You’ve probably seen it. Anyone who has spent time perusing the comment sections of online articles has seen the sparring matches between secularists and theocrats. Recent SCOTUS decisions have likely inspired such discussions, no doubt. Typically, the theocrat is left battered and bruised by the weight of history and facts, and yet, the theocrat still somehow leaves unconvinced…
…and claiming victory. (smh)

If one engages with a theocrat and takes the time to debunk enough of their claims, eventually, they will get into ambiguous territory like what was the “Real” intent of the founders. It was after one such discussion that I decided to do some research of my own into the official record.

WARNING: The following is low on opinion and high on the official record …with links galore.

Most Americans (I hope) know that there are three religious clauses in the Constitution, the ‘no religious test’ clause, and the ‘establishment’ and ‘free exercise’ clauses that comprise the First Amendment. So let’s dive right in and investigate the, ‘no religious test’ clause.

James Madison’s notes are the most comprehensive record that we have of the 1787 Constitutional Convention.

August 6, after two months of debates, the report from the Committee of Detail delivered 23 articles to the convention, one of which is Article XX and it reads:

“The members of the Legislatures, and the Executive and Judicial officers of the United States, and of the several States, shall be bound by oath to support this Constitution.”

August 20, Mr. Charles Pinckney submits 12 proposals to the convention, included is the ‘no religious test’ clause, the proposals are referred to the Committee of Detail and doesn’t come back around until the 30th.

August 30, Article XX was taken up and “or affirmation” was added after “oath.” The following is directly from the text:

Mr. Pinkney moved to add to the art: -”but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the authority of the U. States”

Mr. Sherman thought it unnecessary, the prevailing liberality being a sufficient security agst. such tests.

Mr. Govr Morris & Genl. Pinkney approved the motion. The motion was agreed to nem: con: and then then whole Article; N. C. only no-& Md. divided

(nem: con: = Nemine contradicente, with no one dissenting; unanimously)
That’s it! Seriously! That was the extent of the discussion regarding the ‘no religious test’ clause, and not even a single delegate voted against it.
(“…the prevailing liberality…” I love it;)

Moving on to the Bill of Rights debates of the 1st Congress 1st Session as archived at the Library of Congress.

June 8, 1789, James Madison introduced his proposed amendments to the Constitution; however, they would not begin to debate them until July 21.

August 15, they begin to debate the fourth proposition, “no religion shall be established by law, nor shall the equal rights of conscience be infringed.”

Mr. Sylvester had some doubts of the propriety of the mode of expression used in this paragraph. He apprehended that it was liable to a construction different from what had been made by committee. He feared it might be thought to have a tendency to abolish religion altogether.

Mr. Vining suggested the propriety of transposing the two members of the sentence.

Mr. Gerry said it would read better if it was, that no religious doctrine shall be established by law.

Mr. Sherman thought the amendment altogether unnecessary, inasmuch as Congress had no authority whatever delegated by them by the Constitution to make religious establishments; he would, therefore, move to have it struck out.

Mr. Carroll.- as the rights of conscience are, in their nature, of peculiar delicacy, and will little bear the gentlest touch of governmental hand; and as many sects have concurred in opinion that they are not well secured under the present constitution, he said he was much in favor of adopting the words. He thought it would tend more towards conciliating the minds of the people to the Government than almost any other amendment he had heard proposed. He would not contend with the gentlemen about the phraseology, his object was to secure the substance in such a manner as to satisfy the wishes of the honest part of the community.

Mr. Madison said, he apprehended the meaning of the words to be, that Congress should not establish a religion, and enforce the legal observation of it by law, nor compel men to worship God in any manner contrary to their conscience. Whether the words are necessary or not, he did not mean to say, but they had been required by some State Conventions, who seemed to entertain an opinion that under the clause of the constitution, which gave power to Congress to make all laws necessary and proper to carry into execution the constitution, and the laws made under it, enabled them to make laws of such a nature as might infringe in the rights of conscience, and establish a national religion; to prevent these effects he presumed the amendment was intended, and he thought it as well expressed as the nature of the language would admit.

Mr. Huntington said that he feared, with the gentlemen first up on this subject, that the words might be taken in such latitude as to be extremely hurtful to the cause of religion. He understood the amendment to mean what had been expressed by the gentleman from Virginia (Mr. Madison); but others might find it convenient to put another construction upon it. The ministers of their congregations to the Eastward were maintained by the contributions of those who belonged to their society; the expense of building meeting-houses was contributed in the same manner. These things were regulated by by-laws. If an action was brought before a Federal Court on any of these cases, the person who had neglected to perform his engagements could not be compelled to do it; for a support of ministers, or a building of places of worship might be construed into religious establishment. By the charter of Rhode Island, no religion could be established by law; he could give a history of the effects of such a regulation; indeed the people were now enjoying the blessed fruits of it. He hoped, therefore, the amendment would be made in such a way as to secure the rights of conscience, and a free exercise of the rights of religion, but not to patronize those who professed no religion at all.

(I would like to interject some additional information for context and a dash of personal opinion. When Mr. Huntington says, “By the charter of Rhode Island, no religion could be established by law; he could give a history of the effects of such a regulation; indeed the people were now enjoying the blessed fruits of it.” This statement is actually a sarcastic dig at no religious establishment. At the time, Rhode Island was often referred to as ‘Rogues Island’ because the state was used as a haven by smugglers and other nefarious characters; also, the merchants of Rhode Island were major players in the slave trade. I did find it humorous that Mr. Huntington goes on to say that he wished to secure those rights, ”but not to patronize those who professed no religion at all” after having just patronized the hell out of them; for some reason that seemed familiar.)

(This is pure speculation on my part, but I envision a very subtle eye roll before Mr. Madison begins.)
Mr. Madison thought if the word national was inserted before religion, it would satisfy the minds of the honorable gentlemen. He believed that the people feared one sect might obtain a pre-eminence, or two combine together, and establish a religion to which they would compel others to conform. He thought if the word national was introduced, it would point the amendment directly to the object it was intended to prevent.

Mr. Livermore was not satisfied with that amendment; but he did not wish them to dwell long on the subject. He thought it would be better if it was altered, and made to read in this manner, that Congress shall make no laws touching religion, or infringing the rights of conscience.

Mr. Gerry did not like the term national, proposed by the gentleman from Virginia, and he hoped it would not be adopted by the House. It brought to his mind some observations that had taken place in the conventions at the time they were considering the present Constitution. It had been insisted upon by those who were called antifederalists, that this form of Government consolidated the Union; the honorable gentleman’s motion shows that he considers it in the same light. Those who were called antifederalists at that time complained that they had injustice done them by the title, because they were in favor of a Federal Government, and the others were in favor of a national one; the federalists were for ratifying the constitution as it stood, and the others not until amendments were made. Their names then ought not to have been distinguished by federalists and antifederalists, but rats and antirats.

Mr. Madison withdrew his motion, but observed that the words, “no national religion shall be established by law,” did not imply that the government was a national one.

The question was then taken on Mr. Livermore’s motion, and passed in the affirmative 31-20.

August 17, the committee then proceeded to the fifth proposition: “no State shall infringe the equal rights of conscience, nor the freedom of speech or of the press, nor of the right of trial by jury in criminal cases.”

Mr. Tucker. – This is offered, I presume, as an amendment to the constitution of the United States, but it goes only to the alteration of the constitutions of particular States. It will be much better, I apprehend, to leave the State Governments to themselves, and not to interfere with them more than we already do; and that is thought by many to be rather too much. I therefore move, sir, to strike out these words.

Mr. Madison conceived this to be the most valuable amendment in the whole list. If there was any reason to restrain the Government of the United States from infringing upon these essential rights, it was equally necessary that they should be secured against the State Governments. He thought that if they provided against the one, it was as necessary to provide against the other, and was satisfied that it would be equally grateful to the people.

Mr. Livermore had no great objection to the sentiment, but he thought it not well expressed. He wished to make it an affirmative proposition; “the equal rights of conscience, the freedom of speech or of the press and the right of trial by jury in criminal cases, shall not be infringed by any State.”

This transposition being agreed to, and Mr. Tucker’s motion being rejected, the clause was adopted.

August 20, on motion of Mr. Ames, the fourth amendment was altered to read, “Congress shall make no law establishing religion, or to prevent the free exercise thereof, or to infringe the rights of conscience,” this being adopted.

August 24, the proposed amendments are referred to the Senate. It’s interesting to note that on the 23rd, Mr. Tucker proposed an amendment to the ‘no religious test’ clause by inserting the word ‘other’ between the words ‘no’ and ‘religious’ It passed in the negative (i.e. it failed)

Now, on to the Senate; unfortunately, there is no record of the Senate debate because the Senate met in secret at the time and did not open its doors to the public until 1795, however, it did keep a journal of all the motions.

August 25, the Senate receives the proposed amendments from the House of Representatives and on motion to postpone the consideration of the articles to the next session of Congress.  It passed in the negative.

Ordered, That Monday next be assigned to take them under consideration.

Art. III. “Congress shall make no law establishing religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, nor shall the rights of conscience be infringed.”

Art. IV. “The freedom of speech, and of the press, and the right of the people to peaceably assemble and consult for their common good, and to apply to the government for redress of grievances, shall not be infringed.”

These two articles will eventually be merged and become the First Amendment.

September 3, the Senate begins debating Art. III.
On motion to amend article third, and to strike out these words: ‘religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ and insert ‘one religious sect or society in preference to others:’
It passed in the negative.
On motion for reconsideration:
It passed in the affirmative.
On motion that article the third be stricken out:
It passed in the negative.
On motion to adopt the following, in lieu of the third article: ‘Congress shall not make any law infringing the rights of conscience, or establishing any religious sect or society:’
It passed in the negative.
On motion to amend the third article, to read thus: ‘Congress shall make no law establishing any particular denomination of religion in preference to another, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, nor shall the rights of conscience be infringed:’
It passed in the negative.
On the question upon the third article as it came from the House of Representatives:
It passed in the negative.
On motion to adopt the third article proposed in the resolve of the House of Representatives, amended by striking out these words, ‘nor shall the rights of conscience be infringed:’
It passed in the affirmative.

September 4, the fourth article is amended to read as follows, “That Congress shall make no law, abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people to peaceably assemble and consult for their common good, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances:”  It passed in the affirmative.

September 7, on motion to add the following to the proposed amendments to wit, “That the third section of the sixth article of the constitution of the United States, ought to be amended, by inserting the word ‘other’ between the words ‘no’ and ‘religious’.  It passed in the negative.

September 9, on motion to amend article the third, to read as follows: “Congress shall make no law establishing articles of faith or a mode of worship, or prohibiting the free exercise of religion, or abridging the freedom of speech, or the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and petition to the government for the redress of grievances:”
It passed in the affirmative. (Articles III and IV, have now merged)

The Senate finished with the amendments and sent it back to the House of Representatives.

September 21, the House then resumed the consideration of the amendments proposed by the Senate to the several articles of the amendments to the Constitution of the United States; some of which they agreed to, and disagreed to others, two-thirds of the members present concurring in each vote; whereupon, a Committee of Conference was desired with the Senate, on the subject matter of the amendments disagreed to; and Madison, Sherman, and Vining were appointed managers on the part of the House. The Senate receives the message from the House of Representatives and due concur in a conference on the subject matter of disagreement on the said articles of amendment, and that Ellsworth, Carroll, and Paterson, be managers of the conference on the part of the Senate.

September 23, the House of Representatives proceeded to consider the report of a Committee of Conference, on the subject matter of the amendments depending between the two Houses to the several articles of amendment to the Constitution of the United States, as proposed by this House: whereupon, it was resolved, that they recede from their disagreement to all the amendments: provided that the two articles, which, by the amendments of the Senate, are now proposed to be inserted as the third and eighth articles, shall be amended as follows:

Art. 3. Congress shall make no law, respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Art. 8…..

On the question that the House agree to the alteration, in the manner aforesaid, the yeas and nays were called, and are as follow: 37-14.

On motion, it was resolved, that the President of the United States be requested to transmit to the Executives of the several States which have ratified the Constitution, ‘copies of the amendments proposed by Congress, to be added thereto, and like copies to the Executives of the States of Rhode Island and North Carolina.

The Senate received a message from the House informing the Senate, that the House of Representatives had receded from their disagreement to the amendments, insisted on by the Senate: provided that the “two articles, which, by the amendments of the Senate, are now proposed to be inserted as the third and eighth articles,” shall be amended as followeth: …

September 25, Resolved. That the Senate do concur in the amendments proposed by the House of Representatives to the amendments of the Senate.

Well, there you have it, the transcript of the official record while the religious clauses had the floor. I hope everyone enjoyed this little stroll through history and I will end this piece with one of my favorite quotes by Thomas Jefferson. This is an excerpt from the final letter Mr. Jefferson wrote before his death, declining invitation to the Washington D.C. 4th of July celebration of the 50th anniversary of American Independence, dated June 24, 1826:

“I should, indeed, with peculiar delight, have met and exchanged there congratulations personally with the small band, the remnant of that host of worthies, who joined with us on that day, in the bold and doubtful election we were to make for our country, between submission or the sword; and to have enjoyed with them the consolatory fact, that our fellow citizens, after half a century of experience and prosperity, continue to approve the choice we made. May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all,) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. That form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion. All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God. These are grounds of hope for others. For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.”

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Freedom OF is freedom FOR and freedom FROM.

You see, the Founders and Framers understood that Freedom OF Religion applies to both the practice of religion and the decision not to practice. It is as much freedom FROM religion as it is freedom FOR religion. Why “from”…because like other institutions in the British Empire churches were instruments of regulation and oppression. The Established CHurch, Anglican, and associated colony specific churches, had many priveleges and for that reason tended to endorse the status quo.

And while Christianity was THE Dominant religion in the United States in 1776, and 1789, it came in such variety with differences so profound that protection from excesses by one over others was deemed a necessity. Framers also addressed concerns related to Jews, Deists and Rationalists (i.e. Atheists).

Of the 55 delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention, 49 were Protestant, two were Roman Catholics. That is 51.

Among the Protestant delegates to the Constitutional Convention, 28 were Anglican/Episcopalian, 8 were Presbyterians, 7 were Congregationalists, 2 were Lutherans, 2 were Dutch Reformed, two were Methodists. Two of their number were “unaffiliated” which might mean they were deists. There were two Jews.

The leading Founders (Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, Wilson, Morris, Madison, Hamilton, and Washington) have been shown to be supporters of a hybrid “theistic rationalism”. However church attendance and support of a church were the norm to which the Founders held as proper form within society.

Throughout the writings of many of the Founding and Framing generation one finds references to the “god of nature, of reason, of providence”…this was the language of the Enlightenment, from which the Founders’ intellectual tradition sprang. It provided common ground, apart from any particular tradition, which was often divisive, to consider the nature and role of the deity. For Jefferson, for example, the deity was best understood as Hagia Sophia…Holy Wisdom.

For Franklin, the idea of the Divine Clockmaker was attractive- building the mechanism, winding it up, setting it down, and then walking aware. Both men were formally Anglican/Episcopalian….but their writings show that they were not bound by the Church of England’s creed (as was Geroge Wythe of Va. for example).

The Declaration of Independence speaks of “the Creator” of “Providence” and “nature’s God.” NOTE: No God the Father, Jehovah, Yahweh, Jesus, or Holy Spirit. In the Constitution: The reference to the deity is found in one place, the date. Anno Domini.

I agree that non-belief was rare and largely hidden in their society but the principle of belief or non belief is certainly clear in the Bill of Rights and in their writing. Recall that adherence to the creed of one denomination over another had divided the colonies, and divided the colonists from the British government.

The Enlightenment provided the philosophical foundation for the Revolution, and for the Founders and Framers. And the root of that philosophy was free inquiry and open mindedness. Further the government was deeply rooted in a secular authority not a religious one…the social contract.


Great article and research into a pivotal point in this country’s history. I can’t imagine any of our current crop of politicians being able to work on such a tough issue with such integrity. Of course, they were united in trying to give birth to a new country and government, whereas today’s group is more interested in how they can improve their own (or their handlers) profit margins.

Zeke, Thanks for your work, I enjoyed the information.


Zeke, this is really a treasure. There’s nothing in the world like primary sources for history — even though, as you say, there are sometimes eye-glazing sections of tedium. When you finally do find the oyster with the lovely pearl in it, it makes all the eyestrain worth it, no?

Contrary to what you say, you really are a fine writer and a fine thinker. It’s hard to believe that being a historian is not your day job, but I gather it’s not.

The thing that amazes me is how well the Founders managed to negotiate that narrow little pathway between slipshod, rushed debate just to get something — anything– down on paper, and endless mincing of fine point after fine point to the place where it all just bogs down in the quicksand of endless minutiae. I mean, these
debates could have gone on until — well, they could STILL be going on. But at some point rational heads prevailed and they said — in effect — okay we have to compromise and hammer out some sort of workable language and move on. We have work to do, and we can’t afford to dither or endlessly bicker.

Whatever happened to that head?

Anyway, it’s pretty obvious that the Founders never did intend this to be a Christian theocracy. And the more you read, the more you realize how serious they were about that. It seemed that one of their main concerns was that it might be atheists who would be the ones to be persecuted. They certainly didn’t express the hysterical paranoia that some modern day “Christians” do about jack-booted federal thugs bursting into their (luxurious) houses of worship to haul them off to FEMA camps. Well,there probably weren’t FEMA camps back then, but you know what I mean. 😉

I do hope that you’ll keep on writing for the Planet. It’s just such a delight to read the wonderful posts that you and other members have contributed — even in just the past few weeks. You help to make the Planet the unique and fascinating place that it is!


Zeke, the framers were way ahead of their time. Even though they did a fine job, things change and some of what they put in the Constitution seems to be applied literally by the Tea Party folks. Some is misinterpreted by some folks, too. Because of the “well armed militia” , the TP think it’s okay for anyone to have powerful weapons with multiple ammo clips. I doubt the framers envisioned that.

Also I doubt they envisioned the Congress locking up and doing absolutely nothing.


Excellent article Zeke,

I have read over and over through my lifetime the debates and the opinions on the debates of the framers of the constitution. I still to this day wonder why they were not more forceful in their rejection of organized religion in this land. After escaping religious persecution in Europe, many who came to this nation began committing the same practices they were escaping from.

European Persecution
The religious persecution that drove settlers from Europe to the British North American colonies sprang from the conviction, held by Protestants and Catholics alike, that uniformity of religion must exist in any given society. This conviction rested on the belief that there was one true religion and that it was the duty of the civil authorities to impose it, forcibly if necessary, in the interest of saving the souls of all citizens. Nonconformists could expect no mercy and might be executed as heretics. The dominance of the concept, denounced by Roger Williams as “enforced uniformity of religion,” meant majority religious groups who controlled political power punished dissenters in their midst. In some areas Catholics persecuted Protestants, in others Protestants persecuted Catholics, and in still others Catholics and Protestants persecuted wayward coreligionists. Although England renounced religious persecution in 1689, it persisted on the European continent. Religious persecution, as observers in every century have commented, is often bloody and implacable and is remembered and resented for generations.

Persecution in America
Although they were victims of religious persecution in Europe, the Puritans supported the Old World theory that sanctioned it, the need for uniformity of religion in the state. Once in control in New England, they sought to break “the very neck of Schism and vile opinions.” The “business” of the first settlers, a Puritan minister recalled in 1681, “was not Toleration, but [they] were professed enemies of it.” Puritans expelled dissenters from their colonies, a fate that in 1636 befell Roger Williams and in 1638 Anne Hutchinson, America’s first major female religious leader. Those who defied the Puritans by persistently returning to their jurisdictions risked capital punishment, a penalty imposed on four Quakers between 1659 and 1661. Reflecting on the seventeenth century’s intolerance, Thomas Jefferson was unwilling to concede to Virginians any moral superiority to the Puritans. Beginning in 1659 Virginia enacted anti-Quaker laws, including the death penalty for refractory Quakers. Jefferson surmised that “if no capital execution took place here, as did in New England, it was not owing to the moderation of the church, or the spirit of the legislature.”

All of the debate, all of the anguish over trying to get it right, was as everything else the framers of the constitution believed in, the only problem is the framers were only thinking of themselves and other wealthy land owners when they were toiling over these concepts.

As Christians, they were, as they were having these debates committing all sorts of atrocities.

“The degrading experience of Residing in Caucasian Countries, that Europeans founded on your ancestral lands, which they appropriated by brute force for themselves, where the existence of your Race is considered of no value”

“The people of our Frontier carry on private expeditions against the Indians, and kill them whenever they meet them. And I do not believe there is a jury in all of Kentucky who would punish a man for it.” – John H. – Major, U.S .Army

“Damn any man who sympathizes with Indians. I have come to kill Indians, and believe it is right and honorable to use any means under God’s Heaven to kill them.” – Colonel John Chivington

From 1492 to the late 1900s, throughout the Americas, the killing and raping and robbing of American Indians by Caucasians did not result in very much, or any, negative consequences for the perpetrators. The reason why such barbarous injustice prevailed for the better part of five centuries is laid bare by the Caucasian mindset described in the next two paragraphs.

This statement, “No state can achieve proper culture, civilization, and progress … as long as Indians are permitted to remain.” although articulated by U.S. President Martin Van Buren in 1837 it lays bare the predominate White supremacist genocidal mentality that the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas have had to contend with since Columbus landed in 1492.

In April 1850, the California legislature passed a law that stated “In no case shall a white man be convicted of any offense upon the testimony of an Indian ” Thus, if any case was brought to trial any white men who raped, killed, enslaved Indians or illegally took their lands, they were not found guilty simply because no Indian would or could testify”. In this case it was a written law, but, realistically, across the Americas, the same law prevailed, albeit, mostly unwritten.

Slavery, slaughter of Native Americans by so called Christians, and the list goes on an on.

Sorry, but I can’t agree with you on the accolades you seem to think these people deserve. 🙁


First of all, welcome to The Planet, zeke.

Thank you for all the great links in one place about a subject I have always been interested in, but have been too often distracted from learning about in detail.

The graphic at the top is great and for someone like me who yearns to be a part of bygone times, I can imagine myself there lurking in the shadows listening to the wonderful conversations they must have had.

Thanks again, now I must find my big studying hat with the huge “S” on and do some reading.


Zeke, couldn’t be a more timely article about how cautious and mindful the Framers were when it came to the separation of church and state. That wall had to be strong, secure and complete and despite the lapses that have and continue to occur, it was quite brilliant and far-sighted.

Now if we can only get a new majority on the SCOTUS that understands history and the context of the 1st Amendment (The Framers didn’t want another religious entity oppressing their freedoms after breaking away from King George III) and views the 1st Amendment as a “Stop” sign instead of a “Yield” sign, we can get back to being the nation we’re supposed to be.


Thank you gentle friend Zeke.

“History is an unfortunate record of the present.”

A Future of the Brave


Zeke, thank you for your post. I found it very informative. Our founding fathers didn’t do it all in one night, one week, one month, or one year. And, they intended it to live with history and make its own going forward.

Thank you again for sharing.


Zeke, Well done! A combination of KT’s post and yours is very informative.
I really like opinions but facts are even better.
Thanks, I’ll reread it and may have to refer to it often.


Excellent Zeke! Very interesting and informative, to see records of the actual construction of our first amendment and the very wise and careful deliberations that went into it.

Why can’t we have such thinkers AND writers today?