Madison Letter to Everett Regarding Theological Professorships Within a Secular University, March 19, 1823

Madison Letter to Everett Regarding Theological Professorships

Within a Secular University, March 19, 1823

This letter expresses Madison’s views on the difficulty of combining church and state in the educational arena. The alternative was between public universities without courses for religious study or sectarian seminaries without courses in secular learning. Madison favored public universities that did not provide university-sanctioned religious courses. Offering such courses would result in theological battles between rival sects. In contrast, Madison seems to support the establishment of institutes of religion in close proximity to public universities so that students may have ample opportunity to obtain both theological and secular educations. In support of the decision to exclude religious courses from public universities, Madison explains “religion is essentially distinct from Civil Government and exempt from its cognizance;” that “rival sects with equal rights, exercise mutual censorships in favor of good morals;” — that theory and practice show religious growth may be fostered without the aid of the law; and that a connection between the two is injurious to both.

Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie Religious Institutions Group


Montpellier, March 19, 1823

I am not surprised at the dilemma produced at your University by making theological professorships an integral part of the System. The anticipation of such an one led to the omission in ours; the Visitors being merely authorized to open a public Hall for religious occasions, under impartial regulations; with the opportunity to the different sects to establish Theological schools so near that the Students of the University may respectively attend the religious exercises in them. The village of Charlottesville also, where different religious worships will be held, is also so near, that resort may conveniently be had to them.

A University with sectarian professorships, becomes, of course, a Sectarian Monopoly: with professorships of rival sects, it would be an Arena of Theological Gladiators. Without any such professorships, it may incur for a time at least, the imputation of irreligious tendencies, if not designs. The last difficulty was thought more manageable than either of the others.

On this view of the subject, there seems to be no alternative but between a public University without a theological professorship, and sectarian Seminaries without a University.

I recollect to have seen, many years ago, a project of a prayer, by Govr Livingston father of the present Judge, intended to comprehend & conciliate College Students of every Xndenomination, by a Form composed wholly of texts & phrases of scripture. If a trial of the expedient was ever made, it must have failed, notwithstanding its winning aspect from the single cause that many sects reject all set forms of Worship.

The difficulty of reconciling the Xn mind to the absence of a religious tuition from a University established by law and at the common expence, is probably less with us than with you. The settled opinion here is that religion is essentially distinct from Civil Govt and exempt from its cognizance; that a connexion between them is injurious to both; that there are causes in the human breast, which ensure the perpetuity of religion without the aid of the law; that rival sects, with equal rights, exercise mutual censorships in favor of good morals; that if new sects arise with absurd opinions or overheated maginations, the proper remedies lie in time, forbearance and example; that a legal establishment of religion without a toleration could not be thought of, and with a toleration, is no security for public quiet & harmony, but rather a source itself of discord & animosity; and finally that these opinions are supported by experience, which has shewn that every relaxation of the alliance between Law & religion, from the partial example of Holland, to its consummation in Pennsylvania Delaware N. J., &c, has been found as safe in practice as it is sound in theory. Prior to the Revolution, the Episcopal Church was established by law in this State. On the Declaration of independence it was left with all other sects, to a self-support. And no doubt exists that there is much more of religion among us now than there ever was before the change; and particularly in the Sect which enjoyed the legal patronage. This proves rather more than, that the law is not necessary to the support of religion.

With such a public opinion, it may be expected that a University with the feature peculiar to ours will succeed here if anywhere. Some of the Clergy did not fail to arraign the peculiarity; but it is not improbable that they had an eye to the chance of introducing their own creed into the professor’s chair. A late resolution for establishing an Episcopal school within the College of William & Mary, tho’ in a very guarded manner, drew immediate animadversions from the press, which if they have not put an end to the project, are a proof of what would follow such an experiment in the University of the State, endowed and supported as this will be, altogether by the Public authority and at the common expence.

Letter from James Madison to Edward Everett (Mar. 19, 1823), in 9 The Writings of James Madison, 1819-1836, at 124 (Gaillard Hunt ed., 1910).