Religious Rights

When Madison declared that in "a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects," he was alluding to recent developments in the colonies' stances on religious toleration.

Religious Diversity in the Thirteen Colonies


While popular perception has early colonists like the Pilgrims and Puritans coming to the New World in order to form more religiously tolerant societies, the reality is quite different. While many who came to North America did so to escape religious persecution, the societies they founded were often as intolerant as those they had left behind. Many colonies had "established churches" - a denomination that received government funding. Some states, such as Massachusetts, made voting and other rights contingent on membership in the state church.

The colonies of British North America had a great degree of religious diversity. While the "established church" in most states was either Anglican or Congregationalist, smaller groups of Quakers, Mennonites, Lutherans, Catholics and Jews could be found in various colonies; by the late 18th century, these were joined by Baptists, Methodists, Unitarians, and Presbyterians. Many members of these groups faced persecution by colonial authorities - Quakers like Mary Dyer were executed in Massachusetts, while Baptists and evangelical Methodists were labeled "schismaticks" and jailed in Virginia.1

The Emergence of Religious Toleration

The Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, drafted in 1777 by Thomas Jefferson and enacted in 1786, was a seminal step towards religious toleration in the colonies. In it, Jefferson acknowledged that "all attempts to influence [the faith of others] by temporal punishment or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy author of our religion" - in other words, attempts to impose one's beliefs on another were counterproductive and against God's will.


Just as Jefferson's Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom promoted religious toleration in a state with a diverse number of sects, Madison hoped that the constitution would allow different interest groups to coexist, playing against each other to prevent any one faction from taking power.

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