Like several of the other Founders, James Madison was raised in a conventional and traditional Christian environment. His father was a vestryman in the Church of England, and in his younger years, Madison, like many young aristocratic Virginians, studied under a clergyman. Instead of attending the Anglican College of William and Mary (as did Jefferson), Madison instead went to the College of New Jersey (the current Princeton University), which was headed by John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian clergyman.
As a college student Madison was known for his piety and for his criticism of the established church. Even though he was raised in the Church of England, Madison's father insisted that dissenting Christians be treated fairly. It was probably the mixture of family influence as well as studying at a Presbyterian college that instilled in Madison his strong views on religious freedom.(1)
Unlike the other Founders, many of whom read informally in religion, Madison took some formal theological training at the College of New Jersey, referring to theology as the most sublime of all sciences. At one point he considered studying for the ministry, but his rather poor health as a young man and his weak voice was enough of a deterrent.
In the 1700s, when Jefferson and Franklin had converted to the Enlightenment philosophy of Deism, Madison expressed his distaste for thinkers who challenged orthodox Christianity. "I find them loose in their principles, encouragers of free enquiry even such as destroys the most essential truths, enemies to serious religion and extremely partial in their citations, seeking them rather to justify their censures and commendations than to give the reader a just specimen of the author's genius."(2)
But over time, Madison would become more accepting of Deism, and unlike Jefferson and Franklin who expressed their views on religion and theology in print, we have no such writings from James Madison.
But regardless of the change in his religious perspective over the years, Madison, unlike many of his Enlightenment contemporaries, believed that religion was extremely important to a society and did not think that the Age of Reason would soon make religion a relic from ignorant times.
Madison's understanding of separation of church and state was even more extreme than that of Thomas Jefferson, and he promoted that understanding in political life, which cost him some close friends. Madison supported the disestablishment of the Anglican Church in Virginia and opposed the tax assessment that supported the Episcopal Church financially. He believed that the appointment of chaplains to Congress violated the principles of the Constitution.
While Madison never left a written word of how fully he had come to accept Deism or what orthodox tenets he still embraced. He was asked near the end of his life what church tradition he preferred. After pondering for a few moments, Madison stated that his theological proclivities were most congenial with Unitarianism. When asked what he believed about the attributes of God, he replied that he had stopped thinking about that subject fifty years before.(3)
The Faith of Our Founders #1: Introduction
The Faith of Our Founders #2: Deism
The Faith of Our Founders #3: George Washington
The Faith of Our Founders #4: John Adams
The Faith of Our Founders #5: Thomas Jefferson
The Faith of Our Founders #6: Benjamin Franklin
(1)Alf Mapp, The Faiths of Our Fathers.
(2) Alf Mapp, The Faiths of Our Fathers.
(3)Dean Merrill, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Church.
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I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)