Today In Religious Liberty: Jefferson Writes Of The “Wall Of Separation”

208 years ago today, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to The Danbury Baptist Association that has resonated through the years.

It’s was 208 years ago today, that Thomas Jefferson wrote his famous letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in which the phrase “wall of separation” first appears.

For context, here’s the text of the letter sent by the Association to President Jefferson in October 1801:

The address of the Danbury Baptists Association in the state of Connecticut, assembled October 7, 1801. To Thomas Jefferson, Esq., President of the United States of America.

Sir,

Among the many million in America and Europe who rejoice in your election to office; we embrace the first opportunity which we have enjoyed 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 pompous 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 ought to suffer in name, person, or effects on account of his religious opinions–that the legitimate power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbors; But, sir, our constitution of government is not specific. Our ancient charter together with the law made coincident therewith, were adopted as the basis of our government, at the time of our revolution; and such had been our laws and usages, and such still are; that religion is considered as the first object of legislation; and 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 expense of such degrading acknowledgements as are inconsistent with the rights of freemen. It is not to be wondered at therefore; if those who seek after power and gain under the pretense of government and religion should reproach their fellow men–should reproach their order magistrate, as a enemy of religion, law, and good order, because he will not, dare not, assume the prerogatives 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, and also sensible that the national government 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 and 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 goodwill which he bears to the millions which you preside over. May God strengthen you for your arduous task which providence and the voice of the people have called you to sustain and support you enjoy administration against all the predetermined opposition of those who wish to raise to wealth and 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 through Jesus Christ our Glorious Mediator.

Signed in behalf of the association, Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins, Stephen S. Nelson

So essentially what we had here were a group of Baptists in Connecticut who were communicating to the President their fears of persecution in a state that was dominated at the time by Episcopalians. At the time, of course, the First Amendment did not apply to the states and not every state had the same protections for religious liberty that Jefferson had championed when he wrote the Virginia Statute For Religious Freedom in 1779.

And, here is Jefferson’s response:

Mr. President

To messers Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins, & Stephen S. Nelson, a committee of the Danbury Baptist association in the state of Connecticut.

Gentlemen

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.

(signed) Thomas Jefferson
Jan.1.1802.

Also of interest is a sentence that Jefferson deleted from the final draft because he feared it would offend members of his party in the eastern part of the new nation:

Congress thus inhibited from acts respecting religion, and the Executive authorised only to execute their acts, I have refrained from prescribing even those occasional performances of devotion, practiced indeed by the Executive of another nation as the legal head of its church, but subject here, as religious exercises only to the voluntary regulations and discipline of each respective sect.

This would have been inserted immediately after the “wall of separation” language, and likely would’ve added to the historical impact that the letter has had.

It’s worth noting that Jefferson was not the first person to use the phrase. His good friend and colleague James Madison used it during the 1789 debates in Congress over what eventually became the First Amendment to the Constitution:

Another early user of the term was James Madison, the principal drafter of the United States Bill of Rights. In a 1789 debate in the House of Representatives regarding the draft of the First Amendment, the following was said:

August 15, 1789. Mr. [Peter] Sylvester [of New York] had some doubts…He feared it [the First Amendment] might be thought to have a tendency to abolish religion altogether…Mr. [Elbridge] Gerry [of Massachusetts] said it would read better if it was that “no religious doctrine shall be established by law.”…Mr. [James] Madison [of Virginia] said he apprehended the meaning of the words to be, that “Congress should not establish a religion, and enforce the legal observation of it by law.”…[T]he State[s]…seemed to entertain an opinion that under the clause of the Constitution…it enabled them [Congress] to make laws of such a nature as might…establish a national religion; to prevent these effects he presumed the amendment was intended…Mr. Madison thought if the word “National” was inserted before religion, it would satisfy the minds of honorable gentlemen…He thought if the word “national” was introduced, it would point the amendment directly to the object it was intended to prevent.[18]

Madison contended “Because if Religion be exempt from the authority of the Society at large, still less can it be subject to that of the Legislative Body.”[19] Several years later he wrote of “total separation of the church from the state.”[20] “Strongly guarded as is the separation between Religion & Govt in the Constitution of the United States”, Madison wrote,[21] and he declared, “practical distinction between Religion and Civil Government is essential to the purity of both, and as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States.”[22] In a letter to Edward Livingston Madison further expanded, “We are teaching the world the great truth that Govts. do better without Kings & Nobles than with them. The merit will be doubled by the other lesson that Religion flourishes in greater purity, without than with the aid of Govt.”[23

So contrary to the argument of some. there was nothing radical about Jefferson’s “wall of separation.” In fact, it reflected the thinking of the Founders at the time.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, Religion, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020.

Comments

  1. Eric Florack says:

    You keep pointing to this stuff, Doug. Yet, I’ve not seen a reasonable answer to the points I’ve repeatedly brought where the early Presidents and Congresses acted as if they read the matter differently than you…

  2. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Doug, just when did Jefferson’s musings become the law of the land? Doug you work (?) in the wrong field. You should work in auto dismantling as you are a cherry picker.

  3. PD Shaw says:

    What hogwash. Jefferson didn’t insert the language because he knew most of the founders would have disagreed with it. It’s very odd that the day after Doug writes about how the Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians started this country off with a series of disagreements on the nature of government, he writes a post assuming “the Founders” all believed one thing, which happens to be the same as Doug’s. And the quotes make clear the existance of that disagreement:

    “I have refrained from prescribing even those occasional performances of devotion, practiced indeed by the Executive of another nation as the legal head of its church”

    He is referring to the Federalist Party, or at least Washington and Adams, who called for days of thanksgiving and prayer. Jefferson called for prayer as Governor of Virginia, but he believed it was beyond the power of the federal government to do so. He left this out because he is engaged in name-calling (European practices).

  4. PD,

    Madison was the framer of the Bill of Rights so he strikes me as a pretty good source of what the First Amendment meant, and he agreed with Jefferson

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    Connecticut continued to have an established church until 1818 and Massachusetts established religion, generally, until 1833 when direct funding ceased. Clearly, the Framers did not construe the Constitution as prohibiting the establishment of religion by the states, only the federal government. That changed after the Civil War.

    Both Madison and Jefferson were from Virginia and I think it’s useful to consider thinking among the Framers on the subject as consisting of three parties: New England, Virginia (and maybe the Tidewater), and the other southern colonies.

    The New England states were largely populated by people who not only believed in establishing religion but did it in their own states. Virginia was largely populated by people who were members of England’s established church but had a nonconformist minority (as the dialogue you cite highlights). The other southern colonies had a very strong influence of people who belonged to nonconformist churches and were wary of established churches, largely concerned that their own churches wouldn’t receive support.

    The “wall of separation” has always been a permeable one. The Declaration of Independence includes verbiage that references a creator as do the constitutions of many if not all fifty states. So, for example, the constitutions of the two states last admitted to the Union just fifty years ago both have clearly theist language. Hawaii’s constitution refers to “Divine Guidance” and Alaska’s constitution refers specifically to God.

    The Bill of Rights has two clauses pertaining to religion: the establishment clause and the free exercise clause. IMO those who would exclude religion from the public square or from public discourse are overreaching.

  6. Gustopher says:

    As much as it pains me to agree with Misters Florack and Ragshaft, the letters of Jefferson don’t mean squat.

    The constitution and the bill of rights were written as a compromise among many parties, and even those who wrote specific sections wrote them for the compromise. Their own beliefs may have been more liberal or conservative than what was written, but ultimately shouldn’t matter.

    The constitution was written to allow states to establish and support religion. That stopped with the post-Civil War amendments.

  7. Tano says:

    “those who would exclude religion from the public square or from public discourse ”

    What exactly does this refer to? Is there any movement afoot to remove churches from their ubiquitous presence in public squares around the country? And public discourse? Is this a joke or something? We talk about religion incessantly in this country. The airwaves are full of christian programming, the libraries and bookstores full of christian literature – we are drowning in (mainly christian) religion in this country. Who could even fantasize about excluding religion from public discourse?

  8. Dave Schuler says:

    During the confirmation hearings of both John Roberts and Samuel Alito innumerable op-eds and editorials wondered whether it was possible to be a practicing Catholic and an effective Supreme Court Justice. We’ve seen decades of attempts to make public schools religion-free zones.

    It seems to me that’s a prima facie case that there are those who would like to excluded religion from the public sphere entirely. Googling “religion is a private matter” produces about 7 million results. Sounds like it’s not entirely a fantasy on my part.

  9. Trueofvoice says:

    Dave,

    Prohibiting religious instruction in public schools protects religion from co-option by government. The Supreme Court has consistently ruled that bringing religion into the classroom amounts to violation of the Establishment clause. Note that if a student wishes to pray, or a teacher lectures on religion in an academic fashion, there is in fact no prohibition. Lack of compulsory religious instruction in public schools does not mean religion cannot exist in the public sphere.

    Quite the contrary; there’s no shortage of Bible Thumping elected officials droning on about God this and Christian nation that. They are all sworn into office by holy men with holy books in hand,and they wear their religious affiliations on their sleeves.

  10. Dave Schuler says:

    I think you’re mistaking what I wrote. I didn’t write that we had removed religion from the public sphere. I did write that some people want to remove it from the public sphere and the public square.

    It seems to me that there are some people who wish to do so is simply a fact and it’s rather obviously a mainstream (if minority) position.

  11. matt says:

    treaty of tripoli 1797

    Dave : Some people wish to make us worship the spaghetti monster. Some people think the earth is flat and Nasa is involved in a giant cover up to keep the world ignorant…. What does any of this have to do with the subject at hand?

  12. Ben Wolf says:

    Dave,

    Prohibiting religious instruction in public schools does not represent the tip of a secularist spear aimed at the heart of religion in the public sphere. Nor does it necessarily indicate the desire of “some people” to banish religion from the public square.

    In 1840 John Hughes persuaded the New York City legislature to forbid religious instruction in public schools. Do you really believe an Archbishop’s goal was to keep religion out of the public sphere? That he belonged with the “some people” you referenced?

  13. Tano says:

    “During the confirmation hearings of both John Roberts and Samuel Alito innumerable op-eds and editorials wondered whether it was possible to be a practicing Catholic and an effective Supreme Court Justice.”

    Really. Funny how I missed that. What is it now – SIX out of nine Supreme Court justices are Catholic? And you claim that there is a discussion going on as to whether it is appropriate for Catholics to serve on the SC? What planet, Dave?

    “We’ve seen decades of attempts to make public schools religion-free zones.”

    Well that is different of course. Public schools are government entities and they house impressionable students who are there explicitly to learn what the school has to teach. It is absolutely inappropriate for public schools to be guiding children into some particular religion.

    “It seems to me that’s a prima facie case that there are those who would like to excluded religion from the public sphere entirely.”

    I was being a bit toungue-in-cheek with my reference to literal town squares. But seriously, what on earth do you mean by “the public sphere”? If you mean public as in governmental, then what is your objection to a secular government. That is what it is supposed to be. If you mean “public” in the large sense – i.e. all that stuff we encounter when we walk outside our doors (or go out on the net), then your case is totally absurd.

  14. Eric Florack says:

    The issue as with all issues surrounding governmental control of anything, is the government’s penchant to destroy anything it tries to control. The concern of many if not most of the day was not government’s support of religion, but government’s DESTRUCTION of it. Even in the day, there were many examples of the government’s perversion of religion, and versa-visa, and that was the concern of the founders… not that someone would dare to pray in public…. but that government could be used to silence that free expression.

    Which oddly enough is where the discussion is now, when we see arguments having progressed (?) to the “legal justification” for telling a bank to take a “merry Christmas” sign down for example.

  15. anjin-san says:

    > is the government’s penchant to destroy anything it tries to control.

    I am thinking that the recent GM experience proves this to be pretty much BS. I am sure there are about a billion more good examples.

  16. Eric Florack says:

    I am thinking that the recent GM experience proves this to be pretty much BS.

    The jury is still out on that, Anjin. Watch for example, the degree of control over the type of vehicles they’re forced to create. (The “Volt” for example…) that nobody will buy.

    And don’t bother telling us about how GM is a success based on having supposedly paid back the government loan. They used accounting tricks to play that one out. Oh, you doubt me?

    According to Neil Barofsky, the special inspector general for TARP, $4.7 billion of $6.7 billion – 70 percent – of what GM paid back came from TARP money the company received. “The one thing a lot of people overlook with this is where they got the money to pay the loan,” Mr. Barofsky told Fox News’ Neil Cavuto on Wednesday. “It isn’t from earnings.” The numbers are based on a quarterly report Mr. Barofsky’s office provided to Congress last week.

    And that’s the best example of governmental success you can come up with? I think my point well made.

  17. wr says:

    I’ve got another example of government success, Bit Eric. It’s called Social Security, and it’s kept millions of older Americans from living out their final years in misery, poverty, and degradation. Of course to a libertarian, that’s a bad thing, but to someone who actually knows and likes other people, it can only be counted a great success.

    Which is why, of course, the right and the libertarians are so desperate to destroy it.

    Now perhaps you can point out the monumental failures of the Apollo program, the Hoover Dam, World War 2 and the transcontinental highway system.

  18. anjin-san says:

    > And that’s the best example of governmental success you can come up with? I think my point well made.

    Just one off the top of my head because it is recent. My optimism about GM has more to do with the fact that their IPO last November was the biggest in US history. Of course we will have to see how their stock performs over time, but the only reason for you to deny this was very good news is that you were not aware of it, or your political orthodoxy simply will not allow you to do so.

    BTW, are you saying the government forced GM to create the Volt?

    As for sales, time will tell. Certainly the right is desperate to see this Made in the U.S.A. product fail, regardless to the losses of American jobs that would result from such a failure. At any rate, the great haste with which the right wing noise machine pronounced the Volt DOA is telling all by itself.

  19. anjin-san says:

    Oh, Bit have you checked AIG’s stock price recently?

  20. Eric Florack says:

    It’s called Social Security, and it’s kept millions of older Americans from living out their final years in misery, poverty, and degradation.

    Well, it works just fine until the old saying about socialism comes to pass…. eventually they run out of other people’s money… as is happening to social security now.

    Just one off the top of my head because it is recent.

    Well, thanks because it backs my point very well indeed.

    Of course we will have to see how their stock performs over time, but the only reason for you to deny this was very good news is that you were not aware of it, or your political orthodoxy simply will not allow you to do so.

    Oh, I’m quite aware what the stock price is doing, at the moment. ut, you see, I don’t see it doing so well for very long.

  21. anjin-san says:

    > don’t see it doing so well for very long.

    Can you provide a coherent argument to support that position? No American Thinker nonsense please…

  22. anjin-san says:

    > as is happening to social security now.

    I would argue that continual raids on the “trust fund” are the core problem. Of course the right ridiculed Gore when he attempted to address that. At any rate, SS is not that hard to fix, if the GOP wanted to fix it. They don’t.

  23. PJ says:

    “The jury is still out on that, Anjin. Watch for example, the degree of control over the type of vehicles they’re forced to create. (The “Volt” for example…) that nobody will buy.”

    The government forced GM to create the Volt? How did they do that? Do they have a super secret time machine in the White House basement?

    That nobody will buy? With gas prices looking to hit $4 or even $5 a gallon? Not forgetting what would happen to gas prices if there’s war with Iran or if OPEC start trading oil in another currency.

  24. Jay Tea says:

    anjin, you might have missed it, but the federal government took over GM a little while ago, fired its CEO, and put in charge a guy who told his bosses what they wanted to hear — GM will put all its resources behind an electric car. Kinda. Sorta. Twice the price and half the capabilities of the Nissan Leaf, which itself is no great shakes, and will require hefty subsidies from the US (that’s “us,” as in taxpayers”) to be anything even closely resembling profitable.

    J.

  25. steve says:

    The best and longest running example is agriculture. The government undertook the projects of getting farmers to rotate crops and getting farmers to update their farming methods. To this day, the county extension agents remain important to farmers. Read up on Norman Borlaug.

    What industries has government destroyed?

    Steve

  26. Rock says:

    When I was a young lad in school, our homeroom teachers would usually start the class each day with the Pledge of Allegiance and a prayer. Occasionally, students would be called on to lead the class in prayer or volunteer to do so. I was very uncomfortable with that . . . and prayed that I’d never be called on to lead the prayer. I didn’t consider it pushing religion, but an acknowledge of it.

    When the subject of evolution and creation came up in our science classes, I was uncomfortable with any discussion of religion in school, primarily because I considered that the teachers were unqualified on the subject. I was equally uncomfortable to discover that I was third cousin to a monkey, primarily because I considered high school teachers unqualified to teach evolution.

    The monkeys won the debate. Fifty years later, the issue is still an active one but the monkeys are now teaching. “The Wall of Separation” doesn’t exist as long as Congress has chaplains and we still have to show up in churches to vote . . . among other things, which is not pushing religion, but an acknowledge of it.

  27. PJ says:

    JayTea, are only car companies that have been rescued by the government building hybrid or electrical cars?

    Maybe GM’s decision to build one has to do with the fact that everyone else are doing it? Because gas isn’t the future?

  28. tom p says:

    The Volt has been in developement for years. The roll out was set sometime ago. To link it to the “gov’t takeover” is so weak an argument with out any factual evidence, that people should be embarressed to even make such a statement. Especially when there are much better arguements available.

  29. tom p says:

    and by the way, what does it have to do with the “wall of seperation”? Is there a “Church of God the Electrifying”?

  30. PD Shaw says:

    Dave makes a good point. One doesn’t need to scratch the surface very hard during the early days of the Republic to find an anti-Catholic sentiment in the writings of the Founding Fathers, the Constitutions and laws of the States, and in the causes of the Revolution. (One of the Intolerable Acts was the law accommodating Catholicism in the newly acquired French territories)

    It’s also important to distinguish dis-establishment from tolerance. After a state or colony stopped supporting an official church with tax-payer’s money, penal laws staid on the books, as well as laws limiting civil rights based upon religion. So North Carolina disestablished from the Church of England during the Revolution, but maintained a requirement that only Protestants can hold public office. Generations later, the requirements was relaxed to permit Catholics, but still excluded non-Christians and atheists until the law was struck down by the SCOTUS in 1961.

    That’s the history. It’s not something to be particularly proud of, but it’s better than most.

  31. Tano says:

    “…so weak an argument with out any factual evidence, that people should be embarressed to even make such a statement.”

    Its Bitsy. Its what he does.

  32. Tano says:

    “Twice the price and half the capabilities of the Nissan Leaf,”

    Actually, that would be twice the price and twice the capabilities. The Leaf does not have a gasoline engine. When it is out of juice, you are totally screwed, unless you have a reeeealy long extension cord, and lots of time on your hands.

  33. anjin-san says:

    Jay & Bit…

    The development cycle for the Volt started well before Obama even took office. Either you guys are both utter idiots who will repeat anything you read if you think it hurts Obama, or you are simply liars. Which is it?

  34. wr says:

    Anjin-San — I think you give our good friends far too little credit. They are perfectly capable of being both utter idiots AND liars.

    You should apologize to them.

  35. anjin-san says:

    > They are perfectly capable of being both utter idiots AND liars.

    You are right. They got skills…

  36. Doug Indeap says:

    Doug,

    Good points well put.

    Eric,

    You are quite right to note that the actions of our government with respect to separation of religion and government have been mixed from the start. Some, you included it appears, see actions such as appointment of chaplains for the military and Congress and the issuance of thanksgiving proclamations as evidence the framers considered such actions consistent with the Constitution. Others, Madison included (see his Detached Memoranda), see such actions as examples of the government falling short of adhering to the Constitution.

    And what’s this nonsensical hyperbole about the government destroying anything it tries to control? Surely you jest. I’ll just chuckle at the joke–and not take the bait.

    Gustopher,

    While the courts necessarily and rightly look first to the language of the Constitution to discern its meaning, that language often leaves much to interpretation, and so they may also take note of the expressed intent of the framers in other writings, e.g., Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists. Such evidence of their intent can hardly be discounted as “squat.”