The Founders on Religious Liberty and Toleration

Below are a selection of quotations from the Founding generation on religious liberty and toleration.

(1) Charter of the Colony of Rhode Island (1663)

“[N]oe person within the sayd colonye, at any tyme hereafter, shall bee any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinione in matters of religion, and doe not actually disturb the civill peace of our sayd colony; but that all and everye person and persons may, from tyme to tyme, and at all tymes hereafter, freelye and fullye have and enjoye his and theire owne judgments and consciences, in matters of religious concernments[.]”

(2) Thomas Paine, Thoughts on Defensive War (1775)

“[S]piritual freedom is the root of political liberty.

First. Because till spiritual freedom was made manifest, political liberty did not exist.

Secondly. because in proportion that spiritual freedom has been manifested, political liberty has encreased. . . .

As the union between spiritual freedom and political liberty seems near inseparable, it is our duty to defend both.”

(3) John Adams to Dr. Price (1785)

“We should begin by setting conscience free. When all men of all religions . . . shall enjoy equal liberty, property, and an equal chance for honors and powers. . . we may expect that improvements will be made in the human character and the state of society.”

(4) James Monroe, Address to the Virginia Assembly (June 20, 1785)

“We hold it for a fundamental and inalienable truth that religious and the manner of discharging it can be directed only by reason and conviction and not by force and violence. The religion, then, of every man must be left to the conviction  and conscience of every man to exercise it as these may dictate.”

(5) Virginia Act for Religious Freedom (1786)

“Be it enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

(6) George Washington, Letter to the United Baptist Church of Virginia (1789)

“[E]very man, conducting himself as a good citizen, and being accountable to God alone for his religious opinions, ought to be protected in worshipping the Deity according to the dictates of his own conscience.”

(7) George Washington, Letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island (1790)

“While I receive, with much satisfaction, your Address replete with expressions of affection and esteem; I rejoice in the opportunity of assuring you, that I shall always retain a grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced in my visit to Newport, from all classes of Citizens.

The reflection on the days of difficulty and danger which are past is rendered the more sweet, from a consciousness that they are succeeded by days of uncommon prosperity and security. If we have wisdom to make the best use of the advantages with which we are now favored, we cannot fail, under the just administration of a good Government, to become a great and a happy people.

The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.

It would be inconsistent with the frankness of my character not to avow that I am pleased with your favorable opinion of my Administration, and fervent wishes for my felicity. May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and figtree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.”

(8) Thomas Jefferson to the Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut (1802)

“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.”

(9) Thomas Jefferson to Dr. Benjamin Rush (1803)

“It behooves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself, to resist invasions of its it the case of others.”

(10) James Madison to Mordecai Noah (1818)

“I have ever regarded the freedom of religious opinions and worship as equally belonging to every sect.”

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