Danbury’s Role in the History of ‘Separation of Church And State’
When you think of major legislation throughout the history of our country, I'm sure very few of us think of Danbury, Connecticut when discussing an issue as big as the First Amendment and the Separation of Church and State.
Here's something I bet you didn't know about Danbury and the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution:
Back in 1802, the actual phrase, "Separation of Church and State" was taken from a letter from Thomas Jefferson to the Baptist Association of Danbury, shortly after Jefferson became president.
The initial letter from the Danbury Baptists to the newly elected Jefferson addresses the concerns the Baptist's had over the First Amendment, and especially, its guarantee for “the free exercise of religion.”
Since Jefferson was one of the framers of the First Amendment, the local Baptist group from Danbury was concerned with the concept of any Government interference as it pertained to their religious beliefs and freedoms.
Here's a brief excerpt from the actual letter written to Jefferson from the Baptist Association of Danbury. (spelling, punctuation, and grammar have been left intact to preserve the feel of the time).
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 ought 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: But Sir our constitution of government is not specific. Our ancient charter, together with the Laws made coincident therewith, were adopted as the Basis of our government at the time of our revolution; and such had been our laws & usages, & such still are; that Religion is considered as the first object of Legislation; & therefore what religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the State) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights: and these favors we receive at the expense of such degrading acknowledgements, as are inconsistent with the rights of freemen. It is not to be wondered at therefore; if those who seek after power & gain under the pretence of government & Religion should reproach their fellowmen – should reproach their chief Magistrate, as an enemy of religion Law & good order because he will not, dares not assume the prerogative of Jehovah and make Laws to govern the Kingdom of Christ.
Jefferson responded shortly after receiving the letter from the Danbury Baptists with what has now become the first known usage of the phrase "Separation of Church and State".
Gentlemen The affectionate sentiments of esteem and approbation which you are so good as to express towards me, on behalf of the Danbury Baptist association, give me the highest satisfaction. my duties dictate a faithful & zealous pursuit of the interests of my constituents, & in proportion as they are persuaded of my fidelity to those duties, the discharge of them becomes more and more pleasing. 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. adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction 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. I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection & blessing of the common father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves and your religious association, assurances of my high respect & esteem.
Th. Jefferson Jan. 1. 1802
The Baptists wrote to Jefferson to commend him for his stand in favor of religious liberty and to express their dissatisfaction with the church-state relationship in Connecticut. Some things never change.
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