A New Year’s Look At The Wall Of Separation by Ken Lynn (Jan/Feb 1998)

On New Year’s Day, I found myself banging away at the keyboard of my computer busily typing letters to acquaintances when it occurred to me that 196 years earlier on New Year’s Day, 1802, Thomas Jefferson penned his famous “wall of separation” letter to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut.
Although this letter has profoundly impacted the church and state discourse throughout our nation’s history, Religious Right activists still frequently refer to the missive as a hastily drafted document merely written to curry the favor of a political constituency. In truth, Jefferson used this opportunity to make a major policy announcement concerning his views on church and state.

Jefferson was inaugurated the third president of the United States on March 4, 1801, concluding one of the country’s most bitter and contentious presidential elections. He had been vilified for his alleged lack of religion and was branded an “infidel” by supporters of his opponent, Federalist John Adams.

On October 7, 1801, a committee of the Danbury Baptist Association sent a congratulatory letter to Jefferson on his “appointment to the Chief Magistracy in the United States.” The letter was received on December 30, 1801. The Danbury Baptist Association consisted of a 26-church alliance in western Connecticut. In a state where the established religion was Congregationalism, the Connecticut Baptists were a minority religion who supported Jefferson politically due to his ardent stance concerning religious liberty.

In their letter to Jefferson, the Baptists’ primary concern was whether “religious privileges” (the rights of conscience) were deemed as “inalienable rights” or merely as “favors granted” by the individual states and thus subject to withdrawal by civil authorities. In outlining their view of religious liberty, the Baptists described religion as a matter between God and individuals, and reasoned that no one should suffer civil consequences on account of personal religious opinions.

Although the Baptists did not request a religious proclamation, Jefferson viewed his response as an occasion to articulate why he declined to proclaim days of public fasting and thanksgiving as his predecessors had done, while also expressing his views on church and state. Prior to finalizing his response, Jefferson solicited political commentary and advice from Attorney General Levi Lincoln and Postmaster General Gideon Granger, his primary consultants on New England politics. Even though he felt the religious sentiment expressed in Jefferson’s response “of importance to be communicated,” Lincoln cautioned Jefferson to alter his comments associated with “proclamations” so that the states would not misconstrue Jefferson’s pronouncement as an implied censure on their ability to make proclamations.

In contrast, Granger suggested no changes to Jefferson’s draft, stating the president had expressed an opinion “felt by a majority of New England, and publicly acknowledged by near half the people of Connecticut.”

In his final version, Jefferson removed all reference to proclamations of fasting and thanksgiving. Instead, his response expressed the axiom that rights of conscience would be enjoyed by all citizens free from infringement by the federal government:

“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only and 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 and state.”

As most students of church and state know, Jefferson was not the first individual to use the “wall” metaphor. A century and a half before Jefferson, colonial religious liberty pioneer Roger Williams talked of a “hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.” In 1766, Scotsman James Burgh proposed “building an impenetrable wall of separation between all things sacred and civil.”

In its 1879 Reynolds v. United States decision, the Supreme Court declared that Jefferson’s response to the Danbury Baptists “may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the [First] Amendment.”

In the Court’s 1947 Everson v. Board of Education decision, Justice Hugo Black wrote: “In the words of Thomas Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect a wall of separation between church and state.”

It is interesting to note that in spite of all this “history,” Jefferson’s use of the wall metaphor in his 1802 New Year’s Day letter to the Danbury Baptists still generates so much contemporary debate.

Many religionists (including several modern-day Supreme Court Justices and the current Chief Justice) continue to minimize the effect of the Danbury letter, calling it a “quickly written courtesy of little consequence,” and claiming that separation of church and state is not a true constitutional principle. While it is accurate that the literal phrase “wall of separation” or “separation of church and state” is not in the Constitution, Leo Pfeffer, the late eminent church-state scholar, pointed out that “it was inevitable that some convenient term would come into existence to verbalize a principle so clearly and widely held by the American people.”

Another ploy of the religionists is to argue that Jefferson was concerned only with the rights of conscience in his pronouncement. This position can easily be refuted as Jefferson quoted the establishment clause in the exact sentence in which he expressed the “wall of separation,” thus indicating his concern for more than just the free exercise of religion.

Let’s hope 1998 is a year of more rational thought like that of the Sage of Monticello!

Ken Lynn is an active Air Force officer currently stationed in California. He and his wife Monica are Foundation members.

Freedom From Religion Foundation