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Jefferson’s “Wall of Separation between Church & State”

Jefferson’s “Wall of Separation between Church & State”

The First Amendment in Acts Passed at a Congress of the United States, 1789.

The First Amendment is included in "Acts Passed at a Congress of the United States of America," published in 1789 in Richmond for the General Assembly of Virginia and believed to be the first public printing in the South of the Bill of Rights. Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation collection.

The Founding Fathers wrestled with the role of government in religion just as modern Americans do today. Many Americans mistakenly believe that the phrase “separation of church and state” comes from the First Amendment to the Constitution. The First Amendment states,

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

This amendment contains two clauses regarding the rights of American citizens with regard to their religious beliefs. The first, the so-called Establishment Clause, says that the government cannot make a law creating an “establishment” of religion. Prior to the Revolution, the colonies existed under the Church of England as the established church. All citizens were forced to support this church even if they attended other churches, and there were many restrictions on office holding and voting for dissenters. The second part, the so called Free Exercise Clause, bars the government from interfering with the citizens’ free exercise of their religious beliefs.

So where does the phrase “separation of church and state” come from?  It is from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to a committee of the Danbury Baptist association in the state of Connecticut on January 1, 1802.

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.

Jefferson was attempting to explain the intent of the First Amendment as making sure government could not interfere with an individual’s right of conscience or make a person support a church with which he did not agree. There are three primary interpretations of the First Amendment today:  Separationism holds that the First Amendment prevents the government from supporting or promoting any religion whatsoever.  Accommodationism holds that the government may support religion generally, as long as it treats all faiths equally.  Preferentialism holds that the First Amendment only prohibits the government from forming a national church, but does not prevent it from explicitly endorsing one religion.

Which of the three interpretations do you believe the constitution best supports?  We invite you to share your thoughts.

4 thoughts on “Jefferson’s “Wall of Separation between Church & State”

  1. Daniel says:

    Though the founders were Christians, the spirit of the Constitution is closest to the Separationism described above. To understand the context in which the founders were writing, they were concerned about religious conflicts destroying the civic fabric (fighting between denominations were rampant in that era). What they understood was that separation Church and State would give no faith dominion over another in this land, and that separation would lead to a flourishing of a diverse religious culture. And they were right.

  2. Brett Moffatt says:

    The Founders had no problem with a state having a state church, they just didn’t want a national denomination. When they are talking of religion, they are talking more of denominations than different religions. The Founders were Christian, and as John Adams said, ‘Our Constitution was designed for a Christian people, and not fit to serve any other.’
    The attack on Christians and our liberty has gone hand in hand with the rise of progressivism and humanism. Since the demise of the Confederacy there has been a continual attack on liberty, both and home and abroad.
    Jefferson was assuring the Danbury Baptists that there was a wall that kept the government from interfering with their worship. This did not keep the government from being involved with religion, as witness Jefferson’s printing of the Bible for Native Americans.

  3. Glenn C. Riffey says:

    I would say “Preferentialism”. When one reads the writings of the founders, and many thereafter, you can see where religion was part of the lives of most of the people of the time. Even those who were not considered Christians… Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, etc… either attended Church on a regular basis or called for Prayers to be made for various reasons. Christian influence can be seen in their writings, the sayings on government buildings, and in their own personal notations as they looked to God for guidance. Religion, specifically Christianity, was included in governing and was not meant to be separate from the day to day work of running a country. They who would disagree just have not taken the time to read history from those who made it. If “enlightenment” was the reason behind the religious movement of the time, it was because of the true “Light”, namely Jesus, who was behind the movement to have people understand where God should be in the work of governing a new nation as well as in the everyday work of living.

  4. Charlotte says:

    Based on the fact that Congress started every session with a Christian prayer (from the very founding of our country,)that Congress voted to allow a Christian church to meet at the Capital every Sunday from Dec. 4,1800 to just prior to the Civil War, and that George Washington established the military position of chaplain in the military by general order on July 9th, 1776, I would say that there is more than enough evidence to state that the Founding Fathers meant First Amendment to be interpreted as Preferentialism. In his executive order on July 9, 1776, George Washington stated, “The General hopes and trusts, that every officer and man, will endeavor so to live, and act as becomes a Christian Soldier defending the dearest Rights and Liberties of his country.” Certainly, we all should have freedom of religion, but based on history, the Founding Fathers gave preference to Christianity.

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