Thomas Jefferson – A Wall of Separation Between Church and State

My Notes

Below is the famous letter from Thomas Jefferson where the phrase, “Separation of Church and State” originates. This phrase is not in the Constitution but it has become a major point of controversy in our legal system.

Mr. Jefferson’s letter is a response to a letter from the Danbury Baptist association of Connecticut. Jefferson starts by showing appreciation for their kind words to him.

He quickly turns to the main topic, Religious Freedom. He says, “religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God.”

Here Jefferson make one of my favorite statements on limitation of government. He says, “the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions.” This was a shared sentiment of Thomas Heyward’s wife. In the face of British oppression she said, “over my opinions you possess no control.”

Jefferson goes on to quote part of the First Amendment to the Constitution which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Jefferson writes that this builds a “wall of separation between Church & State.”

Reading the letter from the Danbury Baptist association, it seems to me that Jefferson’s intent was to keep “the State” out of “the Church”. The Baptists were concerned that someone who rose to power in America would take actions against religious liberty. Jefferson was reassuring the Danbury Baptists that the federal government would not infringe in any way on their “rights of conscience.”

The major controversy comes in when we talk about taking the Church out of the State. A good, recent, example is Day of Prayer event on August 6th 2011 called by Rick Perry, Governor of Texas. This is a State official using his office as Governor to promote a religious event.

Does the “wall of separation between Church & State” prevent Governor Perry from doing this? I personally do not think it does not. Another group, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, filed a law suite against it because they think it does.

In my opinion, the First Amendment clause on religion specifically limits the Congress of the federal government from making any law that would establish a religion or limit the free exercise of religion. These are my own words but is it nearly a straight quote of the clause.

In Governor Perry’s case, he is not the federal Congress, he is not establishing a religion, but he is exercising his “right of conscience.”

Thomas Jefferson says, “truth is great, and will prevail if left to herself, and is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, … unless (by human interposition) disarmed of her natural weapons – free argument and debate.” We will only fall into error if the powerful among us take away our First Amendment rights.

Please leave a comment below and let me know your thoughts on Separation of Church and State.

Quote from Thomas Jefferson

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.

Brief Biography of Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson, father-in-law of Thomas Mann Randolph and John Wayles Eppes), a Delegate from Virginia, a Vice President and 3d President of the United States; born at “Shadwell,” Va., in present-day Albemarle County, Va., on April 13, 1743; attended a preparatory school; graduated from William and Mary College, Williamsburg, Va., in 1762; studied law; admitted to the bar and commenced practice in 1767; member, colonial House of Burgesses, 1769-1775; Member of the Continental Congress, 1775 and 1776; chairman of the committee that drew up, primary author of, and signer of the Declaration of Independence 1776; Governor of Virginia, 1779-1781; member, State house of delegates 1782; again a Member of the Continental Congress, 1783-1784; appointed a Minister Plenipotentiary to France in 1784, and then sole Minister to the King of France in 1785, for three years; Secretary of State of the United States in the Cabinet of President George Washington, 1789-1793; elected Vice President of the United States and served under President John Adams, 1797-1801; elected President of the United States in 1801 by the House of Representatives on the thirty-sixth ballot; reelected in 1804 and served from March 4, 1801, to March 3, 1809; retired to his estate, “Monticello,” in Virginia; active in founding the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, Va.; died at Monticello, Albemarle County, Va., July 4, 1826; interment in family cemetery at Monticello.


  1. Doug Indeap /

    The principle of separation of church and state is derived from the Constitution (1) establishing a secular government on the power of the people (not a deity), (2) saying nothing to connect that government to god(s) or religion, (3) saying nothing to give that government power over matters of god(s) or religion, and (4), indeed, saying nothing substantive about god(s) or religion at all except in a provision precluding any religious test for public office and the First Amendment provisions constraining the government from undertaking to establish religion or prohibit individuals from freely exercising their religions.

    Some try to pass off the Supreme Court’s decision in Everson v. Board of Education as simply a misreading of Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists–as if that is the only basis of the Court’s decision. Instructive as that letter is, it played but a small part in the Court’s decision. Perhaps even more than Jefferson, James Madison influenced the Court’s view. Madison, who had a central role in drafting the Constitution and the First Amendment, confirmed that he understood them to “[s]trongly guard[] . . . the separation between Religion and Government.” Madison, Detached Memoranda (~1820). He made plain, too, that they guarded against more than just laws creating state sponsored churches or imposing a state religion. Mindful that even as new principles are proclaimed, old habits die hard and citizens and politicians could tend to entangle government and religion (e.g., “the appointment of chaplains to the two houses of Congress” and “for the army and navy” and “[r]eligious proclamations by the Executive recommending thanksgivings and fasts”), he considered the question whether these actions were “consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom” and responded: “In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the United States forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion.”

    It is important to distinguish between the “public square” and “government” and between “individual” and “government” speech about religion. The principle of separation of church and state does not purge religion from the public square–far from it. Indeed, the First Amendment’s “free exercise” clause assures that each individual is free to exercise and express his or her religious views–publicly as well as privately. The Amendment constrains only the government not to promote or otherwise take steps toward establishment of religion. As government can only act through the individuals comprising its ranks, when those individuals are performing their official duties, they effectively are the government and thus should conduct themselves in accordance with the First Amendment’s constraints on government. When acting in their individual capacities, they are free to exercise their religions as they please.

    The Constitution, including particularly the First Amendment, embodies the simple, just idea that each of us should be free to exercise his or her religious views without expecting that the government will endorse or promote those views and without fearing that the government will endorse or promote the religious views of others. By keeping government and religion separate, the establishment clause serves to protect the freedom of all to exercise their religion. Reasonable people may differ, of course, on how these principles should be applied in particular situations, but the principles are hardly to be doubted. Moreover, they are good, sound principles that should be nurtured and defended, not attacked. Efforts to undercut our secular government by somehow merging or infusing it with religion should be resisted by every patriot.

    Wake Forest University recently published a short, objective Q&A primer on the current law of separation of church and state–as applied by the courts rather than as caricatured in the blogosphere. I commend it to you.

    • @Doug Indeap,
      Thanks for your comments. It is great that we live in a country where we are free to express our “right of conscience.”

      I can see you have cut and paste this view in other places in the blogosphere. It is clear that our worldviews frame our understanding of separation of church and state. One from the atheistic view and one from the belief that God is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him.

      Religion is a difficult concept for “current law” to define. I think that secularism or atheism is a as much a religion as Christianity. It is impossible to remove religion from decisions, even “State” decisions.

      “Truth is great, and will prevail if left to herself, and is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, … unless (by human interposition) disarmed of her natural weapons – free argument and debate.”

  2. Doug Indeap /


    Our worldviews may well differ; that, though, is largely beside the point when discussing the principle of separation of church and state. That principle is not an atheist concept. Hardly. Recall that Baptists have long been perhaps the most vocal champions of the idea.

    The founders drafting of a Constitution that establishes a secular government and separates it from religion is entirely consistent with the fact that some founders professed their religiosity and even their desire that Christianity remain the dominant religious influence in American society. Why? Religious people who would like to see their religion flourish in society may well believe that separating religion and government will serve that end and, thus, in founding a government they may well intend to keep it separate from religion. That, indeed, is just what the founders did.

    It is instructive to recall that adoption of the First Amendment reflected, at the federal level, a “disestablishment” political movement then sweeping the country. That political movement succeeded in disestablishing all state religions by the 1830s. (Side note: A political reaction to that movement gave us the term “antidisestablishmentarianism,” which amused some of us as kids.) It is worth noting, as well, that this disestablishment movement largely coincided with another movement, the Great Awakening. The people of the time saw separation of church and state as a boon, not a burden, to religion.

    This sentiment was recorded by a famous observer of the American experiment: “On my arrival in the United States the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention. . . . I questioned the members of all the different sects. . . . I found that they differed upon matters of detail alone, and that they all attributed the peaceful dominion of religion in their country mainly to the separation of church and state. I do not hesitate to affirm that during my stay in America, I did not meet a single individual, of the clergy or the laity, who was not of the same opinion on this point.” Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835).

    You are right to observe that defining “religion,” depending on the purpose, can be problematic. In one context, i.e., determining whether the First Amendment protects atheists as well as theists in the free exercise of their “religion,” the courts have decided to treat atheism as a religion. In other contexts, depending on how one defines “atheism”, it may or may not amount to a religion. To the extent it means merely the lack of belief in god(s) and nothing more, one may doubt it is a religion any more than the lack of belief in other things, e.g., unicorns.

    Figuring whether or how to define “secularism” as a religion is somewhat more problematic. To the extent the term means keeping government and religion separate, it makes no sense to define that idea itself as a religion, as that would render the idea impossible (at least semantically) and all but define it out of existence.

    You are right as well to observe that it is impossible to remove religion from decisions on policy. Separation of church and state does not prevent citizens from making decisions based on principles derived from their religions. Moreover, the religious beliefs of government officials naturally may inform their decisions on policies. The principle, in this context, merely constrains government officials not to make decisions with the predominant purpose or primary effect of advancing religion; in other words, the predominant purpose and primary effect must be nonreligious or secular in nature. A decision coinciding with religious views is not invalid for that reason as long as it has a secular purpose and effect.

    • Hi Doug,
      I agree with much of what you say. In fact, a big part of why I created this post and this blog is to get more people, especially Christians, involved in the political process. We all need to learn more about our history and let that knowledge help guide us.

      I agree whole heartedly with the idea of Separation of Church and State. If any one religion or sect of religion is able to force its beliefs on others, through law, then it is possible that any other religion could come in and force its beliefs. Religion or non-religion must be a matter of individual right. God gives us each the right to choose our beliefs.

      The problem I see, again especially in Christians, is that too many believe that Separation of Church and State precludes Christians from taking part in the political process. Sometimes Christians will excuse themselves entirely, even from voting, because it is “secular” and they think they have to be separate. This is not what the wall of separation is! “[T]he First Amendment protects the rights of religious organizations [and individuals] to participate in political activities.”

      We all need to be involved in the process, in all stages of the process. In our great nation we have the right to express our beliefs and participate in government without fear of discrimination. These are our Natural rights which our nation was founded on.

    • Jon Smith /

      Alexis de Tocqueville also said:

      “Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot. How is it possible that society should escape destruction if the moral tie is not strengthened in proportion as the political tie is relaxed? And what can be done with a people who are their own masters if they are not submissive to the Deity?” (emphasis mine)

      Jefferson was addressing a very specific question by the Baptists, one that concerned them in light of their experiences with the State Church of England; and he sheds light on his thinking regarding the relationship between the state and Christianity in a letter to Benjamin Rush:

      “[T]he clause of the Constitution which, while it secured the freedom of the press, covered also the freedom of religion, had given to the clergy a very favorite hope of obtaining an establishment of a particular form of Christianity through the United States; and as every sect believes its own form the true one, every one perhaps hoped for his own, but especially the Episcopalians and Congregationalists. The returning good sense of our country threatens abortion to their hopes and they believe that any portion of power confided to me will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly.”

      Words of note:

      – “freedom of religion”
      – “obtaining an establishment of a particular form of Christianity” (Christians call this denominationalism)
      – “every sect believes its own form the true one.” Form of what? Form of Christianity.(Again, denominationalism)

      There were two denominations giving Jefferson the most fits: The Episcopalians and Congregationalists who both thought that their denomination should have preeminence over all others. He informs Rush that they are wrong in their presumptions.

      So the issue of separation was NEVER over the threats of saying a prayer on federal time or on federal land, or the erecting of a nativity scene on public property.

      The context was in regard to mistaken thinking over denominational preeminence and the worry of government usurpation of Christian conscience. It was in this context that Jefferson made the “wall of separation” comment.


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