George Washington Institute for Religious Freedom

Emergence of the Idea

There were a number of reasons why the ideas of ‘religious liberty’ and ‘separation of church and state’ were so important to America’s founders. Many settlers had left Europe to escape oppression for their unusual or unpopular religious beliefs. Others believed in the emerging Age of Enlightenment idea that religion was a personal choice and should be free from government interference or majority imposition. President Washington’s letter assured the Jews of Newport that Americans of all faiths were equal citizens with the “inherent natural right” to their beliefs. His letter endures as one of the clearest expressions of this principle.

Washington was far from alone in this commitment. In this section, we trace the views of some philosophers, theologians and political leaders who formulated America’s ideal of religious liberty, including Roger Williams, Thomas Jefferson, George Mason and James Madison.

Embarkation of the Pilgrims

Painting of Puritans signing a compact binding them to their religious beliefs while aboard a ship in Holland before leaving for the New World. Upon arriving on the Mayflower, they signed another compact that laid out principles for governing their new colony. The painting by Robert W. Weir (1803–1890) is oil on canvas, 12′ x 18′, and hangs in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda.