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James Madison: Defender of Religious Liberty

Last spring, my family drove to Charlottesville, Va., to tour Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home. We also decided to visit Montpelier, the nearby home of James Madison. Visiting Monticello and seeing Jefferson’s magnificent house and the immaculate grounds was incredible.

Visiting <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Monticello and seeing Jefferson’s magnificent house and the immaculate grounds was incredible. The tour of the house, however, was rushed with no time for questions and no opportunity to appreciate the historical significance of all the sights. The tour of Montpelier, on the other hand, was more relaxed. The crowd was smaller, and the tour guide had time for questions. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” />
 
When our tour was finished, I hung back and asked our guide about Madison’s religious preference. The answer the guide gave me was one with which I did not agree. The guide stated that he thought Madison was a Lutheran. On our drive home, I repeatedly voiced my doubts about the correctness of this answer. An educated and affluent planter’s son born in the mid-18th century in Virginia would certainly have been an Anglican. After all, the Anglican Church had been the state church of Virginia since 1624, and as prominent landowners, the Madisons would surely have been part of the established religion of their area.
 
Now I had to know about Madison’s religious preferences, and after some research, I discovered much to my delight that I was right.
 
James Madison, the “Father of our Constitution” and fourth president of the United States, was baptized on March 31, 1751, by Rev. William David, an Anglican rector from King George County. As a child, Madison weekly attended the Brick Church, an Anglican Church about six miles from his family’s plantation. His father, a vestryman at the church, helped manage church affairs and collected the tax money, which was used to support the state church.
 
Madison not only attended the Anglican Church, but much of his early education was provided by local Anglican clergymen. At 16, Madison went to live for two years at the home of his tutor, Rev. Thomas Martin, rector of the Brick Church.
 
But then Madison’s life took an odd turn. Instead of attending a nearby Anglican school, the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, he attended the College of New Jersey, a school founded by New Light Presbyterians who embraced revivalism.
 
The College of New Jersey, which later became known as Princeton University, was primarily a training school for ministers, and there are some indications that Madison considered entering the ministry. Instead he chose to study law, and in 1774, he entered politics and was elected as a member of the Orange County Committee of Safety Public.
 
Given his upbringing and his education, one might conclude that Madison was a committed man of faith, and that may have been true. Yet, Madison kept his religious views private. There is no mention in his writings of Jesus Christ, nor did he give any direct indications that he was a practicing Christian.
 
Because Madison offered few clues about his personal religious beliefs, scholars disagree about his views. Some biographers have presented Madison as a pious and devout Christian, while other biographers have labeled him as a deist. Still other scholars believe Madison was indifferent to religion.
 
What we do know is that Madison did attend religious services. William Meade, an Episcopal Bishop of Virginia and acquaintance of Madison, claimed that the president attended public worship in Orange County, invited ministers of religion to his house, and had family prayers on some occasions. As president, Madison supposedly was a pew holder at the First Presbyterian Church in Washington, and he also attended worship services held in the House of Representatives.
 
Although Madison never articulated his personal religious convictions, he did clearly and forcefully articulate his beliefs concerning religious liberty. In 1785, two years before he served as the principal architect of the federal Constitution and 24 years before he became president, Madison wrote Memorial and Remonstrance, a document praised by Madison biographer Irving Brant as “the most powerful defense of religious liberty ever written in America.”
 
Thus, while we may never know Madison’s thoughts on his own faith, we do know that of all the men who have served as president, none were as passionate or committed to the separation of church and state and to religious liberty as was James Madison.
 
As Edwin Gaustad says, “What captured Madison’s energies, abilities, and time was not what truths lay at the end of the religious quest but the right of all humankind to seek those truths without penalty or burden or any civil disability whatsoever.”
 
For further reading on James Madison, see Ralph Ketcham, James Madison: A Biography (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1990), and Edwin S. Gaustad, Faith of Our Fathers: Religion and the New Nation (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987).
 
Pam Durso is associate director of the Baptist History & Heritage Society in Brentwood, Tenn.