Thomas Jefferson sends his ‘Wall of Separation’ Danbury Letter: Did He Intend to Separate Church and State?

Thomas Jefferson sent his ‘wall of separation’ letter to the Danbury Baptist Association to assure them that although the state offered them religious freedoms only “as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights,” that at least the national Congress could never make a law respecting an establishment of religion.  The First Amendment, then, erected “a wall of separation between church and state.” In 1947 the Supreme Court does just what the First Amendment set out to prohibit, federal control over religious matters of the people.

Thomas Jefferson assured them that they need not fear; that the free exercise of religion would never be interfered with by the federal government. As he explained:

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. . . . 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 assurances of my high respect and esteem. [9]

Jefferson’s reference to “natural rights” invoked an important legal phrase which was part of the rhetoric of that day and which reaffirmed his belief that religious liberties were inalienable rights. While the phrase “natural rights” communicated much to people then, to most citizens today those words mean little.

By definition, “natural rights” included “that which the Books of the Law and the Gospel do contain.” [10] That is, “natural rights” incorporated what God Himself had guaranteed to man in the Scriptures. Thus, when Jefferson assured the Baptists that by following their “natural rights” they would violate no social duty, he was affirming to them that the free exercise of religion was their inalienable God-given right and therefore was protected from federal regulation or interference.

So clearly did Jefferson understand the Source of America’s inalienable rights that he even doubted whether America could survive if we ever lost that knowledge. He queried:

And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure if we have lost the only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? [11]

Jefferson believed that God, not government, was the Author and Source of our rights and that the government, therefore, was to be prevented from interference with those rights. Very simply, the “fence” of the Webster letter and the “wall” of the Danbury letter were not to limit religious activities in public; rather they were to limit the power of the government to prohibit or interfere with those expressions.

Earlier courts long understood Jefferson’s intent. In fact, when Jefferson’s letter was invoked by the Supreme Court (only twice prior to the 1947 Everson case – the Reynolds v. United States case in 1878), unlike today’s Courts which publish only his eight-word separation phrase, that earlier Court published Jefferson’s entire letter and then concluded:

Coming as this does from an acknowledged leader of the advocates of the measure, it [Jefferson’s letter] may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the Amendment thus secured. Congress was deprived of all legislative power over mere [religious] opinion, but was left free to reach actions which were in violation of social duties or subversive of good order.(emphasis added) [12]

That Court then succinctly summarized Jefferson’s intent for “separation of church and state”:
[T]he rightful purposes of civil government are for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order. In th[is] . . . is found the true distinction between what properly belongs to the church and what to the State. [13]

With this even the Baptists had agreed; for while wanting to see the government prohibited from interfering with or limiting religious activities, they also had declared it a legitimate function of government “to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor.”

That Court, therefore, and others (for example, Commonwealth v. Nesbit andLindenmuller v. The People), identified actions into which – if perpetrated in the name of religion – the government did have legitimate reason to intrude. Those activities included human sacrifice, polygamy, bigamy, concubinage, incest, infanticide, parricide, advocation and promotion of immorality, etc.

Such acts, even if perpetrated in the name of religion, would be stopped by the government since, as the Court had explained, they were “subversive of good order” and were “overt acts against peace.” However, the government was never to interfere with traditional religious practices outlined in “the Books of the Law and the Gospel” – whether public prayer, the use of the Scriptures, public acknowledgements of God, etc.

Therefore, if Jefferson’s letter is to be used today, let its context be clearly given – as in previous years. Furthermore, earlier Courts had always viewed Jefferson’s Danbury letter for just what it was: a personal, private letter to a specific group. There is probably no other instance in America’s history where words spoken by a single individual in a private letter – words clearly divorced from their context – have become the sole authorization for a national policy. Finally, Jefferson’s Danbury letter should never be invoked as a stand-alone document. A proper analysis of Jefferson’s views must include his numerous other statements on the First Amendment.

For example, in addition to his other statements previously noted, Jefferson also declared that the “power to prescribe any religious exercise. . . . must rest with the States” (emphasis added). Nevertheless, the federal courts ignore this succinct declaration and choose rather to misuse his separation phrase to strike down scores of State laws which encourage or facilitate public religious expressions. Such rulings against State laws are a direct violation of the words and intent of the very one from whom the courts claim to derive their policy.

One further note should be made about the now infamous “separation” dogma. The Congressional Records from June 7 to September 25, 1789, record the months of discussions and debates of the ninety Founding Fathers who framed the First Amendment. Significantly, not only was Thomas Jefferson not one of those ninety who framed the First Amendment, but also, during those debates not one of those ninety Framers ever mentioned the phrase “separation of church and state.” It seems logical that if this had been the intent for the First Amendment – as is so frequently asserted-then at least one of those ninety who framed the Amendment would have mentioned that phrase; none did.

In summary, the “separation” phrase so frequently invoked today was rarely mentioned by any of the Founders; and even Jefferson’s explanation of his phrase is diametrically opposed to the manner in which courts apply it today. “Separation of church and state” currently means almost exactly the opposite of what it originally meant.

The fact is there is nothing wrong with Jefferson referring to the Establishment Clause as a wall between church and state in his famous Danbury Baptists letter. Jefferson was simply describing in a colorful way disestablishment, which in simple words means religion can no longer be an auxiliary of government control.

The problem isn’t Jefferson’s choice of words in referring to disestablishment for which was the purpose of the religious clause, but how the court misconstrues the word “establishment” for the word “endorsement” thereby implying the people through their governments can’t acknowledge religion, period. The Establishment Clause has been judicially transformed to such an extreme extent that it now means any religious symbol on public property can be judicially declared a violation because it might be seen as some official government endorsement of religion.

See also: http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2006/06/the-mythical-wall-of-separation-how-a-misused-metaphor-changed-church-state-law-policy-and-discourse

And: http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2011/06/constitutional-myth-4-the-constitution-doesnt-separate-church-and-state/240481/

And: http://www.wallbuilders.com/libissuesarticles.asp?id=123


Recommended Book:

This new book is very timely for one of the most frequently debated issues in America: the separation of church and state. Where did this phrase originate? Was it always meant to prohibit expressions of religious faith in public settings as many claim today? Learn the answers to these questions and discover the Founding Fathers own words and intents in this book! With all these resources, you will be able to clearly understand the original intent of the Founding Fathers and be able to share those beliefs with others!

 


The American public was nearly deprived of the opportunity to read this book.

In 2012 popular historian David Barton set out to correct what he saw as the distorted image of a once-beloved Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson, in what became a New York Times best-selling book, The Jefferson Lies.

Despite the wildly popular success of the original hardcover edition, or perhaps because of it, a campaign to discredit Barton s scholarship was launched by bloggers and a handful of non-historian academics.

What happened next was shocking virtually unprecedented in modern American publishing history. Under siege from critics, the publisher spiked the book and recalled it from the retail shelves from coast to coast. The Jefferson Lies is thus a history book that made history becoming possibly the first book of its kind to be victimized by the scourge of political correctness.

But more than three years later, it s back as an updated paperback edition in which Barton sets the record straight and takes on the critics who savaged his work.

And that s just part of the story. Why did this book spark so much controversy?

It could only happen in an America that has forgotten its past. Its roots, its purpose, its identity all have become shrouded behind a veil of political correctness bent on twisting the nation’s founding, and its Founders, beyond recognition.

The time has come to remember again.

This new paperback edition of The Jefferson Lies re-documents Barton’s research and conclusions as sound and his premises true. It tackles seven myths about Thomas Jefferson head-on, and answers pressing questions about this incredible statesman including:

  • Did Thomas Jefferson really have a child by his young slave girl, Sally Hemings?
  • Did he write his own Bible, excluding the parts of Christianity with which he disagreed?
  • Was he a racist who opposed civil rights and equality for black Americans?
  • Did he, in his pursuit of separation of church and state, advocate the secularizing of public life?

Through Jefferson’s own words and the eyewitness testimony of contemporaries, Barton repaints a portrait of the man from Monticello as a visionary, an innovator, a man who revered Jesus, a classical Renaissance man, and a man whose pioneering stand for liberty and God-given inalienable rights fostered a better world for this nation and its posterity. For America, the time to remember these truths is now.

 

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