Answering Matt Barber on Jefferson and the First Amendment

Continuing the Liberty Law School misunderstanding of the First Amendment, Matt Barber cites Thomas Jefferson out of context in a recent WND column. Following David Barton, Barber wants the intent of the First Amendment to cover denominations of Christianity.  Barber writes:

Now what did they mean by “… shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion?”

Well, in a letter to Benjamin Rush, a fellow-signer of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson – often touted by the left as the great church-state separationist – answered this question. The First Amendment’s Establishment Clause was simply intended to restrict Congress from affirmatively “establishing,” through federal legislation, a national Christian denomination (similar to the Anglican Church of England).

As Jefferson put it: “[T]he clause of the Constitution” covering “freedom of religion” was intended to necessarily preclude “an establishment of a particular form of Christianity through the United States.”

Before I set Jefferson’s word in proper context, let me note that law attorney Eugene Volokh addressed this issue here, and I have here and here. Volokh refers to the North Carolina Ratifying Convention which I will return to shortly.

The Jefferson quote above comes in a letter of response to Benjamin Rush. To understand Jefferson, we must know to what in Rush’s letter he was responding.  On August 22, 1800, Rush wrote Jefferson about several matters, one of which was to remind him to explain his views on religion. In doing so, Rush offered his view of Christianity in relationship to republicanism as a form of government. Rush wrote:

You promised me when we parted, to read Paley’s last work, and to send me your religious Creed.–I have always considered Christianity as the strong ground of Republicanism. Its Spirit is opposed, not only to the Splendor, but even to the very forms of monarchy, and many” of its precepts have for their Objects, republican liberty and equality, as well as simplicity, integrity and Economy in government. It is only necessary for Republicanism to ally itself to the christian Religion, to overturn all the corrupted political and religious institutions in the world. (emphasis in original)

Rush seemed to be making a clear pitch for some kind of alliance between republicanism and Christianity. What was Jefferson’s response? On September 23, 1800, he wrote to Rush:

I promised you a letter on Christianity, which I have not forgotten. On the contrary, it is because I have reflected on it, that I find much more time necessary for it than I can at present dispose of. I have a view of the subject which ought to displease neither the rational Christian nor Deists, and would reconcile many to a character they have too hastily rejected. I do not know that it would reconcile the _genus irritabile vatum_ who are all in arms against me. Their hostility is on too interesting ground to be softened.

First, he addressed Rush’s question about his personal religion. Jefferson would not provide Rush with a lengthy outline of his views until 1803. However, in this letter, he deferred that topic and goes on to the then current matter of Christianity and politics.

The delusion into which the X. Y. Z. plot shewed it possible to push the people; the successful experiment made under the prevalence of that delusion on the clause of the constitution, which, while it secured the freedom of the press, covered also the freedom of religion, had given to the clergy a very favorite hope of obtaining an establishment of a particular form of Christianity thro’ the U. S.; and as every sect believes its own form the true one, every one perhaps hoped for his own, but especially the Episcopalians & Congregationalists. The returning good sense of our country threatens abortion to their hopes, & they believe that any portion of power confided to me, will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly; for I have sworn upon the altar of god, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. 

First, Jefferson referred to the XYZ affair which was used to garner support for the Alien and Sedition Acts. In particular, the acts relating to sedition generated much controversy over free speech when criticizing the government. The XYZ affair frightened Federalists into thinking they needed to risk violating freedom of speech to keep the peace.

Jefferson used the XYZ affair to illustrate how public sentiment could threaten Constitutional liberties. He then responded to Rush’s rather enthusiastic wish to align republicanism with Christianity. Social unrest also led various clergy to push for their denomination to become preferred by the national government. In other words, he was speaking about the sentiment of the day during the Adams’ administration and vowed that he would stand any such efforts. Jefferson was running for president at the time against Adams and had been criticized as an atheist and enemy to religion. He concurred to a certain point; he was a threat to the designs of some clergy to establish a sect in violation of the First Amendment.

Jefferson wasn’t saying that the only intent of the First Amendment was to preclude the establishment of a particular sect. He was responding negatively to Rush’s ebullience about aligning Christianity with politics and using current events to do it. Furthermore, if historical events had been different (e.g, some other religion wanted dominance), it seems reasonable to believe Jefferson would have referred to those other religions as well (as he did in his autobiography when discussing religious freedom in VA).

That Rush understood Jefferson’s answer as a specific response to the August 22 letter is made clear in Rush’s follow up letter of October 6, 1800. After agreeing with Jefferson on the disadvantages of cities, Rush wrote:

I agree with you likewise in your wishes to keep religion and government independant of each Other. Were it possible for St. Paul to rise from his grave at the present juncture, he would say to the Clergy who are now so active in settling the political Affairs of the World: “Cease from your political labors – your kingdom is not of this World. Read my Epistles. In no part of them will you perceive me aiming to depose a pagan Emperor, or to place a Christian upon a throne. Christianity disdains to receive Support from human Governments.” From this, it derives its preeminence over all the religions that ever have, or ever Shall exist in the World. Human Governments may receive Support from Christianity but it must be only from the love of justice, and peace which it is calculated to produce in the minds of men. By promoting these, and all the Other Christian Virtues by your precepts, and example, you will much sooner overthrow errors of all kind, and establish our pure and holy religion in the World, than by aiming to produce by your preaching, or pamphflets any change in the political state of mankind.”

A certain Dr Owen an eminent minister of the Gospel among the dissenters in England, & a sincere friend to liberty, was once complained of by one of Cromwell’s time serving priests,—that he did not preach to the times. “My business and duty said the disciple of St Paul is to preach—to Eternity— not to the times.” He has left many Volumes of Sermons behind him, that are so wholly religious, that no One from reading them, could tell, in what country,—or age they were preached.—

What a contradiction to the efforts of the American Renewal Project this is. Rather than be misunderstood by Jefferson, Rush extended his thought on religion and politics in this letter. He was not proposing that clergy do more than practice their faith in ways that make better citizens. Rush said St. Paul would have a message for “the Clergy who are now so active in settling the political Affairs of the World.” He adviseed preaching the faith rather than focusing on “the political state of mankind.” Rush’s answer to Jefferson was a support to the separation of church and state in the context of the times.

The North Carolina Ratifying Convention also took up the question of the extent of the First Amendment freedom of conscience. They understood that the First Amendment “no religious test clause” applied to non-Christian religions as well.  James Iredell, later appointed as a Supreme Court justice said about the First Amendment and no religious test clause:

I consider the clause under consideration as one of the strongest proofs that could be adduced, that it was the intention of those who formed this system to establish a general religious liberty in America.

But it is objected that the people of America may, perhaps, choose representatives who have no religion at all, and that pagans and Mahometans may be admitted into offices. But how is it possible to exclude any set of men, without taking away that principle of religious freedom which we ourselves so warmly contend for? This is the foundation on which persecution has been raised in every part of the world. The people in power were always right, and every body else wrong.

Jefferson noted that the Virginia legislature resisted efforts to limit religious freedom to Christianity.

The efforts of the Liberty Law School to follow David Barton’s misunderstanding of the First Amendment probably set it apart from most, if not all, other such schools and is not a model that is well supported even by the authorities they cite. Attempting to use Jefferson in such a manner rips his words from the immediate context of his letters to Rush but his other statements on liberty of conscience.

Now what separation of church and state means in practice is still a matter to be worked out on a case by case basis. I am not saying that I agree with every court case which invokes separation of church and state as a principle. However, it seems clear that both Jefferson and Rush supported the principle of independence of religion and government from each other.

Note: The post above has been edited to reflect the fact that the NC convention took place before the First Amendment had been introduced (thanks to Bill Fortenberry for pointing this out). The NC convention considered a similar addition in their recommendations as a part of a broader set of amendments. That declaration read:

“20. That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence: and therefore all men have an equal, natural, and unalienable right to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that no particular religious sect or society ought to be favored or established by law in preference to others.”

Given the discussion in the convention, it seems clear that it was understood that broad religious freedom covered any sect or society, not just a Christian version.

"I agree with you. My opinions and interpretations and my views are necessarily subjective."

Billy Graham: The Transparent Evangelist
"I pick out the actual sayings and teachings of Jesus. Many are uncomfortable with that. ..."

Billy Graham: The Transparent Evangelist
"Jesus says to every human being “ follow Me and you will abide in My ..."

Billy Graham: The Transparent Evangelist
""Why do I have to..." You don't have to do any of that, unless you ..."

Billy Graham: The Transparent Evangelist

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Tom Van Dyke

    The terms are so confused these days, few people can penetrate the history of the argument.

    No, Christianity was not “privileged,” but separating “Church and State” is not the same as divorcing “religious principles” and state either. When you speak here of the “clergy” butting out, that was an idea held by many or most–the very nature of Protestantism created multiple sects, and the biggest fear was this sect [often those pushy Presbyterians] ruling over the other sects, say Anglican-Episcopalians.

    And the Baptists were afraid the Prebys and the Anglicans would gang up on the Baptists. Then there were the smaller Anabaptist sects, who were always pushed around by the aforementioned Big Three [although the Baptists were the least pushy].

    Sectarianism, then, was the biggest fear. Much as the common perception is that the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom was a secular-Enlightenment innovation, it owed far more to the Baptists than Madison and Jefferson.

    Jefferson is way overrated in this debate–he was in France when it all went down. What Benjamin Rush was getting at is that de facto Christian principles were entirely compatible with the New Order*, from Tom Paine’s argument that 1 Samuel 8 proved God hates monarchy

    to the way Protestantism itself, in rejecting the overarching authority of the Roman Catholic Church, was by necessity more democratic and pluralist than any “Papist” country could ever be.

    Religion was left to the states–the federal ban on religious tests was in no small part designed to prevent one sect [Presbyterians, likely] from dominating the other sects. And though they were aware that the ban meant that Muslims and even atheists would and could be elected to federal office, as Story wrote

    It was under a solemn consciousness of the dangers from ecclesiastical ambition, the bigotry of spiritual pride, and the intolerance of sects…that it was deemed advisable to exclude from the national government all power to act upon the subject.

    In some of the states episcopalians constituted the predominant sect; in other presbyterians; in others, congregationalists; in other, quakers; in others again, there was close numerical rivalry among contending sects. It was impossible, that there should not arise perpetual strife and perpetual jealousy on the subject of ecclesiastical ascendancy, if the national government were left free to create a religious establishment.

    The only security was in extirpating the power. But this alone would have been an imperfect security, if it has not been followed up by a declaration of the right of the free exercise of religion, and a prohibition (as we have seen) of all religious tests. Thus, the whole power over the subject of religion is left exclusively to the state governments, to be acted upon according to their own sense of justice, and the state constitutions; and the Catholic and Protestant, the Calvinist and the Arminian, the Jew and the Infidel, may sit down at the common table of the national councils, without any inquisition into their faith, or mode of worship.

    So although Story wrote that

    The real object of the amendment was, not to countenance, much less to advance Mahometanism, or Judaism, or infidelity, by prostrating Christianity; but to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects

    he was quite aware that theoretically a state could go Muslim if it so chose. This was the understanding of Church and State under the federalism of the so-called “Godless Constitution.” It owed far more to the divisions in Protestantism than any modern “secularism,” and we should not read it as designed to “prostrate” Christianity.

    More complete Joseph Story quotes on the subject here


    *As Joseph Story cites Montesquieu

    “that the Protestant religion is far more congenial with the spirit of political freedom, than the Catholic. “When,” says [Montesquieu], “the Christian religion, two centuries ago, became unhappily, divided into Catholic and Protestant, the people of the north embraced the Protestant, and those of the south still adhered to the Catholic. The reason is plain. The people of the north have, and will ever have, a spirit of liberty and independence, which the people of the south have not. And, therefore, a religion, which has no visible head, is more agreeable to the independency of climate, than that, which has one.”

  • Bill Fortenberry

    Let me just point out one error right off the bat. The claim that James Iredell was discussing the First Amendment in the quotation provided above is obviously more erroneous than Matt Barber’s claim about the Jefferson quote. Iredell’s comments were made three years before the Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution. The claim that he was speaking about the First Amendment is patently false.

  • Bill – Thanks for catching that. I made a notation and correction in the post.

  • Jimmy Dick

    “Peaceful coexistence between different religions is favored by he secularism of the state.”

    Pope Francis, 2013

    • Richard Willmer

      An interesting statement by a most intriguing pope. Not quite sure what he means, although I doubt he doesn’t want ‘peaceful coexistence between people of different religious affiliations or faiths, given that he has recently reinforced a key message of LUMEN GENTIUM: “But the plan of salvation also includes those who acknowledge the Creator. In the first place amongst these there are the Mohammedans, who, professing to hold the faith of Abraham, along with us adore the one and merciful God, who on the last day will judge mankind. Nor is God far distant from those who in shadows and images seek the unknown God, for it is He who gives to all men life and breath and all things, and as Saviour wills that all men be saved. Those also can attain to salvation who through no fault of their own do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and moved by grace strive by their deeds to do His will as it is known to them through the dictates of conscience. Nor does Divine Providence deny the helps necessary for salvation to those who, without blame on their part, have not yet arrived at an explicit knowledge of God and with His grace strive to live a good life. Whatever good or truth is found amongst them is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel.” (The previous paragraph looks at the special place of the Jewish people in respect of whom “God does not repent of the gifts He makes nor of the calls He issues” and who “remains most dear to God.”)

  • Jon Rowe

    Re Mr. Fortenberry’s correction, I think a larger point of constitutional interpretation that is relevant to topic of this post is how the term “religion” in the Constitution defines. It’s only used twice. Once in the First Amendment where the SAME word is used for both clauses (the “thereof” in the Free Exercise Clause relates back to “religion” in the Establishment Clause like Siamese twins who share the same heart). And “religious” in the “No Religious Test” Clause.

    Because of the Siamese heart issue, It’s logically impossible for “religion” to have different meanings for Free Exercise and Establishment Clause purposes.

    It’s probably makes for sounder constitutional interpretation for “religion” in the First Amendment and “religious” in Art. VI to have the same meaning as well.

    And I think the Founders intended for the same. “Religion” means “religion” not “Christianity.”

  • oft


    His words speak for themselves and the context is clearly Christianity. Your speculating what you think TJ thought has no weight at all. Furthermore, the context in TJ’s establishment portion of his VA statute is Christian as well, rejecting all other religions as false. Also, TJ and JM affirmed, as well as most, if no all, of the other states, Mason’s proposal for the 1A:

    That Religion or the Duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by Reason and Conviction, not by Force or violence, and therefore all men have an equal, natural, and unalienable Right to the free Exercise of Religion according to the Dictates of Conscience, and that no particular religious Sect or Society of Christians ought to be favored or established by Law in preference to others.

    The free exercise clause is for all and the establishment clause pertains only to Christianity.

    • ken

      1st, Warren has previously cited Jefferson’s letters where he also recognized Judaism and Islam (Mohametism (sp) ) as being perfectly valid religions.


      ” The free exercise clause is for all and the establishment clause pertains only to Christianity.”

      If this argument were true (it isn’t) it would mean that there could be no state established christian religion, but there could be an established jewish or muslin religion. Some how I doubt that is what you wanted to say 🙂

    • Jimmy Dick

      Better get to reading what Jefferson wrote to John Adams from 1812 to 1826 because Jefferson would point out how wrong you are. Both men detested organized religion and felt that while it served a moralistic purpose it had an major tendency to lie to people in order to enrich and empower the clergy. The First Amendment covers all religions as John Adams took pains to point out.

      “Indeed, Mr. Jefferson, what could be invented to debase the ancient Christianism which Greeks, Romans, Hebrews and Christian factions, above all the Catholics, have not fraudulently imposed upon the public? Miracles after miracles have rolled down in torrents.” John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, December 3, 1813.

      “It is not only the sacred volumes they have thus interpolated, gutted, and falsified, but the works of others relating to them, and even the laws of the land. We have a curious instance of one of these pious frauds in the laws of Alfred. He composed, you know, from the laws of the Heptarchy, a digest for the government of the United Kingdom, and in his preface to that work he tells us expressly the sources from which he drew it, to wit, the laws of Ina, of Offa and Aethelbert (not naming the Pentateuch). But his pious interpolator, very awkwardly, premises to his work four chapters of Exodus (from the 20th to the 23d) as a part of the laws of the land; so that Alfred’s preface is made to stand in the body of the work. Our judges, too, have lent a ready hand to further these frauds, and have been willing to lay the yoke of their own opinions on the necks of others ; to extend the coercions of municipal law to the dogmas of their religion, by declaring that these make a part of the law of the land.” Thomas Jefferson’s reply to Adam’s letter above, dated January 24, 1814.

      We think ourselves possessed, or, at least, we boast that we are so, of liberty of conscience on all subjects, and of the right of free inquiry and private judgment in all cases, and yet how far are we from these exalted privileges in fact! There exists, I believe, throughout the whole Christian world, a law which makes it blasphemy to deny or doubt the divine inspiration of all the books of the Old and New Testaments, from Genesis to Revelations. In most countries of Europe it is punished by fire at the stake, or the rack, or the wheel. In England itself it is punished by boring through the tongue with a red-hot poker. In America it is not better; even in our own Massachusetts, which I believe, upon the whole, is as temperate and moderate in religious zeal as most of the States, a law was made in the latter end of the last century, repealing the cruel punishments of the former laws, but substituting fine and imprisonment upon all those blasphemers upon any book of the Old Testament or New. Now, what free inquiry, when a writer must surely encounter the risk of fine or imprisonment for adducing any argument for investigating into the divine authority of those books? Who would run the risk of translating Dupuis? But I cannot enlarge upon this subject, though I have it much at heart. I think such laws a great embarrassment, great obstructions to the improvement of the human mind. Books that cannot bear examination, certainly ought not to be established as divine inspiration by penal laws. It is true, few persons appear desirous to put such laws in execution, and it is also true that some few persons are hardy enough to venture to depart from them. But as long as they continue in force as laws, the human mind must make an awkward and clumsy progress in its investigations. I wish they were repealed. The substance and essence of Christianity, as I understand it, is eternal and unchangeable, and will bear examination forever, but it has been mixed with extraneous ingredients, which I think will not bear examination, and they ought to be separated. Adieu.” John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, January 23, 1825.

      It is so very interesting to see Jefferson complain about laws created by religious men for their religious interests while ignoring the interests of everyone else.

      • Jimmy Dick

        Please note the above post and quotes contained wherein are directed at Ken. The quotes are easily found in Lester J. Cappon’s The Adams-Jefferson Letters are not made up and butchered messes like so many of the made up quotes of the Founders are, if such quotes were actually the words of the Founders themselves.

      • Richard Willmer

        “The substance and essence of Christianity, as I understand it, is eternal and unchangeable, and will bear examination forever, but it has been mixed with extraneous ingredients, which I think will not bear examination, and they ought to be separated.”

        These are the words of wise men.

  • bman

    Barber says, “The First Amendment’s Establishment Clause was simply intended to restrict Congress from affirmatively “establishing,” through federal legislation, a national Christian denomination.”

    The word “simply” is the key idea, which seems to have more than one possible meaning.

    One meaning suggested here is that its false for Barber to say “simply” or “only” because, “…if historical events had been different (e.g, some other religion wanted dominance), it seems reasonable to believe Jefferson would have referred to those other religions as well…”

    Of course, but its probably not what Barber meant by the word “simply.”

    Indeed, it would reduce to an absurdity had he meant the clause “simply” prevents the establishment of Christianity while allowing the establishment of some other religion!

    Such an absurdity would have been easy to foresee and to avoid, so its probably not what he meant.

    There is nothing in the context of Barber’s article that mentions other religions, either, and that’s another reason we should not expect that contrast to be his meaning.

    For that matter, Barber does not even argue for the establishment of any religion!

    We should look, then, for another meaning of “simply” that is not easy to refute, as more likely the correct meaning.

    The general context of his article shows he objects to how the left goes beyond the original intent of the establishment clause.

    Barber writes,”

    The First Amendment’s Establishment Clause – a mere 10 words – is the primary tool the left misuses and abuses to accomplish its insurgency. Yet it remains abundantly clear in both scope and meaning. The Establishment Clause merely [simply] states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. … That’s it.”

    Where he says, “that’s it” he means “its that simple.”

    He continues, ”

    Let’s break it down. What do you suppose the framers of the U.S. Constitution – a document specifically designed to limit the powers of federal government – intended with the word “Congress”? Did they mean state government, municipal government, your local school board or third-grade teacher? Of course not. They meant exactly what they said: Congress – as in the United States Congress.

    And so, what he means by “simply” is taking shape by how he simply defined the word Congress.

    Next, he “simply” defines the rest of the establishment clause:

    Now what did they mean by “… shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion?”

    Well…[its simply] intended to restrict Congress from affirmatively “establishing,” through federal legislation, a national Christian denomination (similar to the Anglican Church of England)….The individual states, however, faced no such restriction [he means they were free to establish religion at the state level].

    The point, then, is that things like Christmas displays on city property, white crosses at Arlington cemetery, or even prayer in schools are not examples of Congress establishing religion.

    The Constitution was not written to prevent a community from its expressing it faith at the local or state level

    In sum, this approach to the word “simply” should prove much more difficult to refute than the contrast between Christianity and other religions.

  • Jon Rowe

    It’s nice to see OFT back. Let me note because of what I mentioned above, it’s logically impossible for the EC and FEC to have the meaning OFT ascribed to them. Whatever “religion” means for the EC it must also mean for the FEC because it’s the same word that appears in only ONE PLACE for BOTH clauses.

  • oft

    Hi Jon,

    The wording may appear to be contradictory, however it would be a marvel indeed if it was impossible to allow free exercise to all and limit the establishment clause to Christianity given Mason wrote that exact thing out on paper, as well as: North Carolina, Delaware, Maryland, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, New Hampshire, etc., which weren’t amended until years after its ratification. New York (calling Mason’s proposals “broad”), NC and possibly Rhode Island, specifically agreed with Mason’s proposals for the Bill of Rights.

    Also, it would appear TJ agreed with Mason’s proposals (calling him a “truly great man and of the first order of greatness”) for the Bill of Rights in VA; the context being the same, and consistent with TJ’s VA Statute that claimed all other religions false.

    I will add there is a dynamic in the semantics of the terms, but that is all. That Virginia would establish a false religion for their state is chimerical in light of the Christian umbrella the colonists were living under. Perhaps those Protestants allowed arianism, socinianism or unitarianism into the political millieu.

    Just as Calvin’s Geneva allowed freedom of conscience to a certain extent, as long as there was no distortion in the social order, the colonists allowed Deists to think as they pleased.

    • Jimmy Dick

      Jefferson thought everyone would become a Unitarian. The Second Great Awakening caught him and most Americans by surprise. Yet at no point did he ever consider establishing a state religion as in national or at the state level. Both he and Adams vehemently opposed it.

      • Tom Van Dyke

        Jimmy Dick says:

        July 30, 2013 at 4:14 pm

        Jefferson thought everyone would become a Unitarian. The Second Great Awakening caught him and most Americans by surprise. Yet at no point did he ever consider establishing a state religion as in national or at the state level. Both he and Adams vehemently opposed it.


        Jefferson, of course. John Adams, no.

        Now that David Barton’s almost gone, it’s time people start getting the REAL info! Read

        ‘A Most Mild and Equitable Establishment of Religion’: John Adams and the Massachusetts Experiment

        John Witte Jr.

        Emory University School of Law

        This article discusses Adams model of mild religious establishment and the benefits such an approach could offer.

        The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 was rejected due to its abridgement of religious rights. A heated discussion of religious liberty abounded leading up to the vote for the 1780 constitution. The moderate position asked for liberty of conscience and religious pluralism while advocating preference for “true religion.” Some argued for stronger establishment, others warned against the dangers of a state religion.

        John Adams was asked to draft the religious liberty article of the constitution. The draft imposed duties upon the governor and lieutenant governor to swear an oath to the state and against Catholicism, imposed tithes to support the need for public worship and religious instruction. New denominations would have to win a lawsuit to gain religious recognition. However, the tithing collection system was local and voluntary, and religious societies could pay their minister directly, rather than paying taxes to the state. The article was not ratified by the convention, but the constitution went into effect anyway.

        Adams was eclectic and pragmatic in his draft. Adams himself was nondenominational, and well-versed in the Western liberty tradition. He recognized the uncertainty in law, and therefore sought balance between a tempered religious freedom and a slender religious establishment. Adams believed too much freedom would encourage depravity, while compulsion would lead to hypocrisy. Thus, Adams favored a mild establishment of religion, ceremonial and moral in nature. Adams plan was far from perfect. Such an institution would be supported by taxes without direct religious representation. The taxation to support a state religion contradicted the guaranty of religious equality. The article draft directly contradicted a prior article’s guarantee of private religious liberty. Furthermore, a mild establishment of religion could lead to worse forms of establishment. However, Adams’ establishment was also innocuous in its mildness. Such an establishment would keep the state small and efficient. Most importantly, the state would encourage happiness through the promotion of morality and virtue. The article itself ended up being a clumsy and litigious document that was eventually repealed, but the ideas from the article remain today.

        • Jimmy Dick

          Again, I point to Adams’ letters to Jefferson in which he wrote extensively against a national religion. He continued the state religion in Massachusetts because he didn’t have much choice, but his written letters indicate he was against it. He considered religion to have a moralistic value, but should not be part of the state.

          You could say he evolved over the issue if you want to, but to say Adams supported religion as a function of state would be incorrect.

      • oft

        The Second Great Awakening caught no one by surprise given all the denominations were in constant contact from Maine to Georgia, working out the logistics of tent meetings and the various revivals throughout the nation. Timothy Dwight, Zedidiah Morse et al., planned everything with great success. Maybe you were thinking of the Great Awakening, which was an unplanned revival, of monumental proportions that had an even greater impact.

        • Jimmy Dick

          No, I’m thinking of the Second Great Awakening which historians have written about quite a bit. They remark on how it caught most Americans by surprise. If you’re trying to say it was organized throughout the country I’ll be laughing for a long time. One of the key features of it was the lack of organization and the spontaneity surrounding it. As it progressed it became systematic which is typical of all revivals, but it began over time with no planning.

          • oft

            No. Timothy Dwight and Zedidiah Morse helped plan the Second Great Awakening.

  • oft

    To be clear, Calvin and the consistory allowed total freedom of conscience.

    • Zoe Brain

      On 27 October 1553 Michael Servetus was burned at the stake for the crime of Heresy, just outside Geneva with what was believed to be the last copy of his book chained to his leg.

      Calvin agreed that those whom the ruling religious authorities determined to be heretics should be punished:

      Whoever shall maintain that wrong is done to heretics and blasphemers in punishing them makes himself an accomplice in their crime and guilty as they are. There is no question here of man’s authority; it is God who speaks, and clear it is what law he will have kept in the church, even to the end of the world. Wherefore does he demand of us a so extreme severity, if not to show us that due honor is not paid him, so long as we set not his service above every human consideration, so that we spare not kin, nor blood of any, and forget all humanity when the matter is to combat for His glory.

      • oft

        Servetus was burned at the stake because of blasphemy.

  • Richard Willmer

    Really? Not sure that Martin Luther saw it that way; of Calvin’s Geneva he said (maybe not entirely fairly, but …): “With a death sentence they solve all argumentation.”

    I know Calvin is making a ‘comeback’ in some circles, but let’s get all overexcited!

    • oft

      Luther was worse than Calvin. Freedom of conscience was viewed differently than today. Public blasphemy was prohibited.

      • Tom Van Dyke

        Blasphemy has been prohibited all through man’s history. Religion was always a public function, not this “private conscience” stuff.

        Blasphemy isn’t an offense against God/the gods. It’s more about disturbing the peace! People vs. Ruggles 1811. [NY]

        The defendant was indicted … in December, 1810, for that he did, on the 2nd day of September, 1810 … wickedly, maliciously, and blasphemously, utter, and with a loud voice publish, in the presence and hearing of divers good and Christian people, of and concerning the Christian religion, and of and concerning Jesus Christ, the false, scandalous, malicious, wicked and blasphemous words following: “Jesus Christ was a bastard, and his mother must be a whore,” in contempt of the Christian religion. .. . The defendant was tried and found guilty, and was sentenced by the court to be imprisoned for three months, and to pay a fine of $500.

        “Jesus Christ was a bastard, and his mother must be a whore.” Not quite accurate since Mary wasn’t paid. Still, in the zone of “truth is a defense.”

        Now, slander—or tell the truth about—Muhammad [Mohammad] [You know, the Koran guy] and you got a shitstorm on your hands. Bigtime.

        So this door needs to swing both ways–or as Europe is ruling, neither way. Calling the Prophet Muhammad this, that or the other thing–or even printing a cartoon with his likeness!–is freedom of [anti-]religion, but it’s also undeniably Disturbing the Peace.

        Jesus was a bastard, Muhammad married a

        whatever. Whatever.

        • Richard Willmer

          It was only 2008 when blasphemy laws were formally abolished in England and Wales. I think that there is still something ‘on the books’ in Scotland and N. Ireland.

          Like you, Tom, I suspect that much (most?/all?) of their past (and in some places, present) use was (is) about the pursuit of (worldly) political objectives. In any case, God can cope with those are rude about him! And he is probably very pleased when people speak truthfully!!!

          (The UN has just started a big campaign against homophobia; maybe another against blasphemy laws would be a good idea?! If it were done well, it could sow useful seeds for the future, even in those places that seem very much wedded to such things,)

      • Richard Willmer

        Your original statement was an ‘absolute’ one. You have now moved to a relativistic position. That’s better!

        Whether Luther was worse than Calvin is (a) a moot point, and (b) irrelevant to this discussion.

        • oft

          What I meant was no disrespect to Calvin. Theoretically, he was a genius that founded the United States. He is of the first order of greatness. Luther was a racist.

          • Richard Willmer

            Don’t quite see how Calvin can realistically be understood as a ‘founder’ of the USA; you’ll have to have to explain that one to me, OFT.

          • Richard Willmer

            PS. You seemed to have gone back to a more ‘absolutist’ position. How can be so sure about these things? Were you there at the time?!

          • oft

            That Calvin theoretically founded our nation is fairly common knowledge. Just google his name and it’s all right there: separation of powers, factionism due to total depravity, rights, exposited into political liberty, distribution of power into distinct departments, the institution of courts with judges holding office with good behavior, representatives of the legislature by elections, anti-monarchical hereditary succession, legitimate separation of church and state, Christian morality, revolution against tyrants, the Protestant work ethic, capitalism, a check on the militia, which Hamilton got from Calvin, etc. etc.

            Hamilton in Federalist 9 goes into distinctives of republicanism, saying they are “new discoveries” rather than from ancient republics Greece and Rome. Even the Glorious Revolution of 1688 was led by a Calvinist, William of Orange, who is commemorated on the Reformation Wall in Geneva.

          • Richard Willmer

            Then isn’t it ironic that Calvin’s Geneva was essentially a theocracy?!

            Hamilton was keen to avoid too much ‘pulling in different directions’ by the states in the young union; my understanding of the references to Greece and ‘Italy’ is that they serve to warn of possible consequences of a weak union. He then goes on to set out ideas on how a strong, but democratic, union might be ‘run’.

          • Richard Willmer

            Another irony, of course, is that William of Orange became KING William III, although he had no kids, so we will never know if he would have ‘struck to his allegedly-calvinist principles’ and not allowed one of his offspring to succeed him.

          • oft

            Claiming Calvin’s Republican Geneva a theocracy is so baseless it deserves no rebuke.

  • jimmiraybob

    Is blasphemy against the God of Christianity an act against the natural law? Is blasphemy against Christianity an act against the natural law?

  • jimmiraybob

    Also too, is defense of the civil order using blasphemy laws consistent with the natural law?

  • bman

    WT: “Barber wants the intent of the First Amendment to cover denominations of Christianity.”


    TVD quoted the following from Justice Story, “The real object of the amendment was…to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects.”

    It sounds like Matt Barber is in good company since Justice Story seems to say the same thing.

    • Story also described the point of the no religious test clause as forbidding test based on any religion. Story described what the First Amendment was not supposed to do but did not exhaust the possibilities of what it was supposed to do (allow religious freedom).

      Even if Story had limited the only intent of the First Amendment to Christianity, he is not the only arbiter. As the post makes clear, others saw the FA as a general protection of religion.

      • bman

        WT: “Story also described the point of the no religious test clause as forbidding test based on any religion.”


        Which is fine, but the key word there is “also.”

        It suggests Story viewed both as true, and did not think there was a dilemma between them.

        Story’s position seems to be twofold, as follows:

        (1) “The real object of the amendment was…to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects.”

        (2) “Story also described the point of the no religious test clause as forbidding test based on any religion.”

        Is there a necessary contradiction between (1) and (2)?

        And if not for Story, then why would there be for Barber?

        In other words, there seems to be a connecting thought or idea that makes (1) and (2) reconcilable for Story and for Barber, and its just a matter of locating it.

        • Jon Rowe

          I haven’t thought too much about Barber’s article and whether he argues the FA protects “Christianity” only.

          Story’s sentiments speak of an “object” or a “purpose” of the FA. That’s well and good; but what’s more important is the actual original meaning of the text of the First Amendment. It uses the term “religion” not “Christianity.” And the two were not synonymous to the Founders.

          • bman

            JR:”I haven’t thought too much about Barber’s article and whether he argues the FA protects “Christianity” only.”


            I view that as the key question since WT’s article presumed that.

            The question, then, is whether that presumption about Barber has been verified.

            WT seems to lump Barber’s article with the same ideas he attributes to Bryan Fischer. Why can’t Barber’s model be “twofold” like that of Justice Story, however?

            What, if anything, has Barber said to distance his position from that of Justice Story?

            And if the word “religion” does not pose a dilemma for point (1) when Justice Story affirms it, why must there be a dilemma for Barber just because he affirms point (1)?

            I think we need additional information on Barber’s view regarding point (2), therefore.

            I have some difficulty with your proposed solution that “the real object” of the amendment can be distinguished from its original intent. To me, if the object was to to do x, then the intent was to do x.

            I am leaning toward the idea that the primary purpose was X with a secondary purpose of Y, or something similar.

          • bman

            If we suppose, as Justice Story says, that the real intent/object was,”…to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects” why wouldn’t the FA have used narrow wording along that same line?

            Why would it use the broader term “religion”if the real intent/object was,”…to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects?

            Although narrow wording would accomplish that object, it would have a posed a risk to avoid, namely, permitting the establishment of a religion other than Christianity, which would be something even worse.

            So, perhaps, the broader term religion was necessary to safely accomplish the narrower goal.

            I only intend that as thought experiment since the historical record might show differently.

          • Tom Van Dyke

            “A general suspicion prevailed that the Presbyterian Church was ambitious and aimed at an establishment of a national church.”

            John Adams, in a letter to Benjamin Rush. And although the Alien and Sedition Acts may have really been his undoing, Adams’ account of his 1800 election loss to Jefferson is completely compatible with Joseph Story’s account of First Amendment attitudes, a fear of sectarianism more than theocracy:

            “The National Fast, recommended by me turned me out of office. It was connected with the general assembly of the Presbyterian Church, which I had no concern in. That assembly has alarmed and alienated Quakers, Anabaptists, Mennonists, Moravians, Swedenborgians, Methodists, Catholicks, protestant Episcopalians, Arians, Socinians, Armenians, & & &, Atheists and Deists might be added. A general Suspicion prevailed that the Presbyterian Church was ambitious and aimed at an Establishment of a National Church. I was represented as a Presbyterian and at the head of this political and ecclesiastical Project. The secret whisper ran through them “Let us have Jefferson, Madison, Burr, any body, whether they be Philosophers, Deists, or even Atheists, rather than a Presbyterian President.” This principle is at the bottom of the unpopularity of national Fasts and Thanksgivings. Nothing is more dreaded than the National Government meddling with Religion.”

            National government, mind you. Religion was left to the states. Massachusetts had an official state church until 1833, until the unitarians took it over. But that’s another story. 😉