James Madison, John Witherspoon, and Oliver Cowdery: The First Amendment and the 134th Section of the Doctrine and Covenants

By Smith, Rodney K. | Brigham Young University Law Review, January 1, 2003 | Go to article overview

James Madison, John Witherspoon, and Oliver Cowdery: The First Amendment and the 134th Section of the Doctrine and Covenants


Smith, Rodney K., Brigham Young University Law Review


A number of years ago, as I completed an article regarding the history of the framing and ratification of the First Amendment's religion provision, I noted similarities between the written thought of James Madison and that of the 134th section of the Doctrine & Covenants, which section was largely drafted by Oliver Cowdery.1 At the time, I hoped I would one day be able to do more research on this topic and compare the views of Madison and Cowdery in greater depth. I am grateful to the organizers of this conference for giving me the opportunity to do so.

This essay is divided into three parts. Part I provides some biographical information regarding Madison and John Witherspoon, including a discussion of the influence of Witherspoon on Madison's thinking regarding the right of religious conscience and an examination of Madison's efforts to secure the right of religious conscience in the founding era. Part II includes pertinent biographical information regarding Cowdery, followed by an examination of those verses of the 134th section of the Doctrine & Covenants that deal with government and the right of religious conscience. Part III compares the views of Madison and Cowdery and offers some concluding commentary.

I. JAMES MADISON AND THE RIGHT OF RELIGIOUS CONSCIENCE

James Madison was born on March 16, 1751, at the home of his maternal grandparents in Port Conway, Virginia, and returned shortly after his birth with his mother to the family home, the largest estate in Orange County, Virginia, which consisted of 5,000 acres.2 It has been said that: "Madison was destined for a life of privilege and responsibility. The triad of land, slaves, and tobacco supported him throughout his long life, allowing him to concentrate on politics and the intellectual pursuits he loved."3 This biographical sketch focuses largely on Madison's intellectual development and related political activities.

Madison's parents thought that it was important for him to learn to read at an early age, so he could study the Bible and be guided by its teachings throughout his lifetime.4 From 1762 to 1767, he was also exposed to some of the basic concepts of the Scottish Enlightenment5 by his teacher, Donald Robertson, who had been educated in Edinburgh and was a licensed preacher.6 This early introduction to the thought of the Scottish Enlightenment laid the groundwork for Madison's further training, as a young man of sixteen, under the tutelage of Reverend Thomas Martin.7 Martin had relocated from New Jersey to serve as rector of the parish church at the request of Madison's father and also served as Madison's teacher.8 Martin was an Anglican but had attended school at the College of New Jersey, a hotbed of Scottish Enlightenment thought under the leadership of John Witherspoon.9 It is believed that Martin may have helped persuade Madison to attend the College of New Jersey10 rather than William & Mary, an Anglican institution.11

Madison began his studies at the College of New Jersey in 1769.12 He entered as a sophomore, having passed an advanced placement examination.13 Madison attended the College of New Jersey for two years and graduated with his bachelor of arts degree in 1771.14 He received "a thorough classical education in Latin and Greek studies, and he also learned Christian thought and precepts from his clergymen teachers."15 It has been observed that "Madison was introduced to the College's theology, which drew deeply from the English dissenting tradition and stressed the importance of 'free enquiry' and 'private judgment' in arriving at religious truth."16 In a letter to his father, written while he was a student, Madison indicated his satisfaction with the education he was receiving at the College of New Jersey: "The Rules by which the Students & Scholars are directed, are, in my Opinion, exceedingly well formed to check & restrain the vicious, & assist the studious, & to countenance & encourage the virtuous. …

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