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Jefferson’s Danbury Letter and the Separation of Church and State

A fine video by Professor John Eastman for Praeger University demonstrating how Church State relations today in the United States bears almost no relationship to that envisioned by the Founding Fathers.  The vehicle of this misapprehension has been Thomas Jefferson’ s letter to  a congregation of Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut.  Here is the text of that letter:

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.

It would have astounded Jefferson if he could have foreseen that the Supreme Court would make his letter the cornerstone of erecting a wall of separation between Church and State.  Jefferson did not intend to have the letter be a centerpiece of Constitutional theory, but rather it was a partisan attempt by his to refute Federalist arguments that he was an infidel.  In a brilliant essay, which may be read here, James Hutson, Chief of the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, explains the historical background of the letter:

Jefferson heeded Lincoln’s advice, with the result that  he deleted the entire section about thanksgivings and fasts in the Danbury  draft, noting in the left margin that the “paragraph was omitted on  the suggestion that it might give uneasiness to some of our republican friends  in the eastern states where the proclamation of thanksgivings etc. by their  Executives is an antient habit & is respected.” Removed in the  process of revision was the designation of the president’s duties as “merely  temporal”; “eternal” was dropped as a modifier of “wall.”  Jefferson apparently made these changes because he thought the original  phrases would sound too antireligious to pious New England ears.

In gutting his draft was Jefferson playing the hypocrite,  sacrificing his principles to political expediency, as his Federalist opponents  never tired of charging? By no means, for the Danbury Baptist letter was  never conceived by Jefferson to be a statement of fundamental principles;  it was meant to be a political manifesto, nothing more.

Withholding from the public the rationale for his policy  on thanksgivings and fasts did not solve Jefferson’s problem, for his refusal  to proclaim them would not escape the attention of the Federalists and would  create a continuing vulnerability to accusations of irreligion. Jefferson  found a solution to this problem even as he wrestled with the wording of  the Danbury Baptist letter, a solution in the person of the famous Baptist  preacher John Leland, who appeared at the White House on Jan. 1, 1802, to  give the president a mammoth, 1,235-pound cheese, produced by Leland’s parishioners  in Cheshire, Mass.

One of the nation’s best known advocates of religious liberty,  Leland had accepted an invitation to preach in the House of Representatives  on Sunday, Jan. 3, and Jefferson evidently concluded that, if Leland found  nothing objectionable about officiating at worship on public property, he  could not be criticized for attending a service at which his friend was  preaching. Consequently, “contrary to all former practice,” Jefferson  appeared at church services in the House on Sunday, Jan. 3, two days after  recommending in his reply to the Danbury Baptists “a wall of separation  between church and state”; during the remainder of his two administrations  he attended these services “constantly.”

Jefferson’s participation in House church services and  his granting of permission to various denominations to worship in executive  office buildings, where four-hour communion services were held, cannot be  discussed here; these activities are fully illustrated in the forthcoming  exhibition. What can be said is that going to church solved Jefferson’s  public relations problems, for he correctly anticipated that his participation  in public worship would be reported in newspapers throughout the country.  A Philadelphia newspaper, for example, informed its readers on Jan. 23,  1802, that “Mr. Jefferson has been seen at church, and has assisted  in singing the hundredth psalm.” In presenting Jefferson to the nation  as a churchgoer, this publicity offset whatever negative impressions might  be created by his refusal to proclaim thanksgiving and fasts and prevented  the erosion of his political base in God-fearing areas like New England.

Jefferson’s public support for religion appears, however,  to have been more than a cynical political gesture. Scholars have recently  argued that in the 1790s Jefferson developed a more favorable view of Christianity  that led him to endorse the position of his fellow Founders that religion  was necessary for the welfare of a republican government, that it was, as  Washington proclaimed in his Farewell Address, indispensable for the happiness  and prosperity of the people. Jefferson had, in fact, said as much in his  First Inaugural Address. His attendance at church services in the House  was, then, his way of offering symbolic support for religious faith and  for its beneficent role in republican government.

It seems likely that in modifying the draft of the Danbury  Baptist letter by eliminating words like “eternal” and “merely  temporal,” which sounded so uncompromisingly secular, Jefferson was  motivated not merely by political considerations but by a realization that  these words, written in haste to make a political statement, did not accurately  reflect the conviction he had reached by the beginning of 1802 on the role  of government in religion. Jefferson would never compromise his views that  there were things government could not do in the religious sphere — legally  establish one creed as official truth and support it with its full financial  and coercive powers. But by 1802, he seems to have come around to something  close to the views of New England Baptist leaders such as Isaac Backus and  Caleb Blood, who believed that, provided the state kept within its well-appointed  limits, it could provide “friendly aids” to the churches, including  putting at their disposal public property that even a stickler like John  Leland was comfortable using.

Analyzed with the help of the latest technology, the Danbury  Baptist letter has yielded significant new information. Using it to fix  the intent of constitutional documents is limited, however, by well established  rules of statutory construction: the meaning of a document cannot be determined  by what a drafter deleted or by what he did concurrently with the drafting  of a document. But it will be of considerable interest in assessing the  credibility of the Danbury Baptist letter as a tool of constitutional interpretation  to know, as we now do, that it was written as a partisan counterpunch, aimed  by Jefferson below the belt at enemies who were tormenting him more than  a decade after the First Amendment was composed.

Courts are places where arguments are made in an adversarial setting and short shrift is given to facts that do not support the argument that a proponent is making.  In regard to the Danbury letter, shearing off the historical context in which the letter was written has taken the US down a path of Church State relations that most of the Founding Fathers, including Jefferson, would have regarded as a mistake.

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Donald R. McClarey

Cradle Catholic. Active in the pro-life movement since 1973. Father of three and happily married for 35 years. Small town lawyer and amateur historian. Former president of the board of directors of the local crisis pregnancy center for a decade.

9 Comments

  1. In 1947, Everson v. Board of Eucation said that the government cannot aid all religion. This cannot be Justice as government does not own tax dollars. Taxes belong to the taxpayers even as administered by the administration. This means that all religions may be aided by the administration as the taxpayers have the right to religion and freedom.

  2. Taxpayer money belongs to the taxpayers. The Federal Government and the Organized Crime Party don’t believe this at all.

  3. Penguins Fan: The government is comprised of ordinary citizens who have no power except the power that is given to them by the people to function in their particular office. Politicians have written themselves outrageous retirement funds that insulate them from being ousted from office. Pray.

  4. Judging by his letter to Madison of 6 September 1789, Jefferson appears to have believed that the endowments of the churches were at the disposal of the nation; “This principle, that the earth belongs to the living and not to the dead, is of very extensive application and consequences in every country, and most especially in France. It enters into the resolution of the questions, whether the nation may change the descent of lands holden in tail; whether they may change the appropriation of lands given anciently to the church, to hospitals, colleges, orders of chivalry, and otherwise in perpetuity; whether they may abolish the charges and privileges attached on lands, including the whole catalogue, ecclesiastical and feudal… . In all these cases, the legislature of the day could authorize such appropriations and establishments for their own time, but no longer; and the present holders, even where they or their ancestors have purchased, are in the case of bona fide purchasers of what the seller had no right to convey.”

    In other words, what one generation had granted, their successors could revoke. In fact, his viewson Church-State relations would not have been out of place at the Jacobin Club

  5. With Jefferson MPS you always have to understand that the man wrote voluminously and that he frequently changed his mind on issues. His opinions in regard to France in the first years of the French Revolution tended to match those of the most extreme revolutionaries in France. The execution of the King disturbed him and he became more reserved about the Revolution although he never completely denounced it. As to Church State relations in America he favored a hands off policy in regard to the government as to the churches.

  6. Why cannot I save, i.e cut’n’paste your article, without the video, and others’
    comments? I find not print button on you website. Thank you.

  7. Church-state separation is an American concept, but not a Catholic one. As examples, I can cite France (before the Revolution), England (before Henry VIII), the various prince-archbishoprics in Cologne, Salzburg, et cetera, and the Papal States.

    Because of US Supreme Court decisions, prayer is now illegal in public schools. America’s teachers cannot talk to their students about the one single concept that will make their education complete – God. As a Catholic, I find this gag rule to be plain absurd.

  8. “As examples, I can cite France (before the Revolution),”

    Yes, the Gallic Church that was frequently at complete odds with the Pope:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gallicanism

    Up to 1947 and the Supreme Court decision in Everson, the Federal government was benignly accomodating to religion. The Supreme Court has distorted beyond recognition what the Founding Fathers, including Jefferson, set up regarding Church-State relations: no established church, each religion granted complete freedom, and a recognition by the state of God as the basis for our unalienable rights that could not be trespassed upon by the State. It was a good system which the Catholic Church in this country flourished under, and we need to return to it.

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