“We were not founded on the Christian Religion”: John Adams on Religion

John Adams

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John Adams: “Where do we find a precept in the Bible for Creeds, Confessions, Doctrines and Oaths, and whole carloads of other trumpery that we find religion encumbered with in these days?” Just six years after the First Amendment became an official part of the Constitution, the U.S. Senate read (in the English language) and ratified a treaty with Tripoli which included in Article 11 the following assertion: “The government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion” (John Adams, 1797, Hunter Miller, ed., Treaties and other International Acts, 2:365). via Thomas Jefferson.

James Madison on Religion

Philadelphia - Old City: Second Bank Portrait ...

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James Madison:

“What influence in fact have Christian ecclesiastical establishments had on civil society? In many instances they have been upholding the thrones of political tyranny. In no instance have they been seen as the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers who wished to subvert the public liberty have found in the clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just government, instituted to secure and perpetuate liberty, does not need the clergy.”

via Thomas Jefferson. earlyamericanhistory.net

Religion and the Federal Government: PART 2 (Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, Library of Congress Exhibition)

THE STATE BECOMES THE CHURCH:

JEFFERSON AND MADISON

It is no exaggeration to say that on Sundays in Washington during the administrations of Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809) and of James Madison (1809-1817) the state became the church. Within a year of his inauguration, Jefferson began attending church services in the House of Representatives. Madison followed Jefferson’s example, although unlike Jefferson, who rode on horseback to church in the Capitol, Madison came in a coach and four. Worship services in the House–a practice that continued until after the Civil War–were acceptable to Jefferson because they were nondiscriminatory and voluntary. Preachers of every Protestant denomination appeared. (Catholic priests began officiating in 1826.) As early as January 1806 a female evangelist, Dorothy Ripley, delivered a camp meeting-style exhortation in the House to Jefferson, Vice President Aaron Burr, and a “crowded audience.” Throughout his administration Jefferson permitted church services in executive branch buildings. The Gospel was also preached in the Supreme Court chambers.

Jefferson’s actions may seem surprising because his attitude toward the relation between religion and government is usually thought to have been embodied in his recommendation that there exist “a wall of separation between church and state.” In that statement, Jefferson was apparently declaring his opposition, as Madison had done in introducing the Bill of Rights, to a “national” religion. In attending church services on public property, Jefferson and Madison consciously and deliberately were offering symbolic support to religion as a prop for republican government.

via Religion and the Federal Government: PART 2 (Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, Library of Congress Exhibition).

Religion and the State Governments (Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, Library of Congress Exhibition)

PERSECUTION IN VIRGINIA

In Virginia, religious persecution, directed at Baptists and, to a lesser degree, at Presbyterians, continued after the Declaration of Independence. The perpetrators were members of the Church of England, sometimes acting as vigilantes but often operating in tandem with local authorities. Physical violence was usually reserved for Baptists, against whom there was social as well as theological animosity. A notorious instance of abuse in 1771 of a well-known Baptist preacher, “Swearin Jack” Waller, was described by the victim: “The Parson of the Parish [accompanied by the local sheriff] would keep running the end of his horsewhip in [Waller’s] mouth, laying his whip across the hymn book, etc. When done singing [Waller] proceeded to prayer. In it he was violently jerked off the stage; they caught him by the back part of his neck, beat his head against the ground, sometimes up and sometimes down, they carried him through the gate . . . where a gentleman [the sheriff] gave him . . . twenty lashes with his horsewhip.”

The persecution of Baptists made a strong, negative impression on many patriot leaders, whose loyalty to principles of civil liberty exceeded their loyalty to the Church of England in which they were raised. James Madison was not the only patriot to despair, as he did in 1774, that the “diabolical Hell conceived principle of persecution rages” in his native colony. Accordingly, civil libertarians like James Madison and Thomas Jefferson joined Baptists and Presbyterians to defeat the campaign for state financial involvement in religion in Virginia.

Unlawful Preaching

Many Baptist ministers refused on principle to apply to local authorities for a license to preach, as Virginia law required, for they considered it intolerable to ask another man’s permission to preach the Gospel. As a result, they exposed themselves to arrest for “unlawfull Preaching,” as Nathaniel Saunders (1735-1808) allegedly had done. Saunders, at this time, was the minister of the Mountain Run Baptist Church in Orange County, Virginia.

Summons to Nathaniel Saunders, August 22, 1772 [cover] – [summons]

Manuscript

Virginia Baptist Historical Society (140)

Dunking of Baptist Ministers

David Barrow was pastor of the Mill Swamp Baptist Church in the Portsmouth, Virginia, area. He and a “ministering brother,” Edward Mintz, were conducting a service in 1778, when they were attacked. “As soon as the hymn was given out, a gang of well-dressed men came up to the stage . . . and sang one of their obscene songs. Then they took to plunge both of the preachers. They plunged Mr. Barrow twice, pressing him into the mud, holding him down, nearly succeeding in drowning him . . . His companion was plunged but once . . . Before these persecuted men could change their clothes they were dragged from the house, and driven off by these enraged churchmen.”

The Dunking of David Barrow and Edward Mintz in the Nansemond River, 1778

Oil on canvas by Sidney King, 1990

Virginia Baptist Historical Society (141)

Petition Against Religious Taxation

This anti-religious tax petition (below), composed, scholars have assumed, by a Baptist and clearly stating the Baptist point of view, was printed in large numbers and circulated throughout central and southern Virginia. It was signed by more citizens than any other document opposing Patrick Henry’s bill, including James Madison’s more famous Memorial and Remonstrance. What distinguished this petition from others was its strong evangelical flavor. It argued that deism, which many of the temporary allies of the Baptists espoused, could be “put to open shame” by the exertions of preachers who were “inwardly moved by the Holy Ghost.” It also presented the Baptist reading of history, namely, that the state ruined, rather than helped, religion by supporting it.

Petition to the Virginia General Assembly, Westmoreland County,

Virginia, November 27, 1785 [left page] – [right page]

The Library of Virginia (139)

Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance

Madison’s principal written contribution to the contest over Henry’s general assessment bill was his Memorial and Remonstrance. Madison’s petition has grown in stature over time and is now regarded as one of the most significant American statements on the issue of the relationship of government to religion. Madison grounded his objection to Henry’s bill on the civil libertarian argument that it violated the citizen’s “unalienable” natural right to freedom of religion and on the practical argument that government’s embrace of religion had inevitably harmed it. Thus, he combined and integrated the two principal arguments used by opponents of Henry’s bill.

via Religion and the State Governments (Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, Library of Congress Exhibition).

Bill of Rights Transcript

The Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments t...

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The Bill of Rights: A Transcription

The Preamble to The Bill of Rights

Congress of the United States

begun and held at the City of New-York, on

Wednesday the fourth of March, one thousand seven hundred and eighty nine.

THE Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.

RESOLVED by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America, in Congress assembled, two thirds of both Houses concurring, that the following Articles be proposed to the Legislatures of the several States, as amendments to the Constitution of the United States, all, or any of which Articles, when ratified by three fourths of the said Legislatures, to be valid to all intents and purposes, as part of the said Constitution; viz.

ARTICLES in addition to, and Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America, proposed by Congress, and ratified by the Legislatures of the several States, pursuant to the fifth Article of the original Constitution.

Note: The following text is a transcription of the first ten amendments to the Constitution in their original form. These amendments were ratified December 15, 1791, and form what is known as the “Bill of Rights.”

Amendment I

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 peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Amendment II

A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

Amendment III

No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

Amendment IV

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Amendment V

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

Amendment VI

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.

Amendment VII

In Suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any Court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

Amendment VIII

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

Amendment IX

The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

Amendment X

The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

via Bill of Rights Transcript.