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Stumbling into history and finding a gem

February 21, 2009|By ALLAN POWELL

Over a long span of historical study, I have encountered the popular sentence written by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut in which he used the famous metaphor "wall of separation" between church and state. For whatever reasons, historians almost never set this metaphor in the context of the complete letter. In addition, I had never discovered the letter written to Jefferson from the Baptist Association that initiated the exchange.

While traveling to New Hampshire in the fall of 2008, sheer fate took us through Danbury, Conn. A call to the Danbury Baptist Church resulted in a meeting with the Rev. David Reinhardt, who was generous in providing copies of both letters and some historical perspective on varying interpretations among Baptists regarding the "proper" meaning of Jefferson's words.

The now famous Jeffersonian phrase reads as follows: "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 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."

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It is significant that Jefferson referred directly to "that act of the whole people" by quoting part of the First Amendment as the foundation for the principle of separation of these two powerful institutions.

Why would a troublesome sect pester a newly elected president with an inquiry about his views on the separation of church and state issue?

What made them even suppose that Jefferson, a product of the Enlightenment, would care about their plight in Connecticut? A single quotation from the 1801 letter from 12 member churches of the Baptist Association lays bare their frustrating situation.

"But Sir, our [Connecticut] 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 the 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." This, of course, was the consequence of Connecticut having an established church that remained such until 1818. Jefferson's letter of 1802 surely must have been a source of comfort to this repressed minority.

Baptist dissenters to the north were surely aware of a similar struggle only six years earlier in Virginia. A law drafted by Thomas Jefferson and publicly supported by James Madison provided for the disestablishment of the Anglican Church. Madison's eloquence helped carry the day.

"Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians in exclusion of all other sects.?"

The ferment against established religion led by religious dissidents began as tiny bubbles during the Revolutionary period. It became a boiling cauldron as the new federal government took shape and then - slowly, but surely - because an ongoing contest over the meaning and scope of "wall of separation." Nonetheless, this metaphor has remained as a useful guideline in the ongoing dispute about the proper balance in church-state relations.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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