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COLONIAL AND POST-COLONIAL RELIGIOUS TESTS AS A BASIS
FOR THE FIRST AMENDMENT
By Joshua David Zambrano
In addressing whether the United States in the 1770s began a Christian nation, it is
instructive to examine the thirteen state constitutions as they existed at the time. In 8 of those 13
state constitutions during the 1770s, public officials were required to be Christians, which is
prima facie evidence for an originally Christian United States. Religious tests were
commonplace in the American colonies leading up to the American Revolution. It was not
uncommon for stringent denominational tests to be imposed by a colony’s ecclesiastical
establishment requiring that public officials be adherents of the colony’s established religious
Seven of the original thirteen states had Anglicanism as the state religion in 1776,
Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Maryland, and New York. Three others had
Congregational religious establishments, Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire.
Catholics in 1776 were prevented from running for office in every state except Rhode Island, and
atheists were prohibited from running for office in every state except New York, Massachusetts,
Fears that Britain was plotting to install Anglican Bishops in the colonies to
further inhibit religious freedom were in part the cause of colonial outrage prior to the American
TABLE 1. 1770s State Constitutions Requiring Christian Public Officials
“ART. 22. Every person who shall be chosen a member of either house, or appointed to any office or place of
trust, before taking his seat, or entering upon the execution of his office, shall take the following oath... And also
make and subscribe the following declaration, to wit:' I, A B. do profess faith in God the Father, and in Jesus
Christ His only Son, and in the Holy Ghost, one God, blessed for evermore; and I do acknowledge the holy
scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by divine inspiration.' And all officers shall also take an oath
-Constitution of Delaware; 17763
“ART. VI. The representatives shall be chosen out of the residents in each county, who shall have resided at least
twelve months in this State, and three months in the county where they shall be elected; except the freeholders of
the counties of Glynn and Camden, who are in a state of alarm, and who shall have the liberty of choosing one
member each, as specified in the articles of this constitution, in any other county, until they have residents
sufficient to qualify them for more; and they shall be of the Protestent religion, and of the age of twenty-one
years, and shall be possessed in their own right of two hundred and fifty acres of land, or some property to the
amount of two hundred and fifty pounds.”
-Constitution of Georgia; February 5, 17774
“XXXV. That no other test or qualification ought to be required, on admission to any office of trust or profit, than
such oath of support and fidelity to this State, and such oath of office, as shall be directed by this Convention or
the Legislature of this State, and a declaration of a belief in the Christian religion.”
-Constitution of Maryland - November 11, 17765
“XVIII. That no person shall ever, within this Colony, be deprived of the inestimable privilege of worshipping
Almighty God in a manner, agreeable to the dictates of his own conscience; nor, under any presence whatever, be
compelled to attend any place of worship, contrary to his own faith and judgment; nor shall any person, within
this Colony, ever be obliged to pay tithes, taxes, or any other rates, for the purpose of building or repairing any
other church or churches, place or places of worship, or for the maintenance of any minister or ministry, contrary
to what he believes to be right, or has deliberately or voluntarily engaged himself to perform.
XIX. That there shall be no establishment of any one religious sect in this Province, in preference to another; and
that no Protestant inhabitant of this Colony shall be denied the enjoyment of any civil right, merely on account of
his religious principles; but that all persons, professing a belief in the faith of any Protestant sect. who shall
demean themselves peaceably under the government, as hereby established, shall be capable of being elected into
any office of profit or trust, or being a member of either branch of the Legislature, and shall fully and freely enjoy
every privilege and immunity, enjoyed by others their fellow subjects.
XXIII. That every person, who shall be elected as aforesaid to be a member of the Legislative Council, or House
of Assembly, shall, previous to his taking his seat in Council or Assembly, take the following oath or affirmation,
viz:' I, A. B., do solemnly declare, that, as a member of the Legislative Council, [or Assembly, as the case may
be,] of the Colony of New-Jersey, I will not assent to any law, vote or proceeding, which shall appear to me
injurious to the public welfare of said Colony, nor that shall annul or repeal that part of the third section in the
Charter of this Colony, which establishes, that the elections of members of the Legislative Council and Assembly
shall be annual; nor that part of the twenty-second section in said Charter, respecting the trial by jury, nor that
shall annul, repeal, or alter any part or parts of the eighteenth or nineteenth sections of the same.'”
-Constitution of New Jersey; 17766
“XXXII.(5) That no person, who shall deny the being of God or the truth of the Protestant religion, or the divine
authority either of the Old or New Testaments, or who shall hold religious principles incompatible with the
freedom and safety of the State, shall be capable of holding any office or place of trust or profit in the civil
department within this State.”
-Constitution of North Carolina: December 18, 17767
“SECT. 10. A quorum of the house of representatives shall consist of two -thirds of the whole number of members
elected... And each member, before he takes his seat, shall make and subscribe the following declaration, viz: I do
believe in one God, the creator and governor of the universe, the rewarder of the good and the punisher of the
wicked. And I do acknowledge the Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by Divine
inspiration. And no further or other religious test shall ever hereafter be required of any civil officer or magistrate
in this State.”
-Constitution of Pennsylvania - September 28, 17768
“III. That as soon as may be after the first meeting of the senate and house of representatives, and at every first
meeting of the senate and house of representatives thereafter, to be elected by virtue of this constitution, they shall
jointly in the house of representatives choose by ballot from among themselves or from the people at large a
governor and commander-in-chief, a lieutenant-governor, both to continue for two years, and a privy council, all
of the Protestant religion, and till such choice shall be made the former president or governor and commander-in-
chief, and vice-president or lieutenant-governor, as the case may be, and privy council, shall continue to act as
-Constitution of South Carolina - March 19, 17789
“SECTION IX. A quorum of the house of representatives shall consist of two-thirds of the whole number of
members elected... And each member, before he takes his seat, shall make and subscribe the following
declaration, viz. 'I ____ do believe in one God, the Creator and Governor of the Diverse, the rewarder of the good
and punisher of the wicked. And I do acknowledge the scriptures of the old and new testament to be given by
divine inspiration, and own and profess the protestant religion.' And no further or other religious test shall ever,
hereafter, be required of any civil officer or magistrate in this State.”
-Constitution of Vermont - July 8, 177710
As observed by Pyle & Davidson (2003), most of the 96 founding fathers (55.21%) were
Episcopalian; founding fathers being defined as signers of the Declaration of Independence or
Delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention. An additional 21.88% were
Congregationalists, 13.54% Presbyterians, 3.13% Quakers, 3.13% Roman Catholics, 1.04%
Dutch Reformed, 1.04% Methodist, and 1.04% Baptist. (p. 70)
Religious Tolerance in Post-Colonial America: Madison, Jefferson, and Virginia Baptists
Virginia’s religious test would play a key role in the formation of the First Amendment
and initiated a rapid increase in religious tolerance during the early post-colonial period. The
history of the First Amendment is invariably bound to the unique relationship held by James
Madison and Thomas Jefferson to the Virginia Baptists. The Bill of Rights, including the First
Amendment, was the result of ten objections raised by the leader of the Virginia Baptists, John
Leland, an anti-slavery abolitionist and advocate for religious freedom. The Virginia Baptists at
the time were concerned that without a guarantee of religious liberty Baptists would be
discriminated against under the new U.S. Constitution by a state church like Virginia’s Anglican
state church, as had been occurring for more than a century prior.
As chance would have it, the 1788 election in which James Madison was running as a
Virginia Delegate was threatened. Madison, as the primary architect of the U.S. Constitution at
the time, found not only his own election chances imperiled, but the fate of the entire U.S.
Constitution which at the time he was championing. Fortunately, Madison had an existing
friendly relationship with Leland, and by agreeing to create a Bill of Rights, Madison won
election and the U.S. Constitution was passed.
Indeed, both Jefferson and Madison had worked
with Leland’s Virginia Baptists to protect their religious freedom since at least 1773, when
Madison had publicly spoken out on their behalf to condemn the “diabolical, hell-conceived
principle of persecution.”
Jefferson and Madison collaborated to produce the 1779 Virginia
Statute for Religious Freedom guaranteeing religious freedom to all religions, which in 1785 was
followed by Madison’s legislation, A Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious
Assessments, which argued that promotion of any religion was outside the scope of government
and essential to preserving the inalienable rights given by God.
The origins of the Bill of Rights itself derived from George Mason, who in September of
1787 insisted that the Constitution include a ‘Declaration of Rights.’ Mason withheld his support
for the U.S. Constitution, and refused to sign it because it did not enumerate such rights.
between Jefferson, who at the time was in France, and James Madison then ensued from 1787-
Under Virginia laws attendance at Episcopal (Anglican) churches had been mandatory, the doors of dissenting
denominations had to be unlocked (to allow for easy disruption and arrest of dissenters), taxes were collected to
support the Anglican Church, and dissenting ministers had to be registered within their locales, sign all articles of
the Anglican Church, and provide court records of all places they intended to hold worship.
Given Madison’s persistent efforts to create religious liberty for the Baptists even before his decision to enter
politics, it appears likely that Leland was assisting Madison at Madison’s request to help him win election for the
purpose of creating religious freedom for minorities such as the Baptists.
89, with Jefferson himself urging Madison to include a Bill of Rights and extracting a promise
from Madison to include what would become the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
The concept of a Bill of Rights itself dates considerably earlier in the colonial period, as
evidenced by the 1702 Charter of Privileges passed by William Penn’s Province of Pennsylvania,
which included freedoms of religion for all Christians, democratic representation, and fair trial
on the basis of God-given inalienable rights.
The Legislation of Jefferson and Madison: Hardly Secular
The legislation produced by both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison leading up to the
Bill of Rights displays fully their advocacy for the Virginia Baptists, and their desire to protect
religious expression. Neither article of legislation displays a hint of secular motivation.
Jefferson’s legislation, the Virginia Statute, opens with a bold argument that religious restrictions
go against the will of the Creator:
“Whereas, Almighty God hath created the mind free; That all attempts to
influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations tend
only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and therefore are a departure
from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being Lord, both of body and
mind yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty
power to do, 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 endeavouring to
impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the
greatest part of the world and through all time…”
-Thomas Jefferson, Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom
As for Madison’s own legislation, the Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious
Assessments, it similarly began with an openly religious tone, asserting that inalienable rights are
given by a Creator, and therefore inviolate from the encroachments of human governance.
“We remonstrate against the said Bill,
1. Because we hold it for a fundamental and undeniable truth, '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.' The Religion
then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man;
and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in
its nature an unalienable right. It is unalienable, because the opinions of men,
depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds cannot follow
the dictates of other men: It is unalienable also, because what is here a right
towards men, is a duty towards the Creator. 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.
This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the
claims of Civil Society. Before any man can be considerd as a member of Civil
Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe:
And if a member of 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. 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
12. Because the policy of the Bill is adverse to the diffusion of the light of
Christianity. The first wish of those who enjoy this precious gift ought to be that it
may be imparted to the whole race of mankind. Compare the number of those
who have as yet received it with the number still remaining under the dominion of
false Religions; and how small is the former! Does the policy of the Bill tend to
lessen the disproportion? No; it at once discourages those who are strangers to the
light of revelation from coming into the Region of it; and countenances by
example the nations who continue in darkness, in shutting out those who might
convey it to them. Instead of Levelling as far as possible, every obstacle to the
victorious progress of Truth, the Bill with an ignoble and unchristian timidity
would circumscribe it with a wall of defence against the encroachments of error.”
-James Madison, Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments
The degree to which Madison’s religious activism and strongly-held convictions have
been misconstrued in the centuries since, causing his inaccurate labeling as a deist,
is in part
due to his own tactfulness. Madison did not acknowledge that he had authored the Memorial and
As an aside, Madison here makes an interesting argument: (1) that the will of the majority is essential to just
governance of a society, and (2) the will of the majority can still oppress the rights of the minority per mob rule.
Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments until 1826, after the completion of his presidency
and political career. Madison, like Jefferson, waited until well after his political career had
ended, a forty-year silence, to reveal what his religious convictions were.13
A New Theory: Madison Was a Baptist and Jefferson and Washington Were Jewish
In explaining why such fervent advocates on behalf of religious freedom for the Danbury
Baptists would conceal their religious convictions for decades, it seems most likely that both
were secretly religious minorities that would have been unable to run for office under Virginia’s
Both Jews and Baptists were discriminated against under the Anglican state
church of Virginia.10
Madison, seeing the injustices perpetrated against his fellow Baptists, whom he was
constantly appearing in court to defend, realized he was needed more as a lawyer and politician
than a minister. As such he consistently defended the Baptists but hid his own disagreement with
Anglicanism out of fear it would be used against him. After all, under the Virginia religious tests
he was overturning, he himself would have been unqualified to hold public office. Anglican
opponents would have no doubt called foul for his overturning the state Anglican establishment
while seeking to overturn his legislation on religious freedom and obstructing his pathway to the
presidency, since at the time most of the country and its founders were Anglican. (Pyle and
Davidson, pp. 66-71) Thus, Madison waited until the waning days of his life to reveal his role in
passing the Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, guarding his Baptist
This would explain why Madison went from pursuing an early career in ministry to instead seeking one in law and
public service. To quote Gregory C. Downs, “Because of his opposition to the religious persecution of dissenters,
Madison ‘repeatedly appeared in court of his own county to defend the Baptist nonconformists,’ and it was during
this the period of his involvement in the defense of Baptists that Madison decided to choose a career in law and
public service rather than the ministry.”
convictions to the grave lest they be used to overturn his life’s work in fighting for their religious
With Jefferson an equally strong case may be made for his being Jewish. Recent genetic
research has raised the likelihood of Jewish ancestry for Thomas Jefferson.
in the Virginia Statute is hardly that of an atheist, deist, or agnostic, and his reverence for the
scriptures is patently evident from his donation to help found the Virginia Bible Society; indeed
Jefferson was one of the ten primary funders for the Virginia Bible Society. Jefferson as
Governor of Virginia called for a statewide day of prayer, as a Virginia delegate to the
Continental Congress recommended a state seal depicting a story from the Bible using the name
‘God,’ and when founding the University of Virginia at the end of his life designated space for
chapel services, expecting students to attend religious services and religious schools neighboring
or even on university property.
In 1804 Jefferson provided assurances to a Christian religious school in the Louisiana
Territory that it would “receive the patronage of the government.” As concluded by David
Barton in summarizing the evidence, “Thus the ‘wall of separation between church and state’
that Mr. Jefferson built at the University which he founded did not exclude religious education
from that school… Neither at the State nor the federal level does Jefferson demonstrate any
proclivity toward the obsessive secularization for which courts have used him.”
infamous ‘Jefferson Bible’ omitted the miracles of Jesus while emphasizing the eschatological
discussions between Jesus and the Pharisees,
a decision that makes perfect sense within the
Jefferson after becoming President in 1800 attended church every Sunday and allowed taxpayer-funded
government musicians to assist in the worship services. In 1801 he urged local governments to make land available
for Christian purposes, and in 1803 signed a treaty with the Kaskaskia tribe for erection of a church while funding a
Catholic priest. Also in 1803 he signed three acts allocating government land for the purpose of Moravian
missionaries to spread Christianity. (Barton, pp. 403-405)
Jewish paradigm. Jewish opposition to Jesus, after all, has historically consisted of disagreement
that Jesus is the Son of God; whereas a rabbinic eschatological discussion would be of immense
value to the practicing Jew.
Further evidence of Jefferson’s privately-held Jewish heritage is seen from his original
rough draft of the Declaration of Independence, prior to Congress’ revisions.
In the original,
Jefferson disdainfully criticizes the “CHRISTIAN King of Great Britain,” a phrase removed by
Several complaints in the original, thereafter altered by Congress to Jefferson’s
intense displeasure, one can only imagine Jefferson originally wrote thinking of the Virginia
preventing him from openly expressing his religious convictions.
Like Madison, Jefferson would have been unable to reveal his Jewish heritage without
endangering his lifetime of advocacy for the civil liberties of religious minorities. As a Jew, he
would have been unable under Virginia law to run for public office; only by professing
Anglicanism would he have been able to pursue reforms that discriminated against his fellow
Jews. It may well be that Jefferson viewed himself as following in the footsteps of Moses who,
as a child was hidden from the wrath of Pharaoh and secretly raised as an Egyptian prince, the
standing he would need to advocate for his people’s freedom. (Exodus chs. 1-3, King James
Version) As with Madison, Jefferson took the secret of his religious convictions to the grave,
As an aside, Jefferson’s rough draft harshly criticized the institution of slavery, blaming it on the King of England,
ironic given Jefferson’s own history of owning slaves, and perhaps the result of his intimate relationship with Sally
Hemings. (Smith, 331-336)
Including “it becomes necessary for a people to advance from that subordination in which they have hitherto
remained… these facts have given the last stab to agonizing affection, and manly spirit bids us to renounce for ever
these unfeeling brethren. we must endeavor to forget our former love for them… we might have been a free &
great people together; but a communication of grandeur & of freedom it seems is below their dignity. be it so, since
they will have it: the road to glory & happiness is open to us too; we will climb it in a separate state, and acquiesce
in the necessity which pronounces our everlasting Adieu!”
knowing that to disclose them would be to threaten a lifetime’s worth of work on behalf of
American Jews’ civil liberties.
As for Washington, who has fittingly been termed an ‘American Moses,’
distinctive language typical of a practicing Jew in his letters. Three of the twenty-two addresses
Washington gave to religious groups were to Jewish congregations (there were only 6 Jewish
congregations in the U.S. at the time), and he used ‘explicit language’ in responding.
Immediately following ratification of the Constitution in 1790, and just prior to ratification of the
Bill of Rights in 1791, Washington uncharacteristically answered the Hebrew congregation in
Newport with more than his typically terse response, authoring one of the strongest statements in
support of religious freedom in American history.
In doing so, Washington quoted from Micah
4:4 about the “stock of Abraham” being able to “sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree,” a
passage he quoted nearly four dozen times over the last half of his life.
Fig trees held special relevance to the Jewish people. Per Dreisbach (2007), “The fig tree,
like the grapevine, is a potent symbol for Jews… The images of a vine and a fig tree were rich
with meaning for the prophet Micah's audience; they are symbols deeply ingrained in Jewish
Thus, Washington was likely sending a message to later generations that he himself
was “of the stock of Abraham.” Washington’s actions played a major role in advancing religious
freedom for Jews who had been discriminated against by state religious tests, producing in the
words of Dreisbach (2007), Washington’s “greatest contribution to, and political innovation of,
political society—the abandonment of religious toleration in favor of religious liberty.” (p. 322)
Like Jefferson, Washington is best comprehended as a privately practicing Jew unable to
publicly reveal his convictions without risking irreparable harm to his life’s work and the Jewish
people. Like Jefferson and Madison, he could not disclose his status as a religious minority
without jeopardizing the Virginia legislation passed in furtherance of Jewish religious freedom
and risking public outcry over Jews and Baptists having been the primary opponents of
Virginia’s Anglican state church. Washington’s recalcitrance at expressing overtly Christian
sentiments has led to his branding, like Jefferson, as a Deist. Nonetheless, Deists in colonial and
early post-colonial America were simply Jews that could not openly proclaim their faith due to
religious tests prohibiting them from running for public office. To overturn such religious
discrimination Jews had to secretly work within the dystopia without disclosing their true
personal convictions. No doubt there was a broader population of Jews, Baptists, and other
religious minorities that pretended Anglicanism to achieve civil liberties such as running for
public office they would not otherwise have been privy to under Anglican colonial and early
post-colonial laws; a possible factor for why Anglicanism appeared over-represented in the early
United States but rapidly declined once the religious tests were revoked.
In all probability Washington likely worked with Jefferson until 1791, privately
coordinating with Jefferson to seek religious freedom for Virginia Jews, but, ever the cautious
tactician, was more discrete than Jefferson in concealing his religious convictions. Indeed
Washington was instrumental in assisting Madison to ensure creation of a Bill of Rights.
Washington and Jefferson worked together until religious freedom was steadily achieved in
Virginia, first by passage of Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom on January 16,
1786, secondly by ratification of the U.S. Constitution on May 29, 1790 with its guarantee
against religious tests, and thirdly by ratification of the Bill of Rights and 1st Amendment
guaranteeing freedom of religion to all on December 15, 1791.
However, the political differences between Washington, a Federalist, and Jefferson, an Anti-Federalist, were too
great to long withstand their triumph for Jewish religious freedom. It is no coincidence that the relationship
The Danbury Baptists
Jefferson’s famous phrase ‘wall of separation’ from which stems the term ‘separation of
church and state’ derives not from the U.S. Constitution or Bill of Rights, but his sympathetic
letters to the Danbury Baptists. A 2003 analysis by David Barton determined that Jefferson was
invoked directly or indirectly in 100% of Establishment Clause federal court cases. (Barton, 401)
The 1801 letters occurred after decades of coordination between Jefferson and Madison
defending Virginia Baptists from religious persecution. Jefferson’s association with the Baptists
had gained him much-needed local allies, allowing for him, Washington, and Madison to
coordinate on a cause dear to all of their hearts, religious freedom for their respective, secretly-
held faiths, while simultaneously protecting him from charges of atheism made by his Federalist
The letters between Jefferson and the Baptists were as follows:
“The address of the Danbury Baptist Association in the State of Connecticut,
assembled October 7, 1801.
To Thomas Jefferson, Esq., President of the United States of America
Sir, Among the many millions in America and Europe who rejoice in your
election to office, we embrace the first opportunity which we have enjoyed in our
collective capacity, since your inauguration , to express our great satisfaction in
your appointment to the Chief Magistracy in the Unite States. And though the
mode of expression may be less courtly and pompous than what many others
clothe their addresses with, we beg you, sir, to believe, that none is more sincere.
Our sentiments are uniformly on the side of religious liberty: that Religion is at all
times and places a matter between God and individuals, that no man ought to
suffer in name, person, or effects on account of his religious opinions, [and] that
the legitimate power of civil government extends no further than to punish the
man who works ill to his neighbor. But sir, our constitution of government is not
specific. Our ancient charter, together with the laws made coincident therewith,
were adapted as the basis of our government at the time of our revolution. And
between Washington and Jefferson rapidly deteriorated from 1794-99 after their alliance of convenience to secure
religious freedom for the Jewish people. (Higgenbotham, pp. 535-540)
such has been our laws and usages, and such still are, [so] that Religion is
considered as the first object of Legislation, and therefore what religious
privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the State) we enjoy as favors granted, and
not as inalienable rights. And these favors we receive at the expense of such
degrading acknowledgments, as are inconsistent with the rights of freemen. It is
not to be wondered at therefore, if those who seek after power and gain, under the
pretense of government and Religion, should reproach their fellow men, [or]
should reproach their Chief Magistrate, as an enemy of religion, law, and good
order, because he will not, dares not, assume the prerogative of Jehovah and make
laws to govern the Kingdom of Christ.
Sir, we are sensible that the President of the United States is not the National
Legislator and also sensible that the national government cannot destroy the laws
of each State, but our hopes are strong that the sentiment of our beloved President,
which have had such genial effect already, like the radiant beams of the sun, will
shine and prevail through all these States--and all the world--until hierarchy and
tyranny be destroyed from the earth. Sir, when we reflect on your past services,
and see a glow of philanthropy and goodwill shining forth in a course of more
than thirty years, we have reason to believe that America's God has raised you up
to fill the Chair of State out of that goodwill which he bears to the millions which
you preside over. May God strengthen you for the arduous task which providence
and the voice of the people have called you--to sustain and support you and your
Administration against all the predetermined opposition of those who wish to rise
to wealth and importance on the poverty and subjection of the people.
And may the Lord preserve you safe from every evil and bring you at last to his
Heavenly Kingdom through Jesus Christ our Glorious Mediator.
Signed in behalf of the Association,
Neh,h Dodge } Eph'm Robbins } The Committee Stephen S. Nelson }”
“To messers. Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins, & Stephen S. Nelson, a
committee of the Danbury Baptist association in the state of Connecticut.
The affectionate sentiments of esteem and approbation which you are so good as
to express towards me, on behalf of the Danbury Baptist association, give me the
highest satisfaction. my duties dictate a faithful and zealous pursuit of the
interests of my constituents, & in proportion as they are persuaded of my fidelity
to those duties, the discharge of them becomes more and more pleasing.
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, & 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 & 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
I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection & blessing of the common father
and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves & your religious association,
assurances of my high respect & esteem.
Jan. 1. 1802.”
Rather than writing for a secular purpose, as has been commonly concluded, Jefferson
was simply affirming his long-held alliance with Madison’s Baptists, opposing Virginia’s
religious tests which had been used to discriminate against Baptists and Jews alike. In stark
contrast to the openly Christian wording used by the Baptists, Jefferson subtly emphasized the
shared beliefs of Jews and Baptists in a “common father and creator of man.” Undoubtedly
Jefferson, like Washington and Madison, was growing tired by this time of hiding his personal
convictions and was increasingly dropping hints about his own Jewish beliefs.
Jefferson’s authorship of his letter to the Danbury Baptists was in part a political tack
designed, per his correspondence with Massachusetts Attorney General Levi Lincoln, not only to
repudiate the notion of governmental religious tests, but also to defend himself from accusations
that he supported political fastings and prayers, at a time when the issue was key to his election
Jefferson had, as previously mentioned, openly referenced a Creator as the source of inalienable rights in the
Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, helped found the Virginia Bible Society, and as Governor of Virginia called
for a statewide day of prayer while authoring a law titled ‘A bill for appointing days of public fasting and
thanksgiving.’ Even after 1820 upon founding the University of Virginia he encouraged university students to
attend religious services on university grounds. (Barton, p. 403-409)
chances. Jefferson told Lincoln that he wrote the letter in part for the purpose of “saying why I do
not proclaim fastings & thanksgivings, as my predecessors did.” Jefferson at the time sought to
damage his political opponent for the presidency, John Adams, by portraying him as a
Presbyterian who would implement strict religious requirements unpopular with the broader
Given that Jefferson had himself passed legislation as Virginia Governor
mandating such fasting and prayer, he sought to protect himself from charges of hypocrisy.
Jefferson’s original draft letter to the Danbury Baptists included more openly religious language
which he carefully revised to produce the political impact he desired.
Jefferson’s “satisfaction” at guarantees of universal religious freedom undoubtedly
derived from his private Jewish convictions, and the repeal of Virginia’s religious tests that had
forced him, Washington, and Madison to conceal their personal religious beliefs for three
lifetimes; unable to run for public office had they been open about their faith. As such, Jefferson
no doubt savored this moment of celebration with his Baptist allies, even as he wittingly
underlined the distinctions between his Jewish faith and that of his Christian friends.
Pre-Lockean Sources for Inalienable Rights
The phrase ‘wall of separation’ was not originated by Jefferson, but by Roger Williams,
founder of the colony of Rhode Island in 1636, first Baptist church on American shores, and
America’s first anti-slavery organization.
Williams was also an early advocate for peaceful
relations with Native American tribes who coexisted peacefully with local tribes such as the
Narragansetts for decades, until they attacked without provocation, forcing Williams to turn
military commander and defeat them in battle.
Although John Locke’s ‘Two Treatises of
Government,’ authored in 1689, have been commonly attributed as the primary source of
inspiration for modern democracy and civil liberties, as expressed by Thomas Jefferson and
James Madison in the Bill of Rights and U.S. Constitution, Roger Williams authored ‘The
Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Religious Conscience’ (1644) over 40 years before
Locke’s treatises, urging religious freedom on a Biblical basis.
“according to the verity of holy Scriptures, &c. mens consciences ought in no sort
to be violated, urged or constrained. And whensoever men have attempted any
thing by this violent course, whether openly or by secret means, the issue hath
been pernicious, and the cause of great and wonderful innovations in the
principallest and mightiest Kingdoms and Countries, &c.”
-Roger Williams, The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience
Williams provided four primary arguments to convince the British Parliament to allow
his experiment of religious freedom to take place, first a Biblical basis, secondly reference to
rulers, thirdly the quotations of famous writers, and fourthly the words of Catholic papists.
TABLE 2. Roger Williams’ Sources for Religious Freedom
Mt. 5; 13:30-38; 15:14; 20:6; Lk. 9:54-55; 2 Ti. 2:24; Is. 2:4; 11:9;
Mi. 4:3-4; 2 Co. 10:4; 1 Co. 6:9; 1 Pe. 2:20.
- King James 1609 Majesties Speech at Parliament.
- King James Highness Apologie, pp. 4, 60.
- Stephen King of Poland statements.
- King of Bohemia statements.
- Hillarie Against Auxentius.
- Tertullian Ad. Scapulum.
- Jerome in Proaem. Lib. 4 in Jeremiam.
- Luther in Book of the Civill Magistrate.
- K. James His Reigne.
Although Gilpin claims that “Williams and Jefferson had constructed their respective
walls of separation for quite different purposes… Williams’s wall fell into obscurity, Jefferson’s
rose to new influence in the mid-twentieth century,”34 such a conclusion neglects the broader
impacts Williams’ wall of separation had on a more influential colonial founder, William Penn.
Penn likely devised the Province of Pennsylvania’s 1682 Frame of Government with its
guarantees of religious freedom on the basis of Williams’ earlier model.
Article XXXV of the
Frame’s Laws Agreed Upon in England provided what at the time was an unusually broad
guarantee of religious freedom to all believers in God, including Jews and Muslims, declaring
“That all persons living in this province, who confess and acknowledge the one Almighty and
eternal God, to be the Creator, Upholder and Ruler of the world; and that hold themselves
obliged in conscience to live peaceably and justly in civil society, shall, in no ways, be molested
or prejudiced for their religious persuasion, or practice, in matters of faith and worship, nor
shall they be compelled, at any time, to frequent or maintain any religious worship, place or
While it is easy to dismiss Williams’ wall of separation as the work of a small, isolated
colony, as Gilpin does, Penn’s Frame provides the missing link between such a concept and
Jefferson’s use of it over 150 years later. Penn’s Province of Pennsylvania, in contrast to the
diminutive colony of Rhode Island, was vast, encompassing the modern-day states of
Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware; as such four of the original thirteen states had
Biblically-based walls of separation guaranteeing religious freedom per the Christian principles
of Penn and Williams. Furthermore, Penn’s Quakers had an outsized impact on the American
Revolution, which is why the Constitutional Convention was held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
The Quakers in Pennsylvania outlawed slavery on March 1, 1780 and formed much of the early
post-colonial opposition to slavery leading up to the Civil War.
Undoubtedly the work of Williams influenced John Locke’s treatises, and proved the
basis for Jefferson’s later reuse of Williams’ wall of separation. Jefferson, as a studious lawyer,
Nonetheless, Penn’s Frame was explicitly Christian in nature, quoting the Bible’s book of Romans in the Preface,
and prohibiting work on Sundays “according to the good example of the primitive Christians.” (Laws Agreed Upon
in England, XXXVI)
was certainly aware of Penn’s Frame of Government. As such the concept of inalienable, God-
given rights that features prominently in Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, Virginia
Statute for Religious Freedom, and Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious
Assessments traces back to the earlier governmental frame produced by Williams.
A Lost Work by Martin Luther
As mentioned, Williams acknowledged even earlier works and monarchial decrees,
quoting them to establish a basis of authority for the unprecedented religious freedom his colony
was providing. The British Parliament initially objected to Williams’ government, and Williams’
careful research certainly played a role in persuading Parliament. Williams, to persuade
Parliament, proposed that his colony be, in the words of John M. Barry, “an experiment in soul
liberty, all England could watch the results.”
This assuredly proved in part the inspiration for
Penn’s 1682 “holy experiment,” as did the governments of Locke and Shaftesbury in the
Carolinas which provided religious freedom to all save atheists.
The most thoroughly quoted extra-Biblical source referenced by Roger Williams is a lost
work by the famous reformer Martin Luther, referred to by Williams as ‘Booke of the Civill
Magistrate.’ This is seemingly his 1523 book, ‘Of the Dignity and Office of the Civil
It seems likely that the 1646 Westminster Confession of Faith drew upon Luther’s
material, given the correlation between Chapter 23 (‘Of the Civil Magistrate’) and Luther’s work
referenced in Roger Williams’ ‘Bloudy Tenent.’ As such, it is likely that a work equivalent to
Locke’s two treatises was produced over 260 years earlier by Martin Luther. Thus, the origin of a
‘wall of separation’ is far more ancient than has been conventionally acknowledged.
“Luther in his Booke of the Civill Magistrate saith; The Lawes of the Civill
Magistrates government extends no further then over the body or goods, and to
that which is externall: for over the soule God will not suffer any man to rule:
onely he himselfe will rule there. Wherefore whosoever doth undertake to give
Lawes unto the Soules and Consciences of Men, he usurpeth that government
himselfe which appertaineth unto God, &c.
Therefore upon 1 Kings 5. 10 In the building of the Temple there was no sound of
Iron heard, to signifie that Christ will have in his Church a free and a willing
People, not compelled and constrained by Lawes and Statutes.
Againe he saith upon Luk. 22. 11 It is not the true Catholike Church, which is
defended by the Secular Arme or humane Power, but the false and feigned
Church, which although it carries the Name of a Church yet it denies the power
And upon Psal. 17. 12 he saith: For the true Church of Christ knoweth not
Brachium saeculare, which the Bishops now adayes, chiefly use.
Againe, in Postil. Dom. 1. post Epiphan.13 he saith: Let not Christians be
commanded, but exhorted: for, He that willingly will not doe that, whereunto he is
friendly exhorted, he is no Christian: wherefore they that doe compell those that
are not willing, shew thereby that they are not Christian Preachers, but Worldly
Againe, upon 1 Pet. 3. 14 he saith: If the Civill Magistrate shall command me to
believe thus and thus: I should answer him after this manner: Lord, or Sir, Looke
you to your Civill or Worldly Government, Your Power extends not so farre as to
command any thing in Gods Kingdome: Therefore herein I may not heare you.
For if you cannot beare it, that any should usurpe Authoritie where you have to
Command, how doe you thinke that God should suffer you to thrust him from his
Seat, and to seat your selfe therein?”
-Roger Williams, The Bloody Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience
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