Separation of Church and State

Thomas Jefferson (Rembrandt Peale, 1800)

Thomas Jefferson (Rembrandt Peale, 1800)

Many Americans may be surprised to learn that the words “separation of church and state” do not appear in the First Amendment—or anywhere else in the US Constitution. In fact, here is what the First Amendment actually does say: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” So, where did the phrase “separation of church and state” actually come from?

Well, in October 1801 the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut wrote to President Jefferson, and in their letter they voiced some concerns over religious freedom. They were concerned as to whether the government would ever interfere with the practicing of their faith. Bear in mind that these early Americans had just gained independence from England’s government as well as from its established church. These Baptists had a valid reason for being concerned.

Notice that the First Amendment places restrictions only on the government, not the people!

In January 1802, Jefferson wrote a reply in which he included the phrase “separation between Church & State.” In his letter, Jefferson was simply underscoring the First Amendment as a protector of the people’s religious freedom from government interference. Here is an excerpt from that letter: “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.” There’s the phrase—“a wall of separation between Church & State.”

Jefferson simply quotes the First Amendment then uses a metaphor, a “wall,” to separate the government from interfering with religious practice. Notice that the First Amendment places restrictions only on the government, not the people! The First Amendment, therefore, did not separate Church and State. All that it says with respect to Christianity is simply this: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

All this means and all that it meant to the thirteen states is simply that the federal government was barred from interfering with the Christian laws and establishments of each of the thirteen states. Again, this was a matter of states’ rights exclusively. Each state was free to develop its own Christian legal framework without any interference from the federal government.

Most of the Founding Fathers were afraid of a centralized government having too much power over the people of the states. Many refused to sign the US Constitution unless these amendments, limiting the power of the federal government, were enacted. Any “separation” was there, not to limit religious activities in public, but rather, to limit the power of the federal government to interfere with the religious activities in the states.

The intent of the First Amendment was well understood during the founding of our country. The First Amendment was not to keep God out of government; it was to keep Government from establishing a “national denomination,” like the Church of England.

As early as 1799 a court declared, “By our form of government the Christian religion is the established religion.” In the letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Baptists of Danbury Connecticut he made it quite clear that the wall of separation was to insure that government would never interfere with religious activities, because religious freedom came from God, not from government.

George Washington, who certainly knew the intent of the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights, since he presided over their formation, said in his Farewell Address, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism who should labour to subvert these great Pillars of happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and citizens.”

So, if actions speak louder than words, then it is worth noting that three days after Jefferson wrote those words, “separation between Church & State,” he attended Sunday church at the largest congregation in America at the time—the House Chambers of the United States Capitol Building. Jefferson’s “wall of separation” applies everywhere in the country, even on government property and without government interference. This is how it is written in the Constitution and this is how Thomas Jefferson practiced it.

Ray Harker is the founder of God in Government (www.GodGov.org), a teaching ministry and outreach dedicated to a Biblical worldview.

  • Ray Harker
  • www.GodGov.org
  • Ray Harker is the founder of God in Government (www.GodGov.org), a teaching ministry and outreach dedicated to a Biblical worldview. He is the author of the books "God in Government" and "Solid Food for the Soul".