recent years, certain elements of the American right--mostly the "religious
right"--have made a virtual industry of the wholesale rewriting of the
history of religious liberty in the United States. Their propaganda has
taken many forms, from the relatively minor deception of peddling phony
quotations to the more systematic fraud of creating extensive and detailed
accounts of historical events that, while reinforcing, in every respect,
the propagandists' views, bear no resemblance to the actual historical
events. This sort of nonsense does a violent disservice to the great American
experiment in religious liberty. This page is our contribution to the defense
of that experiment and its principles from the charlatans who would consign
it to infamy.
James Madison, Sean Hannity, & the Question of Congressional Chaplains
An article from our friend at Left Hook!. On Sept. 4, 2002, Sean Hannity, Fox News Channel's cherubic demagogue, took on a guest who was opposed to congressional chaplains. Hannity pulled out James Madison to make his case and, in doing so, prepetrated a fraud on his viewers. Left Hook nails the bastard, and sets the record straight.
Barton Strikes Again
Another article from Left Hook! David Barton, religious right propagandist extraordinaire, used the resurgent controversy over congressional chaplains to launch another of his infamous revised drafts of "history," this time aiming his guns at James Madison. Maybe the best article yet on the Wallbuilders founder and his methods, this one demonstrates the systematic nature of Barton's deceptions, showing that he isn't merely a sometime-peddler of phony quotations and occasionally inaccurate information, but a full-fledged huckster who indulges in a comprehensive disinformation campaign.
Primary Sources & Histories
of Rhode Island (1886)
Excerpted from Thomas Armitage's epic-length "History of the Baptists," this is a detailed and often quite eloquent account of the creation and early history of Roger Williams' "lively experiment" in democracy and religious liberty.
Bloody Tenet of Persecution for Cause of Conscience (1644)
Excerpted from Roger Williams' work of the same name, wherein he argues in favor of the notion of religious liberty which underpinned his founding of Rhode Island. I clipped this from John Roland's excellent "Liberty Library of Constitutional Classics" site. Such excerpts, though quite good and offering a flavor of the overall work, don't even remotely do justice to Williams, but it would be a much greater crime to leave such a critically important figure unrepresented, so, until we acquire a copy of the complete volume, it's the best we can do.
A meandering tirade against religious toleration by Nathaniel Ward, one of the early Massachusetts Puritan ministers. Drawn from his "Simple Cobbler of Aggawamm in America," it offers a glimpse into the unsettling (and unsettled) minds of those early American Talibanists.
Maryland Toleration Act (1649)
The Calverts established the colony at Maryland with a mind toward providing a refuge for Catholics, who faced persecution in England. By about 15 years into the project, however, Protestant colonists outnumbered Catholics, and tension between the factions prompted the introduction of this law, an example of a policy of "toleration," rather than religious liberty. The act failed to produce the desired result, and was consigned to history shortly after being enacted. To the modern reader, it presents the Orwellian spectacle of a thing called a "toleration act" which, in its very first enactment, makes it a crime punishable by death to be anything other than a Christian.
Bloody Tenet of Persecution, Made Yet More Bloody (1652)
Roger Williams' original "Bloody Tenet" drew a rejoinder from, among others, John Cotton, one of the original Puritan founders of Boston, which, in turn, prompted a "Bloody" sequel from Williams, from which this bloody excerpt is drawn.
Flushing Remonstrance (1657)
In 1646, the Dutch made the unfortunate decision to burden their New Netherlands colony (in present-day New York) with a director-general by name of Peter Stuyvesant, a dictatorial slug who, among other charming habits, was, in contravention of the policy of his mother country, a ruthless persecutor of any non-conformists to the established Dutch Reformed Church. In 1657, on one of his rampages, he began issuing orders to persecute Quakers, at which point 31 courageous residents of Flushing created then signed this remonstrance, telling Stuyvesant in eloquent, reasoned language, where he could shove his anti-Quaker nonsense. One of the great liberal documents of the colonial era.
Disgraceful Persecution (1873)
John Abbott, in this excerpt from his largely sympathetic 1873 biography of Peter Stuyvesant (ch. 10), outlines the religious oppression imposed by Stuyvesant on the New Netherlands. Briefly covers the events surrounding the Flushing Remonstrance.
Dyer of Rhode Island (1896)
"Among the most pathetic chapters of New England history are those that recount the sufferings for conscience sake." So begins Horatio Rogers' 1896 account of the unfortunate fate which befell Mary Dyer and her Quaker companions in 1660, when they fell afoul of Massachusetts' murderous Puritan theocrats. Rogers paints a vivid portrait of the merciless brutality of the American Puritans toward dissenters, up to and including officially-sanctioned murder.
second Charter of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (1663)
Roger Williams had procured a general charter of incorporation for Rhode Island in 1644, but the Stuart Restoration in 1660 threw its legitimacy into question, so, to sew up the legalities and protect the colony from encroachment by neighbors, this second charter--the most liberal of the colonial era--was sought, and, in 1663, granted by Charles II. So pleased were the colonists with the final result that it served as Rhode Island's constitution until 1843.
Letter Concerning Toleration (1689)
"...all the power of civil government relates only to menís civil interests, is confined to the care of the things of this world, and hath nothing to do with the world to come." From John Locke comes something of a "transitional" work, in thought on church/state matters. Locke outlines a case for religious liberty, but declines to embrace its implications, falling back, instead, on an endorsement for a "tolerance" regime (one, in this case, which doesn't tolerate Catholics or atheists). This disconnect was apparently not missed by William Popple, the articles' English translator (Locke had originally written it in Latin), who writes, in his preface, that "Absolute liberty, just and true liberty, equal and impartial liberty, is the thing that we stand in need of... I cannot therefore but hope that this discourse, which treats of that subject, however briefly, yet more exactly than any we have yet seen, demonstrating both the equitableness and practicableness of the thing, will be esteemed highly seasonable, by all men who have souls large enough to prefer the true interest of the public, before that of a party."
Parable Against Persecution (1755)
Benjamin Franklin's clever satire of Biblical verse.
"We know well what the price has been ever since Christians began to dispute about dogmas. Blood has flowed, on scaffolds and in battles, from the fourth century to our own days." Voltaire takes up his pen to protest the horror inflicted upon a Protestant family in Toulouse by Catholic fanatics acting under color of public authority, and, marshalling historical, utilitarian, and even religious arguments, creates a strong treatise against intolerance.
Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty Against the Oppressions of the
Present Day (1773)
Isaac Backus, a Baptist minister from Massachusetts, was a longtime advocate of religious liberty. In this extraordinary document, he outlines, in some detail, the unpleasantness involved in life as a religious minority under the jack-boot of an ecclesiastical establishment, and argues, from a religious perspective, that civil powers have no right to make laws regarding such matters.
Plea Before the Massachusetts Legislature (1774)
More Isaac Backus. In these comments addressed to the Massachusetts legislature, he compares that governments' support of the Congregational Church to the British tyranny of which the American colonists were then wishing to rid themselves.
Draft of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (1779)
The Virginia statute is one of the great statements of freedom of religion, and its authorship is one of the three accomplishments in his life that Jefferson asked to have inscribed on his tombstone. Written by Jefferson in 1779, this original proposal was slightly reworked then shepherded through the legislature by James Madison in 1786.
excerpt from Notes on the State of Virginia (1781)
Writing in 1781, Thomas Jefferson outlines the ugly history of religious repression in his home state, which he properly characterizes as "religious slavery," and makes one of his most forceful and eloquent appeals for liberty of conscience. Magnificent work.
Bill Establishing A Provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion (1784)
As its title suggest, a bill proposed in the Virginia legislature for government funding of Christianity. Patrick Henry achieved immortality with his cry of "give me liberty or give me death," but as this act for which he agitated testifies, religious liberty apparently wasn't included in his version of "liberty."
& Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments (1785)
James Madison, with this remonstrance, led the charge against the proposed religious religious assessment in Virginia, on the grounds that it would represent a violation of religious liberty by intermixing church and state. He won the argument.
Liberty of Conscience and Civil Establishment of Religion (1785)
A chapter on religious liberty from Richard Price's text "Observations on the Importance of the American Revolution."
Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (1786)
In his autobiography, Thomas Jefferson, the author of the statute, wrote of how it came to be passed:
"The bill for establishing religious freedom... I had drawn in all the latitude of reason and right. It still met with opposition; but with some mutilations in the preamble, it was finally passed; and a singular proposition proved that it's protection of opinion was meant to be universal. Where the preamble declares that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word 'Jesus Christ,' so that it should read 'a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion.' The insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of it's protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination."
This is the final version of the statute, as adopted by the Virginia legislature in 1786. The late Jefferson scholar Eyler Coates prepared a point-by-point comparison of the differences in it and Jefferson's original draft here.
Washington's exchange with the Hebrew Congregation of Newport (1790)
As a consequence of Rhode Island's foundational policy of religious liberty, the largest Jewish community in colonial America resided in Newport. On the occasion of George Washington's 1790 visit there, Moses Seixas, the warden of the Congregation Yeshuat Israel, delivered the following address to the then-President. Washington's reply, stressing that the American experiment is one of religious liberty, and not mere toleration, follows.
excerpt from the Virginia Chronicle (1790)
John Leland, a prominent Baptist minister from Virginia and forceful defender of religious liberty, writes about the persecution of religious dissenters in Virginia prior to the American Revolution, rakes the Anglican church over the coals for its intermingling of government and religion, rejects the idea of mere religious tolerance (as opposed to liberty), and denounces the payment of chaplains from the public treasury. Quite a bit of ground covered.
Rights of Conscience Inalienable (1791)
A sermon from John Leland that largely appropriates--and, at times, plagiarizes--Jefferson's argument for liberty of conscience from Notes on the State of Virginia. Leland beats down some of the standard arguments in favor of religious establishments, directing particular attention to Connecticut. Also notable for having one of the best sub-titles ever (the complete title of the piece: The Rights of Conscience inalienable; and therefore Religious Opinions not cognizable by Law: Or, The high-flying Churchman, stript of his legal Robe, appears a Yahoo).
Sort of Mule Animal" (1792)
Thomas Paine on religious liberty, excerpted from "The Rights of Man." Paine offers some remarks on a subject at the core of most battles between today's liberals and the "religious right"; the very important distinction between tolerance and religious liberty. The former is merely an indulgence condescendingly granted by a ruling majority, and is the approach to church/state issues most commonly advocated by today's "religious right," while the latter holds freedom of religion as a fundamental right, and denies government has any authority over such matters. Paine continues with some pointed remarks on church/state unions, "a sort of mule-animal, capable only of destroying, and not of breeding up."
exchange with the Danbury Baptists (1801-1802)
An item frequently misrepresented by the religious right, this is the famous exchange wherein Thomas Jefferson described the American experiment in religious freedom with the phrase "wall of separation between Church and State." Also included is the original letter from the Danbury Baptist Association that occasioned Jefferson's response.
from Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Miller (1808)
A magnificent little mini-treatise on religious liberty. Forget a presidential proclamation of a day of prayer and fasting; Jefferson, writing as President, explains why using his office to even suggest a day of prayer and fasting would be an inappropriate intrusion of government into religion: "...civil powers alone have been given to the President of the U S. and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents."
from Thomas Jefferson to N. G. Dufeif (1814)
The subject: Censorship and religious establishments. Jefferson comes out with both guns blazing.
from James Madison's "Detached Memoranda"
The "detached memoranda" were a series of handwritten documents discovered in 1946 among the papers of Madison scholar William Cabell Rives. Undated, they're believed to have been written somewhere between 1817 and 1832. In this excerpt, Madison writes at length about his feelings on a number of subjects, principally, for our purposes in this section, religious liberty.
from a Letter from James Madison to Edward Livingston (1822)
Madison on religious liberty. Talks about the violence done to the principle by both congressional chaplains and presidential proclamations of prayer and fasting.
from James Madison to Jasper Adams (1832)
Madison further delineates his views on religious liberties, discussing the practices of other countries as well as those of the various U.S. states.