A WALL OF SEPARATION Jefferson’s True Intent WALL OF SEPARATION Jefferson’s True Intent

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  1. Taylor

    Taylor EdChat™ PhD

    Oct 13, 2010
    EdChat Karma:
    Wall of Separation
    Jefferson’s True Intent
    by Taylor V. Smith


    Perhaps the most disputed phrase in American history pertaining to the relationship between Church and Government is Thomas Jefferson’s metaphor of the first amendment – “a wall of separation between Church and State.” Every part of this simple idiom has been contested, from what is meant by “State;” to what, specifically, is separated by the first amendment; to whether this statement should even be taken as valid, considering that it is not even found in the Constitution. Sensibly, the only way to truly understand what is meant by this statement is to explore Jefferson’s own interpretation of the matter. Thus, the question remains, “What was Thomas Jefferson’s understanding of the ‘wall of separation between Church and State’?”

    Myth of General Religious Hostility

    The first commonly misconstrued idea of Thomas Jefferson that should be addressed is his supposed hostility toward Christianity. Due to a misinterpretation of Jefferson’s infamous separation phrase, many believe that Jefferson was somehow in opposition to Christians. Quite the contrary: he considered himself Christian. Shortly after he wrote his book, “The Life and Moral Teachings of Jesus,” Jefferson sent a letter to a friend, saying, “I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus…”[1] Although Jefferson’s disbelieve in the divinity of Christ disqualifies him from Biblical Christianity, by merit of his willingness to refer to himself as a Christian it is evident that he was no enemy of the Christian religion. Indeed, Jefferson was an Anglican from birth to death. As Historian Edwin Gaustad records, “Jefferson began his life as an Anglican and ended it the same way.”[2] Furthermore, the truth of Jefferson’s religiousness is evident through his writings and speeches. His public addresses were marked with references to “an overruling Providence,” and the “Infinite Power which rules the destinies of the universe.”[3] “Jefferson concluded his second inaugural address by asking Americans to join with him in prayer.”[4] Thus, it is clear that Jefferson was not, in fact, hostile to religion, in and of itself. It would be a fallacy to believe otherwise. What Jefferson was hostile to, however, was religious intolerance.

    Hostility towards Religious Oppression

    Gaustad accounts, “In Virginia…everything that law could do was done to ensure that
    (1) Anglicanism would be the formally established religion of the colony, and (2) all other religions would be discouraged and driven out.”[5] Jefferson hated the favoritism that his state granted the Anglican Church. Moreover, he hated the intolerance that was shown towards other religious sects in Virginia. Jefferson supported religion, but he believed, vehemently, that religious opinion was a matter “between man and his God.”[6] Jefferson wrote these words to his long-time friend, Dr. Benjamin Rush:

    [T]he clergy [entertain] a very favorite hope of obtaining an establishment of a particular form of Christianity through[out] the United States…[T]hey believe that any portion of power confided to me, will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly: for I have sworn upon the alter of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.[7]

    What is more, Jefferson even referred to himself as “the advocate of religious freedom.”[8] Therefore, it is certain that, while Jefferson was not hostile to Christianity, he was violently opposed to any one form of Christianity oppressing another.

    Election of 1800

    Not everyone believed that Jefferson was a Christian, however. In fact, in the 1800 election between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, “Jefferson’s religion, or lack of it, emerged as a central issue in [the] campaign.”[9] Jefferson was viciously attacked by Adams supporters as “an enemy to pure morals and religion.”[10] He was painted as a religious skeptic – an atheist who would “destroy religion, introduce immorality, and loosen all the bonds of society.”[11] “Jefferson, clearly hurt by these attacks on his integrity and character, declined to respond in public.”[12] Instead, he chose to bide his time until opportunity presented him with an appropriate occasion to present his views in a lucid manner. In 1802, shortly after receiving a letter from the Danbury Baptists Association, he found just the opportunity for which he had been waiting.

    The Danbury Baptist Association

    The Danbury Baptist Association was an alliance of 26 New England churches. They, like all New England Baptists, represented the religious minority in New England, where Congregationalist churches were dominant. Therefore, it is no great surprise that they were ardent supporters of Thomas Jefferson – the renowned defender of free religious expression. The letter that the Association sent to Jefferson did not implore the President to proclaim a national day of prayer, as is widely believed. Instead, it was merely a congratulatory letter concerning his election. At the time, it was common etiquette for churches to send such letters to the President. However, despite the fact that the Association’s letter did not address the issue of a national day of prayer, Jefferson used the letter to clear up growing political disparagement concerning the matter.

    A National Day of Prayer

    Upon becoming President, Thomas Jefferson – much to the alarm of the Federalists – choose to abstain from the examples of President Washington and President Adams, and refrained from proclaiming a national day of “solemn humiliation, fasting, and prayer.”[13] For this decision, Jefferson received much criticism and scrutiny from the Federalists. When he received the letter from the Danbury Baptist Association, however, Jefferson seized the opportunity to defend his position. The letter, he informed his Attorney General Levi Lincoln, granted him the occasion “which I have long wished to find, of saying why I do not proclaim fastings [sic] and thanksgivings, as my predecessors did.”[14] Jefferson then proceeded to issue a reply to the Association, the content of which would germinate dispute for years to come:

    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 exercise thereof,” [first amendment] thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.[15]

    Hence, Jefferson’s long-contested phrase, “a wall of separation between Church & State,” was born.

    The Common Interpretation

    Today, most Americans view Jefferson’s separation doctrine as it was interpreted by Justice Hugo L. Black in the infamous 1947 case Everson vs. Board of Education: “Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa.”[16] In other words, no form of government, nor any government-supported establishment, should, in any way, hold the slightest affiliation with any form of religion, nor any religiously-supported establishment. Such is the common interpretation of Jefferson’s phrase.

    However, the question must be posed, Is utter separation truly what Jefferson was alluding to? Understanding the background presented above, the time has come to explore what, precisely, Jefferson meant when he spoke of “separation between Church and State.”

    “A Wall of Separation between Church and State”

    1. What Was Meant by “State.” First of all, when pursuing an understanding of the true meaning of Jefferson’s referral to the first amendment, it is important to be reminded of the original purpose of the first amendment, or, more specifically, of the first ten amendments, called “The Bill of Rights.” As David Barton observes,
    The prominent characteristic of the emerging national government both during and after the American Revolution…was the strong zeal of each State not only to protect its own power and rights but also to prevent the national government from usurping its powers.[17]

    As a result, when the proposal for the Constitution arose in 1787, there was great apprehension amongst many state delegates. From the beginning, many were opposed to the Constitution, for fear that the “centralization of federal power might rival, invade, or usurp the State’s sovereignty.”[18] In order to placate the opposition, Congress proposed twelve amendments to the Constitution, “specifying exactly what the federal government, and only the federal government, could not do. Of those twelve amendments, ten – The Bill of Rights – were ratified by the States to preserve State autonomy.”[19] In other words, the Bill of Rights, including the first amendment, only served to restrict Federal Government – not State Government.

    Historian Daniel L. Dreisbach speculates, Jefferson’s “wall,” strictly speaking, was a metaphoric construction of the First Amendment, which governed relations between religion and the national government. His “wall,” therefore, did not specifically address relations between religion and state authorities. It is not self-evident that Jefferson thought the metaphor, more generally, described his views on the constitutional and prudential relationship between religion and all civil government.[20]

    Dreisbach’s speculation is confirmed from Jefferson’s own lips. When Jefferson gave his second inaugural address in 1805 – only two years after his reply to the Danbury Baptists – he spoke these words:
    In matters of religion, I have considered that its free exercise is placed by the constitution independent of the powers of the general [i.e., federal] government. I have therefore undertaken, on no occasion, to prescribe the religious exercises suited to it; but have left them, as the constitution found them, under the direction and discipline of State or Church authorities acknowledged by the several religious societies.[21]

    Jefferson’s opinion, as well as the opinion of the Constitution, is inescapable: the first amendment applies to the Federal Government, alone; religious matters are meant to be directed by State Government, as well as by the Church, as is stipulated in the Constitution. Therefore, it is clear that when Jefferson spoke of “a wall of separation between Church and State,” he was referring to the Federal Government, explicitly.

    2. What Was Separated. In 1808, New York Presbyterian minister, Samuel Miller, wrote to Jefferson, asking that he not necessarily proclaim a day of prayer, but suggesting that he might simply recommend one. Jefferson declined, saying, “I do not believe that it is in the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct its exercises.”[22] He explained that every religious society had the right to determine its practices and exercises for itself, and that “this right can never be safer in their own hands, where the Constitution has deposited it.”[23] By this, Jefferson re-asserts his firm belief that the Church has the undeniable right to exercise its beliefs without fear of interference from the Government, as is denoted by the first amendment. However, Jefferson further discloses in his reply that, under the tenth amendment, State Governments reserve authority in matters of religion, as well:

    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 of religion [First Amendment], but from that also which reserved to the States the powers not delegated to the United States [Tenth Amendment]. Certainly, no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the General [i.e., federal] Government. It must rest with the States, as far as it can be in any human authority.[24]

    This segment of Jefferson’s reply is enormously important because it explains, beyond a shadow of a doubt, Jefferson’s own opinion as to what is separated by the “wall between Church and State” which he derived from the first amendment: namely, that the wall created by the first amendment is leveled between the Federal Government on one side of the wall, and the State Government and Churches on the other.

    3. Jefferson’s True Intent. Therefore, when Jefferson wrote his reply to the Danbury Baptists Association and posed the metaphorical “wall of separation,” it was his true intent to construe that, as an officer of the Federal Government, he had been given no license to proclaim – or even to recommend – a national day of fasting and thanksgiving. However, he never meant to imply a separation between Church and State Government as well. In fact, he believed that such proclamations were left to the Churches and State Government by the Constitution. Upon an examination of his record in State Government, this truth is made manifest.

    Jefferson’s State Record

    There are a number of examples of Jefferson’s willingness to exercise the authority of the State to proclaim days of prayer. “For example, as a member of the House of Burgesses, on May 24, 1774, he participated in drafting and enacting a resolution designating a ‘Day of Fasting, Humiliation, and Prayer.’”[25] Furthermore,
    In 1779, when Jefferson was governor of Virginia, he issued a proclamation appointing “a day of publick [sic] and solemn thanksgiving and prayer to Almighty God.” Also, in the late 1700s, as chair of the Virginia Committee of Revisors [sic], he was chief architect of a revised code that included a measure entitled “A Bill for Appointing Days of Public Fasting and Thanksgiving.” This legislation apparently was framed by Jefferson and introduced in the Virginia legislature by James Madison on October 31, 1785.[26]

    Although these instances occurred well before Jefferson’s Danbury letter, they still provide clear evidence of Jefferson’s belief that State Government could, indeed, legislate days of prayer.

    Myth of 1803 Breach

    Daniel L. Dreisbach records several occasions on which the Jefferson Administration provided financial support to religious establishments through various treaties which dealt with the Native Americans. Specifically,
    In 1803 President Jefferson recommended that Congress pass a treaty with the Kaskaskia Indians which provided, among other things, a stipend of $100 annually for seven years from the Federal treasury for the support of a Catholic priest to minister to the Kaskaskia Indians. This and two similar treaties were enacted during Jefferson’s administration – one with the Wyandotte Indians and other tribes in 1806, and one with the Cherokees in 1807. In 1787, another act of Congress ordained special lands “for the sole use of Christian Indians” and reserved lands for the Moravian Brethren “for civilizing the Indians and promoting Christianity”…Congress extended this act three times during Jefferson’s administration and each time [Jefferson] signed the extension into law.[27]

    Some would argue that, in these situations, Jefferson was ignoring his beliefs and breaching the wall of separation. Concerning this, there are those who feel that he really did not believe in Church-State separation as adamantly as he purported. Still others would claim that Jefferson “was using religion, at least public religion, for political purposes.”[28] While these points are certainly arguable, they are unlikely.

    First of all, contrary to the opinion that Jefferson had grown soft in his beliefs, Gaustad states that “correspondence in the last decades of his life demonstrates that his commitment to religious freedom had wavered in no way; in fact, it had hardened.”[29] Secondly, as to his alleged “aid to Christianity,” this author feels that, rather than refuting his integrity, it is much more likely that Jefferson was merely acting pragmatically, as he did on many occasions during his presidency. Jefferson supported efforts to educate the Indians. The Catholic missionaries were willing to provide the Indians with just such an education, whereas most school teachers were not. Therefore, Jefferson ordered a stipend to the missionaries, to allow them the means to teach the Indians. Again, interpretation of these actions is left to speculation. However, it seems more probable that Jefferson held to his beliefs and was simply acting to provide education for the Indians, as opposed to showing contempt for the first amendment in this matter.

    History of the Misunderstanding vs. Absence of Debate

    On a final note, the misconceptions surrounding the phrase “separation between Church and State” do not appear to have become manifest until the Everson vs. Board of Education decision in 1947 – nearly a century an a half after Jefferson’s dictation – at which point the contention over the phrase began. Although the phrase did make its first appearance in the American legal lexicon during the 1879 U.S. Supreme Court case, Reynolds vs. United States, the metaphor played no role in the decision of the case: the Court cited the entire second paragraph of the Danbury Letter, which merely included mention of the phrase.[30] The phrase was not used as part of a defense until 1947, at which point, according to historian Daniel L. Dreisbach, “Everson launched the metaphor into public consciousness.”[31]

    It is interesting to note that, in the years directly proceeding his presidency, Thomas Jefferson’s now-infamous “Separation Doctrine” received little contest. Be reminded that the Federalist Party, who had so ardently attacked Jefferson for his religious opinions during the 1800 election, was still looking for ways to discredit Jefferson’s administration. Hence, if Jefferson’s doctrine had issued great misconception in the 1800s, is it not likely that it would have been accompanied by fierce dispute from the New England Federalists? Yet, despite the fact that by January of 1802 Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists had been published by many New England newspapers, the phrase “separation between church and state” received disappointingly little recognition.[32] The absence of heated debate until the twentieth century leads this author to the reasoning that the statement “separation between Church and State” was accepted in Jefferson’s day as a legitimate interpretation of the First Amendment, and that it did not become a source of disagreement until 1947.


    In conclusion, it is clear that Jefferson was not, in fact, hostile to the Christian religion. Rather, he spent the greater part of his life crusading for free religious expression. Despite vicious claims that he was an atheist, Jefferson was, perhaps, the most ardent defender of religious freedom in the entirety of American history.

    When Jefferson received the letter from the Danbury Baptists, he seized the opportunity to explain why he was opposed to presidential proclamations for days of fasting and prayer. In this explanation he presented the idea of “a wall of separation between Church and State.”

    In recent years, the belief has been circulated that Jefferson meant for an utter separation between religion and all civil government. A more careful examination of Jefferson’s own opinion, however, shows that he was merely against relations between Church and the Federal Government. In fact, he believed that matters of religion, as far as could be humanly prescribed, belonged to the Churches themselves, as well as to the state governments, by proclamation of the United States Constitution. Moreover, Jefferson’s own State service records prove that he believed in the authority of the States over matters of religion. Indeed, disagreement over Jefferson’s words to the Danbury Baptists did not become an issue until recent years.

    There are arguments that Jefferson was less resolute on the “separation between Church and State” than he claimed to be. However, when his writings, as well as his political records, are taken in their entirety, two truths are certain: 1) Jefferson was extremely committed to religious freedom throughout his life, despite all manners of opposition; and 2) as President, he was steadfast in his commitment to stay within the all the constraints of the Constitution.

    Thomas Jefferson, the self-proclaimed “advocate of religious freedom,” did much to further the cause of religious freedom and to bring about a cessation of oppressive religious intolerance. Careful consideration of his opinions ends all mystery surrounding his “separation between Church and State.” As a part of his labors to protect the Church, he boldly supported the division of Church and Federal Government while always defending the Constitutional rights of the States. As a result of his efforts, as well as those of the Founders, the Federal Government is forever kept from any blatant oppression of religion in American – for Jefferson’s service, many thanks are owed.

    Finally, as Jefferson’s example, as well as his life-long statute, held, “The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time; the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them.”[33]


    Barton, David. Original Intent: The Courts, the Constitution, & Religion. (Aledo, TX: WallBuilder Press, 2000).

    ________. The Myth of Separation: What is the correct relationship between Church and State? A revealing look at what the Founders and early Courts really said. (Aledo, TX: WallBuilder Press, 1992).

    Dreisbach, Daniel L. Real Threat and Mere Shadow: Religious Liberty and the First Amendment. (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1987).
    ________. Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation between Church and State. (New York and London: New York University Press, 2002).
    Gaustad, Edwin S. Sworn on the Alter of God: A Religious Biography of Thomas Jefferson. (Grand Rapids, Mich./Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996).

    [HR][/HR][1] Edwin S. Gaustad, Sworn on the Alter of God: A Religious Biography of Thomas Jefferson (Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 124.

    [2] Ibid, 15.

    [3] Daniel L. Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson and the Wall between Church and State, (New York and London: New York University Press, 2002), 57.

    [4] Ibid, 56.

    [5] Gaustad, Sworn on the Alter of God: A Religious Biography of Thomas Jefferson, 2.

    [6] Ibid, 99.

    [7] Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson and the Wall between Church and State, 25.

    [8] Gaustad, Sworn on the Alter of God: A Religious Biography of Thomas Jefferson, 99.

    [9] Ibid, 90.

    [10] Ibid, 92.

    [11] Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson and the Wall between Church and State, 19.

    [12] Gaustad, Sworn on the Alter of God: A Religious Biography of Thomas Jefferson, 93.

    [13] Ibid.

    [14] Ibid.

    [15] Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson and the Wall between Church and State, 148.

    [16] Ibid, 4.

    [17] David Barton, Original Intent: The Courts, the Constitution, & Religion, (Aledo, TX: Wallbuilder Press, 2000), 17.

    [18] Ibid, 18.

    [19] Ibid.

    [20] Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson and the Wall between Church and State, 50.

    [21] Ibid, 65.

    [22] Ibid, 153.

    [23] Ibid, 154.

    [24] Ibid, 153.

    [25] Ibid, 58.

    [26] Ibid, 59.

    [27] Daniel L. Dreisbach, Real Threat and Mere Shadow: Religious Liberty and the First Amendment, (Westchester, IL: Crossway Books, 1987), 127, quoted in David Barton, The Myth of Separation: What is the correct relationship between Church and State? A revealing look at what the Founders and early Courts really said, (Aledo, TX: Wallbuilder Press, 1992), 176.

    [28] Gaustad, Sworn on the Alter of God: A Religious Biography of Thomas Jefferson, 103.

    [29] Ibid, 101.

    [30] Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson and the Wall between Church and State, 98.

    [31] Ibid, 101.

    [32] Ibid, 95-96.

    [33] Gaustad, Sworn on the Alter of God: A Religious Biography of Thomas Jefferson, 42.

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