He drafted the Declaration of Independence, was governor of Virginia, and as 3rd U.S. president approved the Louisiana Purchase, commissioning Lewis and Clark to explore it. He sent Marines to fight Muslim Barbary Pirates of Tripoli – but he is best known for his phrase “wall of separation of church and state.”
This was Thomas Jefferson, born April 13, 1743.
Since 1947, Jefferson’s phrase has been used to limit religion, but was this his intent?
Jefferson was baptized, married and buried in the Church of England, or “Anglican Church,” as recorded in his family Bible.
He lived in Virginia, which had an “establishment” of the Anglican Church from 1606 to 1786. Establishment meant mandatory membership, mandatory taxes to support it, and one could not hold public office unless a member.
Over time, “dissenting” religious groups entered Virginia: Presbyterians and Quakers, followed by German Lutherans, Mennonites and Moravian Brethren, then finally Baptists.
Francis L. Hawks wrote in his Ecclesiastical History, 1836:
No dissenters in Virginia experienced for a time harsher treatment than the Baptists. They were beaten and imprisoned, and cruelty taxed ingenuity to devise new modes of punishment and annoyance.
Following George Whitefield’s Great Awakening Revival, Jefferson’s Albemarle County saw many Baptist, Presbyterian and Methodist revivals. Even Jefferson’s daughter, Mary, later attended a Baptist revival preached by Lorenzo Dow.
Dolly Madison, wife of James Madison, reported that in 1774 Jefferson dined with Baptist Pastor Andrew Tribble at Monticello, where Jefferson commented that Baptist church government “was the only form of pure democracy that exists in the world. … It would be the best plan of government for the American colonies.”
During the Revolution, Anglican ministers sided with King George, who was head of the Anglican Church. Patriotic parishioners migrated from the “established” church into “dissenting” churches.
In 1777, Jefferson started the Calvinistical Reformed Church in the Albemarle County Courthouse, drawing up its bylaws. His novel idea was for it to be a “voluntary” church, supported only by attendees.
Jefferson’s memorandum book shows contributions to their evangelical pastor, the Rev. Charles Clay, as well as to missionaries and other churches:
I have subscribed to the building of an Episcopal church, two hundred dollars, a Presbyterian, sixty dollars, and a Baptist, twenty-five dollars.
After the Revolution, Virginia rewrote its laws removing references to the King. “Dissenting” churches lobbied Jefferson to “disestablish” the Anglican Church.
Jefferson responded by writing his Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom. In 1779, fellow member of Jefferson’s Calvinistical Reformed Church, Col. John Harvie, introduced the Bill in Virginia’s Assembly.
After three of Jefferson’s children died, then his wife in 1782, Jefferson suffered severe depression, burned all of his wife’s letters and withdrew from politics. Trying to help, Congress asked Jefferson in 1784 to go France, which was going through its period of “French infidelity” prior to the bloody French Revolution. After this, Jefferson tended more toward a Deist-Christian, though in later life he was described as a “liberal Anglican.”
Jefferson’s bill, which he noted on his gravestone, passed Virginia’s Assembly, Jan. 16, 1786:
Almighty God hath created the mind free. … All attempts to influence it by temporal punishments … are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in His Almighty power to do. … Be it enacted … that no man shall … suffer on account of his religious opinions.
Virginia’s disestablishment of the Anglican Church would never have passed had not Methodist Bishop Francis Asbury split the popular Methodist movement away from the Anglican Church in 1785.
The effort against “disestablishing,” led by notables like Patrick Henry, was later labeled “antidisestablishmentarianism.”
Virginia soon built it first Jewish Synagogue in 1789 and first Catholic Church in 1795.
Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut, petitioned President Jefferson, Oct. 7, 1801:
Sir … 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. … But Sir … what religious privileges we enjoy … we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights. …
On Jan. 1, 1802, Jefferson wrote his famous letter agreeing with Danbury’s Baptists:
Gentlemen … Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with solemn 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 man to all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.
Jefferson viewed the “wall” as limiting the federal government from “intermeddling” in church government, as explained in his letter to Samuel Miller, Jan. 23, 1808:
I consider the government of the United States as interdicted [prohibited] 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 [10th Amendment].
Certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the General [Federal] government. … Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, and the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets.
The federal government was not limited, though, from spreading religion in Western territories, as April 26, 1802, Jefferson extended a 1787 act of Congress where lands were designated:
For the sole use of Christian Indians and the Moravian Brethren missionaries for civilizing the Indians and promoting Christianity.
And again, Dec. 3, 1803, Congress ratified Jefferson’s treaty with Kaskaskia Indians:
Whereas the greater part of the said tribe have been baptized and received into the Catholic Church … the United States will give annually, for seven years, one hundred dollars toward the support of a priest of that religion, who will engage to perform for said tribe the duties of his office, and also to instruct as many of their children as possible. … And the United States will further give the sum of three hundred dollars, to assist the said tribe in the erection of a church.
Twelve years before his death, Jefferson shared his personal views to Miles King, Sept. 26, 1814:
We have heard it said that there is not a Quaker or a Baptist, a Presbyterian or an Episcopalian, a Catholic or a Protestant in heaven; that on entering that gate, we leave those badges of schism behind. … Let us be happy in the hope that by these different paths we shall all meet in the end. And that you and I may meet and embrace, is my earnest prayer.
When John Adams’ wife died, Jefferson wrote to him, Nov. 13, 1818:
The term is not very distant, at which we are to deposit … our sorrows and suffering bodies, and to ascend in essence to an ecstatic meeting with the friends we have loved and lost, and whom we shall still love and never lose again. God bless you and support you under your heavy affliction.
Over time, brilliant legal minds have used Jefferson’s words to prohibit Jefferson’s beliefs.
Jefferson wrote in the Declaration: “All men are endowed by their Creator,” yet in 2005, U.S. District Judge John E. Jones, in Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District, ruled students could not be taught of a Creator: “to preserve the separation of church and state.”
The American Civil Liberties Union uses Jefferson’s phrase “separation of church and state” to remove God, despite Jefferson’s warning inscribed on the Jefferson Memorial, Washington, DC:
God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?
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William J. Federer is author of “Backfired: A Nation Born for Religious Tolerance no Longer Tolerates Religion.” A frequent radio and television guest, his daily American Minute is broadcast nationally via radio, television, and Internet.