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.
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:
To messers Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins, & Stephen S. Nelson, a committee of the Danbury Baptist association in the state of Connecticut.
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
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.
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.” Several years later he wrote of “total separation of the church from the state.” “Strongly guarded as is the separation between Religion & Govt in the Constitution of the United States”, Madison wrote, 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.” 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.