Thomas Jefferson, The Establishment Clause & The Separation of Church and State

by | May 18, 2011 | Religion

Some commentators question the validity of the separation of church and state, claiming "It's not in the Constitution; so, we can disregard it." But a brief look at man's history underscores the need for such a separation.

In 1802, Thomas Jefferson sent a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in response to a query from that body. In the following Library of Congress transcript, Jefferson’s spelling and punctuation have been retained as well as the bracketed material which ultimately he deleted before sending.

Mr. President

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.

[Congress thus inhibited from acts respecting religion, and the Executive authorised only to execute their acts, I have refrained from prescribing even those occasional performances of devotion, practiced indeed by the Executive of another nation as the legal head of its 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 & blessing of the common father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves & your religious association assurances of my high respect & esteem.

(signed) Thomas Jefferson


An anonymous writer claims that Jefferson’s remarks echo those of Roger Williams, the founder of the First Baptist Church in America, who wrote in 1644 of the need for “[A] hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.” Whatever the case, Jefferson’s expression of “a wall of separation between church and state” led to the shorthand phrase “Separation of church and state.”

The Establishment Clause

Although the phrase does not appear in our Constitution, the idea it embodies is a governing principle of our culture. The phrase represents the essentialized meaning of the opening passage of the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .” This is known as the Establishment Clause.

From the beginning of our nation, Americans recognized the principle of separation of church and state as a safeguard against religious intolerance and protection of one’s right to choose to believe, or not. Our courts followed suit.

In its 1879 Reynolds v. United States decision, the court allowed that Jefferson’s comments “may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the [First] Amendment.”

In the Everson v. Board of Education 330 U.S. 1, 8 decision, Justice Hugo Black wrote, “In the words of Thomas Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect a wall of separation between church and state.”

Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun wrote:

“When the government puts its imprimatur on a particular religion it conveys a message of exclusion to all those who do not adhere to the favored beliefs. A government cannot be premised on the belief that all persons are created equal when it asserts that God prefers some.”

Another court stated that “A large proportion of the early settlers of this country came here from Europe to escape the bondage of laws, which compelled them to support and attend government-favored churches.”

Because of the many different religions and the many different convictions of atheists and agnostics that comprise our American culture, the separation of state and church assures that no one elected to office can lawfully impose his particular views as “the state religion.” To further deflect such a danger, Article VI of the Constitution specifies that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

Today, however, some commentators question the validity of the separation of church and state, claiming “It’s not in the Constitution; so, we can disregard it.” But a brief look at man’s history underscores the need for such a separation.

The first forms of governments among men—Sumer and Ancient Egypt (c. 5000 BCE)—were both centralized authorities, in which the ruler held both powers of king and priest. The Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt, for instance, claimed they were the embodiment of “god-kings,” or “priest-kings.” They held both titles absolutely, sometimes appointing a priest class to perform various tasks, but always retaining the prerogative of supreme authority over men’s beliefs and actions.

For millennium nothing changed—except in Ancient Athens. Pericles (c. 495 – 425 BCE), for example, was an elected ruler whose leadership did not usurp that of Athenian priests. But in all other nation-states around the world and throughout time, absolute authority over both secular and religions affairs remained exclusively in the hands of the ruler.

For instance, during the Roman Empire, (c. 31 BCE – c. 284/313 AD) emperors were treated as divinities and some declared themselves gods. During the Medieval period (c. 313 AD to c.1265 AD) the church dominated both secular and religious affairs. Even the great, enlightened Elizabeth I (1533-1603)—alone among monarchs finally to break with the Pope—while granting wider freedom to her subjects nonetheless retained absolute control of her powers which included being the spiritual head of the Church of England.

Cromwell (1599-1658) justified his religious intolerance, the use of force, massacres and cruelty as necessary to hold together the body politic. Louis 14th (1638-1715) the “Sun King,” imposed religious uniformity, persecuted the Huguenots and revoked the Edict of Nantes, which led to the exodus of many Protestant merchants and skilled artisans, accelerating economic decline. Napoleon crowned himself at his coronation (1804), thereby declaring that as emperor of France he was to be considered supreme ruler over both secular and religious affairs.

Similarly, the Emperors of Japan and China were considered direct descendents of the Gods, thus empowered as divine ruler on earth, supreme over all men’s actions and beliefs. The sheiks, caliphs, and ayatollahs of Arabia, India and Asia were no different.

And so it went. With few exceptions, leaders claimed total authority over both religious and secular affairs—most clearly exemplified by “the divine right of kings” and “the infallibility of the Pope.” The result was fines, imprisonment, torture and/or death levied on any that dared oppose the ruler’s edicts and beliefs. The Inquisition was only one expression of such crimes against the mind of man. The slaughter and mayhem of the Crusades was another. The arbitrary beheading, dismemberment, disfigurement and proscribed suicides of dissenters or the disrespectful, was characteristic of the rulers of Africa, India and Asia.

Then came the United States of America, an extraordinary achievement that broke with all precedent and stunned the world with its Declaration of Independence and its Constitution, which are the fountainhead of the wealth that cascaded from the minds and efforts of free men.

The Declaration of Independence identified man’s individual rights. The Bill of Rights—the first ten Amendments of the Constitution—secured those rights in specific actions. But it was the formulation of the Establishment Clause that addressed the difficult and complex issue of protecting man’s convictions and beliefs without intruding upon his right to believe as he chose, or not. The governing principle of “a wall between church and state” was a stroke of genius that protected the American citizen from the deadly juggernaut of combined political and religious power.

The Founding Fathers gave us this nation, a child of the Enlightenment, Ancient Athens surely being our grandparent. As beneficiaries of such a gift, let us not allow our nation to fall to barbarians—either foreign or domestic—by ignoring the lessons of undivided absolute power over our lives and nation.

Sylvia Bokor is an artist and writer. You can read more of her writings on her blog.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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