Thomas Jefferson And His “Wall of Separation Between Church And State.”

During the years following the ratification of the Constitution, the new government embraced religion.  George Washington, at his first inauguration, placed his hand on the Bible and spontaneously added the words, “So help me God,” to the oath of office. Congress hired chaplains to attend to the religious needs of the members and led them in daily prayers.  The first two presidents declared national days of fasting and prayer for various purposes, not the least of which was to show the nation’s appreciation to its Creator for the favorable outcome of the Revolutionary War and the freedoms that sprang from it.  Even the Thanksgiving observance was undertaken, not as a standing tradition as is done presently, but at the behest of a presidential order calling for the national observance.

In 1801, Jefferson became the nation’s third president, bringing with him views regarding religion that were quite distinct from those of his predecessors.  Jefferson did not benefit from the nation’s formative debates on religion.  During the Virginia Convention of 1776, when the Virginia Bill of Rights was drafted, Jefferson was serving in Congress. During the Constitutional Convention, Jefferson was in France.  And during the First Amendment debates, Jefferson was serving as Secretary of State. Of all the major public discussions taking place during the country’s founding regarding religion, Jefferson was only present for the Madison-Henry debates in the Virginia Assembly.

Despite this, history would hand Jefferson an opportunity to formally present a position on church and state by way of a letter.

At the time of the nation’s establishment, the Congregationalist Church was Connecticut’s official church, a title that continued after the Constitution’s ratification.  Other churches residing in Connecticut, such as the Baptist church, were therefore subject to substantial disadvantages, including unequal taxation and fees, merely because of their religious positions.

Frustrated with their persistently unequal treatment despite the ratification of the new federal Constitution, the leaders of the Danbury Baptist Association wrote a letter to the President of the United States, then Thomas Jefferson, sharing with him the difficulties they were facing. Their letter, dated October 7, 1801, read as follows:


Among the many millions in America and Europe who rejoice in your Election to office; we embrace the first opportunity which we have enjoy’d in our collective capacity, since your Inauguration, to express our great satisfaction, in your appointment to the chief Magistracy in the United States: And though our mode of expression may be less courtly and pompious than what many others clothe their addresses with, we beg you, Sir to believe, that none are more sincere.

Our Sentiments are uniformly on the side of Religious Liberty—That Religion is at all times and places a Matter between God and Individuals—That no man aught to suffer in Name, person or effects on account of his religious Opinions—That the legetimate Power of civil Goverment extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbour: But Sir, our constitution of goverment is not specific. Our antient charter, together with the Laws made coincident therewith, were adopted as the Basis of our goverment. At the time of our revolution; and such had been our Laws & usages, & such still are; that religion is consider’d as the first object of Legislation; & therefore what religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the State) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights: and these favors we receive at the expence of such degrading acknowledgements as are inconsistant with the rights of freemen. It is not to be wondred at therefore; if those, who seek after power & gain under the pretence of goverment & Religion should reproach their fellow men—should reproach their chief Magistrate, as an enemy of religion Law & good order because he will not, dares not assume the prerogative of Jehovah and make Laws to govern the Kingdom of Christ.

Sir, we are sensible that the President of the united States, is not the national Legislator, & also sensible that the national goverment cannot destroy the Laws of each State; but our hopes are strong that the sentiments of our beloved President, which have had such genial Effect already, like the radiant beams of the Sun, will shine & prevail through all these States and all the world till Hierarchy and tyranny be destroyed from the Earth. Sir when we reflect on your past services, and see a glow of philanthropy and good will shining forth in a course of more than thirty years we have reason to believe that America’s God has raised you up to fill the chair of State out of that good will which he bears to the Millions which you preside over. May God strengthen you for the arduous task which providence & the voice of the people have cal’d you to sustain and support you in your Administration against all the predetermin’d opposition of those who wish to rise to wealth & importance on the poverty and subjection of the people.

And may the Lord preserve you safe from every evil and bring you at last to his Heavenly Kingdom throug Jesus Christ our Glorious Mediator.

Signed in behalf of the Association

EPHM. ROBBINS             The Committee

Interestingly, although the letter had been written in October, 1801, there is no evidence Jefferson received it until December 30, 1801.

At the time he received the letter, Jefferson was facing some political turmoil. Jefferson and his Republicans had just survived a very tumultuous election against Adams and his Federalists.  Not the least of Jefferson’s difficulties was the problems he had developed from his strict views on the separation of church and state dating back to his days in the Virginia State Assembly.

Among other charges, Jefferson was accused of being an atheist, no small charge in that day.  Evidence to that claim was his refusal to proclaim times of thanksgiving and national fasts in contrast to the habits of Washington and Adams. Having faced such ardent and continuous attacks regarding the role of government in religious worship and of his personal convictions, Jefferson saw the Danbury letter as an opportunity to discuss his views on religious worship and freedom.[1]  So anxious was Jefferson to respond that he immediately crafted a draft and submitted it to Postmaster General Gildeon Granger and Attorney General Levi Lincoln. By December 31, Granger had responded to Jefferson.  The next day, Jefferson sent the letter with a cover note to Lincoln who also immediately responded. Jefferson, despite a busy New Years day, finalized his answer and sent it on January 1, 1802.  His final letter read as follows:


The affectionate sentiments of esteem and approbation which you are so good as to express towards me, on behalf of the Danbury Baptist association, give me the highest satisfaction. My duties dictate a faithful and zealous pursuit of the interests of my constituents, & in proportion as they are persuaded of my fidelity to those duties, the discharge of them becomes more and more pleasing.

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.  Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection & blessing of the common father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves & your religious association, assurances of my high respect & esteem.

Th Jefferson, Jan. 1. 1802.[2]

It is important to clarify what Jefferson said and what he didn’t say in his letter.  First, Jefferson agreed with the Baptists that religion is strictly a matter between Man & his God.  As a matter of fact, says Jefferson, “the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions. . . ”

But, he clarifies, his job as President was to uphold the Constitution of the United States.  And as such, he acknowledged that the legislature could make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus “building a wall of separation of Church and State.” Therefore, Jefferson said, he would continue to pursue “those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.”

Jefferson’s subsequent actions speak volumes of the intent and meaning of his letter.  First, Jefferson did nothing to undo the Connecticut statute making the Congregationalists its official church.  Unquestionably, he agreed that this was wrong; he said it in his letter.  But he took no action because his greater duty at that time was to the Constitution, and although not expressed in the letter, the Constitution did not allow the President or Congress to keep a state from enacting the legislation that Connecticut had passed.

Instead, Jefferson engaged in a host of activities broaching his “wall of separation between Church and State,” implying that his “wall” was actually quite porous.  On the same day that he finalized his letter to the Danbury Baptist Associations, Jefferson publicly met with John Leland, a Baptist minister whom he had invited to deliver a sermon at the House of Representatives.  In a public demonstration of friendship, Leland presented Jefferson with a 1,250-pound cheese produced by his parishioners.[3] That Sunday, January 3, 1802, Jefferson personally attended the sermon at the House of Representatives that his friend delivered. How many of these actions were specifically due to political expediency will never be answered. However, it is said that subsequent to this letter Jefferson ‘constantly’ attended House services.[4]

Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptist Association had some limited, initial and regional play largely due to the actions of the Association itself.  The letter, as well as Jefferson wall would disappear from the national conscience for more than seventy years, until it reappeared in the writings of a Supreme Court Justice.

But that is the topic of another Sunday Thought.

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[1] James Hutson, “‘A Wall of Separation’ FBI Helps Restore Jefferson’s Obliterated Draft,” (Library of Congress: June 1998) accessed Aug. 21, 2015,
[2] The various incarnations of the language of his drafts have been reconstructed as follows: “confining myself therefore to the duties of my station, which are merely temporal, be assured that your religious rights shall never be infringed by any act of mine and that. . .” (There now appear some crossed out lines followed by:) “concurring with”; (which he also crossed out, then continued) “Adhering to this great act of national legislation in behalf of the rights of conscience” (he crossed out these words and then wrote) “Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience I shall see with friendly dispositions the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced that he has no natural rights in opposition to his social duties.” [“Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists; The Draft and Recently Discovered Text” (Library of Congress: June 1998) accessed Aug. 21, 2015,]
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared in The Federalist Pages. The featured photo is by Kyaw Tun on Unsplash.

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