A Letter to Jefferson

by William S. Dodge

Two hundred years ago, on January 1, 1802, President Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter observing that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution had built "a wall of separation between Church and State." In the 1947 case Everson v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court quoted Jefferson's phrase as expressing the intent of the Establishment Clause, and the "wall of separation" metaphor has been an important part of constitutional law ever since.

Jefferson's letter was addressed to Nehemiah Dodge (Tristram, Israel, John, John), Ephraim Robbins and Stephen S. Nelson, a committee of the Danbury Baptist Association, in response to a letter they had sent him in October. The handwriting of this letter matches a later letter from Dodge to Jefferson, so it appears that Dodge drafted the Danbury Baptist's letter. He wrote, in part:

"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 neighbor. But, Sir our constitution of government is not specific. Our infant 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 and usages, and such still are; that 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 favor 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 and gain under the pretence of government and Religion should reproach their fellow man - should Reproach their Chief Magistrate, as an enemy of Religion, Law and good order because he will not, dare not assume the prerogative of Jehovah and make Laws to govern the kingdom of Christ."

Jefferson wrote in reply: "Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature would 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church and State."

"The constitution of government" about which Dodge complained was Connecticut's. That state had long taxed its citizens to support the Congregational Church. Although the certificate act of 1791 allowed Baptists and other dissenters to avoid such taxes by certifying that they attended another church, dissenters who failed to file certificates continued to be taxed and were sometimes imprisoned for failing to pay taxes. From 1800 to 1807, the Baptists petitioned Connecticut's Federalist legislature repeatedly but unsuccessfully, seeking disestablishment of the Congregational Church. Disestablishment came only in 1818, after the Republican Party gained power in Connecticut and the state adopted a new constitution.

Dodge was a Baptist minister, who preached in Hampton, Southington, Berlin, Middletown, and Lebanon, before moving to New London, and was a strong proponent of disestablishment. He was active in the petition movement, but also became a supporter of Jefferson's Republican Party earlier than most Baptists. He spoke at Republican Fourth of July celebrations in 1801 and 1802 and delivered a sermon on church and state in 1805 to celebrate Jefferson's reelection. See 2 William G. McLoughlin, New England Dissent, 1630-1833: The Baptists and the Separation of Church and State 1006-08, 1017-18 (1971). Professor McLoughlin describes Dodge as a "liberal Baptist . . . evangelical in temper, but far more liberal theologically than the average Baptist." Id. at 1024.

Several of Dodge's published sermons were quite political, which was delicate for a believer in church-state separation. In the preface to a 1802 sermon, Dodge explained "that ministerial influence in political affairs has done much more hurt than good in the world for a long time" and "that gospel ministers, as such, have nothing to do with political matters, except being set for the defence of the gospel of Christ, are sometimes called to defend it from political invasions." Dodge believed that God would support the church and ridiculed "the common complaint of many in the New England states . . . that religion will come to naught, and religious privileges be abolished, unless supported by civil power, and the fostering hand of legislative bodies!!" As explained in a 1805 sermon, Dodge also believed that the separation of church and state had a religious basis. He admitted that they had been united under the Covenant of Abraham, but "Christ came and fulfilled that Covenant, and reformed the christians, from a national church state, into gospel churches, founded upon a new constitution, which forbid their blending church and state, as formerly." Connecticut's certificate act was not just a blending of church and state but also an invasion of religious freedom, for "[i]f rulers say we many worship God . . . by lodging a certificate, does it not imply that we may not without their liberty?" And Dodge defended Jefferson against the Federalist charge that he was an enemy of religion, a charge of which there was no proof "except his being unwilling to encourage, support, and vindicate such abominable hypocritical regulations."

Dodge appears to have been most actively politically from 1801-08, during Jefferson's administration. He does not seem to have helped frame Connecticut's new constitution in 1818. Shortly after disestablishment, Dodge exercised his own religious liberty and became a Universalist, no small step for a man over 50 who had been a Baptist preacher for more than 30 years. Ironically, he was persecuted by his former associates and moved to New York City, where he continued to preach. A sermon delivered at a state prison in 1825 reflects a change in tone. He told the inmates that "[a]ll mankind are the children of God" and that "God loves them all impartially." He continued: "It is in the power of any criminal, or prisoner in this place, to render his own condition less painful and gloomy . . . . Give none offence to Jew or gentile, or the church of God. . . . Do good to all according to your opportunity. Treat every person you see with due respect, according to their place and standing in society. Commend yourselves to every man's conscience in the sight of God."

Nehemiah Dodge both advocated and practiced religious freedom. And his letter to Jefferson contributed in a small way to the birth of a metaphor -- the "wall of separation between Church and State" -- that helps guard that freedom today.

Further Reading: Photographic reproductions of Dodge's letter to Jefferson and Jefferson's reply can be found by searching for the word "Danbury" in the Thomas Jefferson Papers at the Library of Congress, <memory.loc.gov/ammem/mtjhtml/mtjhome.html>. The texts of these letters are transcribed at <www.wallbuilders.com/et_danbury.html>. An interesting article on the drafting of Jefferson's reply may be found at <www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/9806/danbury.html>.

The author, a descendant of Nehemiah Dodge, is a Professor of Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, in San Francisco, California.