Letters between Thomas Jefferson and Danbury Baptists
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.(1) 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;(2) 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;(3) and these favors we receive at the expense of such degrading acknowledgements as are inconsistent with the rights of freemen.(4) 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;(5) 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
1. Here the reference is to the Constitution of the state of Connecticut, not the U.S.
2. The state of Connecticut continued to operate under the terms of its 1630 charter with an unwritten Constitution until 1818. While its laws granted a certain amount of religious liberty they were not very effective in providing what we would call religious liberty today.
3. As the Danbury Baptists pointed out, whatever religious freedoms they enjoyed were nothing more than favors granted to them by the state and not inalienable rights.
4. The established religion of Connecticut at the time was Congregationalist and all citizens were taxed for the support of the church and its clergy. Baptists and other non-establishment churches could formally request their taxes to be redirected back to their particular church by making the proper application to state officials. It was the humiliation of this requirement that the Danbury Baptists considered to be "of such degrading acknowledgements as are inconsistent with the rights of freemen".
5. In the last paragraph the Danbury Baptists acknowledge the impotence of the national government in correcting the oppressive laws of the state government. Instead they hope the influence of moral persuasion by Thomas Jefferson as President "will shine and prevail through all these states and all the world, till hierarchy and tyranny be destroyed from the earth".
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.
Th Jefferson Jan. 1. 1802.
Editors Comment: One would think from the frequency and enthusiasm the phrase by Jefferson, "a wall of separation between Church and State", is used to prevent schoolchildren from displaying any thought or symbol of Christianity at school, or to prevent communities from erecting Christmas displays in the public square that contain any reference to the birth of Christ, or to force the removal of monuments to the Ten Commandments in the vicinity of local courthouses, that Jefferson was expressing a readiness to lead a regiment of the U.S. Marines into Connecticut to set straight the Connecticut Legislature.
Of course, that is not what he is saying at all. You will notice that he refers to "the whole of the American people which declared that their legislature (Congress) should "make no law...etc." Jefferson is simply confirming what the Danbury Baptists had already acknowledged, that the federal government had no authority, due to the "wall of separation" established by the First Amendment, to involve itself in any way in matters of religion. As he says elsewhere, religious matters, not being included among the enumerated powers, are properly left within the dominion of the states.
As he wrote in a letter to the Rev. Mr. Millar, January 23, 1808 concerning a request that he recommend a day of prayer and fasting.
"I consider the government of the United States as interdicted by the constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises. This results not only from the provision that no law shall be made respecting the establishment or free exercise of religion, but from that also which reserves to the States the powers not delegated to the United States. Certainly, no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the General Government. It must then rest with the States, as far as it can be in any human authority. ~ Thomas Jefferson