President Thomas Jefferson

Separation of Church and State is a hot issue these days. To some degree, the issue is clouded due to not understanding what it means. For instance, the phrase “separation of Church and State” is not in the Constitution. Where did it originate? What does the phrase mean? Although this short article cannot fully discuss or explain all the facets of this issue, it will set a foundation by answering these two questions with a little history background.

Where did it originate? We have previously read that most nations had a state religion. This meant that the one religion and church of that religion was the official state religion. It was one of the stronger motivations for an exodus of the people to settle in our new country. Religious persecution, state religion and the lack of true freedom literally drove the early settlers to flee their home countries and travel across the ocean to America.

Without digressing, it is important to emphasize that even after the settlers began to establish their communities and later establish covenants and constitutions, there were dominant religious forces. Many do not know at the time of the writing of the Constitution that nine of the colonies had state churches! The state churches in 1763 were the Church of England in Virginia, Maryland, the Carolinas, Georgia, and the southern counties of New York; the Congregational Church in Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts and its dependencies. Author James McClellan writes, “Establishment” of a church meant that it was a “preferred” sect that might enjoy certain economic privileges; it did not mean that other churches were banned. For the colonial governments were far more tolerant of dissenting churches than were European governments. Sometimes religious minorities were exempted from paying tithes (church taxes enforced by the public authority); sometimes members of congregations were permitted to pay their tithes directly to the church of their choice. Such liberality on the part of the state was unknown in much of Europe at the time. [1]

In 1802, President Thomas Jefferson responded to the Danbury (Connecticut) Baptist Association about their concerns of government intrusion on their freedom of religion. Jefferson assured them this was not case and the government would leave them alone. It is in this letter that the phrase “separation of Church and state” first appeared publicly. Here is the letter:

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. 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 & blessing of the common father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves & your religious association, assurances of my high respect & esteem.

Th Jefferson
Jan. 1. 1802. [2]

What does the term “separation of Church and State” mean? Jefferson clearly did not intend for religion to be excluded from public life. He was instrumental in establishing weekly Sunday worship services at the U. S. Capitol (a practice that continued through the 19th century) and was himself a regular and faithful attendant at those church services, not even allowing inclement weather to dissuade his weekly horseback travel to the Capitol church. [3] He once explained to a friend while they were walking to church together: “No nation has ever existed or been governed without religion. Nor can be. The Christian religion is the best religion that has been given to man and I, as Chief Magistrate of this nation, am bound to give it the sanction of my example.” President Jefferson even closed presidential documents with “In the year of our Lord Christ” [4]

Justice Hugo L. Black, U.S. Supreme Court

Unfortunately, a United States Supreme Court case in 1947, Everson V. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1 (1947) was the beginning of a powerful separationist drive by the Court, during which many programs and practices given government sanction were found to have religious purposes or effects and thus invalidated. Justice Hugo L. Black referred to the ‘wall’ as high and impregnable, meaning separating religion from government at all levels: federal, state and local. This ruling changed the entire meaning of the Constitutional establishment clause.

Author Michael Paulson says, “The original intention behind the establishment clause…seems fairly clearly to have been to forbid establishment of a national religion and to prevent federal interference with a state’s choice of whether or not to have an official state religion.” [5]

Thus, what Jefferson and the founding fathers intended was simple; the government will not establish a state church. What Everson V. Board of Education Supreme Court court ruling did was re-interpret separation to mean the opposite.

[1] Liberty, Order, and Justice: An Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government (3rd ed. 1989), Part 2, Civil Liberties in the Colonies, by James McClellan (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000)
[2] The Library of Congress, Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists, The Final Letter, as Sent; Informational Bulletin, June 1998 – Vol. 57, No. 6 (Martha Graham Collection)
[3] February 18, 1801, available in the Maryland Diocesan Archives; The First Forty Years of Washington Society, Galliard Hunt, editor (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906), p. 13
[4] Life, Journal, and Correspondence of Rev. Manasseh Cutler (Cincinnati: Colin Robert Clarke & Co., 1888), Vol. II, p. 119, in a letter to Dr. Joseph Torrey on January 3, 1803; see also his entry of December 26, 1802 (Vol. II, p. 114)
[5] Michael A. Paulsen, Religion, Equality, and the Constitution: An Equal Protection Approach to Establishment Clause Adjudication, 61 Notre Dame L. Rev. 311, 317 (1986)

Comments are closed.