The Bill of Rights did not immediately stop religious persecution in America. Over ten years later the issue arose in an unusual way. The phrase “separation of church and state” came from a letter Jefferson wrote in response to a request from the Danbury Baptists of Connecticut seeking relief from religious oppression in 1801.
Jefferson was accused of being an atheist (a politically dangerous stigma) because of a number of his beliefs and actions. One of these was that he refused to proclaim days of fasting or thanksgiving. Levi Lincoln, the US Attorney General at the time, was a man he trusted to advise him on how to deal with his reply to the Danbury Baptists, while at the same time making a public response to criticism of his religious positions. Here is part of their correspondence on this issue.
The Baptist address, now enclosed, admits of a condemnation of the alliance between Church and State, under the authority of the Constitution. It furnishes an occasion, too, which I have long wished to find, of saying why I do not proclaim fastings & thanksgivings, as my predecessors did.
Thomas Jefferson Letter to Levi Linclon, Attorney General Jan. 1st 1802
From the book The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 1897
Jefferson felt that all religious events were to be left up to the churches themselves to declare, not the government. Days of Thanksgiving under Puritan and British rule were enforced by fines and other punishments, which had made days of thanksgiving a religious burden.
In the late 1990's the FBI, at the behest of the Library of Congress, scanned and analyzed Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists to reveal text that had been scribbled out and removed from the official statement. Of special interest is the specific recognition by authorities in the newly formed republic that British rule had used religious days of thanksgiving as a way to oppress and control the colonies. Thanksgiving proclamations were not generally opposed by the population, as many people in New England were devout Puritans and welcomed government controlled religion. But politics ultimately tempered Jefferson's response as he did not want to offend those in New England that condoned government sponsored thanksgivings. Here is another reference to the origins of Thanksgiving coming from the government controlled Church of England.
On March 27, 1799, for example, an "old Ecclesiastic" declared in the Philadelphia Aurora that "Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer are religious acts belonging to the kingdom of Christ" over which the civil magistrate, in the American system, had no authority.
Jefferson took the gloves off when he asserted that the proclamations of thanksgivings and fasts were "practiced indeed by the Executive of another nation as the legal head of its church," i.e., by George III, King of England. By identifying the proclamation of thanksgivings and fasts as "British," Jefferson damned them, for in the Republican lexicon British was a dirty word, a synonym for "Anglomane," "Monocrat," "Tory," terms with which the Republicans had demonized the Federalists for a decade for their alleged plans to reverse the Revolution by reimposing a British-style monarchy on the United States. One of the most obnoxious features of the Federalists' American monarchy, as the Republicans depicted their putative project, was a church established by law, and Jefferson doubtless expected those who read his message to understand that, by supporting "British" fasts and thanksgivings, the Federalists were scheming, as always, to open a door to the introduction of an ecclesiastical tyranny.
In indicting the Federalists for their "Tory" taste for thanksgivings and fasts, Jefferson was playing rough. Thanksgivings and fasts had regularly been celebrated in parts of the country since the first settlements: to sully them with Anglophobic mudslinging, generated by the partisan warfare of his own time, as Jefferson did, was a low blow. But who was being more unfair: Jefferson or his Federalist inquisitors, who continued to calumniate him as an atheist?
The unedited draft of the Danbury Baptist letter makes it clear why Jefferson drafted it: He wanted his political partisans to know that he opposed proclaiming fasts and thanksgivings, not because he was irreligious, but because he refused to continue a British practice that was an offense to republicanism. To emphasize his resolve in this matter, Jefferson inserted two phrases with a clenched-teeth, defiant ring: "wall of eternal separation between church and state" and "the duties of my station, which are merely temporal." These last words -- "merely temporal" -- revealed Jefferson's preoccupation with British practice. Temporal, a strong word meaning secular, was a British appellation for the lay members of the House of Lords, the Lords Temporal, as opposed to the ecclesiastical members, the Lords Spiritual. "Eternal separation" and "merely temporal" -- here was language as plain as Jefferson could make it to assure the Republican faithful that their "religious rights shall never be infringed by any act of mine."
'A Wall of Separation' FBI Helps Restore Jefferson's Obliterated Draft, James Hutson, Library of Congress1
In Jefferson's original draft, his statement was not simply “separation between church and state” it was a “wall of eternal separation between church and state”. This fits with our understanding of how we want our earthly government to rule us, and how God views our current civil governments. We would not want an American government ruled in the way Nehemiah ruled in his time, in which an active government enforced religious laws.
Nehemiah’s reaction to those who violated the Sabbath came in a time when the civil power controlled the keeping of the Sabbath. We do not live in such a time today.
Principles of Sabbath Observance, Eating Out on the Sabbath, UCG Doctrine Study Paper
The official position of the United Church of God is that we wouldn't want a civil ruler who knows the one true God enforcing God's laws upon us. It stands to reason then that we don't want any civil leadership to enforce religion on us. 200 years ago we were beginning to release the bonds of religious slavery on our country.
During Jefferson's stay abroad he was frequently consulted on significant developments at home. The most important of these was the Constitution of the United States, drawn up in 1787. To James Madison, who sent him a copy of the proposed Constitution, Jefferson wrote, “A bill of rights is what the people are entitled to against every government on earth.” Such a bill would clearly state the right of the people to “freedom of religion, freedom of the press, protection against standing armies, restriction of monopolies, the eternal and unremitting force of the habeas corpus laws, and trial by jury ....” Based on Jefferson's suggestions, Madison proposed a Bill of Rights, consisting of the first ten amendments, which was added to the Constitution in 1791.
Microsoft ® Encarta ® 2006
Thomas Jefferson is one of our nations founding fathers. He drafted and signed the declaration of independence and provided the term “freedom of religion”. Without the influence of Jefferson today and his desire for true religious freedom our country may not have the current religious freedoms we have. He believed in our right to pursue religion freely, and firmly opposed government directed or controlled religion. Here is the advice from Levi Lincoln regarding Jefferson's reply to the Danbury Baptists.
People there, [Levi] Lincoln warned Jefferson, "have always been in the habit of observing fasts and thanksgivings in performance of proclamations from their respective Executives." To disparage this custom with an "implied censure" by representing it as a tainted, Tory ceremony could be politically disastrous, however well the slur might play south of the Hudson River.
'A Wall of Separation' FBI Helps Restore Jefferson's Obliterated Draft, James Hutson, Library of Congress
Lincoln's statement implies that the states “south of the Hudson” did not have a tradition of observing thanksgivings or fasts declared by their “Executives”. As an aside, this helps clarify the geographic source of Thanksgiving in 1802, as the New England area.
President James Madison goes into more detail and with more logic, as to why American Presidents should not proclaim thanksgivings or fasts.
Religious proclamations by the Executive recommending thanksgivings & fasts are shoots from the same root with the legislative acts reviewed.
Although recommendations only, they imply a religious agency, making no part of the trust delegated to political rulers.
The objections to them are:
1. That Governments ought not to interpose in relation to those subject to their authority but in cases where they can do it with effect. An advisory Government is a contradiction in terms.
2. The members of a Government as such can in no sense be regarded as possessing an advisory trust from their Constituents in their religious capacities. They cannot form an ecclesiastical Assembly, Convocation, Council, or Synod, and as such issue decrees or injunctions addressed to the faith or the Consciences of the people. In their individual capacities, as distinct from their official station, they might unite in recommendations of any sort whatever, in the same manner as any other individuals might do. But then their recommendations ought to express the true character from which they emanate.
3. They seem to imply and certainly nourish the erroneous idea of a national religion. The idea just as it related to the Jewish nation under a theocracy, having been improperly adopted by so many nations which have embraced Christianity, is too apt to lurk in the bosoms even of Americans, who in general are aware of the distinction between religious & political societies. The idea also of a union of all to form one nation under one government in acts of devotion to the God of all is an imposing idea. But reason and the principles of the Christian religion require that all the individuals composing a nation even of the same precise creed & wished to unite in a universal act of religion at the same time, the union ought to be effected through the intervention of their religious not of their political representatives. In a nation composed of various sects, some alienated widely from others, and where no agreement could take place through the former, the interposition of the latter is doubly wrong.
4. The tendency of the practice, to narrow the recommendation to the standard of the predominant sect. The first proclamation of [George] Washington dated Jan.1, 1795, recommending a day of thanksgiving, embraced all who believed in a supreme ruler of the universe. That of [John] Adams called for a Christian worship. Many private letters reproached the proclamations issued by James Madison [author] for using general terms, used in that of President Washington, and some of them for not inserting particulars according with the faith of certain Christian sects. The practice if nor strictly guarded naturally terminates in a conformity to the creed of the majority and a single sect, if amounting to a majority.
5. The last & not the least objection is the liability of the practice to a subserviency to political views; to the scandal of religion, as well as the increase of party animosities. Candid or incautious politicians will not always disown such views. In truth it is difficult to frame such a religious proclamation generally suggested by a political state of things, without referring to them in terms having some bearing on party questions. The proclamation of President Washington, which was issued just after the suppression of the Insurrection in Pennsylvania and at a time when the public mind was divided on several topics, was so construed by many.
James Madison, The Detached Memoranda, 1817
This is a rich and complex set of statements, and needs to be read a few times to fully grasp. James Madison's influence at the time can at least be partially attributed to the end of Presidential Thanksgiving proclamations as no more proclamations were made until 1861. We need to briefly analyze some key points Madison has made, keeping in mind that James Madison is the author of the Bill of Rights.
“They seem to imply and certainly nourish the erroneous idea of a national religion. The idea just as it related to the Jewish nation under a theocracy, having been improperly adopted by so many nations which have embraced Christianity”
As we will see in the next section the key proponent of the modern Thanksgiving, Sarah Hale, had a vision of a “universal religion” at the core of Thanksgiving. And included the traditions of the Jews as a consistent theme for justifying national support.
“The tendency of the practice, to narrow the recommendation to the standard of the predominant sect.”
“The practice if not strictly guarded naturally terminates in a conformity to the creed of the majority and a single sect, if amounting to a majority.”
Madison criticizes both George Washington's & John Adam's Thanksgiving proclamations for appeasing the majority on religious issues.
“the liability of the practice to a subserviency to political views; to the scandal of religion, as well as the increase of party animosities”
Thanksgiving proclamations had to be as general and generic as possible in order not to offend the political majority, as well as any minority political group or belief. Again, Madison points out Washington's proclamation caused offense.
“But reason and the principles of the Christian religion require that all the individuals composing a nation even of the same precise creed & wished to unite in a universal act of religion at the same time, the union ought to be effected through the intervention of their religious not of their political representatives.”
James Madison's perspective is simple, religious leaders should be leading the Churches, not the political leaders. He expressed that a government proclamation of thanksgiving to God was a religious act, and that the government should have no part in it.