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First Amendment Advocate, Special Issue   January 2006

The Newsletter of the Oklahoma Chapter of Americans United


The Original Intent of the First Amendment

Advocates for Separating Church and State


John Locke

A philosopher who greatly influenced America’s Founding Fathers.


“This only I say, that whencesoever their authority (the clergy's) be sprung, since it is ecclesiastical, it ought to be confined within the bounds of the church, nor can it in any manner be extended to civil affairs, because the church itself is a thing absolutely separate and distinct from the commonwealth.  The boundaries on both sides are fixed and immoveable.

A Letter Concerning Toleration, 1689.


Virginia Baptists


At the same time that James Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance was circulating throughout Virginia, other petitions against Patrick Henry’s General Assessment Bill were circulating through the Baptist churches in Virginia.  This one, formulated and circulated in August 1785 by the Baptist General Committee of Virginia, garnered 4,899 signatures:


That it be recommended to those counties, which have not yet prepared petitions to be presented to the General Assembly against the engrossed bill for a general assessment for the support of teachers of the Christian religion, to proceed thereon as soon as possible:  That it is believed to be repugnant to the spirit of the gospel for the legislature thus to proceed in matters of religion; that the holy author of our religion needs no such compulsive measures for the promotion of his cause; that the gospel wants not the feeble arm of man for its support; that it has made and will again through divine power make its way against all opposition; and that should the legislature assume the right of taxing the people for the support of the gospel it will be destructive to religious liberty.


The original petitions are in the Virginia State Library.  These petitions are the primary reason why historians credit Virginia Baptists with being champions of church-state separation in colonial America.


John Leland



Foremost leader of Baptists in Virginia where the established Church of England had used state power to oppress Baptists.  Opposed to a Constitution that made no explicit provision for religious liberty, Virginia Baptists made preparations to nominate and elect Leland instead of James Madison to go to Virginia’s convention for ratifying the U.S. Constitution.  Leland withdrew after meeting with Madison and getting assurances from him that he would work to add the First Amendment and a bill of rights to the U.S. Constitution.  Leland said:

“Let every man speak freely without fear, maintain the principles that he believes, worship according to his own faith, either one God, three Gods, no God, or twenty Gods; and let the government protect him in so doing.” 

L. F. Greene, ed.  The Writings of John Leland. New York:  Arno Press, 1969, p. 184.


After the U.S. Constitution was adopted, Leland rejoiced that it would be possible for a "Pagan, Turk, Jew or Christian" to be eligible for any post or office in the government.

p. 191


James Burgh


Build an impenetrable wall of separation between things sacred and civil.  Do not send a graceless (military) officer, reeking from the arms of his trull, to the performance of a holy rite of religion, as a test for his holding the command of a regiment.  To profane, in such a manner, a religion, which you pretend to reverence; is an impiety sufficient to bring down upon your heads, the roof of the sacred building you thus defile.” 

Crito  Vol. 2, 1767.


James Iredell


of North Carolina, a future associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, had no problem with the possibility that Americans may choose “representatives who have no religion at all, and that pagans and Mahometans” may be elected.  How, he asked, “is it possible to exclude any set of men” without thus laying “the foundation on which persecution has been raised in every part of the world.”


As quoted in Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore, The Godless Constitution, W.W. Norton, pp. 38-39.


Freeman of Virginia


“The Church . . . is espoused as a chaste virgin unto Christ.  He is her husband; and she is the bride, the lamb’s wife.   And if so, was she to be joined to the State, it would be committing spiritual adultery, the most detestable of all enormities!    . . . This union we know, has often been productive of the most pernicious consequences.  They have always corrupted, and often ruined one another; as wine and water mingled, turns to vinegar.  The State, I say, has always corrupted the Church. . . . The very establishment corrupts the Church.  And such a Church will consequently corrupt the State.”

Freeman’s Remonstrance against an Ecclesiastical Establishment, 1777.



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