Thomas Jefferson's Letter to the Danbury Baptists

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The Letter to the Danbury Baptists was penned by Thomas Jefferson to a religious group in Connecticut, and is the famous source for the "separation of church and state" line often incorrectly cited as being included in the United States Constitution.

In late 1801, several members of the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut wrote to Jefferson concerning the persecution they were receiving at the hands of the Congregationalist establishment to which they did not belong. Chief on their minds was whether or not the laws of the United States allowed religious freedom unmolested by anyone. Familiar to them was the fact that Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (1786), as well as being in consultation with James Madison when the Constitution was drafted and ratified, all of which specified no government or other interference in free religious practice.

"In 1773, it came to the notice of a weedy, bookish, young Virginian that some Baptists were languishing in a nearby jail. For many years before, as he well knew, magistrates had meted out fines and prison sentences to religious dissenters from the colony’s Anglican establishment. But this episode struck a nerve, prompting the young gentleman to condemn what he called the 'diabolical, hell-conceived principle of persecution.' Perhaps that was because it occurred close to his family’s plantation, or perhaps, because the young man had recently graduated from Princeton, where he had been steeped in enlightened learning, including the ideas of John Locke. Whatever the reason, the imprisonment of local Baptists marked a turning point in the life of James Madison. It steered him toward a career in politics as well as a lifelong partnership with his fellow Virginian, Thomas Jefferson."[1]

Jefferson's reply of January 1, 1802, to an address of congratulations from the Danbury (Connecticut) Baptist Association contains a phrase familiar in today's political and judicial circles: "a wall of separation between church and state." Many in the United States, including the courts, have used this phrase to interpret the Founders' intentions regarding the relationship between government and religion, as set down by the First Amendment to the Constitution: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion . . . ." However, the meaning of this clause has been the subject of passionate dispute for the past fifty years; opponents of religion have gone so far as to as to pass laws "prohibiting the free exercise" of religion on public grounds.

Contents

Text of the letter from the Danbury Church to Jefferson

"The address of the Danbury Baptist 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 millions 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 Unite States. And though the 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 is 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, [and] 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. Our ancient charter, together with the laws made coincident therewith, were adapted as the basis of our government at the time of our revolution. And such has been our laws and usages, and such still are, [so] 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 acknowledgments, 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, [or] should reproach their Chief Magistrate, as an enemy of religion, law, and 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 and also sensible that the national government cannot destroy the laws of each State, but our hopes are strong that the sentiment 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--until hierarchy and tyranny be destroyed from the earth. Sir, when we reflect on your past services, and see a glow of philanthropy and goodwill 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 the arduous task which providence and the voice of the people have called you--to sustain and support you and your Administration against all the predetermined opposition of those who wish to rise 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,

Neh,h Dodge } Eph'm Robbins } The Committee Stephen S. Nelson }

Text of Jefferson's reply

"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.

Th Jefferson Jan. 1. 1802.

External Links

References

  1. Heyrman, C.L. "The Separation of Church and State from the American Revolution to the Early Republic." Divining America, TeacherServe©. National Humanities Center. Accessed September 3, 2012.
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