A newspaper religion reporter sent me an e-mail and asked what I thought the founding fathers–and specifically George Washington–meant by freedom of religion (the First Amendment). Here’s my response:
The original language proposed for the First Amendment called for “liberty of conscience.” The appeal for “liberty of conscience” in the colonies began with a one-time Baptist minister by the name of Roger Williams–who envisioned it being protected by a “hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.” In the end, the founding fathers spelled out what they meant by liberty of conscience.
America’s founding fathers were guaranteeing that church and state would be separated–no faith could become the established religion of the state. They were insuring that everyone could worship or not worship according to the dictates of their own conscience–no law could prohibit the free exercise of religion. They were assuring that people could freely assemble and speak to one another about any religion, belief, or opinion.
The best sources for understanding the founding father’s convictions about religious liberty are Thomas Jefferson’s Act for Establishing Religious Freedom (1779), James Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance (1785), and Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptist Association (1802).
George Washington most assuredly agreed with Madison and Jefferson. All of them were Virginians and members of the established church of that colony. Yet, three years after the jails of Virginia had been filled with Baptist preachers who refused to conform to the legal mandates of their own church and colony, General Washington openly received Baptist chaplains and Baptist soldiers into his revolutionary army.
Washington, Jefferson, Madison and the early Baptists were all fighting for the same thing–liberty of conscience for people of all faiths and beliefs.
Unfortunately, most politically active Baptists today are hard at work removing the wall separating church and state that the founding fathers and their Baptist forebears erected.
Bruce Prescott, now retired, served as executive director of Mainstream Oklahoma Baptists from 1998-2014.