Thomas Jefferson and the
Separation of Church and State
Most people are surprised to discover that the words "separation of church and
state" are not contained in the First Amendment, or anywhere in the Bill of
Rights, or in the Constitution, or in any other founding document. The phrase is
most often used in reference to the First Amendment, but the complete text of
the First Amendment simply reads:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or
prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of
the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the
Government for a redress of grievances."
The fact that the phrase "separation of church and state" appears in no founding
document has not prevented many courts, including the Supreme Court, from
invoking that phrase as the basis for many public policy decisions. So, exactly
where did this phrase come from that has been used in recent years to attempt to
remove all references to Jesus, God, Christianity, the Bible and Prayer from
American government and public life?
The phrase "separation of church and state" comes from a letter written by
Thomas Jefferson on January 1, 1802. This was not a government document or
public policy paper, but a personal, private letter. Jefferson's letter was
written in response to an earlier letter from the Danbury Baptist Church. In
that letter, written November 7, 1801, the Danbury Baptists voiced to President
Jefferson their concerns about the First Amendment:
"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,
[and] that the legitimate power of civil government extends no further than to
punish the man who works ill to his neighbor. But sir, our constitution of
government is not specific.... [T]herefore what religious privileges we enjoy
(as a minor part of the State) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as
The Danbury Baptists were concerned that Constitutional protection provided by
the First Amendment suggested that the "free exercise of religion" was a
government-given privilege rather than a God-given right, and as such, the
government might someday choose to revoke that privilege.
Jefferson understood their concerns, and also felt strongly that the government
should not be permitted to regulate, restrict or interfere with the free
exercise of religious expression. In response to the Danbury Baptists' letter,
he wrote back, assuring them that they did not need to worry; that the free
exercise of religion would never be interfered with by the 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 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 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 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 and
blessing of the common Father and Creator of man, and tender you for yourselves
and your religious association assurance of my high respect and esteem."
When earlier Supreme Courts used Jefferson's letter, they referenced the entire
letter in its context, and not just the separation phrase taken out of context
as is done by today's courts. By doing so, they arrived at very different
conclusions. In the 1878 case of Renolds vs. United States, the Supreme Court
"Congress was deprived of all legislative power over mere [religious] opinion,
but was left free to reach [only those religious] actions which were in
violation of social duties or subversive of good order."
That same Court went on to summarize Jefferson's meaning of separation of church
"[T]he rightful purposes of civil government are for its officers to interfere
[only] when [religious] principles break out into overt acts against peace and
good order. In this ... is found the true distinction between what properly
belongs to the church and what to the State."
So, according to Jefferson and the Supreme Court, the government could interfere
with religion only when its actions were "subversive of good order" or "broke
out into overt acts against peace and good order". The Court also identified
those actions which, if perpetrated in the name of religion, the government had
legitimate reason to interfere. Those actions included human sacrifice,
polygamy, bigamy, concubinage, incest, injury to children, and the advocation
and promotion of immorality.
It seems that the original intent of the First Amendment has been set aside in
favor of the separation phrase taken out of context from Jefferson's personal
letter written eleven years after the First Amendment was ratified. Because
Jefferson is the author of the phrase, and the phrase is often represented as
coming from the Constitution or to represent the meaning of the First Amendment,
Jefferson is considered to be an authority on the Constitution, and the First
Amendment. But actually, Jefferson was not even in the United States when the
Constitution was framed. He was an ambassador in France, and was not part of the
In 1802, Dr. Joseph Priestly sent Jefferson a copy of an article he had written
crediting Jefferson with much of the work that was done on the Constitution.
Upon seeing the article, Jefferson knew it was in error, and wrote Dr. Priestly,
instructing him to correct it:
"One passage in the paper you enclosed me must be corrected. It is the
following, ' And all say it was yourself more than any other individual, that
planned and established it.' i.e., the Constitution. I was in Europe when the
Constitution was planned, and never saw it till after it was established."
As for his contribution to the Bill of Rights, he provided only general
directions concerning it:
"On receiving it [the Constitution while in France] I wrote strongly to Mr.
Madison, urging the want of provision for the freedom of religion, freedom of
the press, trial by jury, habeas corpus, the substitution of militia for a
standing army, and an express reservation to the States of all rights not
specifically granted to the Union.... This is all the hand I had in what related
to the Constitution."
While Jefferson is a great Founding Father and a true patriot and American, by
his own admission, he should not be considered a primary authority on the First
Amendment. Instead, refer to the writings of the men who were part of the
Constitutional process. For example, Fisher Ames, who provided the wording for
the First Amendment said:
"Why ... should not the Bible regain the place it once held as a school book?
Its morals are pure, its examples captivating and noble."
And Gouverner Morris, the most active speaker of the Constitutional Convention,
and the penman who actually wrote the Constitution said:
"Religion is the only solid basis of good morals; therefore education should
teach the precepts of religion, and the duties of man towards God."
And George Washington, who was the president of the Constitutional Convention,
in his Farewell Address said:
"Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion
and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the
tribute of Patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars.... Let
it simply be asked 'Where is the security for property, for reputation, for
life, if the sense of religious obligation desert?... And let us with caution
indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.... [R]eason
and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in
exclusion of religious principle."
It is easy to see, by simply reading the founding fathers' own words and our
founding documents, that religion was meant to be an integral part of our
government, education and public lives. They overwhelmingly advocate the joining
of religious principles to public affairs.