Some contemporary Baptists apparently cannot comprehend how born-again Christian Baptists in early 19th-century Delaware, Connecticut, Maryland and Virginia could willingly praise Jefferson because he vouched for the freedom of all consciences, believer and non-believer alike.
Worth an estimated $700,000, it is one of a number of thank-you notes Jefferson wrote to Baptist entities that had congratulated him upon his election. The letter is dated July 2, 1801—just six months before his famous letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut which contained the controversial landmark phrase, “a wall of separation between church and state.”
Explaining to the Danbury Baptists why he—unlike presidents Washington and Adams—refused to set aside a national day of fasting and prayer, Jefferson quoted the First Amendment: the state should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thereby “building a wall of separation between Church and State.” This “wall of separation” has been the key metaphor for understanding the nature of church-state relations in the United States.
National debates over school vouchers and President Bush’s faith-based initiative give renewed importance to this controversial phrase and make the newly found letter’s interpretation significant.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State reads the Elkton letter and sees support for the traditional Baptist view of strict separation, saying it “underscores the third president’s strong support for religious liberty.”
Richard Land, chief executive of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, sides with the critics of that traditional, strict separation view. Recently, scholars—Daniel Dreisbachand Philip Hamburger—and Supreme Court justices—Antony Scalia and Clarence Thomas—have challenged the view that Jefferson’s beliefs are best represented by a strict view of separation.
In an article about the letter in the Baptist Convention of Maryland and Delaware’s newsjournal, Land is quoted as saying, “It really gives insight into Jefferson’s thinking—which is not nearly as radical as liberals try to make it.” He notes that Jefferson gave tribute “to the almighty ruler—his deism had its limits.”
Who is right? Does the Elkton letter clarify the separation issue?
If there were any “liberals” who doubted that Jefferson believed in a god, as Land seems to suggest there are, then the letter would surely refute their viewpoint. Jefferson believed in the reality of the divine, and the letter supports this.
If any seek by this letter to show that Jefferson was a closet Christian, they will be disappointed. Jefferson plainly was no Christian, if by that term one means someone who believes in the divinity of Christ, the reality of Jesus’ miraculous powers, the resurrection or the atonement. Jefferson explicitly denied all these in other letters and gave no hint of affirming them in this one. This great president believed the teachings of Jesus were diamonds in the dunghill of the Gospels, to use his words, and wrote his own version—without miracles—to prove it.
If, by this letter, people look for Jefferson to thank a non-Trinitarian god for willing that “that the human mind shall be free” in the “portion of the globe” where he and the Delaware Baptists reside, and that the American “society shall here know that the limit of its rightful power is the enforcement of social conduct; while the right to question the religious principles producing that conduct is beyond their cognizance [sic],” then they will find it.
Some contemporary Baptists apparently cannot comprehend how born-again Christian Baptists in early 19th-century Delaware, Connecticut, Maryland and Virginia could—after the election of a non-orthodox, non-Trinitarian, non-Bible-accepting deist president—willingly praise that president because he vouched for the freedom of all consciences, believer and non-believer alike.
Such incomprehension points disturbingly to the loss of wise Jefferson’s clear vision of the importance of a wall of separation between church and state.
Loyd Allen is professor of church history and spiritual formation at the James and Carolyn McAfee School of Theology, a graduate school of Mercer University.