Ye Olde Walls of Separation by William Sierichs, Jr. (March 2001)

Despite six centuries of pounding, the wall of separation between church and state stands higher and thicker than ever, boosted by vigorous defenders and supportive Supreme Court rulings going back to the late 1940s in the face of relentless assaults from religious zealots.

Many people, including a lot of secularists, believe Thomas Jefferson coined the “wall of separation” metaphor in his letter to the Danbury (Conn.) Baptist Association on Jan. 1, 1802. Religious Right propagandists like this belief because it lets them claim Jefferson was espousing an eccentric idea outside the mainstream of opinion among America’s Founders. After all, he was in France when the Constitution was written and therefore could not know what its authors intended.

In fact, the metaphor was more than 200 years old when Jefferson popularized it.

The union of church and state had been under attack in England since at least the 16th century. Richard Hooker, a defender of the Anglican Church who died in 1600, wrote that dissenters demanded that “the walls of separation between [church and commonwealth] must for ever be upheld.” This is the oldest written use of the “wall(s) of separation” metaphor I can find, although it may have appeared earlier in dissenters’ pamphlets that Hooker drew upon.1

The 17th-century Baptist leader Roger Williams, who founded Rhode Island after his expulsion from Massachusetts, was another advocate of church-state separation who used the metaphor. After Boston leader John Cotton wrote a letter defending Williams’ banishment, Williams wrote in his answer “that when they have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wildernes of the world, God hath ever broke down the wall it selfe, removed the Candlestick, &c. and made his Garden a Wildernesse, as at this day. And that therfore if he will ever please to restore his Garden and Paradice again, it must of necessitie be walled in peculiarly unto himselfe from the world, and that all that shall be saved out of the world are to be transplanted out of the Wildernes of world, and added unto his Church or Garden.” He explained the necessity of separating the “holy from unholy, penitent from impenitent, godly from ungodly. . .”2

In the 1600s and 1700s, the English government loosened the Church’s iron control in a series of parliamentary acts and royal edicts that gave some legal tolerance to nonAnglican Protestants and even Roman Catholics, who still were subject to various forms of oppression, such as double taxes. The laws also mandated religious tests–anyone holding public office had to swear an oath that included support for the Church of England and its specific doctrines. These tests applied, in theory, to England’s American colonies, although greater religious diversity was tolerated in individual colonies, such as Puritan-run Massachusetts.

Dissenters in England did not accept the limited intolerance. In the 1760s, English essayist James Burgh condemned repression of Roman Catholics in his book “Crito” and declared, “I should have been rather inclinable to think, that the less the church and the state had to do with one another, it would be the better for both.” He later declared, “I desire, that there may not be among you so much as a shadow of authority in religious matters. If you be christians, stand in awe of him, who has said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. The rulers of the gentiles exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you. Ye are all brethren.’ ” Burgh demanded, “Build an impenetrable wall of separation between things sacred and civil,” citing the metaphor Hooker had assailed earlier and that Jefferson made famous later.3

The English dissenters didn’t win their last big battles until the late 19th century, but American dissenters won a crushing victory in the passage of the United States Constitution, written in 1787 and ratified in 1788. Against 1,400 years of Christian theology and political theory, the Constitution makes no reference to God or Jesus and establishes no state church or god. Even worse to contemporary Christians, Article 6 decreed, “. . . no religious Test shall ever be required as a qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

Even the oath of office for the president was strictly secular. The phrase “so help me God” that some presidents have added has no legal status whatsoever.

Christians understood what this meant, as James Madison explained in an Oct. 17, 1788, letter to Thomas Jefferson when he discussed his fears about adding a Bill of Rights to the Constitution: “. . . because there is great reason to fear that a positive declaration of some of the most essential rights could not be obtained in the requisite latitude. I am sure that the rights of Conscience in particular, if submitted to public definition would be narrowed much more than they are likely ever to be by an assumed power. One of the objections in New England was that the Constitution by prohibiting religious tests opened a door for Jews Turks & infidels.”4

Christians in several states argued for a state religion. At the Massachusetts ratifying convention, in a discussion on Jan. 31, 1788, Colonel William Jones was paraphrased as arguing, “. . . that the rulers ought to believe in God or Christ – and that however a test may be prostituted in England, yet he thought if our publick men were to be of those who had a good standing in the church, it would be happy for the United States–and that a person could not be a good man without being a good Christian.”

At the North Carolina ratifying convention, in a discussion on July 30, 1788, the Rev. David Caldwell argued, in paraphrase, “. . . that some danger might arise. He imagined it might be objected to in a political as well as in a religious view. In the first place, he said there was an invitation for Jews, and Pagans of every kind, to come among us. At some future period, said he, this might endanger the character of the United States. Moreover, even those who do not regard religion, acknowledge that the Christian religion is best calculated of all religions to make good members of society, on account of its morality. I think then, added he, that in a political view, those gentlemen who formed this Constitution, should not have given this invitation to Jews and Heathens. All those who have any religion are against the emigration of those people from the eastern hemisphere.”

And in a letter to the American Mercury of Hartford, Connecticut, published Feb. 11, 1788, William Williams assailed the ban on religious tests, recommending “an explicit acknowledgment of the being of a God, his perfections and his providence . . . to have been prefixed to, and stand as, the first introductory words of the Constitution . . .” Williams added that, despite what he regarded as a flaw, he felt the Constitution was too important to be rejected.5

The actual preamble states six purposes for the Constitution, all purely secular. Some opponents of the Constitution criticized it because it did not go far enough in establishing freedom of religion and other rights. Their objections led Madison to push the Bill of Rights through Congress in 1789, after Jefferson persuaded him they were needed. The arguments for freedom of religion usually pointed out the country’s religious diversity and the impossibility of searching people’s hearts to determine if they had taken a religious oath honestly.

For example, at the Virginia ratifying convention, in a June 25, 1788, speech, Zachariah Johnston argued: “We are also told that religion is not secured–that religious tests are not required.–You will find that exclusion of tests, will strongly tend to establish religious freedom. If tests were required–and if the church of England or any other were established, I might be excluded from any office under the Government, because my conscience might not permit me to take the test required. The diversity of opinions and variety of sects in the United States, have justly been reckoned a great security with respect to religious liberty. The difficulty of establishing an uniformity of religion in this country is immense. . . .”6

The Constitution’s authors made no secret of why they wanted a secular state. In a letter of Jan. 24, 1774, to his friend William Bradford, Madison complained, “That diabolical Hell conceived principle of persecution rages among some and to their eternal infamy the Clergy can furnish their Quota of Imps for such business. This vexes me the most of any thing whatever. There are at this in the adjacent County not less than 5 or 6 well meaning men in close [jail] for publishing their religious Sentiments which in the main are very orthodox. I have neither patience to hear talk or think of any thing relative to this matter, for I have squabbled and scolded abused and ridiculed so long about it, to so little purpose that I am without common patience. So I leave you to pity me and pray for Liberty of Conscience to revive among us.”7

In his “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments,” dated June 20, 1785, to the General Assembly of Virginia, in opposition to state taxes for the support of churches, Madison began:

“We the subscribers, citizens of the said Commonwealth, having taken into serious consideration, a Bill printed by order of the last Session of General Assembly, entitled ‘A bill establishing a provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion,’ and conceiving that the same if finally armed with the sanctions of a law, will be a dangerous abuse of power, are bound as faithful members of a free State to remonstrate against it and to declare the reasons by which we are determined.” Madison follows with a number of arguments against the government dictating religious beliefs and support.8

This petition, signed by numerous Virginians of various religious sects–particularly Baptists, who suffered the most under religious persecution, as Madison’s 1774 letters point out–helped turn the tide against the bill and toward Jefferson’s “Statute for Religious Freedom,” which was passed Jan. 16, 1786, in amended form under Madison’s political guidance. In contrast to the legal “toleration” granted by governments to religious minorities, which could be withdrawn at whim, the statute guaranteed freedom of religion as a basic right.

Jefferson, a lawyer, noted laws mandating the burning of heretics–which never occurred in Virginia–and says, “. . . an act of assembly of 1705, c. 30, if a person brought up in the Christian religion denies the being of God, or the Trinity, or asserts there are more Gods than one, or denies the Christian religion to be true, or the scriptures to be of divine authority, he is punishable on the first offence by incapacity to hold any office or employment ecclesiastical, civil, or military, on the second by disability to sue, to take any gift or legacy, to be guardian, executor, or administrator, and by three years imprisonment, without bail. A father’s right to the custody of his own children being founded in law on his right of guardianship, this being taken away, they may of course be severed from him, and put, by the authority of a court, into more orthodox hands.” This type of tyranny led to his famous denunciation of Christian governments throughout history for imprisoning, torturing and executing dissenters.9

In a book defending the various state constitutions–prior to the writing of the U.S. Constitution–Adams repudiates the “Christian nation” theory of government, by saying the state governments were “erected on the simple principles of nature.”

He later adds, “It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods or were in any degree under the inspiration of Heaven, more than those at work upon ships or houses, or laboring in merchandise or agriculture.”10

Although Benjamin Franklin considered religion important to society (at least in his youth), he held to a Deistic view of god, was tolerant toward a variety of religions, and scorned theological discussions, preferring talks on morality. In a letter on Oct. 9, 1780, to his friend Richard Price of England, Franklin argued for freedom of religion and, in effect, church-state separation by opposing religious tests. “I am fully of your Opinion respecting religious Tests; but tho’ the People of Massachusetts have not in their new Constitution kept quite clear of them, yet, if we consider what that People were 100 Years ago, we must allow they have gone great Lengths in Liberality of Sentiment on religious Subjects; and we may hope for greater Degrees of Perfection, when their Constitution, some years hence, shall be revised. . . . for I think [religious tests] were invented, not so much to secure Religion itself, as the emoluments of it. When a religion is good, I conceive that it will support itself; and, when it cannot support itself, and God does not take care to support, so that its Professors are oblig’d to call for the help of the Civil Power, it is a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.”11

Finally, George Washington made it clear that he had no use for religious tyranny. Not only did he never declare any belief in Christianity–he went to church often but refused to take the sacraments, a fundamental test of Christianity–but Washington wrote a Jewish congregation in Newport, R.I., in a letter dated Aug. 18, 1790, that, “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

In a letter on March 24, 1784, to his aide Tench Tilghman, Washington asked him to hire some craftsmen, saying, “If they are good workmen, they may be of Assia, [sic] Africa, or Europe. They may be Mahometans [Muslims], Jews, or Christian or any Sect–or they may be Atheists . . .” Washington clearly set no religious tests for his employees and did not see atheists as a danger. 12 Three years later, he took this attitude to the Constitutional Convention, of which he was chairman and which created a godless government.

The U.S. Constitution thus was not some radical innovation but a reflection of prevailing attitudes on religion. This point is emphasized by Jefferson and Madison in later years when they defended the separation of church and state. Thus Jefferson wrote to the Connecticut Baptists, “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 legislative 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, of prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and State.” Some historians have suggested Jefferson found the “wall of separation” metaphor from “Crito,” quoted earlier.13

Madison praised the benefits to society and religion alike in the “total separation of the Church from the State” in a letter on March 2, 1819, to Robert Walsh; and criticized a government religious proclamation in a letter dated July 10, 1822, to Edward Livingston, in which he argues for “a perfect separation between ecclesiastical and civil matters.” Madison also praised separation and denounced religious persecution in his “Detached Memoranda”; noted a failed attempt to limit freedom of religion to Christians in the Virginia religious-freedom law; condemned the appointment of chaplains to Congress as a violation of equal rights and the Constitution; and criticized presidential proclamation of days of thanksgiving, etc., particularly John Adams’, who issued a specifically Christian proclamation.14

It’s clear that church-state separationists are the defenders of the original intent of the majority of our Founders. Those people, including some Supreme Court justices, who argue that the Founders wanted general support for religion and only opposed establishing a particular sect in power, are grotesquely distorting our history and rewriting the Constitution without authority. The wall of separation metaphor was a well-known shorthand expression of one side of the church-state debate–the side that won with the passage of our godless Constitution.

William Sierichs is a native of Hopewell, Va. He earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Louisiana State University in 1974, and worked as a reporter or editor on newspapers in Jackson, Miss.; Monroe and Shreveport, La.; Texarkana, Texas; and Baton Rouge, La., where he is a copy editor. He has won several state or regional journalism awards for news reporting, investigative reporting, editorial columns and headline writing in Louisiana, Arkansas and Texas.

Author’s note: I have quoted the various sources in their original spellings, capitalization and punctuation, which can differ from modern forms. In a couple of places, I have inserted necessary explanatory material in []. Anyone interested in a more in-depth discussion of the freedom from/of religion clauses in the First Amendment should read Origins of the Bill of Rights, (1999, New Haven: Yale University Press) by Constitution scholar Leonard Levy, who trashes the Religious Right’s distortions of history in chapter 4. As a historical footnote, Levy includes the various versions of the amendments that became the Bill of Rights as they passed through Congress. What we call the First Amendment originally was the third of 12 amendments submitted to the public. The first two amendments–dealing with congressional districting and pay–did not pass, making the third amendment our First Amendment.

1 Richard Hooker’s “Of the Lawes of Ecclesiasticall Politie” is excerpted in “Divine Right and Democracy – An Anthology of Political Writings in Stuart England,” edited by David Wootton, 1986, New York: Penguin Books. The quote is from Hooker’s Book 8, seventh assertion, part I, on pages 219-220. Book 8 was not actually published until 1648, but editor David Wootton says scholarship supports Hooker’s authorship. Page 214

2 “Mr. Cottons Letter Lately Printed, Examined and Answered,” Roger Williams, 1644, London, from “The Complete Writings of Roger Williams,” Vol. I, edited by Reuben Aldridge Guild, Russell & Russell Inc., New York: 1963, page 108; I have left Williams’ spelling intact, changing only his 17th-century “f’s” to “s’s” for the convenience of modern readers.

3 “Crito or, Essays on Various Subjects,” was published in two volumes–Vol. 1 in 1766, Vol. 2 in 1767, both in London, no publisher listed. Although the books were published anonymously, James Burgh is generally credited with being the author. The first quote is in Vol. 1, page xi; the second is in Vol. 2, page 111; the “wall of separation” quote is in Vol. 2, page 119

4 “Writings,” James Madison, 1999, New York: The Library of America, page 420

5 The quotes are from “The Debate on the Constitution,” Vols. 1 and 2, Bernard Bailyn, editor, 1993, New York: The Library of America. Jones’ quote is in Vol. 1, page 920. Caldwell’s quote is in Vol. 2, page 908. Williams’ quote is in Vol. 2, page 194

6 Johnston’s quote is in “The Debate on the Constitution,” Vol. 2, pages 752-753

7 “Writings,” Madison, pages 7, 8

8 “Writings,” Madison, pages 29-36

9 “Writings,” Thomas Jefferson, 1984, New York: The Library of America, from “Notes on the State of Virginia,” Query XVII, pages 284-285. In a Feb. 10, 1814, letter to Dr. Thomas Cooper, Jefferson outlined his researches into the history of law and pointed out the pagan, Anglo-Saxon origin of English common law and, by extension, American law, contrary to claims that Christianity was the source of our legal doctrines. Pages 1321-1329

10 “John Adams,” Vol. 2, Page Smith, 1962, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Company Inc., page 692, from Adams’ “Defence of the Constitutions”

11 “Writings,” Benjamin Franklin, 1987, sixth printing, New York: The Library of America; on the importance of religion, page 149; his Deism and religious attitudes in his “Autobiography, pages 359-360 and 1382-1383–the latter suggesting some modification of his earlier ideas about the importance of religion; on religious tests, pages 1030-1031

12 “Writings,” George Washington, 1997, New York: The Library of America, pages 767, 555-556

13 Quote from letter to the Baptists in “Writings,” Jefferson, page 510; on “Crito’s” possible influence on Jefferson, see The Godless Constitution, 1997, Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore, New York: WW. Norton & Co., page 97

14 “Writings,” Madison, letter to Walsh, page 727; letter to Livingston, page 788; “Detached Memoranda,” page 759; Va. religious-freedom law, page 761; on chaplains, pages 762-763; on religious proclamations, pages 764-776

Freedom From Religion Foundation