Baptists in Virginia were fiercely persecuted by other Christians for a period of about 20 years beginning around 1760. The Anglican Church was the official state church and the Anglican establishment did not look kindly on other faith groups. Baptists were singled out for sometimes brutal assaults because they were a fast growing group that often challenged the uniting of church and state. They were the victims of mob violence, their marriages not recognized by the state, they were fined and they were jailed. Indeed, from 1768 to 1774, more than half of the Baptist ministers in Virginia were imprisoned at some time for preaching.
On this Independence Day weekend I decided to take a look at the way the persecution of Virginia Baptists influence one of the founders of this nation: James Madison. Previously I have written about one legendary account in which the connection between Baptists and Madison played an important role in the establishment of the Bill of Rights. Today I will set that story aside in order to underscore the way Baptists impacted the father of the Constitution more generally.
As a young man Madison was utterly appalled by the persecution of Virginia Baptists. He graduated from Princeton (then called the College of New Jersey) in 1771 but stayed an additional six months in part because of ill health but also to study Hebrew and other subjects. From 1772-1775, Madison stayed at the family estate, Montpelier, which is north of Charlottesville, Virginia. Perhaps he heard about the ill treatment of Baptists from his father who, as a vestryman in the Anglican Church, was charged with enforcing laws against religious dissenters. The young Madison’s outrage is clear in a letter dated January 24, 1774 that he sent to his college friend, William Bradford:
That diabolical Hell conceived principle of persecution rages among some and to their eternal Infamy the Clergy can furnish their Quota of Imps for such business. This vexes me the most of any thing whatever. There are at this [time?] in the adjacent County not less than 5 or 6 well meaning men in close [jail] for publishing their religious Sentiments which in the main are very orthodox.
The jailed men to which Madison referred were six Baptist preachers incarcerated in Culpeper County in early 1774.
Concerning the abuse of Baptists, Madison notes in the same letter that he had “squabbled and scolded abused and ridiculed so long about it, to so little purpose that [he was] without common patience.” The degree to which the future President of the United States intervened on behalf of persecuted Baptists is unclear. Joseph Loconte states that Madison visited the six jailed preachers in Culpeper County. Joseph Martin Dawson cites a few lines from the New Universal Cyclopaedia, published in 1876, that indicate Madison repeatedly appeared in “the Court of his own county to defend the Baptists.” When he was over 80, Madison himself wrote that he “spared no exertion to save [Baptists] from imprisonment [and] to promote their release from it.” While it is unclear whether Madison visited jailed Baptists or defended them in court, his writings leave no doubt that he was infuriated by their imprisonment and that he made his views known. Richard Labunski affirms the difficulty in determining the extent of Madison’s efforts on behalf of Virginia Baptists, but he concludes that, in the setting of Anglican dominated Virginia, Madison was courageous to criticize the persecution of Baptists.
Robert Alley and Lance Banning see the mistreatment of Virginia Baptists as the factor that drove James Madison, later the father of the Constitution of the United States, to get into politics. This view is strengthened by the fact that Madison’s zeal for the subject was undiminished when he again wrote his friend, Bradford, in April, 1774 to inform him that the Virginia legislature would soon meet to consider petitions from “Dissenters” including those of “Persecuted Baptists.” In the same letter his keen interest is evident in a careful assessment of the political landscape confronting dissenters as they sought “greater liberty in matters of Religion.”
Beyond the role that the persecution of Virginia Baptists played in Madison’s initial decision to enter politics, it appears that the oppression of Baptists was important to his future advocacy of republican government. In Federalist Paper Ten, Madison explains that pure democracy can be its own form of tyranny in which strict majority rule can infringe on the fundamental rights of a minority. He does not explicitly mention the jailed Baptists, but they appear to have been on his mind nonetheless. Madison thought the basic rights of a "minor party" may be imperiled by "the superior force of an interested and overbearing majority." He wrote that "zeal for different opinions concerning religion … have … divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other … " He warned that this “strong … propensity” has been “sufficient to kindle … unfriendly passions and excite … violent conflicts." Therefore Madison proposed a representative republic as the solution to the oppressive tendencies of pure democracy. His language is not conclusive but it appears likely that personal experience with an “overbearing majority” may have weighed on the father of the Constitution as he pressed for a republican form of government.
Garrett Ward Sheldon attributes Madison’s desire for a representative republic to a “Calvinist suspicion about the motives of sinful” humans that he learned in his culture in general and particularly under John Witherspoon at Princeton. There is no question that Madison’s education at Princeton, with its emphasis on Calvinism, was a major influence in all aspects of his life including his political philosophy. Madison biographer Irving Brant sees “the germ” of Madison’s dedication to religious liberty in his 1769 choice to enroll in Princeton rather than William and Mary. At that time the president of William and Mary College “was the head of a powerful group seeking to establish an American Episcopate with himself as the head.” On the other hand, an observer of Princeton wrote in 1769 that the school would be “a bulwark against the Episcopacy.” Brant concludes, “There is more reason to believe that hostility to church establishment led Madison to Princeton, than that the choice of a school fixed his principles.” While Brant is correct that Madison’s choice of Princeton probably provides a clue to his developing views on religious liberty, Sheldon is no doubt accurate in his contention that Madison’s Calvinism-steeped studies influenced the political philosophy of the future president.
However, the obvious passion excited in Madison with the imprisonment of Virginia Baptists made an indelible mark on the father of the Constitution. As mentioned above, he was still writing about “the persecution instituted in his County … against the preachers belonging to the sect of Baptists” when he was beyond 80 years of age. Some of the language of Federalist Paper Ten seems to betray personal experience with a tyrannical majority that could easily be connected to Madison’s rage against the oppression of Baptists. It is fair to conclude that, more than theoretical classroom discussions, the real life example of human depravity seen in the mistreatment of Baptists inspired Madison’s dedication to a form of government that avoided the despotic dangers of pure democracy.
Brant considers Madison’s experience with persecuted Baptists a significant factor in his “lifelong zeal for religious freedom.” For Robert Rutland, Madison’s Princeton experience coupled with his discussions with his father about the oppression of Baptists shaped “a lifelong aversion to religious bigotry” in the mind of the father of the Constitution. So it was that oppression at the hands of the religious establishment inspired not only Baptist dedication to religious liberty but that of one of the most noted founders of the United States. It appears that James Madison, outraged by the mistreatment of Baptists, was serious when he requested that his friend, William Bradford, “[P]ity me and pray for Liberty of conscience. . .” And Baptists had a lot to do with that passion.