The separation of Church and State, a concomitant of religious liberty, is a comparatively recent development in the evolution of human society. In fact, it is a uniquely American contribution to human progress. Many distinguished thinkers have proclaimed it America's greatest gift to mankind. Yet this cherished American principle has gained only limited acceptance throughout the world. All totalitarian regimes and authoritarian churches reject it. Even in the United States some forces are questioning its meaning and challenging its present day validity, particularly in the realm of education.

In view of the increasing attacks on the principle and the uncertainty of its meaning, a reconsideration of its origin and development is in order. Its fascinating history, reaching back into our European past, is a significant phase of the long, arduous, and often bloody struggle of mankind- to win total freedom.


Americans think of Church and State as distinct and separate entities, with different aims, duties, and powers, but in ancient societies religion and state were scarcely distinguishable. There was no "church" in the modern sense. Religion was a community matter merged with all other aspects of life. The religious uniformity of all the people was deemed essential to social stability. In earliest times the head of the state, considered a god, was also the priest, but as society grew more complex and religious duties became more irksome, the kingly and priestly functions were differentiated.

Thus the priest emerged, but under the control of the king. In theory king and priest were partners in the development of social solidarity, but as the priest gained a firmer grip on the people he challenged the king for supremacy. In most ancient societies, however, the king retained his power.

The Hebrew theocracy, which recognized the immediate sovereignty of God, was an exception to the general rule of royal supremacy. In the days of the patriarchs and judges religion was the state, but under King Saul and his successors the state gained the ascendancy over religion. With the decline of the monarchy, however, a new priesthood emerged, which, in the time of Jesus, led the opposition to the ruling Romans. A strong element among the Jews, however, favoured collaboration with the conquerors. Jesus advised his followers to render unto God and Caesar their respective dues.


The rise of Christianity seriously threatened the solidarity of the Roman Empire. Christianity's faith, loyalties, and values clashed with those of the pagan world. When many Christians refused to discharge their duties as citizens, a sharp cleavage developed between the early churches and the imperial government. Most Christians, however, followed Paul's advice to submit respectfully to imperial decrees if they did not conflict with God's commands.

The Roman state demanded unqualified obedience. The refusal of many Christians to participate in emperor worship was considered political sedition, since the emperor was also the pontifex maximus (highest priest). So the emperor, usually tolerant of non-state religions, banned Christianity and sometimes subjected its followers to barbarous persecutions. The Christians, however, thrived on persecutions. By the fourth century they were still in the minority, but the ecclesiastical aristocracy had become so powerful that Emperor Constantine thought it politically wise to come to terms with it.


During the fourth century the Christian church underwent an amazing transformation. It was changed from a voluntary association of humble and dedicated individuals into a powerful sacramental and authoritarian church closely allied with the state and empowered to compel all citizens to accept its creed. This identification of the church with the state was a staggering blow to the healthy spirit of toleration which had been developing in the pagan world.

The first fateful step toward an alliance of the Christian church with the Roman state was taken in 313 A.D. when Emperor Constantine issued his epochal Edict of Milan granting full equality to Christianity. Theoretically the state's official attitude became one of neutrality toward all religions, but Constantine and his successors favoured Christianity in practice. By the end of the fourth century Christianity had become the only legal religion in the empire. It claimed at least the formal adherence of the great majority of the population. Once persecuted, the church now turned persecutor and called on the state to crush dissent.

The unnatural alliance of the Christian church with imperial Rome was disastrous to the other-worldly and brotherly ideals of the church. The spiritual mission of the church became overshadowed by secular matters and the suppression of heresy. With its increasing temporal power came a lamentable decline in moral and religious zeal.

In theory Church and State were counterparts of each other, but throughout the fourth century the emperors actually controlled the church. Constantine and his successors, although nominal Christians, kept the title pontifex maximus and used the church to solidify their crumbling empire. They intervened in religious disputes, stifled discussion, persecuted dissenters, and virtually reduced the church to a department within the state. Such was the price which the church eventually paid for its privileged position.

With the decline of the imperial power in the West, however, the highly organized Roman church moved into the vacuum and assumed many of the functions of the state. Naturally it revised its theory about the proper relationship between Church and State. As enunciated by Pope Gelasius I (492–496) this new theory postulated a unified Christian commonwealth, in which the spiritual and temporal powers worked together in establishing God's kingdom on earth. Of the two powers, however, the spiritual was superior. Gelasius' dualistic theory became the orthodox statement of the Catholic position for centuries,

"Think not, my friends, the patriot's task is done,
Or Freedom safe, because the battle's won,
Unnumbered foes, far different arms that wield,
Wait the weak moment when she quits her shield."

(Joel Barlow)


In the chaos which followed the barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire the Roman Church, as the only remaining authority, rose to a position of great power. It modeled its organization after that of the Roman Empire, created its own courts and armies, acquired its own territories, and formed political alliances with the Frankish kings. It functioned, in fact, as both a state and a church. Medieval man, unlike modern man, accepted this politico-religious character of the church as a matter of course. The Gelasian theory envisaged a political counterpart of the universal Roman church. In the ideal society emperor and pope, each under the suzerainty of God, had his own sphere of action. The pope taught obedience to civil rulers, promoted man's spiritual welfare, and had the final word in matters of faith and morals. The emperor promoted man's temporal welfare, maintained order, and punished religious dissent. When interests clashed, the pope prevailed.

Finally, in the year 800 A.D. a political counterpart appeared in the person of a remarkable ruler, the Frankish King Charlemagne, who created, with the blessings of the pope, a new empire in the West. Charlemagne linked his empire with the Roman church and attempted — even by force — to Christianize his realm. He took a keen interest in church affairs and ruthlessly "converted" the heathen. He rejected, however, the church's view that ultimate sovereignty resided in the papacy. The Christian prince, he contended, was the sovereign head of society and, as such, should watch over the spiritual as well as temporal interests of the church.

With the emergence of the Holy Roman Empire under Otto the Great in 962 A.D. a long and exhausting struggle for universal power developed between emperors and popes. For nearly a century after Otto's coronation the emperors controlled the church, but a succession of able popes in the eleventh and twelfth centuries revitalized the church, restored its moral prestige, and re-established its supremacy.

Pope Gregory VII (1075–1084) precipitated the struggle. A frail man with an iron will, Gregory carried out a thorough reformation of the church and boldly challenged the right of the powerful Emperor Henry IV to select his own ecclesiastical vassals. Gregory contended that the spiritual power was superior to the temporal and that the pope could punish a ruler, even by deposition. Henry rejected these claims and contended that the temporal power was ordained by God and sanctioned by Paul. The long and bitter struggle resulted in the excommunication of Henry and the subsequent exile of Gregory.

The pontificate of Innocent III (1198–1216) marked the apex of papal power. Able, brilliant, and well-versed in the traditions of the church, Innocent considered himself the successor of St. Peter, to whom God had given authority "not only over the universal church but also over the whole world." He engaged in an epic struggle with Emperor Frederick II and won a resounding, if momentary, victory.

Despite occasional defeats, the church emerged triumphant in its prolonged and devastating struggle with the Holy Roman Emperors. But the victory was costly. The conflict so demoralized the church that it was unable to withstand the powerful forces of nationalism, humanism, and reform which accompanied the Renaissance and Reformation.

Prophetic of things to come was the decisive victory which Philip IV of France, the personification of the new nationalistic spirit, won over Pope Boniface VIII (1294–1303) the last of the great medieval champions of papal supremacy. Boniface was old but vigorous, arrogant, and ambitious. In his struggle with Philip over royal taxation of the clergy, be boldly asserted that the pope held both the temporal and spiritual swords and that every person's salvation depended on submission to the pope. Boniface excommunicated Philip and Philip's emissaries momentarily held Boniface captive in the town of Anagni. A few weeks later the aged pope died.

Boniface's pontificate has been called the "watershed between two eras." With it the political supremacy of the papacy came to an end., After Boniface the church fell on evil days. Held captive by the French kings, the papacy moved to Avignon, became embroiled in international politics, and grew worldly and corrupt. Following the papacy's return to Rome in 1376 the church was rent by schism for forty years. The time was ripe for a great religious revolt.


Despite the violent conflict between Church and State both "spheres" of authority cooperated to enforce religious uniformity. The history of the church from Constantine to the Inquisition is the revolting story of persecution and intolerance. Such martyrs as Huss, Savonarola, Latimer, Ridley, Cranmer, and others are well known. Even armed force was used to exterminate organized heresy. Such methods were, of course, inconsistent with the spirit of Christianity, but theologians justified "benevolent compulsion" as a means of saving misguided souls from perdition.

There was, however, a brighter side to this dismal picture of intolerance. Persecutions were by no means continuous or universal. Throughout the centuries, moreover, occasional voices boldly cried out against the inhumanity, corruption, and worldliness of the church. Such men as Justin Martyr, Tertullian, St. Hilary, and Alcuin loom large in the story of human freedom.

There were, furthermore, many religious groups which rebelled against the theological and political ideals of the church. Such sects as the Bogomils, Albigenses, Waldenses, Brethren of the Common Life, and Lollards were persecuted, but sowed many virile seeds which germinated in the liberal thought of the seventeenth century.


Contrary to popular thought, the Protestant revolt from the Roman Catholic Church in the sixteenth century did not immediately produce religious liberty and the separation of Church and State. It did, however, give birth to certain concepts and practices which hastened the realization of those ideals.

Although the Protestant reformers identified themselves with the modern forces of nationalism and capitalism, they remained essentially medieval in their Church-State theory, retaining the belief that Church and State must work together to achieve religious uniformity and social solidarity.


Three types of Church-State relationships appeared during the Reformation: the Erastian in which the state controlled the church; the theocratic, in which the favoured church used the state as an instrument to carry out its wishes; and the separatist, in which the ties between Church and State were severed. Separatism appeared only in its incipient form but was destined ultimately to triumph in the United States.


The Swiss Reformation was spearheaded by Ulrich Zwingli, reformer, scholar, and priest at the Grossmünster in Zurich, and a contemporary of Martin Luther. He delivered a series of discourses, begun on New Year's day in 1519, which ultimately led to the separation of the Canton of Zurich from the Bishopric of Constance. Thus, legal sanction was given in Zurich to the Reformation. Zwingli aimed at a reformation of government and discipline as well as of theology.


Lutheranism followed the Erastian pattern. There were some two hundred Lutheran bodies in the Germanies, each coextensive with an independent political unit. Luther acknowledged the prince as the head of the church and enjoined his followers to submit unconditionally to civil rulers. He made no distinction between the clerical and secular estates; "a priest in Christendom," he declared, "is nothing else than an officeholder." In his system the prince chose the religion of his subjects, arbitrated theological disputes, and suppressed dissent.


Anglicanism was also Erastian in type. The English revolt from the Roman church was more nationalistic than religious. The strong-minded Tudor monarchs who led the revolt were motivated mostly by personal and political considerations. Doctrinally, they remained close to Rome. With the aid of a docile Parliament the Tudors established a truly national church subservient to the crown. An Act of Supremacy made the king the Supreme head of the church with power to appoint the clergy, and an Act of uniformity required the use of a common liturgy and set up penalties for nonconformity.


Calvinism was a theocracy in the Hebraic and medieval tradition. To John Calvin, its founder, God was the exclusive sovereign. Church and State were partners in the execution of God's law on earth. The state was God's agency to promote true religion, punish heresy, and regulate the lives of all citizens according to the moral law as interpreted by the church. In the final analysis the eternal church was superior to the ephemeral state.

Calvin recognized the autonomy of the state and admonished Christians to submit to "the powers that be," even if tyrannical, but he insisted that rulers were subject to God, that Christians should obey God rather than men, and that the people had the right to resist oppression.

Calvin tested his theories in Geneva. There he set up a clerical dictatorship which regulated the conduct of all citizens. Severe penalties, including death, were meted out for such "crimes" as personal adornment, blasphemy, adultery, heresy, and disparaging the clergy. Pleasure-loving Genevese soon discovered that a dictatorship of the regenerate could be as intolerable as an inquisition or an omnipotent state.

Calvinism, in the form of Puritanism, became a strong dissenting force in England. The more radical Puritans denounced the Anglican Church as "idolatrous," "papistical," and "satanic," but most of them remained within the church. Only the left-wing independents — Brownists, Separatists, and Baptists — broke away from the establishment.

Calvinism strongly influenced American life. It became the basis of the theology and polity of the Congressional. Presbyterian, Reformed, and Baptist faiths; it glorified such typically American virtues as thrift, industry, sobriety, and honesty; and it contributed to American political philosophy such doctrines as the contractual nature of government, fundamental law, representative government, and the right of resistance. Yet it was a formidable obstacle to the achievement of America's two greatest contributions to religious thought — freedom of conscience and separation of Church and State.


A wave of intolerance and cruelty accompanied the Reformation. Contrary to popular opinion, the leading reformers did not believe in freedom of conscience any more than Catholic adversaries. They paid homage to the principle of toleration in their rebellious years, but once entrenched in power they ruthlessly crushed dissent. Luther's hatred of Catholics, Jews, Unitarians, and Anabaptists was unrelenting.

Calvin's intolerance was unbashed. His insistence on the execution of the brilliant physician and Unitarian, Michael Servetus, was the most notorious of several acts of inhumanity. Theodore de Beze, Calvin's successor, believed that "obstinate heretics" were "worse than parricides" and deserved death even if they recanted. Most of the lesser reformers were equally intent on death for blasphemers and heretics.


Notwithstanding the unchristian bigotry of the leading reformers, a healthy spirit of tolerance was also discernible. Men of various faiths such as Erasmus, Castellio, Curio, Celso, and Coornhert boldly protested against the mania of the times — "hereticide." Sir Thomas More in his Utopia and the kindly and cultured Sebastian Franck in his Chronicles likewise pleaded for tolerance.

Many of the left-wing dissenting groups which burgeoned in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries — such as the Socinians, Anabaptists, Quakers, and Baptists — crusaded for religious liberty. The English Baptists were especially active in the struggle for freedom. In the opinion of the great political theorist, John Locke, they were "the first propounders of absolute liberty, just and true liberty, equal and impartial liberty."


As a corollary to their advocacy of religious liberty, most of these dissenting groups, notably the continental Anabaptists, sought to separate Church and State. Their "separation," however, was more like that of the primitive Christians than the later American type which presupposed that Church and State would remain "Friendly" and that Christians would assume their civic responsibilities. Many of these sects attempted to withdraw from the evil world and set up communities of saints. They were, for the most part, social underlings and often held radical economic and political views. They aroused the fierce hostility of Lutherans, Calvinists, Anglicans, and Catholics alike, and were often subjected to brutal persecutions.

The English Separatists, Brownists, Independents, and Baptists held more constructive political views and exerted a greater influence on American thought than the continental extremists. The Baptists, when organizing a church in Amsterdam, voiced a belief which was to become axiomatic in American theory: "The magistrate is not to meddle with religion or matters of conscience, nor to compel men to this or that form of religion."


It is a widely held view that the colonists came to America in search of religious freedom. The religious animus, although perhaps subordinate to economic and political motives, was unquestionably strong, but the religiously motivated colonists sought freedom only for themselves; they had no intention of tolerating competing religions. In general, their institutions reflected old-world attitudes toward Church and State. They sought a wilderness refuge in which they could build a "holy commonwealth" according to their version of the truth. Religious liberty, of which the separation of Church and State was a logical concomitant, developed slowly and painfully and on uneven fronts throughout the colonial period.

All three of the Church State patterns which emerged from the Reformation — the Erastian, theocratic, and separatist — were transplanted to colonial America. The new environment, of course, produced numerous variations. The Anglican establishments in the southern Colonies, notably in Virginia, were Erastian. The Congregational (Puritan) establishments in the New England Colonies were theocratic in the Calvinistic tradition. Separatism without its anti-state bias took root in Rhode Island, Delaware, and Pennsylvania. One of the most significant developments in American history was the gradual conversion of the established churches to the separatist views.

In at least five of the Colonies — Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland — Church — State relations stood out in bold relief.


Unlike the Pilgrims in Plymouth, the Puritans in Massachusetts were originally Anglican, not separatist dissenters. They wanted merely to "purify" the established church from within, but once entrenched in the New World, they broke from the Anglican Church and established Congregationalism, the Pilgrim's faith.

In England the Congregationalists had been the radical wing of Puritanism, but in New England they grew conservative and sought a closer union of Church and State than had existed in the mother country. In Massachusetts they set up a "dictatorship of the regenerate" patterned after Calvin's Geneva theocracy.

Puritan philosophy assumed that civil government was necessary because of man's depravity. Church and State were "equal but separate" societies, but they should stand together for mutual protection.

In practice, the clergy and magistrates formed an interlocking directorate and concentrated power in the hands of an oligarchy of well-to-do and educated men. They feared democracy and limited the franchise to the "elect."

In the Puritan Church-State alliance the church gained financial support, a monopoly of public worship, and the state's aid in the suppression of heresy. Furthermore, the clergy wielded great political influence. In return, the church taught obedience to the civil authorities and allowed the state to control marriage and education.

Puritanism soon became synonymous with intolerance. It was the age-old, oft-repeated story of the persecuted turned persecutor. The oligarchs inflicted severe penalties, including whippings, mutilation, banishment, forced labour, and even hangings, on Catholics, Baptists and Quakers. The Quakers, however, received the harshest treatment. The English Toleration Act of 1689 ended outright persecutions, but discriminations against dissenters continued for years.


Notwithstanding the harsh punishment meted out to dissenters, opposition to the oligarchy increased. Foremost of the rebels was the remarkable Roger Williams, one of the greatest crusaders for freedom in history. Williams was a young clergyman with strong convictions. In his political, economic, and religious views he was generations ahead of his time.

Williams boldly maintained that the state was a man-made institution created solely for the common welfare. It had no right to enforce religious uniformity or to collect taxes for the support of the clergy. The church was a voluntary association with no more legal rights than a trading company. Church and State should be completely separate and every individual should have absolute freedom of conscience.

The frightened theocrats could not permit such flagrant deviation from the orthodox line. Since such views threatened the foundations of the Puritan structure, Williams' trial and conviction were inevitable. In 1635 they found him guilty of disseminating "newe and dangerous opinions" and ordered him deported to England.

Williams fled, instead, to the Narragansett Indians. From them he purchased a tract of land on which he and other Baptist fugitives founded the Colony of Rhode Island. There he began a "livelie experiment" based on "that grand cause of Truth and Freedom of Conscience." Williams welcomed dissenters and exiles, even Catholics and Quakers, and doughty "Little Rhody" soon became the home of "the otherwise minded."

Rhode Island's "covenant" was the most enlightened one in the Colonies. It separated Church and State, granted complete religious freedom and contained many humanitarian and democratic features. Williams' "livelie experiment" was a notable advance in man's struggle for total freedom. A huge statue of the "Independent Man" appropriately adorns the dome of Rhode Island's capitol today.


By the end of the colonial period Anglicanism was the legally established, tax-supported religion in Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas, and Georgia, but it never held as firm a grip on the people as the Congregational establishments in the New England Colonies. Virginia's "blue laws," for instance, were just as "puritanical" as those of Massachusetts, and her statutes against heresy and disparaging the clergy were just as severe, but they were unenforceable.

Because of Virginia's vast size and scattered population, and the calibre of the Anglican clergy, a rigid Church-State system was impossible. Large numbers of Baptist, Congregational, and Presbyterian dissenters slipped into the back country undetected and unmolested. Soon they outnumbered the dominant Anglicans. They were later to play an active role in the separation of Church and State in Virginia.


With the possible exception of Roger Williams, the Quaker William Penn contributed more to religious liberty than any other colonial American. Penn was an idealist who wanted to build a refuge for persecuted Quakers. He welcomed to Pennsylvania any industrious substantial citizen of whatever faith.

Penn's "Holy Experiment" was somewhat less liberal than Roger Williams' "livelie experiment" in Rhode Island. Penn granted freedom of faith and worship to all who acknowledged one God, but, under pressure from the home government, he withheld the privilege of voting and office-holding from Catholics and Jews. As in Rhode Island, Pennsylvania never had a tax-supported church. Pennsylvania's rapid growth and great prosperity demonstrated the wisdom of Penn's liberal policies.


Colonial Maryland had a stormy religious history, characterized by alternate periods of persecution and toleration. Lord Baltimore, the proprietor, desired a refuge for his Catholic co-religionists, but business considerations and British ecclesiastical law demanded the admission of other faiths. Baltimore's solution to his complex problem was mutual toleration of all Christian religions.

A heavy influx of Protestants threatened to overwhelm the Catholics. In self-defense, Baltimore and his Catholic supporters pushed through the legislature the justly famous Toleration Act of 1649, which guaranteed toleration to all Christians but decreed the death penalty for anyone who, like Jews and atheists, denied the divinity of Jesus. Although the liberty which it granted was far from complete the act was another significant milestone in the history of religious freedom.

But the victory for liberty was, however, only temporary. In 1654 the Protestants gained control of the Colony, emasculated the act, and suppressed Catholicism. The Baltimores regained power in 1658 and re-enacted the law. Thirty years later, however, Anglicanism was established and Catholicism again was proscribed.


By 1776 all the Colonies except Rhode Island, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware had official churches, but great strides had been taken toward religious liberty and disestablishment. Grievances remained, especially the payment of taxes for a privileged and unpopular clergy, but actually persecutions had virtually ceased. There was scarcely any interference with the "free exercise" of religion. Massachusetts ailed Baptists and abused Quakers in 1665, but twenty years later both sects worshipped freely. Nearly all the proprietors of the middle and southern Colonies granted considerable freedom in order to attract settlers. Thus the religious guarantees in the First Amendment were not as sudden a departure from the old traditions as is commonly believed.


Catherine Drinker Bowen, in her distinguished biography of John Adams asserts that "the American Revolution was engineered from first to last by a handful of men, by the sheer contagion of private correspondence." If this be true, then much more was the principle of separation of Church and State the result of the impassioned advocacy of a small group of leaders. Although all cannot be included, we wish to cite a few of the foremost and mightiest who by pen and voice were chiefly responsible for the incorporation of this principle in the American system.


The American Dictionary of Biography says of Isaac Backus: "In the realm of ecclesiastical polity in the second half of the eighteenth century, his was perhaps the keenest mind in America.... Though many others joined in protest against civil control of religion and there were other leaders in the effort to secure separation of Church and State, no individual in America since Roger Williams stands out so pre-eminently as the champion of religious liberty as does Isaac Backus."

With this judgment the historian John M. Mecklin agrees heartily. "Isaac Backus," he declares, "belongs to every age and to all men who love liberty."

Born in 1724 of a famous family in Norwich, Connecticut, Backus spent most of his life in close proximity to the Rhode Island fashioned by Roger Williams, which furnished the pattern of separation of Church and State and religious liberty to the American Republic. Nearby Warren Association (adjacent to Rhode Island) chose him in 1769 as its agent to present grievances against religious persecution. Backus henceforth devoted his considerable wealth, his brilliant talent, and his super-abounding energy toward converting the Colonies to the Rhode Island doctrine.

Because of persecutions suffered by his own family at the hands of arrogant authorities which would brook no dissent from a favoured church upheld by state taxes and police force, Backus broke with that church and joined a group of Independents because he could not bring his conscience into submission to such a high-handed order. His long 59-year pastorate at the Middleborough, Massachusetts, Baptist church, and his honourary degree from Brown University, which he helped to found and where he served as a trustee, are proofs of the lofty esteem in which he was held.

The most dramatic act of Backus in his work as agent for the Warren Association was his appearance before the First Continental Congress, accompanied by President Manning of Brown University, with an appeal for separation of Church and State. The proposal did not meet with immediate acceptance but the principle was incorporated in the Federal Constitution in the First Amendment in 1789.

Space is not available to discuss the many valiant battles Backus waged with the Massachusetts Legislature. In a letter of praise to George Washington he said something not to be forgotten: "The most dangerous man is a clergyman armed with the powers of government." Those whom he encountered proved this. Religion with absolute power, backed by the sword, is never as good as voluntary religion winning its way by reason and love.


Leo Pfeffer, in his authoritative book of Church and State, says: "Although the Baptists were the denomination by far most vigorous in the struggle for religions freedom and separation of Church and State, they were not alone in the struggle." Quakers and Presbyterians also participated. He mentions specifically the great Presbyterian, President John Witherspoon of Princeton University, the only minister of the gospel to sign the Declaration of Independence. He not only supported the separation principle, says Pfeffer, but taught that every church should be maintained by its own members without benefit of taxes from the state.

Witherspoon, born in Scotland in 1723, arrived in New Jersey in 1768, a contemporary of Backus. An ardent Whig, he had no sympathy with Tories. As the Revolution came on, the doughty preacher threw himself into the fight without reservation. John Adams said Witherspoon proved as high a Son of Liberty as any in America, and declared his students were of like mind. One of these students was James Madison of Orange, Virginia.

It is a singular fact that while Witherspoon repeatedly heeded the General Assembly of the Presbyterian churches and held the traditional view that pulpit should not discuss politics, he participated in New Jersey politics and was warmly revered for his part in the formation of the Republic. In public life, by temperament, he stood up stalwartly for his convictions and never could be accused of pursuing the easy path of expediency.


It seems anomalous that an Anglican, whose father was a vestryman in that established church, should turn out to be a graduate of Princeton and a most effective writer in behalf of religions liberty. This is emphatically so when we remember that Madison was a native of Virginia (born in 1751) whose laws against dissenters were as strict as those of Massachusetts. Possibly this accounted for his choice of Princeton and his refusal ever to be identified with the Episcopal Church.

Young Madison's views on the subject were expressed as early as January 1772, upon his return to Orange, Virginia, after his Princeton days. He wrote an oft-quoted letter to a roommate, William Bradford of Philadelphia, as follows:

Poverty and luxury prevail among all sorts: pride, ignorance among the priesthood; and vice and wickedness among the laity. This is bad enough; but it is not the worst I have to tell you. That diabolical hell-conceived principle of persecution rages among some; and, to their eternal infamy, the clergy can furnish their quota of imps for such purpose. There are at this time, in the adjacent county, not less than five or six well-meaning men in close jail for publishing their religious sentiments, which in the main are very orthodox. I have neither patience to hear, talk, or think anything relative to this matter. For I have squabbled and scolded, abused and ridiculed so long about it to little purpose that I am without common patience. So I must beg you to pity me, and pray for liberty of conscience to all.

However, he did not confine his efforts to correspondence, but dedicated himself to a remedial course of action. Irving Brant, whose definitive biography of Madison is generally accorded first place in respect to the fourth President, has this to say of his life-long consistency in conduct:

As a boy defending jailed Baptist ministers, as a young legislator helping to frame the Virginia Declaration of Rights, as a defender of his state against the devotees of religious establishments, as a member of Congress drafting the National Bill of Rights, as a President enforcing it, and as an elder statesman surveying the country from a Virginia farm, he never once narrowed his objective and never ceased to think of the dangers that lurked in small deviations.

One of Madison's most effective publications was his Memorial and Remonstrance on the Religious Life of Man, a notable anticipation of the Constitutional principle of separation of Church and State. It was addressed to the voters of Virginia in 1785, when the effort was made to construe the Constitution as forbidding only a single church, leaving the government free to help maintain all churches on an equal basis. Madison's paper refuted this false interpretation which keeps cropping up even to this day. Madison succeeded in 1785 in pulling out of the files and getting adopted that next year, Jefferson's proposed Statute on Religions Liberty. Jefferson was in France at the time, but he wrote his grateful endorsement of Madison's achievement. Indeed, this episode should be remembered and cherished by all who prize the obvious intent of the Federal Constitution to prevent state aid to sectarian instruction.


If Madison is known as the "Father of the Constitution," Jefferson is recognized as "the Architect of the Republic." Born in 1743, he was eight years older than Madison, and, receiving his education at the Episcopal College of William and Mary, lacked that early tutelage in religious liberty which equipped his younger friend for his special role. Jefferson was precocious with his pen, winning a reputation as a young man as the writer of resolutions and addresses. He was as ardent for freedom as Patrick Henry.

Jefferson absorbed many of the ideas of Roger Williams. A comparison of his language with that of Williams makes this obvious. "The political ideas of the Declaration of Independence," says Ralph Barton Perry, "while explained in the language and temper of the Enlightenment, were in full accord with the principles embodied in the earliest Colonial Charters."

We know how warmly Jefferson admired the Baptists and how many letters he wrote them in commendation of their support of him. Indeed, the phrase "wall of separation between Church and State" was coined by him in a letter written to the Danbury, Connecticut, Baptists in 1802. There was this difference between his viewpoint and that of Roger Williams. Williams resented control of religion by the state and Jefferson resisted control of the state by religion. Of course, the two added up to the same thing. In Williams and Jefferson the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries united to give us the priceless American way in Church and State.

Jefferson's immortal service as Governor of Virginia, representative of his country abroad and twice President of the United States, are well known. However, there were three achievements he wished remembered and directed that they should be inscribed on his tomb: "Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia."


A powerful man for procuring the incorporation of separation of Church and State in the American system was Elder John Leland of Massachusetts, Virginia and Connecticut. His name is inextricably linked with those of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. Near Orange, Virginia, is the Leland-Madison Park with its monuments commemorating the alliance of Leland and Madison in securing the First Amendment to the Federal Constitution.

This remarkable man began his career in Massachusetts but decided to volunteer his services for religious liberty where they were most needed. Hearing that a number of Baptist preachers, in Virginia were in jail for preaching the gospel he left Massachusetts in 1775 with the idea of seeking a seat in Virginia's legislative halls. Failing in this, he soon became immensely successful as a pastor and evangelist, preaching twelve to fourteen times a week. He baptized as many as four hundred converts a year, and organized churches all the way from the Catoctin Mountains to Yorktown. Candidates for public office became very conscious of the marked change in population attitudes.

John Leland was a great commoner. This giant man was not only a convincing speaker, apt at forming statements, but was a ready wit. He quickly won the enduring friendship of the two influential statesmen who were struggling for disestablishment of the favoured church and combating religious persecution. Undoubtedly some of Jefferson's Statutes on Religious Freedom were furnished by Leland in a resolution acknowledged by Jefferson.

After his conspicuous work in Virginia, where he had a position similar to that occupied by Backus, John Leland returned to Connecticut and Massachusetts, where he vigorously pursued his activities.

NEW AGE: Special Education Issue — February 1961