Letters between Thomas Jefferson and Danbury Baptists

The address of the Danbury Baptists Association in the state of Connecticut, assembled October 7,

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".

Jefferson's Reply

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

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
The Illinois Conservative