On April 25, 1776, two delegates were chosen from Orange County, Virginia to participate in the general convention where the state would formally declare its independence from Britain and draft a new frame of government. One of those delegates was 25 year old James Madison whose “Baptist neighbors may have helped him to win election,” according to historian Lance Banning. Madison was not a Baptist, but he actively protested the persecution of Baptists at the hands of the state Anglican establishment. Indeed, numerous historians claim that Madison, the father of the United State Constitution, got into politics to protest the persecution of Baptists.
The young legislator arrived in Williamsburg for the convention on May 6, 1776, “a stranger to most Virginia leaders,” according to Irving Brant. Yet this newcomer to state politics was nonetheless responsible for a great leap forward in thinking on religious liberty.
George Mason was late arriving as a delegate to the convention and he was immediately placed in charge of drafting a Declaration of Rights. Mason was widely respected in the state for his opinions on government and Ralph Ketcham says, “Madison and [Thomas] Jefferson always deferred to him as their mentor in matters of political theory.” However, Madison was not content with Mason’s wording on religious freedom in the Declaration of Rights which included a clause saying “all men should enjoy the fullest toleration in the exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience ...” Madison prepared a change which he convinced Patrick Henry to present, but the body rejected the amendment because it was feared that the replacement language would disestablish the Anglican Church. Madison prepared a substitute amendment, this time asking Edmund Pendleton to bring the motion. The new wording passed, replacing Mason’s language on toleration with the radical new thinking that “all men are equally entitled to enjoy the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience ...”
According to Banning, Madison’s “final phrasing ... erected an ideal that no society had ever written into law.” Madison thus went a step further than John Locke’s advocacy of toleration and he was ahead of Thomas Paine who later called toleration a type of despotism. According to Ketcham, Madison’s “experience at Princeton and his struggle against persecution of Baptists in Virginia convinced him that ‘toleration’ was an invidious concept.” Ketcham also maintains that Madison’s success in replacing toleration with equality and free exercise in matters of religion “made possible complete liberty of belief or unbelief, and utter separation of church and state.”
And so James Madison, who got into politics to protest the persecution of Virginia Baptists, took his first step in a lifelong crusade for religious liberty.