Top James Madison Quotes on Religion

Religious liberty was important to the fourth president

Portrait of James Madison (Port Comway, 1751-1836), American politician, President of the United States of America, Painting by John Trumbull (1756-1843)

The fourth American president, James Madison, wasn't only known as the "Father of the Constitution" but also as a defender of religious freedom, which his quotes on religion reveal. Born in Virginia in 1751, Madison was baptized an Anglican. He studied under both a Presbyterian educator and the president of the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), who embraced the Presbyterian faith and logic alike.

Religious Persecution

When he returned from Princeton, Madison observed religious tensions between Anglicans and practitioners of other faiths. In particular, Lutherans, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists suffered as a result of religious persecution. Some religious leaders were even jailed for their beliefs, which infuriated Madison. 

Establishing Religious Freedom

A delegate of the Virginia Convention of 1776, Madison convinced the Legislature to adopt the mandate that "all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion" in the colony's constitution. The following year, Thomas Jefferson authored the Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, of which Madison became an ardent supporter. He wrote and distributed (anonymously) "Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments" to introduce others to the argument for the separation of church and state. Eleven years later, Jefferson's bill finally passed.

Madison's influence in the battle over church and state would grow when he was chosen to be the "architect of the Constitution" during the meeting of the founding fathers in Philadelphia in 1787. Like the Virginia Constitution, the U.S. Constitution called for the separation of church and state.

Familiarize yourself with Madison's support of religious liberty with the quotes that follow.

Separation of Church and State

The purpose of separation of church and state is to keep forever from these shores the ceaseless strife that has soaked the soil of Europe in blood for centuries. [James Madison, 1803? Origin questionable}
Nothwithstanding the general progress made within the two last centuries in favour of this branch of liberty, & the full establishment of it, in some parts of our Country, there remains in others a strong bias towards the old error, that without some sort of alliance or coalition between Gov' & Religion neither can be duly supported: Such indeed is the tendency to such a coalition, and such its corrupting influence on both the parties, that the danger cannot be too carefully guarded agst.. And in a Gov' of opinion, like ours, the only effectual guard must be found in the soundness and stability of the general opinion on the subject. Every new & successful example therefore of a perfect separation between ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance. And I have no doubt that every new example, will succeed, as every past one has done, in shewing that religion & Gov will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together; [James Madison, Letter to Edward Livingston, July 10, 1822,  The Writings of James Madison, Gaillard Hunt]
It was the belief of all sects at one time that the establishment of Religion by law, was right & necessary; that the true religion ought to be established in exclusion of every other; and that the only question to be decided was which was the true religion. The example of Holland proved that a toleration of sects, dissenting from the established sect, was safe & even useful. The example of the Colonies, now States, which rejected religious establishments altogether, proved that all Sects might be safely & advantageously put on a footing of equal & entire freedom.... We are teaching the world the great truth that Govts do better without Kings & Nobles than with them. The merit will be doubled by the other lesson that Religion flourishes in greater purity, without than with the aid of Gov. [James Madison, Letter to Edward Livingston, July 10, 1822,  The Writings of James Madison, Gaillard Hunt]
[I]t may not be easy, in every possible case, to trace the line of separation between the rights of religion and the Civil authority with such distinctness as to avoid collisions and doubts on unessential points. The tendency to unsurpastion on one side or the other, or to a corrupting coalition or alliance between them, will be best guarded agst. by an entire abstinence of the Gov't from interfence in any way whatsoever, beyond the necessity of preserving public order, and protecting each sect agst. trespasses on its legal rights by others. [James Madison, in a letter to Rev Jasper Adams spring 1832, from  James Madison on Religious Liberty, edited by Robert S. Alley, pp. 237-238]
It was the Universal opinion of the Century preceding the last, that Civil Government could not stand without the prop of a religious establishment; and that the Christian religion itself, would perish if not supported by the legal provision for its clergy. The experience of Virginia conspicuously corroborates the disproof of both opinions. The Civil Government, tho' bereft of everything like an associated hierarchy, possesses the requisite stability and performs its functions with complete success; whilst the number, the industry, and the morality of the priesthood, and the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the TOTAL SEPARATION OF THE CHURCH FROM THE STATE. [James Madison, as quoted in Robert L. Maddox:  Separation of Church and State; Guarantor of Religious Freedom]
Strongly guarded as is the separation between Religion & Govt in the Constitution of the United States the danger of encroachment by Ecclesiastical Bodies, may be illustrated by precedents already furnished in their short history [attempts where religious bodies had already tried to encroach on the government]. [James Madison,  Detached Memoranda, 1820]

Religious Persecution and Ill Effects

That diabolical, hell-conceived principle of persecution rages among some; and to their eternal infamy, the clergy can furnish their quota of impas for such business..." [James Madison, letter to William Bradford, Jr., January 1774]
Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects?
The experience of the United States is a happy disproof of the error so long rooted in the unenlightened minds of well-meaning Christians, as well as in the corrupt hearts of persecuting usurpers, that without a legal incorporation of religious and civil polity, neither could be supported. A mutual independence is found most friendly to practical Religion, to social harmony, and to political prosperity. [James Madison, Letter to F.L. Schaeffer, Dec 3, 1821]
We hold it for a fundamental and undeniable truth that religion, or the duty which we owe our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence. The religion, then, of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man: and that it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. [James Madison, Memorial and Remonstrance to the Assembly of Virginia]
Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprize [sic], every expanded prospect. [James Madison, in a letter to William Bradford, April 1,1774, as quoted by Edwin S. Gaustad, Faith of Our Fathers: Religion and the New Nation, San Francisco:Harper & Row, 1987, p. 37]

Ecclesiastical Establishments

Ecclesiastical establishments tend to great ignorance and corruption, all of which facilitate the execution of mischievous projects. [James Madison, letter to William Bradford, Jr., Jauary 1774]
What influence, in fact, have ecclesiastical establishments had on society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the civil authority; on many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny; in no instance have they been the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers who wish to subvert the public liberty may have found an established clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just government, instituted to secure and perpetuate it, needs them not. [Pres. James Madison,A Memorial and Remonstrance, addressed to the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia, 1785]
Experience witnesseth that ecclesiastical establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of religion, have had a contrary operation. During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What has been its fruits? More or less, in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution. [James Madison, A Memorial and Remonstrance,addressed to the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia, 1785]

Religious Freedom

...Freedom arises from the multiplicity of sects, which prevades America and which is the best and only security for religious liberty in any society. For where there is such a variety of sects, there cannot be a majority of any one sect to oppress and persecute the rest. [James Madison, spoken at the Virginia convention on ratifying the Constitution, June 1778]
Whilst we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess and observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which has convinced us. If this freedom be abused, it is an offense against God, not against man:To God, therefore, not to man, must an account of it be rendered. [James Madison, according to Leonard W. Levy, Treason Against God: A History of the Offense of Blasphemy, New York: Schocken Books, 1981, p. xii.]
(15) Because finally, the equal right of every citizen to the free exercise of his religion according to the dictates of conscience is held by the same tenure with all our other rights. If we recur to its origin, it is equally the gift of nature; if we weigh its importance, it cannot be less dear to us; if we consult the Declaration of Rights which pertain to the good people of Virginia, as the basic and foundation of government, it is enumerated with equal solemnity, or rather studied emphasis. [James Madison, Section 15 of A Memorial and Remonstrance, June 20, 1785, frequently misquoted to imply religion as the basis of gov't]
mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Cline, Austin. "Top James Madison Quotes on Religion." Learn Religions, Apr. 5, 2023, Cline, Austin. (2023, April 5). Top James Madison Quotes on Religion. Retrieved from Cline, Austin. "Top James Madison Quotes on Religion." Learn Religions. (accessed June 7, 2023).