The Constitutional Principle: Separation of Church and State
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Article VI, Section III

The No Religious Test Ban Clause (Separation clause)
Part V

The historical record continued:
The Virginia State Ratifying Convention

Researched and edited by Jim Allison

FEBRUARY 8, 1788

FEDERALIST PAPERS #52 (Excerpt from)

JAMES MADISON. The qualifications of the elected, being less carefully and properly defined by the State constitutions, and being at the same time more susceptible of uniformity, have been very properly considered and regulated by the convention.. A representative of the United States must be of the age of twenty-five years; must have been seven years a citizen of the United States; must, at the time of his election, be an inhabitant of the State he is to represent; and, during the time of his service, must be in no office under the United States. Under these reasonable limitations the door of this part of the federal government is open to merit of every description, whether native or adoptive, whether young or old, and without regard to poverty or wealth, or to any particular profession of religious faith.

FEBRUARY 11, 1788

Since the Federal Constitution has had so calm, dispassionate, and rational a discussion, and so happy an issue, in the late worthy Convention of this state, I did not expect any members of that honorable body to be challenged in a newspaper, and especially by name and by anonymous writers, on account of their opinion, or decently expressing their sentiments relative to the great subject then under consideration or any part of it. Nor do I yet see the propriety or happy issue of such a proceeding. However, as a gentleman in your paper feels uneasy that every sentiment contained in his publications (tho in general they are well written) is not received with perfect acquiescence and submission, I will endeavor to satisfy' him, or the candid reader, by the same channel that I am not so reprehensible as he supposes, in the matter referred to.

When the clause in the 6th Article, which provides that "no religious test should ever be required as a qualification to any office Or trust, etc." came under consideration, I observed I should have chose that sentence, and anything relating to a religious test, had been totally omitted rather than stand as it did; but still more wished something of the kind should have been inserted, but with a reverse sense so far as to require an explicit acknowledgment of the being of a God, His perfections, and His providence, and to have been prefixed to, and stand as, the first introductory ords of the Constitution in the following or similar terms, viz.: *We the people of the United Slates, in a firm belief of the being and perfections of the one living and true God, the creator and supreme Governor of the world, in His universal providence and the authority of His laws: that He will require of ail moral agents an account of their conduct, that all rightful powers among men are ordained of, and mediately derived from God, therefore in a dependence oil His blessing and acknowledgment of His efficient protection in establishing our Independence, whereby it is become necessary to agree upon and settle a Constitution of federal government for ourselves,* and in order to form a more perfect union, etc., as it is expressed in the present introduction, do ordain, etc. And instead of none, that no other religious testshould ever he required, etc. And that supposing, but not granting, this would be no security at all, that it would make hypocrites etc.;: yet this would not be a sufficient reason against it, as it would be a public declaration against, and disapprobation of, men who did not, even with sincerity, make such a profession, and they must be left to the Searcher of Hearts; that it would, however, be the voice of the great body of the people and an acknowledgment proper and highly becoming them to express on this great and only occasion, and, according to the course of Providence, one means of obtaining blessings from the Most High. But that since it was not, and so difficult and dubious to get it inserted, I would not wish to make it a capital objection; that I had no more idea of a religious test which should restrain offices to any particular sect, class, or denomination of men or Christians, in the long list of diversity, than to regulate their bestowments by tile stature or. dress of the candidate. Nor did I believe one sensible catholic man in the state wished for such a limitation; and that therefore the newspaper observations and reasonings (I named no author) against a test, in favor of any one denomination of Christians, and the sacrilegious injunctions of the test laws of England, etc., combated objections which did not exist and was building up a man of straw and Knocking him down again. These are the same and only ideas and sentiments I endeavored to communicate on that subject, tho perhaps not precisely in the same terms, as I had not written, nor preconceived them, except the proposed test; and whether there is any reason in them or not, I submit to the public.

I freely confess such a test and acknowledgment would have given me great additional satisfaction; and I conceive the arguments against it, on the score of hypocrisy, would apply with equal force against requiring an oath from any officer of the united or individual states, and, with little abatement, to any oath in any case whatever. But divine and human wisdom, with universal experience, have approved and established them as useful and a security to mankind.

I thought it was my duty to make the observations in this behalf, which I did, and to bear my testimony for God. And that it was also my duty to say the Constitution, with this and some other faults of another kind, was yet too wise and too necessary to be rejected.

P.S. 1 could not have suspected the Landholder (if I know him) to be the author of the piece referred to; but if he or any other is pleased to reply, without the signature of his proper name, he will receive no further answer or notice from me.

Source of Information:

Letter written by William Williams to the Printer American Mercury and published in same on February 11, 1788. It was also published in the Connecticut Courant March 3, 1788.The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, Vol. III. Ratification of the Constitution by the States, Pennsylvania, Edited by Merrill Jensen, Madison State Historical Society of Wis, 1978, pp 588-590.

FEBRUARY 18, 1788

I was afraid, and durst not shew mine opinion. I said days should speak and multitude of years should teach wisdom. Great men are not always wise, neither doth age understand judgment. I will answer. I also will shew mine opinion. The Spirit within me constraineth me. I will speak that I may be refreshed. Let me not accept any man's person, neither let me give flattering titles unto man. etc. Job, chap. XXXII.

It was an objection against the Constitution, urged in the late Convention, that the being of a God was not explicitly acknowledged in it. It has been reported that an honorable gentleman, who gave his vote in favor of the Constitution, has since expressed his discontent by an expression no less remarkable than this, "that they (speaking of the framers of the Constitution) had not allowed God a seat there!!

Another honorable gentleman who gave his vote in like manner, has published a specimen of an introductory acknowledgment of a God such as should have been in his opinion prefixed to the Constitution, viz.:* WE the people of the United Slates, in a firm belief of the being and perfections of the one living and true God, the creator and supreme Governor of the world, in His universal providence and the authority of His laws: that He will require of ail moral agents an account of their conduct, that all rightful powers among men are ordained of, and mediately derived from God, therefore in a dependence oil His blessing and acknowledgment of His efficient protection in establishing our Independence, whereby it is become necessary to agree upon and settle a Constitution of federal government for ourselves--* This introduction is likewise to serve as a religious test, for he says "instead of none, no other religious test should ever be required, etc."

In treating of a being who is above comprehension there may be a certain degree of propriety in using language that is so; if any reader's brain is too weak to obtain a distinct idea of a writer's meaning, I am sensible it may be retorted that a writer is not obliged to furnish his readers with comprehension. Neither is there any law to oblige him to write comprehensible matter, which is a great comfort to me; as I shall not stop to think, but proceed to give mine opinion! Should any body of men, whose characters were unknown to me, form a plan of government, and prologue it with a long pharisaical harangue about God and religion, I should suspect a design to cheat and circumvent us, and their cant, and semblance of superior sanctity would be the ground of my suspicion. If they have a plan founded on good sense, wisdom, and experience, what occasion have they to make use of God, His providence, or religion, like old cunning monks to gain our assent to what is in itself rational and just? "There must be (tis objected) some proof, some evidence that we the people acknowledge the being of a God." Is this a thing that wants proof? Is this a thing that wants constitutional establishment in the United States? It is almost the only thing that all universally are agreed in; everybody believes there is a God; not a man of common sense in the United States denies or disbelieves it. The fool hath said ii his heart there is no God, but was there ever a wise man said such a thing? No, not in any age or in any country. Besides, if it was not so, if there were unbelievers, as it is a matter of faith, it might as well be admitted; for we are not to bind the consciences of men by laws or constitutions.

The mind is free; it may be convinced by reasoning, but cannot be compelled by laws or constitutions, no, nor by fire, faggot, or the halter. Such an acknowledgment is moreover useless as a religious test-it is calculated to exclude from office fools only, who believe there is no God; and the people of America are now become so enlightened that no fool hereafter (it is hoped) will ever be promoted to any office or high station.

An honorable gentleman objects that God has no seat allowed Him. Is this only to find fault with the Constitution because he had no hand in making it? Or is he serious? Would he have given God a seat there? For what purpose? To get a name for sanctity that he might have it in his power to impose on the people? The time has been when nations could be kept in awe with Stories of gods sitting with legislators and dictating laws; with this lure, cunning politicians have established their own power on the credulity of the people; shackling their uninformed minds with incredible tales. But the light of philosophy has arisen in these latter days, miracles have ceased, oracles are silenced, monkish darkness is dissipated, and even witches at last hide their heads. Mankind are no longer to be deluded with fable. Making the glory of God subservient to tile temporal interest of men is a wornout trick, and a pretense to superior sanctity and special grace will not much longer promote weakness over the head of wisdom.

A low mind may imagine that God, like a foolish old man, will think himself slighted and dishonored if he is not complimented with a seat or a prologue of recognition in the Constitution, but those great philosophers who formed tile Constitution had a higher idea of the perfection of that INFINITE MIND which governs all worlds than to suppose they could add to his honor or glory, or that He would be pleased with such low familiarity or vulgar flattery.

The most shining part, the most brilliant circumstance in honor of the framers of the Constitution is their avoiding all appearance of craft, declining to dazzle even the superstitious by a hint about grace or ghostly knowledge. They come to us in the plain language of common sense and propose to our understanding a system of government as the invention of mere human wisdom; no deity comes down to dictate it, nor even a God appears in a dream to propose any part of it.

A knowledge of human nature, the aid of philosophy, and the experience of ages are seen in the very face of it; whilst. it stands forth like a magnificent STATUE of gold. Yet, there are not wanting FANATICS who would crown it with the periwig of an old monk and wrap it up in a black cloak--whilst political quackery is contending to secure it with fetters and decorate it with a leather apron!!

Source of Information:

Essay written by Elihu and published in the American Mercury, February 18, 1788. The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, Vol. III. Ratification of the Constitution by the States, Pennsylvania, Edited by Merrill Jensen, Madison State Historical Society of Wis, 1978, pp 590-592.

FEBRUARY 19, 1788

FEDERALIST PAPERS # 57 (Excerpt from)

JAMES MADISON. Who are to be the electors of the federal representatives? Not the rich, more than the poor; not the learned, More than the ignorant; not the haughty heirs of distinguished names, more than the humble sons of obscure and unpropitious fortune. The electors are to be the great body of the people of the United States. They are to be the same who exercise the right in every State of electing the corresponding branch of the legislature of the State.

Who are to be the objects of popular choice? Every citizen whose merit may recommend him to the esteem and confidence of his country. No qualification of wealth, of birth, of religious faith, or of civil profession is permitted to fetter the judgment or disappoint the inclination of the people.


Governor Edmund Randolph, a supporter of the Constitution, wrote to James Madison in February 1788 that he heard some ask, "Does not the exception as to a religious test imply, that the Congress by the general words had power over religion?

Source of Information:

The Godless Constitution, The Case Against Religious Correctness. By Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore. W. W. Norton & Company New York/London.(1996) pp

MARCH 7, 1788

"David" in the Massachusetts Gazete on March 7, 1788. His message was clear. Public virtue and civic peace required governmental encouragement of and involvement with Christian religion. He defended Massachusetts' "religious test, which requires all public officers to be of some Christian, protestant persuasion," and criticized the federal Constitution's "public inattention" to religion and the framers' "leaving religion to shift wholly for itself." The new nation was embarking on a futile course, for "it is more difficult to build an elegant house without tools to work with, than it is to establish a durable government without the publick protection of religion."

Source of Information:

The Godless Constitution, The Case Against Religious Correctness. By Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore. W. W. Norton & Company New York/London.(1996) pp 36

MARCH 10, 1788

THE LANDHOLDER presents his most respectful compliments to the Honorable W. WILLIAMS and begs leave to remind him that many dispensations in this world, which have the appearance of judgment, are designed in goodness. Such was the short address to you, and though at first it might excite an exquisite sensibility of injury, will in its consequences prove to your advantage by giving you an honorable opportunity to come out and declare your sentiments to the people. It had been represented in several parts of the state, to the great surprise of your friends, that you wished some religious test as an introduction to office, but as you have explained the matter, it is only a religious preamble which you wish. Against preambles, we have no animosity. Every man hath a sovereign right to use words in his own sense, and, when he hath explained himself, it ought to be believed that he uses them conscientiously. The Landholder, for the sake of Iris honorable friend, regets that he denies his having used his [Williams'] name publicly as a writer; for, though the honorable gentleman doubtless asserts the truth, there are a great number of those odd people who really think they were present on that occasion, and have such a strong habit of believing their senses, that they will not be convinced even by evidence which is superior to all sense. But it must be so in this imperfect world.

P.S. The Landholder begs his honorable friend not to be surprised at his former address, as he can assure him most seriously that he does not even conjecture by whom it was written.

Source of Information:

Essay from The Landholder to William Williams published in the American Mercury. March 10, 1788, and the Connecticut Courant March 10, 1788. The Documentary History of the Ratification of the Constitution, Vol. III. Ratification of the Constitution by the States, Pennsylvania, Edited by Merrill Jensen, Madison State Historical Society of Wis, 1978, pp 593.


There are many other rights claimed by the people besides these mentioned; but as they are of little consequence. I shall leave the discussion of them to the new congress themselves, who no doubt will be quick sighted enough to discern them, and prudent enough to Provide for their removal. But before I conclude, I must take notice of an incumbrance upon government. which have been more general in its operation than any yet mentioned; viz. religion. There has been but few nations in the world where the people possessed the privilege of electing their rulers; of prefixing a bill of rights to their constitutions, enjoyed a free press. or trial by jury; but there was never a nation in the world whose government was not circumscribed by religion. It intermingled itself so much with the Jewish system, that it is difficult to distinguish between some of the functions of the magistrates and those of the priests. In some stages of their commonwealth the high priest was also the supreme civil magistrate. Religion had also a decisive influence in the Grecian and Roman systems of jurisprudence; their augurs could in many cases put a negative on the decrees of their senates; and countermand the orders of their consuls and dictators. --ln our own times. the most absolute rulers in the world. find their power abridged by religion. The grand signior possesses an authority very similar to the principle of nature which I have stated; yet his power is limited by religion;--for wherever it interposes. the will of the sovereign must submit to its decrees. "When the koran hath prescribed any religious rite: hath enjoined any moral duty; or hath confirmed by its sanction any political maxim. The command of the sultan cannot overturn that which an higher authority hath established." Even the Venetian government. which of all other seems to be formed on the best model. (though much inferior to our new plan) is nevertheless embarrassed with religion; but what need I mention particulars, since every government in the world, as I observed before, has, in a lesser or greater degree felt this inconvenience. Indeed it seems to have formed an essential part of them; such a part as could not be expunged without annihilating the whole systems; and though this might have been done, yet the shallow brains of those antiquated legislators, could not devise a possibility of avoiding the same radical evil in any new system they could frame; so that this direful incumbrance has hitherto proved too powerful for the united efforts of all the legislators and philosophers that ever appeared in the world to conquer. But what is the world to the federal convention! but as the drop of a bucket. or the small dust in the balance! What the world could not accomplish from the commencement of time till now, they easily performed in a few moments, by declaring, that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office, or public trust; under the united states." This is laying the ax to the root of the tree; whereas other nations only lopped off a few noxious branches. This is purifying the fountain; the streams must of course be pure. By this provision the convention hath prudently removed the distemper from the head. and secured it from contamination.--the certain method to preserve the members from catching the infection. Religion. is certainly attended with dangerous consequences to government: it hath been the cause of millions being slaughtered. whose lives and services might have been of use to their masters; but in a peculiar manner the Christian religion. which has these several centuries past prevailed over a great part of Europe, and is professed by a great many of' the vulgar in this country. is of all others the most unfavourable to a government founded upon nature; because it pretends to he of a supernatural divine origin, and therefore sets itself above nature, its precepts are likewise so rigid and severe as to render it impossible for any gentleman of Fashion or good breeding to comply with them in any sense, without a manifest violation of decorum, and an abandonment of every genteel amusement and fashionable accomplishment; but another capital objection against this singular system of religion is, that it prohibits slavery, which is so essential to government. that it cannot exist, with any degree of energy, without it, for all the subjects of a good government ought to be slaves in a political sense; or as they were anciently termed, vassals; that is, their persons and property must be entirely at the will and disposal of their masters; which is ingeniously provided for in the new constitution. under the articles of taxation and discipline of the militia.

The congress must certainly extirpate from their dominions such a religion as this that is an enemy to so many good things. By this means the clergy may be annihilated, who have a;ways been an ambitious, aspiring and restless set of men, ever grasping at honours and distinctions, which is the unalienable prerogative of those of illustrious descent: they also by their address and cunning. gain an ascendency. and assume an authority over the people, which is only proper for the rulers to possess: but Perhaps it may be urged that some sort of religion is necessary to awe the minds of the vulgar, and keep them in subjection to government. I grant, weak, feeble governments, such as our present systems, may stand in need of the visionary terrors of religion for their support; but such an energetic government as the new constitution, disdains such contemptible auxiliaries as the belief of a Deity, the immortality of the soul, or the resurrection of the body. a day of judgment. or a future state of rewards and punishments. Such hug-bears as these are too distant and illusory to claim the notice of the new congress.The present state of punishments, which will be within their immediate reach to inflict, will answer the end infinitely better. But if some religion must be had. the religion of nature will certainly be preferred by a government founded upon the law of nature.--One great argument in favour of this religion is, that most of the members of the grand convention are great admirers of it; and they certainly are the best models to form our religious as well as our civil belief on. This religion also admits of proper degrees and distinctions amongst mankind: but the other does not: for it commands to call no man upon earth master or lord. From these remarks. I think it evident. that the grand convention hath dexterously provided for the removal of every thing that hath ever operated as a restraint upon government in any place or age of the world. But perhaps some weak heads may think that the constitution itself will be a check upon the new congress; but this I deny, for the convention has so happily worded themselves, that every part of this constitution, either bears double meaning, or no meaning at all; and if any concessions are made to the people in one place. it is effectually cancelled in another; so that in fact this constitution is much better and gives more scope to the rulers than they durst safely take if there was no constitution at all; for then the people might contend that the power was inherent in them, and that they had made some implied reserves in the original grant; but now they cannot, for every thing is expressly given away to government in this plan. perhaps some people may think that power, which the house of representatives possesses. of impeaching the officers of government will be a restraint upon them; but this entirely vanishes, when it is considered that the senate hath the principal say in appointing these officers, and that they are the sole judges of all impeachments. Now it would be absurd to suppose that they would remove their own servants for performing their secret orders perhaps. For the interest of rulers and the ruled will then be two distinct things. The mode of electing the president is another excellent regulation, most wisely calculated to render him the obsequious machine of congress. He is to be chosen by electors appointed in such manner as the state legislators shall direct: but then the highest in votes cannot be president, without he has the majority of all the electors; and if none have this majority, then the congress is to chuse president out of the five highest on the return. By this means the congress will always have the making of the president after the first election; so that if the reigning president pleases his masters. he need be under no apprehensions of being turned out for any severities used to the people, for though the congress may not have influence enough to procure him the majority of the votes of the electoral college. yet they will always be able to prevent any other from having such a majority, and to have him returned among the five highest, so that they may have the appointing of him themselves.

Source of Information:

"The Government of Nature Delineated or An Exact Picture of the New Federal Constitution by Aristocrotis," (William Petrikin) An exaggerated satire that appeared as a pamphlet in Carlisle, Penna, in March or April 1788. The Complete Anti-federalist, Vol. III, edited by Herbert J Storing, The University of Chicago Press, (1981) (Sec 3.16.14 -3.16.15) pp 205-208.

APRIL 10 1788

Madison answered Edmund Randolph's February letter as follows:

. . . As to the religious test, I should conceive that it can imply at most nothing more than that without exception, a power would ahve been impose an oath involving a religious test as a qualification for office. The Constitution of necessary offices being given to the congress, the proper qualifications seem to be evidently involved. I think too there are several other satisfactory points of view in which the exception might be placed.

Source of Information:

The framing of the Constitution of the United States, Max Farrand, op.cit., p. 297. Church and the State in the United States, Volume I, Anson Phelps Stokes, D.D., LL. D. Harper Brothers, (1950) p 524.

APRIL or MAY, 1788

Equally unsuccessful was the Virginia initiative in April and May 1788 to change the wording of Article 6 itself."No religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office of public trust under the United Stares" became "no other religious test shall ever be required than a belief in the one only true God, who is the rewarder of the good, and the punisher of the evil." This change was rejected.

Source of Information:

The Godless Constitution, The Case Against Religious Correctness. By Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore. W. W. Norton & Company New York/London.(1996) pp 37


GOV. RANDOLPH. Freedom of religion is said to be in danger. I will candidly say, I once thought that it was, and felt great repugnance to the Constitution for that reason. I am willing to acknowledge my apprehensions removed; and I will inform you by what process of reasoning I did remove them. The Constitution provides that " the senators and representatives before mentioned, and the members of the several state legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several states, shall be bound, by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States." It has been said that, if the exclusion of the religious test were an exception from the general power of Congress, the power over religion would remain. I inform those who are of this opinion, that no power is given expressly to Congress over religion. The senators and representatives, members of the state legislatures, and executive and judicial officers, are bound, by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution. This only binds them to support it in the exercise of the powers constitutionally given it. The exclusion of religious tests is an exception from this general provision, with respect to oaths or affirmations. Although officers, &c., are to swear that they will support this Constitution, yet they are not bound to support one mode of worship, or to adhere to one particular sect. It Puts all sects on the same footing. A man of abilities and character, of any sect whatever, may he admitted to any office or public trust under the United States. I am a friend to a variety of sects, because they keep one another in order. How many different sects are we composed of throughout the United States! How many different sects will be in Congress! We cannot enumerate the sects that may be in Congress! And there are now so many in the United States, that they will prevent the establishment of any one sect, in prejudice to the rest, and will forever oppose all attempts to infringe religious liberty. If such an attempt be made, will not an alarm be sounded throughout America? If Congress should be as wicked as we are foretold they will be, they would not run the risk of exciting the resentment of all, or most, of the religious sects in America.

Source of Information:

June 10, 1788, Debates of the Virginia Constitution Ratification Convention, Gov. Randolph speaking to the delegates. Page 204-205, The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Convention, Vol III, Jonathan Elliot, J B Lippincott Company 1888.

Continue to Part VI: The North Carolina State Ratifying Convention

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