Thomas Jefferson and Connecticut Baptists

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The famous letter which Thomas Jefferson wrote to a committee of the Danbury Baptist Association (churches west of the Connecticut River) was a carefully written political document. Jefferson’s political enemies, the Federalist political party, had accused Jefferson of being an atheist; responding to a letter from the Danbury Baptist Association enabled Jefferson to counter Federalist political attacks. In terms of principles, Jefferson did believe in the separation of church and state, an issue with Baptists and others in current American society

The Danbury Baptist Association met in October, 1801, in Colebrook, Connecticut. A committee of three wrote a letter dated October 7, 1801, to President Thomas Jefferson concerning religious liberty. The main part of the letter reads:
“.... Our sentiments are uniformly on the side of religious liberty: that Religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals, that no man ought to suffer in name, person, or other effects on account of his religious opinions , [and] that the legitimate power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor. But sir, our constitution of government is not specific. Our ancient charter, together with the laws made coincident therewith, were adapted as the basis of our government at the time of our revolution. And such has been our laws and usages, and such still are, [so] that Religion is considered as the first object of Legislation, and therefore what religious privileges we enjoy ( as a minor part of the state) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights. And these favors we receive at the expense of such degrading acknowledgments, as are inconsistent with the rights of freemen.....” 1

Thomas Jefferson received the letter on December 30 and immediately went to work on a response. He gave draft copies to two of his Republican (not the modern Republican political party) cabinet members: Postmaster General Gideon Granger of Suffield, Connecticut, and Attorney General Levi Lincoln of Massachusetts. Jefferson deleted some politically inflammatory language as a result. Jefferson’s reply in part:

“ Messrs. Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins, and Stephen s.Nelson

A Committee of the Danbury Baptist Association, in the State of Connecticut. Washington, January 1, 1802 Gentlemen,-- The affectionate sentiment of esteem...........

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. 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 and esteem.” 2

At the time of this exchange of correspondence, the Congregational Church was the established church in Connecticut. Legally, taxes were used to help support the Congregationalists and, therefore, Baptists supported two churches. The Connecticut Constitution of 1818 disestablished the Congregational Church. Thus, there was a separation of Church and State.

1. Letter of Oct. 7, 1801 from Danbury (CT) Baptist Assoc. to Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division Library of Congress, Wash. D.C.

2. Thomas Jefferson, “The Writings of Thomas Jefferson," Albert E. Bergh, ed. (Washington, D.C.: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association of the United States, 1904), Vol.XVI, pp. 281-282.