American Portraits

Conscience is the Most Sacred Property: James Madison, Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and Justice

In this lesson, students will learn about James Madison’s fight to promote and advance religious freedom in the State of Virginia. They will explore how his actions conformed to the idea of justice and through his example, learn how they can pursue justice in their own lives.

Founding Principles

Equality image


Every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law.

Freedom of Religion image

Freedom of Religion

The freedom to exercise one's own religious beliefs without interference from the government is essential to the existence of a free society.

Liberty image


Except where authorized by citizens through the Constitution, the government does not have the authority to limit freedom.

Limited Government image

Limited Government

Citizens are best able to pursue happiness when government is confined to those powers which protect their life, liberty, and property.


A few years before the Revolutionary War began, James Madison was studying the principles of civil and religious liberty at Princeton. Upon returning to his home in Virginia, he was shocked by the religious persecution he witnessed. Dissenting ministers were denied licenses to preach and were beaten if they still attempted to take the pulpit. They were jailed and suffered violence from angry mobs that lingered outside their cells. Baptists in particular faced backlash, and were nearly drowned in local rivers by their fellow citizens. Madison fumed about the violation of rights, stating, “[the] diabolical Hell-conceived principles of persecution rages among some…This vexes me the most of anything whatever. There are at this [time] in the adjacent County not less than 5 or 6 well-meaning men in [jail] for publishing their religious Sentiments.” The young man resolved to fight for justice for his fellow citizens who were persecuted for their religious beliefs….

Narrative PDF

Compelling Question

How can you stand up for justice for yourself and others in your daily life?

Virtue Defined

Justice is the capacity to determine and preserve our common rights.

Lesson Overview

In this lesson, students will learn about James Madison’s fight to promote and advance religious freedom in the State of Virginia. They will explore how his actions conformed to the idea of justice and through his example, learn how they can pursue justice in their own lives.


  • Students will study James Madison’s work in securing religious freedom
  • Students will analyze how James Madison’s work was in pursuit of justice
  • Students will apply this understanding to how they can act justly in their own lives


The principles of the American Founding ushered in radical new idea of freedom of conscience. Even as the colonists were protesting British taxes and dumping tea into Boston Harbor, religious dissenters were being persecuted for their beliefs and practices in most of the colonies. When the British passed the Coercive Acts in 1774, which guaranteed religious toleration for Roman Catholics, many colonists erupted in an outbreak of anti-Catholicism and religious intolerance.

In 1776, with the writing of the Declaration of Independence and several state constitutions which included bills of rights, many Americans began to adhere to the ideas of religious liberty and disestablishment of official state churches. In Virginia, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson led the fight for these ideas.


  • Dissenters
  • Disestablishment
  • Persecution
  • Sentiments
  • Venerable
  • Conscience
  • Luminaries
  • Deluge
  • Unparalleled

Introduce Text

Have students read the background and narrative, keeping the Compelling Question in mind as they read. Then have them answer the remaining questions below.

For more robust lesson treatment, check out our partners at the Character Formation Project

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Walk-In-The-Shoes Questions
As you read, imagine you are the protagonist.

  • What challenges are you facing?
  • What fears or concerns might you have?
  • What may prevent you from acting in the way you ought?

Observation Questions

  • What was Madison’s role in defending religious liberty and justice?
  • Why did Madison believe he needs to protect justice for those being persecuted?
  • What did Madison do in order to protect justice?

Discussion Questions
Discuss the following questions with your students.

  • What is the historical context of the narrative?
  • What historical circumstances presented a challenge to the protagonist?
  • How and why did the individual exhibit a moral and/or civic virtue in facing and overcoming the challenge?
  • How did the exercise of the virtue benefit civil society?
  • How might exercise of the virtue benefit the protagonist?
  • What might the exercise of the virtue cost the protagonist?
  • Would you react the same under similar circumstances? Why or why not?
  • How can you act similarly in your own life? What obstacles must you overcome in order to do so?

Additional Resources

  • Dreisbach, Daniel L., Mark Hall, and Jeffry Morrison. The Founders on God and Government. Lanham, M.D.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004.
  • Hutson, James H. Religion and the Founding of the American Republic.  Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1998.
  • Ketcham, Ralph. James Madison: A Biography. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1971.
  • Ragosta, John. Wellspring of Liberty: How Virginia’s Religious Dissenters Helped Win the American Revolution and Secured Religious Liberty. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

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