Graphic Rule
Jefferson and the Danbury Baptists:
The Interaction between Baptists and the Nation's Founders
Graphic Rule
by Robert S. Alley
from the 2000 book
Freedom Of Conscience: A Baptist/Humanist Dialogue
edited by Paul D. Simmons

The gathering in Richmond, which Paul Kurtz has called historic, was a gratifying step toward honest exploration of ideas in the spirit of mutual understanding. For far too long the power of dogmatism and the abuse of history have created unnatural barriers between persons of goodwill. Baptists and humanists share a commitment to a republican democracy that was shaped with the enthusiastic cooperation of the two traditions. The roots for this common ground lie in the conflict with a theocratic mentality that consumed seventeenth-century Puritanism. Roger Williams devised a system of governance in Rhode Island that united Baptists and humanists in a common cause. A century later Baptist ministers in Virginia, incarcerated by the religious establishment, ignited the spirit of religious liberty in the young James Madison. It remained a central passion for him for his whole life. In 1785, combating the effort to provide public funds for religious education, Madison joined with Baptists throughout the new state to defeat the assessment bill that would have provided state funds for religious education by the churches. The affinity between Baptists and humanists seems best defined by that single concept religious freedom.

As we gathered on the campus of the University of Richmond in 1995, that common cause was in evidence. And it was an emotional moment because the Baptists themselves were beset with controversy. Even as Virginia Baptists celebrated that heritage of freedom, a scant 150 miles south the Southern Baptist Convention had destroyed the integrity of a fine theological seminary, Southeastern in North Carolina. Participants were saddened and angered by the stumbling corpse of a school, laid low by a fundamentalist mentality that has now engulfed the entire Convention. But our meeting made clear that the heritage of the Baptist tradition has not been lost. It lives on in the lives of thousands of Baptists who hold dear to their history against the tide of arrogance, intolerance, and denial of simple freedoms.

Traditionally, Baptists have a natural affinity for humanism, for they stand on the tradition of individual competency in devising one's opinions respecting the Bible. William O. Carver, professor at Southern Baptist Seminary in Louisville during the first half of this century, was fond of saying, "an open mind and an open Bible makes a Baptist." The humanist would put it differently — an open mind and evidence from nature make a humanist; but it is that common appeal to reason — the open mind — that links the two traditions in their affirmations of freedom. Traditionally, the natural antagonism toward externally imposed theological authority applies equally respecting secular authority when it comes to matters of conscience.

Common ground for Baptists and humanists can be found in the words of Thomas Jefferson:

If these words sound unfamiliar, there is a reason. When, in 1777, Jefferson wrote his Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia, his preamble read as quoted above. The same bill was first introduced into the House of Delegates in 1779 where it died for lack of a third reading. It was not until 1785 that James Madison brought the bill to the floor once again and the Virginia General Assembly passed it in December, but not before striking the italicized words noted in the quotation above. In a letter of January 22, 1786, Madison explained this to Jefferson.

Why did the Senate tamper with the text? The editors of The Papers of James Madison note, "...Jefferson's philosophical preamble met opposition in both Houses." Madison saw their complaint as "frivolous" but rather than lose the bill he agreed to the deletion of "some of the more sweeping statements about the supremacy of reason...." [3] Of that bill, Baptist historian Robert Semple wrote in 1810: "The law for assessment did not pass; but, on the contrary an act passed explaining the nature of religious liberty. This law, so much admired ... was drawn by the venerable Mr. Thomas Jefferson." [4] The Baptist General Committee in Virginia had sent its own memorial on the subject to the General Assembly on August 13, 1785. It read in part, "...should the legislature assume the right of taxing the people for the support of the gospel, it will be destructive to religious liberty." [5] Actively involved in this activity was a young Baptist minister from the valley, John Leland.

When Madison, as a member of the Virginia General Assembly, became the leader of the opposition to the "assessment" bill, which would have provided state support for teachers of the Christian religion, he was supported by both separate and regular Baptists in the state. One of Madison's strongest supporters was John Leland of Orange County, an ardent advocate of religious freedom. Indeed, his commitment to freedom also led him to champion the passage of a Baptist General Committee resolution "[t]hat slavery is a violent deprivation of the rights of nature, and inconsistent with a republican government." [6]

Leland surfaced again in 1789 when James Madison, writing to George Washington concerning the recently adopted Bill of Rights, noted that "[o]ne of the principal leaders of the Baptists lately sent me word that the amendments had entirely satisfied the disaffected of his Sect, and that it would appear in their subsequent conduct." [7]

It was this series of events in history that led to a discussion with Paul Kurtz at a Mormon/humanist dialogue in Salt Lake City in 1993, where we decided to engage in a similar conference with Baptists in Richmond.

How strong was the link between the founders of the nation and the growing Baptist population? Let me transport the reader back to the year 1774, when James Madison first felt an urge to become involved in Virginia political life. He was energized by observing the imprisonment of Baptist ministers in Orange and Culpeper county jails. The spectre of those ministers jailed for affirming their religious beliefs burned itself into Madison's mind and memory. It so affected him that he became a lifelong champion of religious freedom. Indeed, it established a bond between the Baptists and Madison that lasted until his death in 1836.

What we know of Madison's religious sentiments is quite limited, yet his biographer, Ralph Ketcham seems on the mark in noting that

In such thinking Madison was in harmony with prominent Baptists of his day.

In 1834, two years prior to his death, Madison wrote these telling words about the nation's first half-century: "...the lapse of time now more than 50 years since the legal support of Religion was withdrawn sufficiently prove that it does not need the support of Govt. and it will scarcely be contended that Government has suffered by the exemption of Religion from its cognizance, or its pecuniary aid." [9] In that view he was consistently supported by the Baptists.

Yet, no matter how remarkable a political leader Madison was, he has been dead now for over 160 years. We should not quote him because he was a founder, but rather because reason tells us he was right and his principles apply in our own current experiences.

A special moment in the life of Madison's closest friend, Thomas Jefferson, is also instructive and interesting. I construe Jefferson's deism and reliance upon human reason as a valid proof of his fundamentally ethical humanist sentiments. If that judgment is fair, then one may explore a Baptist/humanist dialogue in the correspondence between Jefferson and a group of Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut.

The common ground that exists on these shores between Baptists and humanists is nowhere better illustrated than on the occasion when the Danbury Baptists wrote a letter to Mr. Jefferson in the year of his first inauguration, 1801. Jefferson, who would construct his own New Testament with scissors and paste, had little theological common ground with the dedicated, biblically based Baptists of Connecticut. What he and they shared equally was a belief in the importance of human freedom.

Because that critically important exchange between a president and his constituents has been so brutally distorted by a Virginia neighbor, Pat Robertson, it is appropriate to use his critique as a means of establishing the historical record on the matter. On February 22, 1995, Robertson remarked that the separation of church and state "was never in the Constitution. However much the liberals laugh at me for saying it, they know good and well it was never in the Constitution. Such language only appeared in the constitution of the Communist Soviet Union" [10] Thirteen years earlier Mr. Robertson, in a 1982 appearance before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, testified on behalf of the Reagan school prayer amendment. On that occasion he asserted that separation of church and state was more compatible with the constitution of the Soviet Union than that of the United States. In order to support that claim, Robertson sought to discredit the 1802 Jefferson letter of response to the Danbury Baptist Association, in which President Jefferson described the First Amendment as "building a wall of separation between church and state." Robertson, without a single shred of evidence, said the letter resulted from the Danbury Baptists having "aroused [Jefferson's] ire by criticism of one of his policies." In his oral testimony to the Senate, Robertson spoke of Jefferson having "some pique, because of criticism." [11] The conclusion to be drawn was that the separation metaphor resulted from anger, and was thus to be dismissed. Implicit in Robertson's harangue was the notion that Jefferson was merely telling the Baptists to leave him alone since the First Amendment separated him from the need to listen to their criticism. Because of his powerful network, Robertson is heeded by millions. Thus, it is imperative to establish that Robertson's entire premise seems a fabrication, demonstrating a complete contempt for history, the Constitution, and the founders.

Anyone who has read the letter from the Danbury Baptist Association can categorically state that there is not a single shred of criticism of Mr. Jefferson in the entire letter. It begins by expressing "our great satisfaction in your appointment to the chief Majestracy in the United States." Quickly the writers moved to assert: "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 the legitimate Power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor...." Turning from that ideal, the letter calls attention to Connecticut laws made at the time of the Revolution and asserts: "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...." [12]

Respecting the Connecticut state legislators, the Baptists note:

They concluded: "[O]ur hopes are strong that the sentiments of our beloved President, which have had such genial affect already, like the radiant beams of the Sun, will shine and prevail through all these States and all the world till Hierarchy and Tyranny be destroyed from the Earth." The writers expound on their hopes by asserting: "May God strengthen you for the arduous task which providence & the voice of the people have cald you to sustain and support you in your Administration against all the predetermined opposition of those who wish to rise to wealth & importance on the poverty and subjection of the people." [14]

This message to the new president reflected the sentiments of most Baptists in Connecticut where the "Standing Order," the established Congregational ministers, dominated the political scene in the state. Most established clergy of Connecticut were firmly opposed to Jefferson's election in 1800. The Connecticut establishment survived until 1818, when the following words were included in the State constitution: "That the exercise and enjoyment of religious profession and worship without discrimination, shall forever be free to all persons in this State...." [15]

It is no wonder that President Jefferson, who received the letter on December 30, 1801, replied on January 1, 1802: "The affectionate sentiments of esteem and approbation you are so good as to express towards me, on behalf of the Danbury Baptist Association, give me the highest satisfaction" [16] Then Jefferson turned to the association's concerns, stating:

Modern critics of "separation" frequently insist that Jefferson dashed this letter off in haste, as Justice Rehnquist claimed in Wallace v. Jaffree (1985) when he called it "...a short note of courtesy." [18] The evidence is totally to the contrary. Jefferson received the Danbury letter on December 30, 1801. On January 1, 1802, he sent the letter, a draft of his response, and a request to Attorney General Levi Lincoln. Jefferson wrote:

Mr. Lincoln replied on the same day with the suggestion that Jefferson alter his comments on proclamations because, with the exception of Rhode Island, the other New England states were used to "proclamations from their respective executives." He went on: "This custom is venerable, being handed down from our ancestors ... [and] they regreted very much the late conduct of the legislature of Rhode Island on this subject." Based on Lincoln's advice, Jefferson excised from his text the portion that said "Congress thus inhibited from acts respecting religion and the Executive authorized only to execute their acts, I have refrained from prescribing even those occasional performances of devotion." Explaining his decision, Jefferson wrote in the margin of the original draft that "[t]his paragraph was omitted on the suggestion that it might give uneasiness to some of our republican friends in the eastern states where the proclamation of thanksgivings etc. by their Executive is an antient habit and is respected." [20]

What a remarkable story this is. In 1801, Baptists in Connecticut were still persecuted under a "mild" establishment. Jefferson, as president, could do nothing about the state laws except to anticipate seeing "the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties." In their hearts the Baptists knew that and so stated when they wrote:

These letters and events together reflect how seriously Mr. Jefferson approached the plight of fellow citizens, and, when understood in that context, make the separation metaphor profoundly significant. It was born out of human suffering, not rational abstraction. How Mr. Robertson, with such disdain for facts, could callously violate the dedication and commitment of those Connecticut Baptist citizens is difficult to fathom.

I am satisfied by observation and research that there is a natural commonality between humanists and Baptists. Both reject the abandonment of reason, seeing that as a mortal threat both to our secular democracy and to the Baptist principle of free exercise of conscience, unhindered and undirected by civil authority. Madison's words are an ending and a beginning for us.

Short Grapic Rule


1. Julian P. Bond, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 2 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1950), p. 545. This is the wording of Jefferson's original bill of 1777. The words in italics were removed by vote of the Virginia General Assembly in 1785-86. The amended bill became law in 1786. See also Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson Himself, ed. Bernard Mayo (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1942), p. 86.

2. Robert B. Semple, A History of the Rise and Progress of Baptists in Virginia (Richmond: John O'Lynch Printer, 1810), p. 72.

3. James Madison, "Letter to Rev. (Jasper) Adams of South Carolina in 1833," The Writings of James Madison, vol. 9, ed. Gaillard Hunt (New York: G. P. Putnam, 1910), p. 486.

4. Semple, History of the Rise and Progress, p. 72.

5. Ibid.

6. Ralph L. Ketcham, "James Madison and Religion: A New Hypothesis," in James Madison on Religious Liberty, ed. Robert S. Alley (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1985), pp. 192-93.

7. Ibid.

8. Ketcham, "James Madison and Religion," p. 193.

9. Madison, "Letter to Rev. Adams," p. 486.

10. Pat Robertson, address to a symposium on "How Much God in the School?" sponsored by the Marshall/Wythe School of Law, William and Mary University, Williamsburg, Va., February 22, 1995 (unpublished).

11. Pat Robertson, "Voluntary Prayer: Prepared Statement of M. G. ‘Pat' Robertson," Hearings Before the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate (submitted August 18, 1982), p. 265.

12. See the Danbury letter in "The Papers of Thomas Jefferson" on microfilm in the Madison Building of the Library of Congress. For a full discussion of this exchange of letters see Robert S. Alley, "Public Education and the Public Good," in William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal 4, no. 1 (summer 1995): 309-16.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. See Steven Green, annotator, Stars in the Constitutional Constellation: Federal and State Constitutional Provisions on Church and State (Washington, D.C.: Americans United, 1993), p. 19.

16. See the Danbury letter, p. 312.

17. Robert S. Alley, ed. The Constitution and Religion: Leading Supreme Court Cases on Church and State (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1999), p. 208.

18. Wallace v. Jaffree, 105 S.Ct. 2479 (1985).

19. See the Danbury letter, p. 312.

20. Ibid., p. 313.

21. Ibid.

22. James Madison, Memorial and Remonstrance, Memorial #3, quoted by Robert S. Alley, "On Behalf of Religious Liberty: James Madison's Memorial and Remonstrance," in This Constitution, "A Bicentennial Chronicle," No. 12 (fall 1986): 29.

Graphic Rule