Religious Liberty (Part 3)

Religious Liberty (Part 3)

This is part three of our series on religious liberty and the Baptist tradition. In this article, we will explore a significant exchange between the Danbury Baptist Association and President Thomas Jefferson. This exchange, for right or wrong, formed our modern understanding of religious liberty through the concept of the separation of Church and State. 

Danbury Baptist Association (1801-1802)

From the early days of Roger Williams in America to the ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America, religious liberty has been a hallmark of the American ideal. Perhaps no other unalienable right has been fought for and contested more than the free exercise of religion: a man's right to worship his god according to his conscience. During the years following the ratification of the Constitution, the individual states were still working out what an established state church looked like. Connecticut was one such state. Entrenched as a state congregational church, taxes were demanded from the citizens of Connecticut to fund the state church. Petitions of exemption could be made, but for Baptists in Connecticut, even this seemed an overreach.

In 1801, members of a committee chosen to represent the Danbury Baptists Association wrote the newly elected president, Thomas Jefferson, a letter. Thomas Kidd notes that while their religious convictions could not have been more different, Jefferson and the Danbury Baptists shared a similar conviction for religious liberty.

Similar, but not the same. In Hamburger's volume entitled Separation of Church and State, he argues, "In all probability… only a handful of Baptists, if any, and no Baptist organizations made separation their demand. Instead, Baptists focused on other, more traditional, claims of religious liberty."

For the Danbury Baptists they did not want to see a wall of separation built between the church and the state because this would have negative implications on how a free people function within their civic responsibilities (i.e., voting one's conscience reflects one's religious convictions, taxation without representation, and the freedom to dissent without unjust repercussions, such as banishment as in the case of Roger Williams). Rather, they desired the states, in their case Connecticut, to disestablish state churches. They desired the same liberty granted at the federal level to be extended at the state level. Thomas Kidd seems to assume the question Hamburger answers when he poses the question, "Is a modern strict separationist view of church-state relations what the Danbury Baptists (or Jefferson) wanted? Did they wish for the government to have no connection whatsoever with religion?"
The content of both letters gives insight into the wishes of the Danbury Baptists and the response of Jefferson, who saw the Danbury Baptists as convenient allies. In a letter dated October 7, 1800, addressed by the Danbury Baptist Association and signed by Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins, and Stephen S. Nelson, the association makes their concerns known, "Our Sentiments are uniformly on the side of Religious Liberty—That Religion is at all times and places a Matter between God and Individuals—That no man aught to suffer in Name, person or effects on account of his religious Opinions—That the legitimate Power of civil Government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbour." Jefferson penned his response on January 1, 1802, addressed to the Danbury Baptist Association, specifically the signing of the initial letter.

In his response, the now infamous words were written, "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’s comments about a “wall of separation” have been both helpful and detrimental to the Baptist concept of religious liberty. On the one hand, Jefferson seems to protect religious liberty, but on the other hand, Jefferson created an argument for why Christians should not be active in public affairs.

Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptist Association set a precedent. The wall of separation concept has generally protected the church from the government's overreach, but not always. We will discuss this in upcoming articles. At the same time, the separation has tainted how people understand the involvement of faith within the public square. One of the outcomes is the idea that faith should be kept private and not applied publicly. This view is in error and has helped to create opposition to evangelicalism within the public square.  


“Congressional Record (Bound Edition), Volume 157 (2011), Part 7 - REMEMBERING ROGER WILLIAMS.” Accessed January 16, 2024.

“Founders Online: To Thomas Jefferson from the Danbury Baptist Association, [Aft ….” University of Virginia Press. Accessed January 15, 2024.

Hamburger, Philip. Separation of Church and State, Revised edition. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2004.

“Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists (June 1998) - Library of Congress Information Bulletin.” Accessed January 15, 2024.

Jr. Early, Joe, ed. The Life and Writings of Thomas Helwys. Macon, Ga: Mercer Univ Pr, 2009.

Kidd, Thomas S. God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution, 1st edition. Basic Books, 2010.

Kidd, Thomas S., and Barry G. Hankins. Baptists in America: A History. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Kidd, Thomas S., Paul D. Miller, and Andrew T. Walker, eds. Baptist Political Theology. B&H Academic, 2023.

Strickland, Arthur B. Roger Williams, Prophet and Pioneer of Soul-Liberty, 1st Edition. The Judson Press, 1919.

Warren, James A. God, War, and Providence: The Epic Struggle of Roger Williams and the Narragansett Indians against the Puritans of New England, First Edition. New York: Scribner, 2018.

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