October 7: Danbury Baptists Inspire Jefferson’s “Separation of Church and State” Doctrine


One of the central tenets of modern American political doctrine was borne out of a humble letter exchange that began on this day in Connecticut history.  On October 7, 1801, the Danbury Baptists Association of Danbury, Connecticut sent an eloquent letter to newly-elected President Thomas Jefferson expressing their concerns about Connecticut’s continued state sponsorship of the Congregational Church — a Christian denomination that was religiously and socially often at odds with their own.

Even though the American Revolution had ushered in a new federal Constitution and Bill of Rights that prevented Congress from establishing any sort of national religion or religious preference, a handful of states — including Connecticut and Massachusetts — still lacked similar religious liberty protections, even into the early 19th century.  While Connecticans were not forced to join, attend, or endorse the Congregational Church in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Church benefited from archaic laws that entitled it to taxpayer money, and it was the openly favored denomination of many of Connecticut’s influential “Standing Order” politicians.

The Danbury Baptists were fearful of the lack of explicit religious liberty laws in Connecticut’s state constitution, writing to Jefferson in their October 7th letter: “What[ever] religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor[ity] part of the state) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights.”  Acknowledging that Jefferson, as President, was in no position to write any actual legislation in their defense, they nonetheless asked for his support as a champion of religious liberty on the state level: “Our hopes are strong that the sentiments of our beloved president… like the radiant beams of the sun, will shine and prevail through all these states and all the world, till hierarchy and tyranny be destroyed from the earth.”

A few months later, on January 1st 1801, President Jefferson replied to the Danbury Baptists Association, thanking them for their compliments and explicitly agreeing with their desire to prevent any overlap between governmental and religious institutions:

“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 would “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”

While Jefferson delicately avoided voicing an opinion on the Baptists’ specific complaint about the Connecticut state government, the Danbury association was nonetheless heartened by the President’s expression of support, and to this day, Jefferson’s eloquent phrase — “a wall of separation between church and state” — is so deeply embedded in American political culture that many Americans erroneously believe it comes from the Bill of Rights itself!

Further Reading

Primary Sources: Letters Between Thomas Jefferson and the Danbury Baptists,” Bill of Rights Institute

James Hutson, “‘A Wall of Separation’: FBI Helps Restore Jefferson’s Obliterated Draft,” Library of Congress