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The Danbury Baptists, Thomas Jefferson, and 'The Wall of Separation'

Amendment I; Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;, or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceable to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

On New Year's Day, 1801, Thomas Jefferson used a metaphor in a letter to the Danbury Baptists Association of Connecticut, which has profoundly affected policy in recent generations.

Jefferson's intention, clearly stated, reflected the Constitutionally mandated purpose and safeguard of the First Amendment's protection of Religious Liberty.

Go back in History to Colonial times, and recall that numerous colonies had an established Church, as in Connecticut, Congregationalism was the established church. The Connecticut Baptists were a religious minority and had supported Jefferson because of his unflagging commitment to Religious Liberty. They found themselves the minority, as a small Republican base, in addition to being a minority in their religious expression and practice.

In their letter to the new President, they wrote to congratulate him on his election and to voice their concerns: “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 neighbor. But sir, our constitution of government is not specific.” They expressed concern about their religious liberty, whether "religious privilege or inalienable rights." If “favors were granted by states,” could they not be withdrawn? They expressed belief that Jefferson had been raised up by God's Providence, and that the Voice of the people had been heard as well.

Jefferson circulated the letter from the Danbury Baptists and a draft of his intended response to both Attorney General Levi Lincoln, a Massachusetts Republican, and Postmaster General Gideon Granger, a Connecticut Republican. The President was eager to explain why he did not issue proclamations designating days for Prayer, Thanksgiving, and Public Fasting, as had his presidential predecessors. It is clear that Jefferson wanted to use the occasion to express his personal convictions on the matter of faith. Levi Lincoln urged caution as the New Englanders were accustomed to “observing feasts and thanksgivings in performance of proclamations from their respective Executives, this custom being handed down from our ancestors.” Granger also refers to the offense to the New England clergy, but believes that it is "but a declaration of TRUTHS which are in fact felt (held) by a Great majority of New England.” After deleting a small section, Jefferson responded to the Danbury letter.


The affectionate sentiments of esteem and approbation which you are so good as to express towards me, on behalf of the Danbury Baptists 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 pleasing. Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man and 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 and 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 rights in opposition to his social duties.

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

As governor of Virginia, in 1779, Jefferson wrote “A Bill Establishing Religious Freedom.” He was the chief architect of proclamations designating days of Fasting and Prayer through the 1770s. Jefferson saw his position as consistent with the Constitution and the establishment of Federalism. State governments were authorized to accommodate and prescribe religious practices. Jefferson viewed the powers of the executive branch as derived from the creative powers of the legislative branch. He should be respected for his allegiance to the Tenth Amendment principles of Federalism and strictly delegated powers.

Jefferson's reference to the “wall of separation” was simply a figurative devise to refer to the First Amendment mandate that prohibited congress from making laws concerning the "establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The letter was circulated almost immediately, but it would not be the end of the Church-State debate in America.

Phillip Schaff, church historian, noted that the phrase ‘Wall of Separation’ entered the lexicon of American constitutional law in 1878. Quoting Schaff, “In Reynolds v. United States, the Supreme Court opined [claimed] that the Danbury Baptists may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the First Amendment thus secured. Nearly seven decades later, in the landmark case, Everson v. Board of Education (1947), the Supreme Court returned to the metaphor. In the words of Jefferson, the First Amendment clause against the establishment of religion by law was intended to erect ‘a wall of separation’ between church and state -- that wall, the justices concluded in a sweeping separatist declaration “must be kept high and impregnable -- we could not approve the slightest breach.”

Contrary to the Supreme Court Justices, voicing their opinion in Everson, there is no evidence in America's early history that our founders and framers ever intended to construct a wall of separation between Church and State. Few letters in American History have been so misused and have had such an impact in the public square. Had there been no strong voice of Biblical Christianity in early America, there would no US Constitution as we have it, and certainly no First Amendment.

The “wall” metaphor that Jefferson used was evidently inspired through the writing of James Burgh (1714-1775), an admired Scottish schoolmaster, one of Britain's most popular spokesman for political reform. Jefferson and the other Revolutionary leaders were greatly influenced by Burgh, a radical Whig, espousing the rights of resistance, separation of powers, freedom of thought, religious toleration, advancing public education, and extending the ‘rights of Englishmen’ to all mankind.

Burgh, and the others of like mind, advocated reforms in English government, including legislative representation, rotation of offices, annual Parliaments, etc. His writings, circulating widely in the colonies, included a three volume “Political Disquisitions” (1774-1775) included in Jefferson's library. Interestingly, he recommended this reading to his future son-in-law, Thomas Mann Randolph, who would study Law. He also recommended the study of Montesquieu's “Spirit of Laws” and John Locke's “little book on Government.” Historical documents testify to the influence of Burgh on Jefferson, Washington, Adams, Hancock, Rush, Sherman, and many others. Jefferson's construction of the First Amendment may easily have been influenced by Burgh. No English or European writer was closer to the American thought than James Burgh. He was a man of deep orthodox faith, which was cited as the “wellspring of his politics and moral code.” It was his belief in religious tolerance that inspired his recommendation for building “an impenetrable wall of separation,” to prevent government intrusions.

Having been a great admirer of Burgh, it is most likely that Jefferson adopted the figure of speech from Burgh's use of it. George Washington shared these concerns and wrote of “establishing effectual barriers against the horrors of spiritual tyranny, and every species of religious persecution.”

Few letters in American History have had such a negative impact through MISPERCEPTIONS as the “Wall of Separation” -- evidenced in the courts of the land. American Culture is suffering through the effects of this, and suffering from the abandonment of American History in schools and family life. Indeed, “my people perish for lack of knowledge.”

American Federalism is unique in world history. America's founders discovered the way for Christianity to be protected by law, but not controlled or dictated by law. It took America to determine how to build American Federalism. It was by local self-government with union of two great divisions of power: the States and the Nation.

This writer believes that our Constitutional form of government cannot exist without a Biblically educated people, capable of self-government. Only the Biblically educated will see that the Price of Liberty will always be Eternal Vigilance.

Inspired by President Ronald Reagan, and passed as Joint Resolutions of Congress, 1983 was declared The Year of the Bible, public law 97-280, Oct. 4, 1982. In a beautiful proclamation, Reagan urges all Americans to “reexamine and rediscover the Bible's priceless and timeless message.”­ He affirms that the Bible is the source for inalienable rights of the individual and of our system of law and government. It was James Madison who said that the uniqueness of America was “the capacity of mankind for self-government.”

Bobbie Ames

My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge: because thou hast rejected knowledge, I will also reject thee, that thou shalt be no priest to me: seeing thou hast forgotten the law of thy God, I will also forget thy children. Hosea 4:6

Sources for this article includes writing by Daniel Dreisbach, Journal of Church and State, 0021969X. Summer 1997, Vol.39, Issue 3., and Database Search Elite


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