The University of Chicago has assembled an extraordinary collection of original documents from our nation’s founders devoted to religious freedom and the First Amendment. If you want to understand how our founding fathers thought about religious freedom, time spent reading here will prove extremely rewarding.
If you still want more to read after reading all of these, spend more time with the Founders Library, or email me for suggestions. There are many current books being published regularly addressing religious freedom issues, covering history, law, religion and politics. We will be happy to recommend books based on your interest.
“Memorial and Remonstrance,” James Madison. This is the single most important and influential document in our nation’s history of religious freedom. Madison wrote it as a petition to oppose tax funding of teachers of religion, a bill introduced by Patrick Henry in Virginia in 1785, not long before the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights. For several decades, the Supreme Court routinely cited this to support its decisions in church state matters, especially dealing with tax aid to public schools.
Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, Thomas Jefferson wrote it, James Madison secured its passage, and it is still good law today. It begins: “Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free…” You can’t understand American values of religious freedom without reading this.
A Letter Concerning Toleration. John Locke. Locke read John Milton and Roger Williams, but expressed his thoughts more clearly and forcefully than either of them. Our founding fathers were greatly influenced by Locke. This is short and very readable.
- “The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution for Cause of Conscience," Roger Williams. This is where it all really began. Williams was the founder of Rhode Island who established the first jurisdiction where people of all faiths were equal citizens under the law. His writing is wordy, but worth the effort. Williams was friends with John Milton, and no doubt greatly influenced both Milton and Locke, and by extension, Madison, Jefferson and the other founding fathers a century later. Williams argued for the complete separation of church and state. This link is to a short excerpt. Worth reading in its entirety.
Detached Memoranda, James Madison. Written later in his life, after his presidency, Madison more fully explains his views on religious freedom and the separation of church and state.
Letter to Danbury Baptists, Thomas Jefferson. No, Jefferson did not invent the phrase, “the separation of church and state.” He borrowed the concept from Roger Williams, who wrote about the church as a “garden” separated by a hedge or wall of protection from the state. But Jefferson popularized the phrase in explaining to concerned Connecticut Baptists that separation of church and state is what the First Amendment does.
- James Madison - Property CHAPTER 16 - Document 23, 29 Mar. 1792, Papers 14:266-68