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Thomas Jefferson’s Anticlericalism, Church, and State

President Thomas Jefferson awoke on New Year’s Day 1802 and readied himself for a parade. The festivities, held in his honor, featured the presentation of a 1,235-pound cheese—an odd gift from the iconoclastic Baptist preacher John Leland and the citizens of Cheshire, Massachusetts. The cheese turned into a great media spectacle as it traveled down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House to be received by the commander in chief. Hailed as “The greatest cheese in America for the greatest man in America,” Leland explained that the massive dairy product was a symbolic “thank you” to Jefferson for his efforts in defense of religious liberty. For his part, Jefferson collected the praise, ate some cheese, and proceeded back to the President’s home where he wrote a single letter which would ironically undermine certain religious liberties for many years to come.1

With his famous pen in hand, the President crafted a response to an appeal made to him by the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut. This group of churches found themselves under a particular kind of oppression. In order to keep from paying taxes in support of the State church, Baptists regularly had to apply for a special civic exemption status. Believing such an arrangement explicitly violated inalienable rights protected in the establishment clause in the Bill of Rights, these Baptists sought assistance from the nation’s chief executive.

Jefferson’s response contained far more than the Danbury Association bargained for. The President’s comments radicalized the religious free exercise clause and were subsequently appropriated for church bashing. Jefferson began the letter by stating that religion was merely a private matter. In this connection, Jefferson rashly concluded that the Constitution “thus build[s] a wall of separation between church and state.” Although the phrase “wall of separation” could trace its origin to the sixteenth century, the mantra so familiar to modern Americans was decidedly a post-constitutional Jefferson innovation.2 Perhaps suspecting that Jefferson had gone too far, the Danbury Association never wrote back. They sought a church free from government interference, not a government deaf to Christian truth.3

Jefferson’s aggressive attempt to sever the spheres of Church and State grew out of his bitter presidential election campaign in 1800 against John Adams. The Federalist Party lined up behind Adams while Republicans (the forerunners of present day Democrats) supported Jefferson. On the whole, evangelical pastors lent their public support to Adams because in their view Jefferson was “an infidel and an atheist”—a view made credible due to the latter’s own public statements.4 Consequently, the Federalists ran campaign slogans such as the following one published in the Gazette of the United States:

At the present solemn and momentous epoch,
the only question to be asked by every American
laying his hand on his heart, is
Shall I continue allegiance to
Or impiously declare for

Worse still for Jefferson was the clergy’s involvement in the campaign. Pastors in New York City such as William Linn and John Mitchell Mason openly challenged their congregants to take their Christianity with them to the polls. Linn and Mason also decried the potential bitter fruits of Jefferson’s deistic worldview. In his pamphlet entitled The Voice of Warning, to Christians, on the Ensuing Election of a President of the United States, Mason argued, “By giving your support to Mr. Jefferson, you are about to strip infidelity of its ignominy . . . By this act, you will proclaim to the whole world . . . that you do not believe it subversive of moral obligation and social purity.”6

Frightened at the prospect of an informed clergy meddling in civil discourse, defenders of Jefferson such as Abraham Bishop and Tunis Wortman (both skeptics of traditional Christianity) embarked upon an anticlerical crusade to squelch the ability of pastors to speak out on political issues. Bishop, in somewhat of a rejoinder to Mason, claimed that religious leaders who spoke against public officials were guilty of treason, and therefore “ought not be supported by their parishioners.”7 In threatening to incite congregational discord against outspoken ministers, Bishop candidly admitted that his goal was to “[d]etach politics, offices, applause and honors from New-England religion!”8

After winning his closely fought contest with Adams, Jefferson picked up on the anticlerical rhetoric of his colleagues. In a letter to Peter Wendover, a new member of Congress, Jefferson judged that pastors were not competent to speak on matters of government:

Whenever, therefore, preachers, instead of a lesson on religion . . . [teach] on the construction of government, or the characters or conduct of those administering it, it is a breach of contract, depriving their audience of the kind of service for which they are salaried . . . In choosing our pastor we look to his religious qualification, without enquiring into his [scientific] or political dogmas, with which we mean to have nothing to do.9

Jefferson’s now infamous “wall of separation” comment, directed to the Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut, must be seen as part of a broader battle to silence the voice of pastors in the public square. Jefferson’s view was a minority report among the Founding Fathers which emerged long after the ink dried in Philadelphia. In fact, as historian Daniel Dreisbach has recently argued, it was not until Judge Hugo Black’s majority opinion10 in Everson v. Board of Education in 1947 that Jefferson’s language came to be associated with the dominant interpretation of the First Amendment. Although Mr. Jefferson would no doubt have loved the insinuation that the Constitution was a document of his singular genius, the third president’s opinion and constitutional law were never originally one and the same.


A more detailed and vivid account of the story presented here is recounted in Daniel Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson and the Wall Between Church and State (New York: New York University Press, 2002), 9-24.


This thesis as well as the genesis and deployment of the “wall of separation” phrase is carefully reconstructed in Phillip Hamburger’s Separation of Church and State (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002 ).


The Danbury Baptists stated clearly that they appreciated Jefferson because he refused to allow the state to draft “Laws to govern the kingdom of Christ.”


For example, Jefferson wrote in his Notes on the State of Virginia, “it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” See Dreisbach, 18. Jefferson was to become well-known for his scathing critique of the supernatural elements of the New Testament Gospels, a sentiment which eventually led him to take scissors to the Gospels and remove from them all miracles and references to Jesus’ divine nature. Jefferson was left with a slim volume of Jesus’ aphorisms and scraps of his ethical teachings. Jefferson’s audacity served as the inspiration for the infamous Jesus Seminar’s version of the Gospels which was dedicated to none other than Jefferson himself.


Dreisbach, 18.


John Mitchell Mason, as cited in Hamburger, 115.


Abraham Bishop, Church and State, A Political Union, Formed by the Enemies of Both, as cited in Hamburger, Separation of Church and State, 125.


Abraham Bishop, Proofs of a Conspiracy, against Christianity, and the Government of the United States, Exhibited in Several Views of the Union of Church and State in New England, as cited in Hamburger, 124.


Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Peter Hercules Wendover, as cited in Hamburger, 153.


See Kairos Journal article, "The Government's Christian Schools (1827)."