200 Years and Counting
Thomas Jefferson’s Famous “Wall of Separation between Church and
by Ed Buckner
The following article is from the Secular
Humanist Bulletin, Volume 18, Number 1.
would probably startle and infuriate Thomas Jefferson to learn that, even after
two hundred years, his letter to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut, is still
controversial and often misused and abused. That letter, dated January 1, 1802,
was the one that declared that the "whole American people" had erected
a "wall of separation between Church and State" by adopting the First
Amendment. (The letter is reprinted in full at the bottom of the page.)
Jefferson sent his letter as president only after having the U.S.
Attorney General (Levi Lincoln, who was assuredly no John Ashcroft) and others
review it. Jefferson intended the letter to explain and reaffirm his views on
religious liberty and the Constitution. Those views firmly supported a strict
separation, though at the time only with regard to the federal government.
Jefferson sent his letter in response to an October 1801 letter from a Baptist
congregation that urged him to defend a constitutionally mandated strict
separation of church and state. (Connecticut and several other states did not
have religious liberty at the time.)
Those who have claimed that Jefferson's letter did not support strict
separation of church and state are completely rebutted by Jefferson's own words,
in that letter and in other writings. Some of those claims are persistent, even
if unfounded, and deserve to be refuted.
There are those who present (and then "defeat") a false, straw man
claim that the famous letter was not anti-religious and that it must therefore
have been pro-religious. Jefferson never sought to establish the
government as in any sense anti-religious or anti-clerical, though his own
personal letters demonstrate repeatedly that he had little personal respect for
the clergy and churches of the day. For example, he wrote, "The clergy, by
getting themselves established by law and ingrafted into the machine of
government, have been a very formidable engine against the civil and religious
rights of man" (letter to Jeremiah Moore, August 14, 1800). He also wrote,
"In every country and every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He
is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for
protection to his own. It is easier to acquire wealth and power by this
combination than by deserving them, and to effect this, they have perverted the
purest religion ever preached to man into mystery and jargon, unintelligible to
all mankind, and therefore the safer for their purposes" (letter to Horatio
Spofford, 1814). Jefferson declared of the French, "The clergy and nobles,
by their privileges and influence, have kept their property in a great measure
untaxed hitherto. They then remain to be squeezed, and no agent is powerful
enough for this but the people. The court therefore must ally itself with the
people" (letter to Richard Price from Paris, 8 January 1789. From Julian P.
Boyd, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 14 [8 October 1788 to 26
March 1789], Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1958, p. 422). One final
example of Jefferson's disdain for religion and the clergy: "History I
believe furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil
government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance, of which their political
as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own
purpose" (letter to Baron von Humboldt, 1813).
Another claim is that Jefferson was only concerned about entangling the
federal government and religion, implying he approved of aid to religion from
state governments. Charles Colson, the Nixon aide who became famous in the
Watergate scandal and then launched a career with Prison Ministries, cites
allegedly scholarly proof of this in a Web article. The Statute of Virginia for
Religious Freedom, which Jefferson wrote and James Madison guided through the
Virginia legislature, along with Jefferson's letters, conclusively prove
otherwise. Included in that state law are these words of Jefferson's: "that
no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or
ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in
his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious
opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument
to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in
no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities." Jefferson's
bill became law on January 16, 1786 (from Julian P. Boyd, ed., The Papers of
Thomas Jefferson Vol. 2 [1777 to 18 June 1779], Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1950, pp. 545-47.) Jefferson was prouder of having written
this bill than of being the third president or of such history-making
accomplishments as the Louisiana Purchase. He wrote, as his own full epitaph,
"Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of American
Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, And Father of
the University of Virginia." Edwin S. Gaustad in Faith of Our Fathers:
Religion and the New Nation (1987, p. 49), wrote, "He [Jefferson]
rejoiced with John Adams when the Congregational church was finally
disestablished in Connecticut in 1818; welcoming 'the resurrection of
Connecticut to light and liberty,' Jefferson congratulated Adams 'that this den
of priesthood is at length broken up, and that a protestant popedom is no longer
to disgrace American history and character.'"
Jefferson also almost certainly did not, as some Christian-nation
mythologists like David Barton have claimed, give a speech or write a letter
asserting that the wall was intended to be only a one-way wall protecting
churches from government but not vice versa. The alleged Jeffersonian words were
"That wall is a one directional wall. It keeps the government from running
the church but it makes sure that Christian principles will always stay in
government." That purported wording is repeated by many Christian-nation
mythmakers, but no evidence at all can be found for it, and it is wildly
inconsistent with extensive writings known with certainty to be Jefferson's.
Jefferson once called himself a "real Christian" (letter to Charles
Thompson, January 9, 1816), but he also made it quite clear that he meant by
that only that he admired Jesus as a man. Jefferson wrote (letter to William
Short, October 31, 1819), for example, that he did not believe in "The
immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by
him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his
corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity; original sin, atonement,
regeneration, election, orders of the Hierarchy, etc." Two days before his
eightieth birthday, Jefferson added a bit more about what he did not
believe about Jesus in one of his famous letters to John Adams: "And the
day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his
father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation
of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. . . . But we may hope that the dawn of
reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away [with] all
this artificial scaffolding" (April 11, 1823, as quoted by E.S. Gaustad,
"Religion," in Merrill D. Peterson, ed., Thomas Jefferson: A
Reference Biography, 1986, p. 287).
Those who want to pretend that Jefferson's commitment to liberty is a limited
(pro-religious or pro-Christian or "one-directional") commitment are
clearly mistaken. But anyone, of whatever religious or irreligious view, who
wants religious liberty protected will join in celebrating in 2002 the
bicentennial of Thomas Jefferson's famous letter to the Danbury Baptists.
Sources for More Information (in addition to those cited in the text;
Web sites listed separately afterwards):
Rob Boston, "Sects, Lies, and Videotape," Church and State, April
---. Why the Religious Right Is Wrong About Separation of Church and State
(Buffalo: Prometheus Books, 1993).
Julian P. Boyd, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, (Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 1950) various years for different volumes.
Edward M. Buckner and Michael E. Buckner, Quotations That Support the
Separation of State and Church, 2nd Ed., Roswell, Ga.: Atlanta Freethought
Daniel L Dreisbach, "Mr. Jefferson, a Mammoth Cheese, and the 'Wall of
Separation Between Church and State': A Bicentennial Commemoration," in the
Journal of Church and State, 43, 4 (2001): 725-45.
Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore, The Godless Constitution: The Case
Against Religious Correctness (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1996).
Albert Menendez and Edd Doerr, compilers, The Great Quotations on Religious
Freedom (Long Beach, California: Centerline Press, 1991).
George Seldes, ed., The Great Quotations (Secaucus, N.J.: Citadel Press,
(on refutation of the "one-directional" claim).
(complete copy of the letter from the Danbury Baptists to Jefferson and of his
(another copy of Jefferson's letter, showing his original spelling, etc.).
(copy of Washington Times article reporting on alleged limited, political nature
of Jefferson's letter).
(site that claims Jefferson meant otherwise in his letter and was really
(report on the American Atheists site, refuting recent claims of Jefferson's
To Nehemiah Dodge and Others.
A Committee of the Danbury Baptist Association, in the State of
Washington, January 1, 1802
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 my
constituents, and in proportion as they are persuaded of my fidelity to
those duties, the discharge becomes more and more pleasing.
Believing with you that religion is a matter which
lies between a man and his God, that he owes account to none other for
his faith and worship, that the legislative powers of government reach
actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence
that 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 rights of conscience, I shall
see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which
tend to restore to man his natural rights, convinced he has no natural
right in opposition to his social duties.
I reciprocate your kind prayers for protection and
blessing of the common Father and Creator of man, and tender you for
yourselves and your religious association, assurance of my high respect
Dr. Ed Buckner is the Executive Director of the Council for