Thomas Jefferson and The Separation Of Church And State

You won’t find the phrase “separation of church and state” in the United States Constitution. And it isn’t in the Declaration of Independence. In fact, it’s not in any federal document at all except for its citation in court cases in recent years.

The phrase does come from Thomas Jefferson. The context in which he wrote it and the people he wrote to shows how the phrase was used–something entirely different from the way it is popularly used today.

“The wall of separation of church and state” came from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson soon after he was inaugurated as the third president of the United States. He wrote the letter to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut to allay their fears that the state church of Connecticut would curtail the religious freedom of the Baptists.

The Baptists of Connecticut were a small minority who wanted the right to worship, preach, practice, and evangelize as their religion dictated. They wrote to Jefferson to congratulate his election and to express their concerns.

Jefferson’s reply is now in the Library of Congress. He wrote to let the people of the Danbury Baptist Association know they would have their freedom because of the “wall of separation between church and state.” He made reference to the Bill of Rights which had recently been added to the constitution. Amendment one, of course, says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Jefferson replied to the Danbury Baptists in this way: “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.”

Today, court cases and popular politicians refer to the separation of church and state as something the state needs to protect itself from the church. The amendment and Jefferson’s reference to it was given to protect the church and its free exercise of religion from the dictates of the state. This is a totally different issue entirely.

All of the amendments in the Bill of Rights were given to protect individuals and institutions from the tyranny of government. Governments set up “state churches” and make taxpayers support them. Governments restrict freedom of speech and intimidate the press. Governments make unlawful searches and trample privacy.

Jefferson and the Danbury Baptists knew we needed that wall of separation to allow for the freedom of conscience and the freedom to practice our faith according to the Word of God and the dictates of conscience. As Jefferson said: man “owes account” only to God and “the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions.”

I thank God for that wall and for that freedom. May it always be as intended–to protect the freedom of the devoted servant of God to serve and worship as led by conscience.

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8 Comments


  1. Bob Donald
    Jul 24, 2013

    If only those we elect to places of leadership and give great decision making powers could understand this. Great posting, Thanks.


  2. Stephen Davidson
    Jul 26, 2013

    Great article Pastor Waylon; you know how much I’m interested in this topic. The more we talk about history the more we learn. Our cancer begins with this lack of education; and in many ways on purpose by those that oppose God with in our school system and our society. You remember the project I’ve been working on Envision 1790 Rural Life Museum is decated to teaching our next generation all about our Christian Heritage. Oh how important it is to the long term stubility of our nation. Thanks again for your article. Stephen


    • Waylon
      Jul 26, 2013

      And thanks for what you are attempting to do. May God bless you.

  3. PLEASE reinstate the option to print your posts. Thanks


    • Waylon
      Jul 27, 2013

      Thanks for the reminder. We will try to get that set up again.


  4. Ed Matthew
    Jul 27, 2013

    🙂


  5. Susie Labry
    Oct 03, 2015

    The problem I have is that Muslims and some other force and impose their religion and platforms on us, which is the part I am against with the Muslims. I don’t really care about the burkas and what they wear. I think they should wear them so we know who they are, since you don’t hide under burkas. What I object to is them imposing Sharia Law on the country and individuals, which advocate war, terror, and death and hate to Christians. That is why I stand against Sharia and Muslims What they do in their mosques and burkas is there business and their followers have a right to follow them and submit. They need to mind ther own business and stay out of our business and affairs. We should also be allowed and encouraged to participate and attend Congress, Houses, etc. and participate in affairs. Many issues are for issues only regardless if religious issue or not. Abortion kills whether it is backed by Churches or not. It kills babies, which is a fact. Participating in ProLife against Abortion is not a religious activity and still would have done it but even more if I were Atheist or Agnostic. As for Gay Rights, they impose and force themselves on us. Regardless of my religion, I fight them over forcing themselves on us. They need to mind their own business and I mind mine. I am against it because Bible says so, but I don’t go and impose my views on them. I think we should preach, display, advocate, etc. and have the freedom to do so, freedom to agree and disagree, etc. We should and must participate but under my name, not our Religion or Church’s name. unless it is a zoning issue which involves the building.. My approach to all issues is whatever sin is committed is between the Sinner and God and we love all of them but not their sin. Kim Davis and I have that right and behind her 100%. I preach behind her in my name, not my Church, my party, my clubs, etc. That is personal and private manner which is none of anybody’s business but them and God. Yes, I am All Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.


  6. Susie Labry
    Oct 03, 2015

    Taking a Stand and preaching is not imposing. They can turn us off, agree, disagree respectfully, ignore and leave. Freedom of Speech, their Freedom to speak back, agree, disagree, or ignore.

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About Waylon

I am the senior pastor of First Baptist Church, Covington, Louisiana, a position that I have held since 1989.

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And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. — 1 John 4:16 (NIV)