 Patrick Henry In 1779 the Virginia Assembly deprived Church of England ministers of tax support. Patrick Henry sponsored a bill for a general religious assessment in The tax on property holders would provide public funds for teachers of all Christian denominations. Similar to those passed in the New England states, the bill permitted individuals to earmark their taxes for the church of their choice. Arguments used in Virginia were similar to those that had been employed in Massachusetts a few years earlier. Proponents of a general religious tax, principally Anglicans, urged that it should be supported on "Principles of Public Utility" because Christianity offered the "best means of promoting Virtue, Peace, and Prosperity.“ Opponents were led by Baptists, supported by Presbyterians (some of whom vacillated on the issue), and theological liberals. As in Massachusetts, they argued that government support of religion corrupted it. Virginians also made a strong libertarian case that government involvement in religion violated a people's civil and natural rights. Henry appeared to be on the verge of securing its passage when his opponents neutralized his political influence by electing him governor. As a result, legislative consideration of Henry's bill was postponed until the fall of 1785, giving its adversaries an opportunity to mobilize public opposition to it.

8 This broadside contains (at the bottom) the opening sections of Patrick Henry's general assessment bill. At the top of the broadside are the results of a vote in the Virginia General Assembly to postpone consideration of the bill until the fall 1785 session of the legislature. Voting against postponement and, therefore, in support of a general tax for religion was the future Chief Justice of the United States, John Marshall.

9 George Washington In this letter George Washington informs his friend and neighbor, George Mason, in the midst of the public agitation over Patrick Henry's general assessment bill, that he does not, in principle, oppose "making people pay towards the support of that which they profess," although he considers it "impolitic" to pass a measure that will disturb public tranquility. -- George Washington to George Mason, October 3, 1785

10 Richard Henry Lee Richard Henry Lee, who moved in the Continental Congress, June 7, 1776, that the United States declare its independence from Britain, supported Patrick Henry's bill because he believed that the influence of religion was the surest means of creating the virtuous citizens needed to make a republican government work. His remark that "refiners may weave as fine a web of reason as they please, but the experience of all times shows religion to be the guardian of morals" appears to be aimed at Thomas Jefferson who, at this point in his career, was thought by other Virginians to believe that sufficient republican morality could be instilled in the citizenry by instructing it solely in history and the classics. -- Richard Henry Lee to James Madison, November 26, 1784

11 Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments (1785) While Madison’s target was religion, he stressed a broader point involving respect for minority rights: “True it is, that no other rule exists, by which any question which may divide a Society, can be ultimately determined, but the will of the majority; but it is also true that the majority may trespass on the rights of the minority.” His language was harsh, describing lawmakers who would enact such laws as “tyrants” while “the people who submit to it are governed by laws made neither by themselves nor by an authority derived from them, and are slaves.” James Madison, 1783

12 James Madison and Public Opinion Madison led the fight against Henry’s assessment bill. He anonymously published his Memorial and Remonstrance in order to rally opposition. He circulated his arguments as one of several petitions that collectively gained more than 10,000 signatures, which proved decisive when the assembly ultimately rejected the assessment bill.

13 Thomas Jefferson After he finished drafting the Declaration of Independence, in 1777 Jefferson wrote The Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom. The act was debated but ultimately postponed by the Virginia General Assembly in After Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance succeeded in getting the assessment bill tabled, Madison persuaded the legislature to instead enact Jefferson’s Bill for Religious Freedom—now considered a landmark in the struggle for religious liberty.

14 Virginia Bill for Religious Liberty (1786) Well aware that Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burdens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion… that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world, and through all time; that to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness… that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, more than our opinions in physics or geometry….

15 Virginia Bill for Religious Liberty (1786) Be it therefore enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in nowise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities. And though we well know this Assembly, elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of legislation only, have no powers equal to our own and that therefore to declare this act irrevocable would be of no effect in law, yet we are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right.

16 The U.S. Constitution The views articulated by both Madison and Jefferson in Virginia shaped the religion provisions of the U.S. Constitution (1787) both via formal amendment and informal interpretation. Consistent with their earlier positions, both expressed a belief that the best way for government to respect religion was through a formal separation.

17 James Madison’s Speech Introducing Proposed Constitutional Amendments (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, or on any pretext, infringed.” After debate, the final language became: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

18 President Thomas Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptist Association (1802) “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man & his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between church and state. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.”

19 References Frohnen, Bruce, ed., The American Republic: Primary Sources (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2002). Ketcham, Ralph, James Madison: A Biography (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1971, 1990). Rakove, Jack N., Original Meanings: Politics and Ideas in the Making of the Constitution (New York: Knopf, 1996). “Religion and the Founding of the American Republic,” Library of Congress,


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