Madison Letter to Bradford, January 24, 1774

Madison Letter to Bradford, January 24, 1774

At the time of this correspondence, conflict between the colonies and Great Britain was escalating. This letter blends Madison’s thoughts on religion and the imminent revolution. Madison credits the lack of a uniform, established religion throughout the colonies with the diminution of British control and corruption. In his mind, “ecclesiastical establishments . . . facilitate the execution of mischievous projects,” such as the British frequently imposed upon the colonies. Madison’s thoughts in this letter reflect his appreciation for religious division and competition, which combat the moral evils of ignorance, corruption, persecution, and slavery. Madison knew of the perils of established religion. Religious persecution and corruption raged in Virginia, where the Church of England had been established. Most upsetting to him was the clergy’s involvement in such persecution. His angry declaration that such practices are of diabolical and hell-conceived notions expresses the seriousness with which he viewed repression of conscience — a most sacred liberty.

Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie Religious Institutions Group


January the 24th, 1774

[P]olitical contests are necessary sometimes, as well as military, to afford exercise and practice, and to instruct in the art of defending liberty and property. I verily believe the frequent assaults that have been made on America (Boston especially) will in the end prove of real advantage.

If the Church of England had been the established and general religion in all the northern colonies as it has been among us here, and uninterrupted tranquillity had prevailed throughout the continent, it is clear to me that slavery and subjection might and would have been gradually insinuated among us. Union of religious sentiments begets a surprising confidence, and ecclesiastical establishments tend to great ignorance and corruption; all of which facilitate the execution of mischievous projects.

But away with politics!. . . . George Luckey was with me at Christmas, and we talked so much about old affairs and old friends, that I have a most insatiable desire to see you all. . . . I want again to breathe your free air. I expect it will mend my constitution and confirm my principles. I have indeed as good an atmosphere at home as the climate will allow; but have nothing to brag of as to the state and liberty of my country. Poverty and luxury prevail among all sorts; pride, ignorance, and knavery among the priesthood, and vice and wickedness among the laity. This is bad enough, but it is not the worst I have to tell you. That diabolical, hell-conceived principle of persecution rages among some; and to their eternal infamy, the clergy can furnish their quota of imps for such business. This vexes me the worst of anything whatever. There are at this time in the adjacent country not less than five or six well-meaning men in close jail for publishing their religious sentiments, which in the main are very orthodox. I have neither patience to hear, talk, or think of anything relative to this matter; for I have squabbled and scolded, abused and ridiculed, so long about it to little purpose, that I am without common patience. So I must beg you to pity me, and pray for liberty of conscience to all.

Letter from James Madison to William Bradford, Jr. (January 24, 1774), in 1 The Writings of James Madison, at 18 (Gaillard Hunt ed., 1900).