Religious freedom is a celebrated American tradition. Our Founders knew that mixing religion and government only caused civil strife, inequality and very often violence in pluralistic societies. For more than 300 years, church-state separation advocates have fought to keep the tradition moving forward. Thanks to these efforts, modern Americans enjoy more religious liberty than any people in the world.
Americans United is dedicated to exploring and sharing the history of church-state separation in the United States. Our collection of writings by the early advocates of religious liberty shows that our forbears meant it to be one of our most cherished rights.
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Thomas Jefferson is considered one of the greatest champions of religious liberty in American history. He often wrote of its importance in legislation, speeches, letters and personal reflections. Here are some of his quotes on religious liberty and church-state separation.
James Madison wrote frequently about religious freedom and its corollary, the separation of church and state. Here are some of Madison’s best quotations on the subject.
Thomas Jefferson’s Jan. 1, 1802, letter to the Danbury, Conn., Baptist Association is a seminal document in American church-state history. In the letter, Jefferson used the metaphor of the “wall of separation between church and state,” a phrase that, as the Supreme Court once noted, has come to be accepted as an authoritative declaration of the scope and meaning of the First Amendment.
Thomas Jefferson’s “Act for Establishing Religious Freedom” was introduced in 1779 but did not become law until Jan. 16, 1786. The bill was important milestone in the development of religious liberty and church-state separation in the United States. Scholars acknowledge it as important influence on the First Amendment. Prior to passage of the act, Virginia had a system of state-established religion and mandatory support, through church taxes, for the Anglican faith. The act ended that and guaranteed complete religious liberty for all. Jefferson was so proud of the act that he considered it one of the most important accomplishments of his life. His grave marker at Monticello does not mention that Jefferson was president — but notes his authorship of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.
The "Treaty With Tripoli" has figured prominently in the ongoing debate over whether the United States was intended to be an officially “Christian nation.” Advocates of church-state separation point to Article 11 of the treaty as evidence that public officials in the fledgling United States were well aware of the government’s non-religious character and weren’t afraid to state it publicly.
James Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments” was written in 1785 in opposition to a proposal by Patrick Henry that all Virginians be taxed to support “teachers of the Christian religion.” To this day, the “Memorial and Remonstrance” remains one of the most powerful arguments against government-supported religion ever penned.
James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, was a staunch advocate of the separation of church and state. In 1946, a collection of Madison’s handwritten notes was discovered among the papers of William Cabell Rives, a Madison biographer. The informal essays were mostly likely written between 1817 and 1832 and offer a glimpse into Madison’s thoughts on various issues.
Founding Fathers Thomas Jefferson and James Madison opposed government-issued religious proclamations. Both men were key architects of religious liberty in America, and both believed strongly that government should not meddle in religious matters.
During a visit to Newport, R.I., in 1790, a year before the Bill of Rights was ratified, President George Washington received a letter from Moses Sexias, warden of the Touro Synagogue, seeking assurance of religious freedom for Jews. President Washington gave an unequivocal guarantee, returning a letter stating that the new government would “give to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”
In the pantheon of American heroes of religious liberty, Baptist preacher John Leland is often unjustly overlooked. He shouldn’t be. Leland played an important role in securing the Bill of Rights and was a persistent advocate of church-state separation.