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Thomas Jefferson and “Separation of Church and State”



A great portion of our society now believes in what is known as “a complete separation of Church and State”, an ideology that consists of the idea that Religion can have nothing to do with government; that government must remain completely secular. It is because of this mindset that we see groups like the ACLU continue to file lawsuits to remove crosses, and Christian nativities from government property.

Thankfully some people continue to fight this ideology tooth and nail, claiming correctly that the Founders did not intend for the United States to have a completely secular government; but in response, the left like to invoke Thomas Jefferson, saying that it was he who said Church and State are to be completely separate. But is that what Jefferson really said, and if so, did he really mean what they say he means?  Moreover, did Jefferson himself act with that mindset as President of the United States?

Proponents of a complete separation like to quote Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists as evidence that he sides with their opinion, but before looking at Jefferson’s letter to the Baptists, let’s look at their letter to Mr. Jefferson:

“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 neighbor. But sir, our constitution of government is not specific…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.” (1)

The Danbury Baptists were fearful that the Constitution was worded in such a way as to make it seem as if freedom of religion was a right granted by the government and not by God; Jefferson realized this and so he responded to them in his famous letter:

“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and 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 and 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.” (2)

It is true that Jefferson does in fact use the phrase “wall of separation between Church and State”, but people tend to focus on that phrase without looking at the context around it; if one looks at the context, they would see what Jefferson actually meant by that phrase, and so, we will do that now.

The United States had won its independence from England nearly two decades prior to this occurrence, a country who’s history had Church and State essentially synonymous with each other. The Church controlled the State and the State controlled the Church; there was a national religion (going back and forth between Catholicism and Protestantism) and thus there was no real freedom of religion. The State essentially told you what to believe. Not only did Jefferson believe this was wrong but the Danbury Baptists were afraid that the government would revert to religious tyranny due to the “unclear wording” that they saw in the first amendment. Jefferson understanding their fear wrote back to them to offer assurance that their religious freedom would not be infringed on by the federal government.

Look at the words Jefferson uses; he writes that religion is a matter that is between man and his God alone, that he owes his worship only to his God, and that legislative powers of government can deal with actions alone, not the opinions of man. In other words it is up to the individual to worship God for himself, government has no power to force them to do so, nor do they have the power to tell them who or what to believe in. It is because of this Jefferson says, that congress passed the first amendment. But what does the first amendment stipulate? First that the congress can make no law respecting an establishment of religion; what this means is that the federal government cannot establish a national religion like England did, nor can they pass a law telling any established religion how to believe or worship. The second half of what it stipulates is that congress cannot prohibit the free exercise of religion; this is pretty straight forward as it means that along with not being able to force you to practice a certain religion (or any), they cannot stop you from practicing whatever religion you want either. Jefferson says that the whole point of this is to maintain the individuals right of conscience for the citizenry.

The First Amendment’s wall of separation between Church and State is there to stop the State from infringing on the rights of the church and individual worshipers; this does not however mean that the Church can have nothing to do with the State, nor does this mean that religious principles cannot influence governmental policies (they have influenced them since the founding). The text speaks very clearly; no state established religion/no forcing a religion to act against their beliefs, and no prohibiting a religion from being practiced; nothing in the text of the amendment, or Jefferson’s letter (if read in context) can be construed to mean a complete separation. There is therefore, every right to have a cross on government property or the Ten Commandments in a courthouse; instances like that are not actions establishing a national religion, nor prohibiting one, nor telling anyone what to believe.

We see that the textual evidence is quite clear, but what about Jefferson’s actions as President? Even despite what Jefferson actually said in his letter, he still governed in accordance with a complete separation of church and state didn’t he? Why yes he did; in fact he was so invested in a complete separation that while President he gave federal funds to the construction of a church and the funding of its priest. That’s right, as President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson via treaty gave federal funds to build a church and provide a priest to the Kaskaskia Indians; so much for that theory. (3)

Along with signing the treaty giving a church and priest to the Kaskaskia tribe, Jefferson also signed federal acts in 1802, 1803, and 1804 which set aside government owned lands to help missionaries propagate the gospel among the Indians. (4) He also directed the secretary of war to give federal funds to build a religious school for the Cherokee Indians (5) and in 1804 he gave assurance to a Christian School in the “Louisiana Territory” that they would be given “the patronage of the government.” These are only some of his actions. (6)

Finally, as President, Jefferson attended church services in government buildings, saying to one of his friends:

“No nation has ever yet existed or been governed without religion – nor can be. The Christian religion is the best religion that has been given to man and I, as Chief Magistrate of this nation, am bound to give it the sanction of my example.” (7)

Jefferson’s record as President was not one in favor of a complete separation of Church and State, it was to be frank, the exact opposite; no one can look at his record of federal funding and legislative acts signed in favor of missions and religious propagation and say with a straight face that he was in favor of such an idea as religion having no involvement in government. Jefferson’s own action of publicly going to Church in order to set an example and show that a country cannot be governed without religion is evidence in and of itself of this truth; and all this does not even address what he did as Governor of Virginia.

The evidence is clear; whether it is the Danbury Baptists letter to Jefferson, or his letter in response, the first amendment, or the actions of President Jefferson in office, there is no founding support for today’s definition of separation of Church and State. What the phrase really means is simply that the government has no power or authority to create a national religion, ban one, or force you to violate your religious conscience. This being noted, all attempts to remove religion from the public square in the name of Separation of Church and State are wildly misguided and should be rejected from their very creation.

Selected Sources:

1. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson vol. 35, 407-408

2. The Writings of Thomas Jefferson:

3. “The Kaskaskia and Other Tribes,” in American State Papers: Documents, Legislative and Executive of the Congress of the United States, vol.4, 687.

4. Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States, 7th Cong., 1st Sess., 1332, “An Act in Addition to an Act, Entitled, ‘An Act in Addition to an Act Regulating the Grants of Land Appropriated for Military Services, and for the Society of the United Brethren for Propagating the Gospel Among the Heathen,’” April 26, 1802; Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States, 7th Cong., 2nd Sess., 1602, “An Act to Revive and Continue in Force An Act in Addition to an Act, Entitled, ‘An Act in Addition to an Act Regulating the Grants of Land Appropriated for Military Services, and for the Society of the United Brethren for Propagating the Gospel Among the Heathen,’ and for Other Purposes,” March 3, 1803; Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States, 8th Cong., 2nd Sess., 1279, “An Act Granting Further Time for Locating Military Land Warrants, and for Other Purposes,” March 19, 1804.

5. Gideon Blackburn’s Mission to the Cherokees,” Journal of Presbyterian History, 52.

6. Thomas Jefferson and the Nuns of the Order of St. Ursula on May 15, 1804,” original on file with the New Orleans Parish.

7. Rev. Ethan Allen, “Washington Parish, Washington City,” Handwritten history in possession of the Library of Congress, quoted in James Hutson, Religion and the Founding of the American Republic, 96.


1 Comment

  1. Ida says:

    our leaders in washington should read this…

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