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Religious Freedom and the Founders Previous Next
Digital History ID 3000

 

At the end of the Constitutional Convention, Alexander Hamilton was asked why the framers had omitted the word "God" from the document. His reply: "We forgot." Yet when the first Congress assembled in 1790, among its very first acts were to select a chaplain and to ask President George Washington to declare a day of thanksgiving.

Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom

On his gravestone, Thomas Jefferson listed the three accomplishments for which he most wanted to be remembered: drafting the Declaration of Independence, founding the University of Virginia, and writing the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Enacted in 1786, the Statute for Religious Freedom is one of the most important documents in American history on the subject of religious liberty. It prohibited government interference or support for religion and became an inspiration for the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Jefferson originally drafted the statute in 1777, during the American Revolution. But the measure was opposed by Patrick Henry and many of Virginia's larger religious denominations, who feared that churches would decline without tax support.

James Madison, who guided the Statute for Religious Freedom through the Virginia Assembly, argued that the right to religious liberty was one of the rights for which Americans had waged the Revolution. Jefferson and Madison held that the right to freedom of conscience extended to non-Christians and even to nonbelievers. Jefferson felt that religion would flourish if left alone. "It is error alone which needs the support of government," he wrote. "Truth can stand by itself."

During the years following the Revolution, every state ended tax support for churches and religious qualifications for voting and office holding. Religious denominations had to compete for followers without government support.

There can be no doubt that the "American system" of voluntary support for religion proved to be enormously successful. Between 1800 and 1840, the proportion of Americans who were church members doubled. Older denominations--including Baptist, Methodist, and Catholic churches--grew rapidly, while a host of new denominations arose, including the Church of Christ, the Mormons, and new African American churches. Today, a higher proportion of Americans regularly attend a religious institution than in virtually any other western nation.

George Washington, Letter to Moses Seixas, 1790

President Washington's letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island, is a classic statement of the new nation's commitment to religious freedom. It is the first public declaration that Jews will be able to practice their religion free from government persecution.

In his letter, the President states that America is a government "which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution, no assistance." According to Washington, it is not enough to merely tolerate (put up with) other religions. Freedom of conscience, he insists, is an "inherent natural right."

A year after Washington wrote his letter, the principle of religious freedom was included in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

George Washington, Letter to the New Church in Baltimore, 1793

In this 1793 letter to the members of Baltimore's New Church, President Washington expresses his pride in living in a country in which "every person may...worship God according to the dictates of his own heart." In the United States, people may reach for the highest government offices, regardless of their religious beliefs.

Thomas Jefferson, from Letter to Danbury Baptist Association, 1802

In this famous 1802 letter, Thomas Jefferson calls for a "wall of separation" between church and state. This phrase has profoundly influenced the way that 20thcentury courts have understood the constitutional relationship between government and religion. It led the Supreme Court to restrict prayer in schools and the display of religious symbols in public spaces.

In 1802 an alliance of 26 Baptist churches sent a letter to Jefferson congratulating him on his election to the presidency. In their letter, the Baptists also complained that Connecticut's government discriminated against religious minorities.

Jefferson used his response to present his views on the proper relationship between religion and government. He wanted to explain why he, unlike earlier presidents or governors, refused to designate days of public prayer, fasting, and thanksgiving. And he wanted to answer the Federalist charge that he was an enemy of religion because he opposed government support for churches.

The President stated that religion is a matter lying solely between an individual and that person's God. In his view, the First Amendment absolutely prohibited the federal government from meddling in peoples' beliefs or from favoring a particular religious denomination.

Currently, the U.S. Supreme Court imposes a three-prong test to determine whether a public activity violates the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of religion.

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