On Jan. 1, 1802, the people of Cheshire, Massachusetts, sent a giant block of cheese to President Thomas Jefferson, being presented by the famous Baptist preacher, John Leland.
John Leland was then invited to preach to the president and Congress in the U.S. Capitol. The subject of his talk was “separation of church and state.”
Baptists had been particularly persecuted in colonial Virginia, as Francis L. Hawks wrote in Ecclesiastical History (1836): “No dissenters in Virginia experienced for a time harsher treatment than the Baptists. They were beaten and imprisoned. … Cruelty taxed ingenuity to devise new modes of punishment and annoyance.”
So many Baptist ministers were harassed and their church services disrupted that James Madison introduced legislation in Virginia’s Legislature on Oct. 31, 1785, titled “A Bill for Punishing Disturbers of Religious Worship,” which passed in 1789.
Colonial Virginia had an “establishment” of the Church of England, or “Anglican Church” from 1606 to 1786. Establishment meant mandatory membership, mandatory taxes to support it and no one could hold public office unless they were a member.
Over time, lax enforcement allowed “dissenting” religious groups to enter Virginia, the first being Presbyterians and Quakers, followed by German Lutherans, Mennonites and Moravian Brethren, then finally Baptists.
John Leland, who considered running for Congress, wanted an amendment to the new United States Constitution that would protect religious liberty.
Leland reportedly met with James Madison near Orange, Virginia, and upon Madison’s promise to introduce what would become the First Amendment, Leland persuaded Baptists to support him.
John Leland wrote in Rights of Conscience Inalienable, 1791, that they wanted no just toleration, but equality: “Every man must give account of himself to God, and therefore every man ought to be at liberty to serve God in a way that he can best reconcile to his conscience. If government can answer for individuals at the day of judgment, let men be controlled by it in religious matters; otherwise, let men be free.”
Following George Whitefield’s First Great Awakening Revival, a Second Great Awakening Revival took place in Jefferson’s Albemarle County.
Baptist, Presbyterian and Methodist revival meetings were held. Even Jefferson’s daughter, Mary, attended a Baptist revival preached by Lorenzo Dow.
Dolly Madison, wife of James Madison, reported that in 1774, Jefferson dined at Monticello along with another guest, the Baptist Pastor Andrew Tribble.
After questioning Pastor Tribble about how Baptist church government worked, Jefferson remarked: “(It) 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 had sided with King George III, who was head of the Anglican Church. As a result, patriotic parishioners began to migrate out of the “established” churches into “dissenting” churches.
Though Jefferson was baptized, married and buried in the Anglican Church, as recorded in his family Bible, he started a type of dissenting church in 1777 named the Calvinistical Reformed Church.
Jefferson drew up the bylaws of the church, which met in the Albemarle County Courthouse. His idea was for it to be a “voluntary” church, supported only by the voluntary donations of those who attended, in contrast to the Anglican model of support from government taxes.
Jefferson’s memorandum book shows he contributed 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, 200 dollars, a Presbyterian, 60 dollars, and a Baptist, 25 dollars.”
After the Revolution, the Virginia legislature rewrote its laws to remove 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, his wife died in 1782. After her funeral, Jefferson suffered depression and withdrew from politics. In his grief, he burned every letter he had with his wife and sequestered himself in his room for three weeks, only venturing out to ride horseback through the hills of his estate.
Jefferson’s daughter, Martha “Patsy” Jefferson, described how he wept for hours: “In those melancholy rambles I was his constant companion … a solitary witness to many a violent burst of grief … the violence of his emotion … to this day I do not describe to myself.”
Trying to help, Congress asked Jefferson in 1784 to go as ambassador to France. France was going through a period of “French infidelity” prior to its bloody French Revolution and Reign of Terror.
Upon returning to America, Jefferson leaned toward a liberal “deist-Christianity,” though in later life he was described simply as a “liberal Anglican.”
Jefferson’s bill, which he noted on his gravestone as “Statue of Virginia for Religious Freedom,” 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 it not been for Methodist Bishop Francis Asbury splitting the popular Methodist movement away from the Anglican Church into its own denomination in 1785.
There were notable leaders who resisted “disestablishing” the Anglican, or as it was now called, the Episcopal Church, such as Governor Patrick Henry. This movement was later termed “anti-disestablishmentarianism.”
Virginia built its first Jewish Synagogue in 1789 and its first Catholic Church in 1795.
John Leland then helped start several Baptist churches in Connecticut, which was a state having an establishment of the Congregational Church from its founding in 1639 until 1818.
Baptists in Connecticut formed the Danbury Baptist Association and sent a letter to President Jefferson, October 7, 1801: “Sir … 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 ancient charter (in Connecticut), together with the Laws made coincident therewith … are; that … what religious privileges we enjoy (as Baptists) …we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights.
The letter continues, “Sir, we are sensible that the President of the united States is not the national Legislator & also sensible that the national government cannot destroy the Laws of each State; 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 & prevail through all these States and all the world till Hierarchy and Tyranny be destroyed from the Earth.
“Sir,” the letter continues, “we have reason to believe that America’s God has raised you up to fill the chair of State. … May God strengthen you for the arduous task which Providence & the voice of the people have called you … 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.”
On Jan. 1, 1802, Jefferson wrote back with his famous letter, agreeing with the Danbury 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.”
Jefferson ended: “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. I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection and blessing of the common Father and Creator of man.”
Baptists were familiar with Jefferson’s metaphor “wall of separation,” as Baptist founder of Rhode Island, Roger Williams, used it in his Bloody Tenet of Persecution for Conscience Sake, 1644: “Jews under the Old Testament … and … Christians under the New Testament …were both separate from the world; and that when they have opened a gap in the hedge, or wall of separation, between the garden of the Church and the wilderness of the world, God hath ever broken down the wall itself … and that therefore if He will ever please to restore His garden and paradise again, it must of necessity be walled in peculiarly unto Himself from the world.”
Jefferson viewed the “wall” as limiting the federal government from “inter-meddling” 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 inter-meddling 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).”
Jefferson continued: “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 on April 26, 1802, Jefferson’s administration 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, during Jefferson’s administration, Congress ratified a treaty with the 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.”
When John Adams’ wife, Abigail, died, Thomas Jefferson wrote to him, Nov. 13, 1818:
“The term is not very distant, at which we are to deposit in the same cerement, 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.”
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.”
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.”
Groups use Jefferson’s phrase “separation of church and state” to remove national acknowledgment of God, despite Jefferson’s warning against that very thing, as inscribed on the Jefferson Memorial, Washington, D.C.: “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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