Thomas Jefferson was a man of deep religious conviction — his
conviction was that religion was a very personal matter, one which the
government had no business getting involved in. He was vilified by his
political opponents for his role in the passage of the 1786 Virginia Statute
for Religious Freedom and for his criticism of such biblical events as the
Great Flood and the theological age of the Earth. As president, he discontinued
the practice started by his predecessors George Washington and John Adams of
proclaiming days of fasting and thanksgiving. He was a staunch believer in the
separation of church and state.
Jefferson wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802 to
answer a letter from them written in October 1801. A copy of the Danbury letter
is available here. The
Danbury Baptists were a religious minority in Connecticut, and they complained
that in their state, the religious liberties they enjoyed were not seen as
immutable rights, but as privileges granted by the legislature — as
"favors granted." Jefferson's reply did not address their concerns about
problems with state establishment of religion — only of
establishment on the national level. The letter contains the phrase "wall of
separation between church and state," which led to the short-hand for the Establishment Clause that we use today: "Separation
of church and state."
The letter was the subject of intense scrutiny by Jefferson, and he consulted
a couple of New England politicians to assure that his words would not offend
while still conveying his message: it was not the place of the Congress or the
Executive to do anything that might be misconstrued as the establishment of
Note: The bracketed section in the second paragraph had been blocked off for
deletion in the final draft of the letter sent to the Danbury Baptists, though
it was not actually deleted in Jefferson's draft of the letter. It is included
here for completeness. Reflecting upon his knowledge that the letter was far
from a mere personal correspondence, Jefferson deleted the block, he noted in
the margin, to avoid offending members of his party in the eastern states.
This is a transcript of the final letter as stored online at the Library of Congress,
and reflects Jefferson's spelling and punctuation.
To messers Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins, & Stephen S. Nelson, a
committee of the Danbury Baptist association in the state of Connecticut.
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 the interests of my constituents, & in proportion as they are
persuaded of my fidelity to those duties, the discharge of them becomes more
and more pleasing.
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man
& his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship,
that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & 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 & State.
[Congress thus inhibited from acts respecting religion, and the Executive
authorised only to execute their acts, I have refrained from prescribing even
those occasional performances of devotion, practiced indeed by the Executive of
another nation as the legal head of its church, but subject here, as religious
exercises only to the voluntary regulations and discipline of each respective
sect.] 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
I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection & blessing of the
common father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves & your
religious association assurances of my high respect & esteem.