October 7: Jefferson, Danbury Baptists, and the “Wall of Separation” Between Church and State


One of the central tenets of modern American political doctrine was borne out of a letter exchange between Connecticut Baptists and an American President that began today in Connecticut history. On October 7, 1801, the Danbury Baptists Association sent an eloquent letter to newly elected President Thomas Jefferson expressing their concerns about Connecticut’s backing of the Congregational Church as the state’s established religion. The Congregational denomination was religiously and socially at odds with the Baptists, who were seriously disadvantaged by the state support for the Congregationalists.

Even though the federal Constitution and Bill of Rights prevented the United States 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. While Connecticans were not explicitly forced to join, attend, or endorse the Congregational Church in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, those not wishing to do so had to take explicit public steps to show they chose to support a different denomination. This exposed the dissenters to potential social and economic ostracism, as well as loss of political patronage. The Congregational Church was the openly favored denomination of many of Connecticut’s influential “Standing Order” politicians, and it also benefited from archaic laws that entitled it to taxpayer money.

The Danbury Baptists were fearful of the lack of explicit religious liberty laws in Connecticut. 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 1802, President Jefferson replied to the Danbury Baptists Association, 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 a direct attack on Connecticut’s state government, the Danbury association was 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.

Connecticut, for its part, chose to ignore the President’s comment, though opposition to its support of a state church continued to grow. In 1818, 17 years after Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists, Connecticut’s first written Constitution disestablished its official church, guaranteeing freedom of religion to all Christian sects.


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