200 Years and Counting
Thomas Jefferson’s Famous “Wall of Separation between Church and State” Letter
by Ed Buckner
It would probably startle and infuriate Thomas Jefferson to learn that, even after two hundred years, his letter to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut, is still controversial and often misused and abused. That letter, dated January 1, 1802, was the one that declared that the "whole American people" had erected a "wall of separation between Church and State" by adopting the First Amendment. (The letter is reprinted in full at left.)
Jefferson sent his letter as president only after having the U.S. Attorney General (Levi Lincoln, who was assuredly no John Ashcroft) and others review it. Jefferson intended the letter to explain and reaffirm his views on religious liberty and the Constitution. Those views firmly supported a strict separation, though at the time only with regard to the federal government. Jefferson sent his letter in response to an October 1801 letter from a Baptist congregation that urged him to defend a constitutionally mandated strict separation of church and state. (Connecticut and several other states did not have religious liberty at the time.)
Those who have claimed that Jefferson's letter did not support strict separation of church and state are completely rebutted by Jefferson's own words, in that letter and in other writings. Some of those claims are persistent, even if unfounded, and deserve to be refuted.
There are those who present (and then "defeat") a false, straw man claim that the famous letter was not anti-religious and that it must therefore have been pro-religious. Jefferson never sought to establish the government as in any sense anti-religious or anti-clerical, though his own personal letters demonstrate repeatedly that he had little personal respect for the clergy and churches of the day. For example, he wrote, "The clergy, by getting themselves established by law and ingrafted into the machine of government, have been a very formidable engine against the civil and religious rights of man" (letter to Jeremiah Moore, August 14, 1800). He also wrote, "In every country and every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own. It is easier to acquire wealth and power by this combination than by deserving them, and to effect this, they have perverted the purest religion ever preached to man into mystery and jargon, unintelligible to all mankind, and therefore the safer for their purposes" (letter to Horatio Spofford, 1814). Jefferson declared of the French, "The clergy and nobles, by their privileges and influence, have kept their property in a great measure untaxed hitherto. They then remain to be squeezed, and no agent is powerful enough for this but the people. The court therefore must ally itself with the people" (letter to Richard Price from Paris, 8 January 1789. From Julian P. Boyd, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 14 [8 October 1788 to 26 March 1789], Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958, p. 422). One final example of Jefferson's disdain for religion and the clergy: "History I believe furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance, of which their political as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purpose" (letter to Baron von Humboldt, 1813).
Another claim is that Jefferson was only concerned about entangling the federal government and religion, implying he approved of aid to religion from state governments. Charles Colson, the Nixon aide who became famous in the Watergate scandal and then launched a career with Prison Ministries, cites allegedly scholarly proof of this in a Web article. The Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, which Jefferson wrote and James Madison guided through the Virginia legislature, along with Jefferson's letters, conclusively prove otherwise. Included in that state law are these words of Jefferson's: "that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities." Jefferson's bill became law on January 16, 1786 (from Julian P. Boyd, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson Vol. 2 [1777 to 18 June 1779], Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950, pp. 545-47.) Jefferson was prouder of having written this bill than of being the third president or of such history-making accomplishments as the Louisiana Purchase. He wrote, as his own full epitaph, "Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, And Father of the University of Virginia." Edwin S. Gaustad in Faith of Our Fathers: Religion and the New Nation (1987, p. 49), wrote, "He [Jefferson] rejoiced with John Adams when the Congregational church was finally disestablished in Connecticut in 1818; welcoming 'the resurrection of Connecticut to light and liberty,' Jefferson congratulated Adams 'that this den of priesthood is at length broken up, and that a protestant popedom is no longer to disgrace American history and character.'"
Jefferson also almost certainly did not, as some Christian-nation mythologists like David Barton have claimed, give a speech or write a letter asserting that the wall was intended to be only a one-way wall protecting churches from government but not vice versa. The alleged Jeffersonian words were "That wall is a one directional wall. It keeps the government from running the church but it makes sure that Christian principles will always stay in government." That purported wording is repeated by many Christian-nation mythmakers, but no evidence at all can be found for it, and it is wildly inconsistent with extensive writings known with certainty to be Jefferson's. Jefferson once called himself a "real Christian" (letter to Charles Thompson, January 9, 1816), but he also made it quite clear that he meant by that only that he admired Jesus as a man. Jefferson wrote (letter to William Short, October 31, 1819), for example, that he did not believe in "The immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity; original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of the Hierarchy, etc." Two days before his eightieth birthday, Jefferson added a bit more about what he did not believe about Jesus in one of his famous letters to John Adams: "And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. . . . But we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away [with] all this artificial scaffolding" (April 11, 1823, as quoted by E.S. Gaustad, "Religion," in Merrill D. Peterson, ed., Thomas Jefferson: A Reference Biography, 1986, p. 287).
Those who want to pretend that Jefferson's commitment to liberty is a limited (pro-religious or pro-Christian or "one-directional") commitment are clearly mistaken. But anyone, of whatever religious or irreligious view, who wants religious liberty protected will join in celebrating in 2002 the bicentennial of Thomas Jefferson's famous letter to the Danbury Baptists.
Sources for More Information (in addition to those cited in the text; Web sites listed separately afterwards):
Rob Boston, "Sects, Lies, and Videotape," Church and State, April 1993.
---. Why the Religious Right Is Wrong About Separation of Church and State (Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1993).
Julian P. Boyd, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950) various years for different volumes.
Edward M. Buckner and Michael E. Buckner, Quotations That Support the Separation of State and Church, 2nd Ed., Roswell, Ga.: Atlanta Freethought Society, 1995.
Daniel L Dreisbach, "Mr. Jefferson, a Mammoth Cheese, and the 'Wall of Separation Between Church and State': A Bicentennial Commemoration," in the Journal of Church and State, 43, 4 (2001): 725-45.
Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore, The Godless Constitution: The Case Against Religious Correctness (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996).
Albert Menendez and Edd Doerr, compilers, The Great Quotations on Religious Freedom (Long Beach, California: Centerline Press, 1991).
George Seldes, ed., The Great Quotations (Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press, 1983).
This article is from the Secular Humanist Bulletin, Volume 18, Number 1.