The Basics of Separation of Church and State
Tom Peters


If the separation debate is about nothing else, it is about history, in particular, what the founders of America believed about the role of religion in public life. Separationists believe that the founders intended to separate church and state by depriving the state of its power to either aid or hinder religion. Accomodationists believe that the state retains that power (with certain limitations), and so is constitutionally able to advance religion as a moral good.

To bolster their case, accomodationists have produced reams of quotations from famous early Americans to the effect that religion is important to public life, or that the founders themselves were religious men. As we demonstrate elsewhere, some of these quotes are either fabricated or taken out of context. Others (as we suggest in this section) are taken from people who were either opponents of the Constitution (eg., Patrick Henry), or who played no role in the framing of the Constitution or other important American documents (eg., Daniel Webster). Finally, we argue that the overwhelming majority of these quotations are irrelevant to what's at issue in the separation debate: one can be religious, and even believe that religion is important for public life, without believing that the state should have the power to aid religion, either preferentially or non-preferentially.

In this section we do three things. First, we make an effort to determine who made the most important contributions to the founding of America (we can't examine everyone, but we can certainly look at those who are generally regarded as the most influential early Americans). Second, we look at what the most important founders wrote or said about separation of church and state. Third, we look at some of the quotations cited by accomodationists to argue against separation and subject them to critical scrutiny.

We think that the results of this investigation will demonstrate that most of the important founders wanted and intended separation of church and state. We suspect that most of those who didn't agree with the separation principle ended up either opposing the Constitution, or publicly disagreeing with the separationist provisions of that document.

Who were the most important founders?

Research by Jim Allison

Our purpose in this article is two-fold: (1) to clarify what we mean by a "founder" of America, and (2) to identify those founders who most influenced the course of the early Republic. Put simply, not every famous early American was a founder, and most of the founders were relatively unimportant from the perspective of history (who today, for example, remembers such names as David Brearley or William Few, despite their status as attendees to the Constitutional Convention?). Our interest, in other words, is in studying the opinion leaders, theorists, and leading lights of the early Republic; it is in their words and actions that we are most likely to discover the sentiments that shaped American attitudes toward religion and the state.

Briefly, we define "founders" as any American citizen that played some identifiable role in the governance of America from 1774 to 1820, or any citizen who helped frame the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, or Bill of Rights. By "identifiable role in governance" we mean serving in either state or national government as legislator, executive, or judge, or service as an Ambassador or other appointed office at the national level. Additionally, we divide the years 1774-1820 into two time periods, the founding period (1774-1789, the years during which the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights were being written), and the shaping period (1790-1820, when the country first began to work out the consequences of Constitutional law for public institutions).

To help determine which of the founders were most important, Jim (who did the research for this article) employed a ranking system that gave each founder points for participation in selected activities. Jim's list of founders was taken from David Barton's Original Intent, a popular anti-separationist book. For each activity at the state level, or for a position as an ambassador or emissary to a foreign nation, he gave one point. For each activity at the national level, or participation in the framing of our founding documents he gave two points. This system appropriately gives greater weight to founders that played mainly in the national arena, while still allowing important state figures to be counted. Jim consulted a variety of sources in making determinations as to how many points each founder earned.

Here is a detailed look at Jim's ranking system:

The founding period: 1774-1789

A problem with this ranking system is that it gives each person the same number of points for participating in an activity, even though some founders had more influence on the outcome of these activities than others. Accordingly, Jim awarded additional points to founders on the basis of the importance of their contributions to selected activities. Importance was assessed for each of the following: (1) the Constitutional Convention, (2) state ratifying conventions for the Constitution, (3) Congressional debates on the Bill of Rights, and (4) Congressional debates on the religion clauses of the First Amendment. Importance was measured by looking at the extant records of these events, counting the number of times each person spoke, and assigning each participant a rank on the basis of speaking frequency. These ranks were then reversed and multiplied by two to yield the number of points awarded.

To give an example, 47 persons are recorded as speaking at the Constitutional Convention. The most frequent speaker was Gouverneur Morris of Pennsylvania. Accordingly, Morris was assigned the rank of "1," and the person that spoke least was assigned the rank of "47." These ranks were then reversed, so that Morris was now ranked "47," and the person that spoke least was ranked "1." These number were multiplied by two, giving Morris 94 points for his participation at the Constitutional Convention.

Obviously, this ranking system is not perfect (since there is no purely objective way to assess such an ambiguous concept as "importance"), but whatever the flaws in our method, those flaws are distributed equally among all the founders we rated. In fact, at least a few pro-separation founders were likely shortchanged on our scale. Thomas Jefferson, for example, surely ranks as one of the 5 most influential men in the early Republic (he's number 19 on the list), but he was serving as Ambassador to France during the both the Constitutional Convention and the Congressional debates over the Bill of Rights and so received no points for those events. Having said this, no historian would dispute that the people that rank highly on our scale were extraordinarily influential men. We feel comfortable in asserting that, if our scale is not perfect, it yields results that go some distance in shedding light on just who's opinions mattered most to the greatest number of people.

Here's our list:

Name Points State
James Madison 364 VA
Roger Sherman 295 Conn
James Wilson 276 PA
Rufus King 272 Mass
Elbridge Gerry 214 Mass
Edmund Randolph 154 Va
George Mason 131 Va
Alexander Hamilton 125 NY
Gouverneur Morris 119 Pa
John Rutledge 112 SC
Caleb Strong 100 Mass
George Read 94 Del
John Marshall 90 Va
John Vining 87 Del
Ben Franklin 81 Pa
Fisher Ames 81 Mass
James Monroe 69 VA
James McHenry 63 Md
Thomas Jefferson 61 Va
Samuel Adams 59 Mass
Patrick Henry 55 Va
John Q. Adams 54 Mass
John Adams 49 Mass
Oliver Ellsworth 49 Conn
Ben Rush 48 Pa
John Jay 40 NY
John Randolph 34 Va
Joseph Story 32 Mass
Henry Lee 29 Va
John Hancock 24 Mass
John Witherspoon 22 NJ
Noah Webster 9 Mass

What were the religious affiliations of the founders?

Table compiled by Ian Dorion

From time to time our readers have questions about the religious affiliations of American Founders. Remarkably, few scholars have spent much time researching the question, and most of those who list such affiliations do so only for signers of the Constitution.

Ian Dorion, a retired aeronautical engineer now living in Higdon, Arkansas, has been doing some research on this issue, and contributes the following table. The table lists the religious affiliation of every person that was a signatory to the Declaration of Independence and Articles of Confederation, and every delegate to the Constitutional Convention, as best these affiliations can be determined from history. Founders are listed alphabetically. A key to symbols is found at the bottom of the table.

As you'll see, this list is not yet complete. Ian will continue to research this table, and will send us updates as he compliles information. Additionally, we should issue a word of caution concerning the vagaries of historical research. First, it's sometimes very difficult to determine a person's religion; historians can only go by the documents people leave behind, and many founders never wrote or said much about their religious beliefs. Additionally, church affiliation is an imprecise way of determining a person's beliefs; some religious people rarely attended church, only a small percentage of church attenders in the late 1700s were actually church members, and some church members were not particularly religious. George Washington, for example, was a lifelong member of the Episcopal Church, but he was neither deeply religious, nor particularly Christian (most historians count him as a Deist). Similarly, just because two people are of the same relgion doesn't mean they see the world the same way. Both Jerry Falwell and Jesse Jackson, for example, are Baptists, but you'd be on shakey ground in claiming that their common religion implies anything like political similarity. These vagaries aside, this table should be a substantial help to anyone interested in getting a handle on the religious beliefs of America's founders.

You'll note that more than one affiliation is listed for some of the founders. Ian contributes the following explanation:

Additionally, Ian provides us with some specific comments about difficulties in determining the religious affiliations of the following signers: Daniel of St. Thomas Jennifer, William Blount, Richard Dobbs Spaight, Jonathon Dayton, James Wilson, Hugh Williamson, Abraham Baldwin, George Clymer, and Gouverneur Morris.

Ian welcomes the help of anyone that wants to help him complete research on this table. Please e-mail him with relevant documentation at:

Don't e-mail us; Ian wants to verify all information relevant to the table before it gets placed on this page.

                      A Table of the Religious Affiliations 
                              of American Founders

Signer                      State       Doc.    Office          Affiliation (Ref.)

Adams, Andrew               CT          A                       CO(l)
Adams, John                 MA          D       President       CO(b)UN(a)
Adams, Samuel               MA          D/A                     CO(b)
Adams, Thomas               VA          A
Banister, John              VA          A
Baldwin, Abraham            GA          C                       CO(j,k)PR(n)
Bartlett, Josiah            NH          D/A                     CO(b)
Bassett, Richard            DE          C                       ME(g,j,m,n)
Bedford, Gunning, Jun.      DE          C                       PR(j,m)
Blair, John                 VA          C       Justice         PR(a)EP(n)
Blount, William             NC          C                       EP(n)PR(f,j)
Braxton, Carter             VA          D
Brearly, David              NJ          C			EP(n)
Broom, Jacob                DE          C                       QU(n)EP(m)
Butler, Pierce              SC          C                       EP(j,m)
Carroll, Charles            MD          D                       RC(d)
Carroll, Daniel             MD          A/C                     RC(d,j,n)
Chase, Samuel               MD          D       Justice         EP(a)
Clark, Abraham              NJ          D                       PR(c,e)
Clingan, William            PA          A
Collins, John               RI          A       Governor
Clymer, George              PA          D/C                     QU(j,n),EP(j)
Dana, Francis               MA          A
Dayton, Jonothan            NJ          C                       PR(n)EP(j)
Dickenson, John             DE          A/C                     QU(j,m,n)EP(j)
Drayton, William Henry      SC          A
Duane, James                NY          A                       EP(l)
Duer, William               NY          A
Ellery, William             RI(A)MA(D)  D/A                     CO(b)
Few, William                GA          C                       ME(j,k,n)
Fitzmorris, Thomas          PA          C                       RC(j,n)
Floyd, William              NY          D                       PR(c,e)
Franklin, Benjamin          PA          D/C                     EP(n)DE(j)
Gerry, Elbridge             MA          D/A                     EP(j)
Gilman, Nicholas            NH          C                       CO(j,n)
Gorham, Nathaniel           MA          C                       CO(j,n)
Gwynnett, Button            SC          D                       EP(k,o)
Hall, Lyman                 SC          D                       CO(b,k)
Hamilton, Alexander         NY          C                       EP(j,n)
Hancock, John               MA          A/D                     CO(b)
Hanson, John                MD          A
Harnett, Cornelious         NC          A                       EP(f)DE(f)
Harrison, Benjamin          VA          D       Governor
Hart, John                  NJ          D                       PR(c)
Harvie, John                VA          A
Hewes, Joseph               NC          D                       EP?(f)
Heyward, Thomas             SC          A
Heyward, Thomas, Jr.        SC          D
Holton, Samuel              MA          A
Hooper, William             NC          D                       EP(f)
Hopkins, Stephen            RI          D
Hopkinson, Francis          NJ          D                       Ep(l)
Hosmer, Titus               CT          D
Huntington, Samuel          CT          D/A                     CO(b)
Hutson, Richard             SC          A                       PR(l)
Ingersoll, Jared            PA          C                       PR(j,n)
Jefferson, Thomas           VA          D       President       DE(a)
Jennifer, Dan oF St. Thomas MD          C                       EP(j,n)
Johnson, Wm. Saml.          CT          C       Justice         PR(a)EP(j,n)
King, Rufas                 MA          C                       EP(j)CO(n)
Langdon, John               NH          C                       CO(j,n)
Langworthy, Edward          GA          A                       EP(o)
Laurens, Henry              SC          A                       HU(l)
Lee, Henry Lightfoot        VA          D/A
Lee, Richard Henry          VA          D/A     Senator
Lewis, Francis              NY          D/A
Livingston, Phil.           NY          D                       P(c)
Livingston, Wil.            NJ          C                       PR(j,n)
Lovell, James               MA          A
Lynch, Thomas Junr.         SC          D
Madison, James Jr.          VA          C       President       EP(a,j,n)TH(i)
Marchant, Henry             RI          A
Mathews, John               SC          A
McHenry, James              MD          C                       PR(j,n)
Middleton, Arthur           SC          D
Miflin, Thomas              PA          C                       QU(n)LU(j)
M'Kean, Thomas              DE          D/A                     PR(m)
Morris, Gouv.               NY(A)PA(C)  A/C                     EP(j)DE(i,n)
Morris, Lewis               NY          D
Morris, Robert              PA          D/A/C                   EP(j,n)
Morton, John                PA          D
Nelson, Thomas Jr.          VA          D
Paca, William               MD          D
Paine, Robert Treat         MA          D                       CO(b)
Paterson, William           NJ          C       Justice         PT(a)PR(j,n)
Penn, John                  NC          D/A                     UK(f)
Pinckney, Charles           SC          C                       EP(j,n)
Pinckney, Chas. Cotesworth  SC          C                       EP(j,n)
Read, George                DE          D/C                     EP(j,m,n)
Reed, Joseph                PA          A
Roberdeau, Daniel           PA          A
Rodney, Caesar              DE          D                       EP(m)
Ross, George                PA          D
Rush, Benjamin              PA          D                       PR(c,e)UN
Rutledge, Edward            SC          D       Justice         CE(a)
Rutledge, J.                SC          C                       EP(j,n)
Scudder, Nathaniel          NJ          A
Sherman, Roger              CT          D/A/C                   CO(b,j,n)
Smith, James                PA          D                       PR(c,e)
Smith, Jona. Bayard         PA          A
Spaight, Richard Dobbs      NC          C                       EP(f,j,n)
Stockton, Richard           NJ          D                       PR(c,e)
Stone, Thomas               MD          D
Taylor, George              PA          D                       PR(c,e)
Telfair, Edward             GA          A
Thornton, Matthew           NH          D                       PR(c,e)
Van Dyke, Nicholas          DE          A                       EP(m)
Walton, George              GA          D                       AN(o)
Walton, Jno.                GA          A
Washington, George          VA          C       President       EP(a,j,n)TH(i)
Wentworth, John Junr.       NH          A
Whipple, William            NH          D                       CO(b)
Williams, Jonothan          NC          A                       UK(f)
Williams, William           CT          D                       CO(b)
Williamson, Hu              NC          C                       PR(f,n)DE(j)
Wilson, James               PA          D/C     Ch. Justice*    EP(a)PR(e,n)DE(j)
Witherspoon, Jonothan       NJ          D/A     Minister        PR(c)(e)
Wolcott, Oliver             CT          D/A                     CO(b)
Wythe, George               VA          D                       EP(j)



A = Articles of Confederation
D = Declaration of Independence
C = United States Constitution


CE = Church of England
CO = Congregationalist
DE = Deist
EP = Episcopalian
HU = Huguanot
LU = Lutheran
ME = Methodist
QU = Quaker
PR = Presbyterian
PT = Protestant
RC = Roman Catholic
TH = Theist
UK = Unknown
UN = Unitarian


a = 1995 Information Please Almanac
b = The Congregationalist Library
c = Presbyterian Historical Society
d = U.S. Catholic Historical Society
e = Presbyterian Church, USA
f = North Carolina State Library
g = United Methodist Church
h = Lutheram
i = Memoirs & Correspondence of Thomas Jefferson, IV, p.512
j = A Worthy Company: Brief Lives of the Framers of the United States
    Constitution, M. E. Bradford
k = Georgia Public Library Service
l = Dictionary of American Biography (1936)
m = A History of Delaware Through its Governors 1776-1984 by Roger A. Martin
n = Library of Congress
o = Georgia Historial Society


Served without being confirmed by the Senate

What did the most important founders believe about separataion of church and state?

Here's our list of founders, ranked in general order of their importance (we explain our ranking system elsewhere in this site).

What other early Americans influenced the separtion debate?

Obviously, not everyone that had an impact on the separation debate is included in our list of founders. On this page we will highlight the work of other early Americans who's writings concerned the issue of church/state relations.

What about quotations that seem to oppose separation?

As students of the separation debate quickly discover, the "quotation war" between accomodationists and separationists tends to produce a lot more heat than light. There are at least two reasons for this. First, most quotations are ripped out of the context of the documents from which they are quoted, which leads to misinterpretation and misrepresentation. Second, it's easy to read too much into a quotation, especially if the quotation does not directly address the claim one is attempting to prove. The best historical studies on church/state separation take these issues into account when drawing conclusions from quotations; we hope we have done the same in this webpage.

Having said this, we want to argue that there are some systematic problems with way many accomodationists use quotations. In particular, we believe that many of their quotations are not sufficient to establish their primary claim that the framers intended the Constitution to favor either Christianity or theism, or provide aid to religion. In what follows, we present some guidelines accomodationists should follow if they want to successfully use quotations to prove their points (also: check out our flawed quote list for a selection of frequently-cited quotations that suffer from one or more of the problems we discuss below).

So what would a good accomodationist quote look like? Simply put, it would be an authentic quote from someone that either was a framer of the Constitution, or someone that was qualified to express a learned opinion about the Constitution, that directly addresses the issue of federal power over religion under the Constitution and the First Amendment.

We think it's interesting that there are plenty of good quotations on the separationist side of this this issue. Many framers were adamant that (in the words of Richard Dobbs Spaight of North Carolina), "(n)o power is given to the general government to interfere with it [religion] at all. Any act of Congress on this subject would be an usurpation." Conversely, there is almost nothing that meet our standards on the accomodationist side. We think this discrepancy is both significant and telling.

© 1996

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The Basics of Separation of Church and State Tom Peters
What the Founders Believed About Separation of Church and State Tom Peters
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