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Madison, Denominations and the First Amendment

  • Joseph Farinaccio,
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"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." — (First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution)

The history of the Constitutional clause that guarantees "free exercise" of religion should be of interest to all American Christians. The very amendment which the Founder's intended as a restraint upon the Federal government from interfering in religious matters is now used by many groups and individuals to restrict religious expression at all levels of government and within institutions that are funded with public monies.

James Madison of Virginia, known as the "Father of the Constitution," was that document's chief architect, along with its First Amendment. A study of Madison's public life reveals that he was a defender of religious liberty. But what was his vision of religious liberty?

Madison's interest in religious freedom was influenced largely by the times in which he lived. The Episcopal Church, America's arm of the state-supported Church of England, had become colonial Virginia's state-supported church early in its history. In Madison's day taxes were not only levied for its support but fines and imprisonment were often imposed on those from other Christian sects.

As a young man, Madison had listened one day "outside the jail…to several Baptists preach from the window of the cell in which they were confined because of their religious opinions."1 The plight of these Baptists struck him as particularly unjust since the doctrines held by most of the Protestant sects in Madison's day were nominally the same. The imprisonment of these individuals, according to Madison, came "for publishing their religious sentiments which in the main are very orthodox."2

With America's declaration of independence from Great Britain the now former colonies began to hold meetings to draw up new state Constitutions for representative governments. It was at this time that Madison enthusiastically worked to secure religious freedom for members of all Christian denominations within Virginia.

Madison opposed official, state-sponsored Christian denominations. He felt that forced support on behalf of one Christian denomination was unfair to citizens who privately funded the ministries of other churches. State support was also, as he had witnessed in Virginia, an opportunity for the officially sponsored church to press for laws that would serve to basically harass citizens of other denominations.

Madison was so concerned about government interference with respect to religious freedom that he even went so far as to oppose a bill proposed by Patrick Henry that called for recognition of Christianity as "the established religion of this Commonwealth."3 Madison opposed this because he was concerned that such a bill would imply that civil magistrates somehow possessed the authority to define "Christianity."

Madison believed it was the duty of civil government to protect liberty, especially religious liberty, so that no one's freedom would be impaired. The government should not endorse one church over another so that "all men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion according to the dictates of conscience, unpunished and unrestrained by the magistrate, unless under the color of religion any man disturb the peace, the happiness, or safety of society..."4

Madison's efforts to oppose a state-sponsored church reflected his support for denominational pluralism. "It was because Madison exalted religion that he favored religious liberty. Since he revered the Christian religion above all others, he wanted it to flourish in its purity, free from the corruption that inevitably came with state support."5

In "Memorial and Remonstrance" Madison argued against state government sponsoring one particular church over others because "the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects."6 Madison's work in Virginia played a key factor in the eventual passing of Virginia's Statute For Religious Freedom in 1786.

When delegates from the individual states later met in Philadelphia for the new nation's Constitutional Convention, Madison was one of Virginia's representatives. He, along with most of the other delegates, held deep Christian convictions regarding the flawed nature of man and the tendency of government to drift towards corruption and tyranny. The framers worked to create a Federal compact similar to those in the states, which contained the same principles of representative government with separation of powers among its different branches.

The purpose of the Constitution was to provide a working union between the states that would secure the rights to life, liberty, and property that had been set forth in the Declaration of Independence and fought for in America's War for Independence. Like most Americans, Madison regarded the states as sovereign on most issues. In "Federalist No. 45" Madison wrote that the Federal government would only exercise "enumerated" powers:

The powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government are few and defined. Those which remain in the state governments are numerous and indefinite…The powers reserved to the states will extend to all objects which, in the ordinary course of affairs, concern the lives, liberties, and properties of the people, and the internal order, improvement, and prosperity of the state.7

In Madison's view, religious liberty issues, such as church establishment, would be left up to the states to decide in their own legislatures and courts, as in Virginia. "Madison believed that assurances respecting religious and other liberties did pertain, most appropriately to the states."8 The Federal Constitution was to respect the right for individual states to deal with this issue on their own. At the "time of the Revolutionary War, there were established churches in at least eight of the thirteen colonies and established religions in at least four of the other five."9 The fact that these states had an official, state-supported church was not at all considered unconstitutional under the new Federal Constitution.

Many felt that the proposed Federal Constitution was flawed because it did not have a Bill of Rights similar to those found in many of the state constitutions. Madison at first opposed the idea. He regarded the clearly defined and limited powers of the Federal government as a guarantee against the possibility of Federal moves to limit precious God-given rights, including the right of religious freedom. When Madison finally consented to a Bill of Rights that would be added to the new Federal Constitution it is not surprising that religious freedom was given top priority.

Religious freedom under the newly adopted First Amendment meant that the Federal government would not force people to either support or adhere to the doctrines of a national state-supported church. Madison had observed that state-supported churches could create "a dangerous abuse of power."10 In his opinion "religion, or the duty which we owe to the creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence."11 The first Ten Amendments to the Federal Constitution became the national Bill of Rights, and were designed to place limits upon the powers of the Federal government regarding the particular issues each amendment addressed. Whether or not individual states retained or enacted state churches was a matter that was to be left completely up to them. Such issues were reserved for individual states to decide themselves.

The true meaning of the First Amendment cannot be understood apart from its historical context. Since the Federal Constitution's amendments applied to the Federal government the states were sovereign to decide religious matters as they applied to their own populations. The meant that the Federal prohibition against an establishment of religion extended to Congress, since this is the Federal legislative body that would have the power to create a national state-supported church. Most of the state-sponsored churches that existed within individual states were not disestablished until well into the nineteenth century. States were responsible to handle such matters on their own initiative because the Federal Constitution did not have any authority to disestablish churches within individual states.

It may further be pointed out, as one scholar has done, that the First Amendment prohibited Congress from making "law respecting an establishment of religion." The term establishment meant "recognition by government of a single denomination as the official church. The Amendment does not prohibit the establishment of religion (religion in general) but an establishment of religion (a Christian denomination in particular, what our founders called a 'sect')."12 This fact is unknown to most Americans today.

The Amendment originally intended to ensure religious liberty is now often used as a tool of censorship by which those offended by public displays of religion or morality. The Founding Fathers never sought to free America, or even the Federal government from the moral constraints that are inevitably linked to the Christian faith. Most of them believed that Christianity is actually the foundation for the morality a free society needs to govern itself. Madison wrote:

We have staked the whole future of American civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future of all our political institutions upon the capacity of mankind for self-government upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.13

The Constitution presupposes certain principles derived from Christianity. This is either unknown or rarely considered in modern times. The First Amendment's prohibition upon Congress from establishing a national state-church, as in Great Britain, should never be used to restrict religious activities — especially Christian ones — in any of our 50 states.


1. Tim LaHaye, Faith Of Our Founding Fathers (Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1987), p. 128.

2. James Madison quoted in John Eidsmoe, Christianity And The Constitution (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1987), p. 105.

3. James Madison quoted in Edwin S. Gaustad, Faith Of Our Fathers (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1987), p. 39.

4. James Madison in the Journal of the Virginia Convention of 1776 quoted in Norman Cousins, ed., In God We Trust: The Religious Beliefs and Ideas of the American Founding Fathers (New York, NY: Harper & Brothers, 1958), p. 301.

5. John Eidsmoe, Christianity And The Constitution (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1987), p. 109.

6. James Madison quoted in Catherine Millard, The Rewriting of America's History (Camp Hill, PA: Horizon House, 1991), p. 432.

7. James Madison in Federalist No. 45 quoted in John Whitehead, The Second American Revolution (Westchester, Ill: Crossway Books, 1982), p. 208. The Federalist Papers were published essays published during the time that the individual states were debating the newly proposed Federal Constitution. Their purpose was to provide details about that document as it was being submitted to the states for ratification.

8. Edwin S. Gaustad, Faith Of Our Fathers (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1987), p. 43.

9. Justice Hugo Black writing in Engle V. Viatle quoted in John Whitehead, The Second American Revolution (Westchester, Ill: Crossway Books, 1982), p. 96.

10. James Madison quoted in Catherine Millard, The Rewriting of America's History (Camp Hill, PA: Horizon House, 1991), p. 431.

11. James Madison quoted in Catherine Millard, The Rewriting of America's History (Camp Hill, PA: Horizon House, 1991), p. 431.

12. Gary DeMar, America's Christian History: The Untold Story (Atlanta, GA: American Vision, 1993), p. 99.

13. James Madison quoted in Mark A. Beliles and Stephen K. McDowell, America's Providential History (Charlottesville, VA: 1989), pp.263-264.

  • Joseph Farinaccio

Joseph Farinaccio is a Christian writer and public speaker from New Jersey. The Christian apologetic Faith With Reason is his first book. He lives in Pennsville, NJ with his wife Joni and their two children. They are members of the Glasgow Reformed Presbyterian Church in Bear, Delaware. He is curently at work on another book and speaks to College/Youth and Church audiences on Christianity and world religion.

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