Jefferson's Wall of Separation
Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptist
Association in 1802 to answer a letter from them, asking why he would not
proclaim national days of fasting and thanksiving, as had been done by
Washington and Adams before him. The letter contains the phrase "wall of
separation between church and state," which lead 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 religion.
Note: The bracketed section in the second paragraph had
been blocked off for deletion, though it was not actually deleted in his draft
of the letter. It is included here for completeness. Reflecting upon
Jefferson's knowledge that his letter was far from a mere personal
correspondence, he deleted the block, he says in the margin, to avoid offending
members of his party in the eastern states.
This letter is also presented online at
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 & 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 & zealous
pursuit of the interests of my constituents, and in proportion as they are
persuaded of my fidelity to those duties, the discharge of them becomes more
& 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, 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. [Congress thus
inhibited from acts respecting religion, and the Executive authorised only to
execute their acts, I have refrained from presenting even occasional
performances of devotion presented indeed legally where an Executive is the
legal head of a national 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 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 & esteem.
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