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Last edited on: January 23, 2014.

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 preaching religious opinions not approved by the government.

Madison wrote on the fate of Baptist ministers to William Bradford, JANUARY 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.”

James Madison assisted George Mason in drafting 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” stands in contrast to other ideologies, such as 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…

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 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.”

In the first session of Congress, June 7, 1789, Madison introduced an amendment to the Constitution:

“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 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 south of the Mississippi Territory and eastward of the Mississippi River extending to Perdido River, Madison wrote, October 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.”

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.”

James Madison proclaimed a National Day of Fasting, November 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.”

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 7th Annual Message, December 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:

“Prior to the Revolution, the Episcopal Church was established by law in this State. On the Declaration of Independence…there is much more of religion among us now that there ever was before the change.”

James Madison wrote to Frederick Beasley, November 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, who had been one of 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.”

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.”





William J. Federer is a nationally known speaker, best-selling author, and president of Amerisearch, Inc., a publishing company dedicated to researching America’s noble heritage.

To learn more about the author please visit  William Federer







Featured image: Courtesy of Bettmann/CORBIS

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