Letter from Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptists

Thomas Jefferson
January 1, 1802
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The Danbury Baptist Association was founded in 1790 as a coalition of about 26 churches in the Connecticut Valley. Connecticut had established Congregationalism as its official state religion. It was as a persecuted religious minority that they wrote to President Jefferson asking for his help in overthrowing the establishment. Jefferson's response was not some throwaway courtesy note but the product of careful deliberation involving several of his top advisors. We know this with some certainty thanks to help from none-other-than…the FBI. In 1998, the FBI used state of the art forensic methods to determine what Jefferson had inked out. By looking at Jefferson's deletions, historians were able to get a much more nuanced sense of Jefferson's thought process. According to Daniel Dreisbach and James Hutson of the Library of Congress, here's what happened Jefferson believed the Danbury letter would afford him the opportunity to explain to the world "why I do not proclaim fastings & thanksgivings, as my predecessors did." His first draft of the letter therefore explained that he was prohibited from "even occasional performances of devotion" unlike, he said, the way it is "practiced indeed by the Executive of another nation as the legal head of its church." Jefferson asked his attorney general, Levi Lincoln of Connecticut, to review his response for political landmines. "You understand the temper of those in the North, and can weaken it therefore to their stomachs," Jefferson noted. Lincoln replied that Jefferson's draft was too combative. By criticizing the proclamations, Jefferson would potentially insult not only Federalists but Republicans as well, as the custom is "venerable being handed down from our ancestors," Lincoln cautioned. Jefferson responded to Lincoln's warning by cutting out the offending passage. So the final letter to the Baptists ended up without the portion on proclamations - the ostensible reason for Jefferson to write the letter in the first place.Those who believe Jefferson was describing a wall of separation that would, say, keep prayer out of public schools, should look again at the word "their" - which Jefferson underlined. In responding to the Baptists complaint about the Connecticut government, Jefferson said merely that the national legislature had, at least created a wall of separation. He did not offer any help in battling the Connecticut law, except to say that he expects to see "the progress of those sentiments" of freedom. .
To messers. Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins, & Stephen S. Nelson, a committee of the Danbury Baptist association in the state of Connecticut.

Gentlemen,

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.


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