This Day in History: George Washington, the Baptists, & religious freedom

During this month in 1789, Washington responds to a letter from the United Baptist Churches of Virginia. These Baptists were worried: Was their religious freedom in Danger?

“When the constitution first made its appearance in Virginia,” the Baptists wrote, “we, as a Society, had unusual strugglings of mind; fearing that the liberty of conscience, dearer to us than property or life, was not sufficiently secured.”

It’s important to remember that the Baptists were a relatively small minority back then. Indeed, at the time this letter was written, many Baptists felt that they had already suffered at the hands of establishment religions in the states.  

Were they now in for more bad treatment?

Perhaps the Baptists’ fear is unsurprising. After all, the text of the Constitution does not contain many specific references to religion, and the First Amendment had not yet been written or ratified. The Baptists wondered if the Constitution’s lack of specificity would end up hurting religious minorities, including themselves. 

Would their religious freedom really be protected?

But Washington wasn’t worried. He interpreted the lack of religious references in an entirely different manner, and he attempted to ease the concerns of the Baptists.

“If I could have entertained the slightest apprehension,” he responded, “that the Constitution . . . might possibly endanger the religious rights of any ecclesiastical Society, certainly I would never have placed my signature to it.” Then he doubled down on his statement: “[I]f I could now conceive that the general Government might ever be so administered as to render the liberty of conscience insecure, I beg you will be persuaded that no one would be more zealous than myself to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution.”

Washington’s views on church and state were consistent throughout his time in public service. He felt strongly that religion in the public sphere was necessary to the health of the republic. How could a people expect to self-govern successfully without morals? And how could a nation be moral without religion? On the other hand, he knew that it was vitally important to respect freedom of conscience—and he knew that the Constitution required exactly that. 

Washington worked hard to find a balance among these competing objectives. He wasn’t afraid to be religious in the public sphere, but he also kept his actions and words non-denominational, apparently in recognition of the wide variety of faiths in America. 

Washington was proud of America’s unique ability to blend two competing objectives: Americans enjoy the benefits of public religion, but we are also left free to hold and act upon our own religious beliefs. In 1797, he wrote to the Philadelphia clergy. “Religion and Morality are the essential pillars of Civil society,” he observed. When Americans of differing religious faiths uphold this principle, even as they reside together, they are “exhibiting to the world a new and interesting spectacle, at once the pride of our Country and the surest basis of universal Harmony.”  

You have to wonder what he would think of how things have changed in America since then.

For further reading, check out my book with Joseph C. Smith, Jr.:
Under God: George Washington and the Question of Church and State