Was President Madison a Christian? Not likely.
In a comment in a previous posting the claim was made that President James Madison was a "Biblical" Christian. It is my belief that the evidence shows Mr. Madison was not a Christian of any kind. I briefly responded in the comments there but decided to expan my remarks here for a more public presentation.
James Madison, the fourth President, after Washington, Adams and Jefferson, opposed linking Christianity with government as much as his predecessors. He was one of Jefferson’s strongest and most vocal allies. He believed that the First Amendment and disestablishment of religion meant that America had “extinguished forever the ambitious hope of making laws for the human mind.” Madison felt so strongly on the issue that he insisted that a Congressional chaplain would be a violation of the Constitutional separation of church and state. For the same reason he opposed paid chaplains in the military.
In 1774 Madison wrote William Bradford, Jr.: “Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise, every expanded prospect.” In his A Memorial and Remonstrance to the Virginia General Assembly Madison opposed any establishment or support for religion by the state. He wrote: “During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What has been the fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both superstition, bigotry, and persecution.” He also said: “What influence in fact has ecclesiastical establishments had on civil society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of civil authority; in many instance they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny; in no instances have they been seen the guardians of the liberties of the people.” The Virginia General Assembly heeded Madison and rejected the call for supporting religion. Instead it passed Jefferson’s Religious Freedom Act. Madison advocated the “total separation of the church from the state.”
Madison’s personal religious views, however, are a bit harder to discern. He was rather quiet on the matter but this would be in keeping with his view that public officials should keep their religious values out of politics. Unlike some of the Founders who quiet explicitly stated their viewpoints with Madison we have to try and tease his views out of context. And, it should also be remembered that Madison succeeded his good friend, Thomas Jefferson, as president. So Madison was well aware of the vicious smear campaign engineered against Jefferson by the Religious Right of the day. Having seen a concerted effort to destroy Jefferson’s reputation and career by orthodox Christians Madison had every reason to be circumspect.
Certainly Madison began adulthood as an orthodox Christian. Shortly after his graduation from, what would become Princeton, he wrote a friend suggesting that their generation become “fervent advocates in the cause of Christ.” But as historian James Hutson, for the Library of Congress, noted: “Two months later Madison renounced his spiritual prospects and began the study of law... For the rest of his life there is no mention in his writings of Jesus Christ nor of any of the issues that might concern practicing Christians. Late in retirement there are a few enigmatic references to religion, but nothing else.”
Biographer Irving Brant quoted Rev. Alexander Balmaine regarding Madison. Balmaine was married to one of Madison’s cousins and was the minister who performed his marriage ceremony. And Balmaine said that Madison’s “religious feeling, however seems to have been short lived. His political associates were those of infidel principles, of whom there were many in his day, if they did not actually change his creed, yet subjected him to a general suspicion of it.” In addition Brant quotes the local Episcopal Bishop, William Meade, who recounted that a conversation with Madison took an unexpected turn, at Madison’s instigation. The comments made by Madison, wrote the Bishop, “left the impression on my mind that his creed was not strictly regulated by the Bible.” And Brant quoted a gentleman who had dinner with Madison. Madison queried the man about “how the cause of liberal Christianity stood with us, and if the Athanasian creed was well received by our Episcopalians. He pretty distinctly intimated to me his own regard for the Unitarian doctrines.”
Bishop Meade said that whatever “may have been the private sentiments of Mr Madison on the subject of religion, he was never known to declare any hostility to it.” He, like the deist Washington, attended a local church and invited ministers to his home but “did not kneel himself at prayers.” And Hutson notes that Madison went for long stretches of time without bothering himself with any church service. And at one point he told the governor of Vermont, with Jefferson standing there, that he had not attended church for “several years”.
Certainly the Rev. James Wilson, a Reformed Presbyterian minister, felt that Madison was an infidel. In his attack on the US Constitution, Prince Messiah’s Claim to Dominion Over all Governments: and the Disregard of His Authority by the United States, in the Federal Constitution (1832) Rev. Wilson laments the lack of a Christian founding. Wilson claimed:
It is believed, that there never existed, previous to this constitution, any national deed like this, since the creation of the world. A nation having no God! In vain shall we search the annals of pagan Greece and Rome, of modern Asia, Africa, pagan America, and the isles of the sea—they have all worshipped some God. The United States have none. But here let us pause over this astounding fact. Was it a mere omission? Did the convention that framed the constitution forget to name the living God? Was this an omission in some moment of national frenzy, when the nation forgot God? That, indeed, were a great sin. God says, "the nations that forget God, shall be turned into hell." [Ps. 9:17.] It was not, however, a thoughtless act, an undesigned omission. It was a deliberate deed, whereby God was rejected; and in the true atheistical spirit of the whole instrument, and of course, done with intent to declare national independence of the Lord of hosts.As far as Wilson could see not one of the seven residents of the White House, to that date, had been a Christian. For Washington he says: “There is no satisfactory evidence that Washington was a professor of the Christian religion , or even a speculative believer in its divinity...” and he “was President of the convention, that voted the name of the living God out of the Constitution.” Wilson notes that Adams, who was a Unitarian, took office next followed by Jefferson, “an avowed infidel, and notoriously addicted to immorality.” And then we come to James Madison:
Mr. Jefferson’s successor, Mr. Madison, was educated by godly parents, with a view to the Ministry of reconciliation. He commenced the study of Theology, under the care of Dr. Witherspoon, President of Princeton College, where he attended a prayer meeting of the pious youth of that Seminary, who were preparing for the Holy Ministry.
When he returned from Princeton to his fathers house in Virginia, Mr. Jefferson was a young village lawyer, who had attracted the notice of the neighborhood, by his regular business habits, in collecting debts, drawing indentures, &c.
Madison, to the grief of his parents, abandoned the study of Theology, and entered the office of the infidel and libertine Jefferson, as a student of law. Though Mr. Madison has pledged himself neither in public nor private, to the belief of Christianity, yet he is not known to have employed his influence, like Jefferson, in attempts to abolish the Christian Faith.
Rev. Wilson called President Monroe “a second rate Athenian Philosopher” and declined to say much about Presidents John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson since they “are yet in public life” but the said that no “Federal Cabinet since the first formed, has given any more evidence for the fear of the Lord, than did that of Washington.”
It would be fair to say that the “preponderance of the evidence” is that Mr. Madison was a deist but it is not “beyond a shadow of a doubt.” But then it doesn’t have to be. The evidence that does exist certainly indicates that Madison was not a Christian. His close friendship with Jefferson must have had some impact on his ideas especially since Jefferson was so strongly an opponent of Christian theology in his personal life, something no close friend would fail to notice. To have worked this intimately with a man for decades would, no doubt, have required some meeting of the minds on this matter. That Madison, even more so than Jefferson, was the architect of the doctrine of separation of church and state, gives more credence to the theory that he was deist. At the same time, what is missing, is one shred of evidence James Madison ever expressed an orthodox view of Christianity after he began his lifelong friendship with Jefferson. With some evidence that Madison was a deist, and none indicating he remained an orthodox Christian, the most honest conclusion is that he probably became an infidel, as his friend, Rev. Balmaine stated.
Labels: James Madison