The Constitutional Principle: Separation of Church and State
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Study Guide: Problematical Separationist Quotes

Citing quotes to prove a point is tricky business. This study presents some pointers both for using quotes and for evaluating them when someone else uses them.

by Jim Allison


This section deals with some specific quotes that turn up on separationists' sites, publications, posts, etc. for which no original source has ever been located and with quotes that turn up on separationist sites, publications, posts, etc. that have other problems with them.. These quotes should not be used, and should be considered bogus until a original source is discovered if such ever happens. As other quotes are identified they will be added to this list. Anyone who knows of such quotes is invited to email us with the information.

  1. "The Christian god can easily be pictured as virtually the same god as the many ancient gods of past civilizations. The Christian god is a three headed monster; cruel, vengeful and capricious. If one wishes to know more of this raging, three headed beast-like god, one only needs to look at the caliber of people who say they serve him. They are always of two classes: fools and hypocrites."

    Allegedly in a letter to his nephew, Peter Carr from Thomas Jefferson.

  2. "[W]e have solved by fair experiment the great and interesting question whether freedom of religion is compatible with order in government and obedience to the laws." (Thomas Jefferson, letter to James Madison, December 16, 1786, according to Albert Menendez and Edd Doerr, compilers, The Great Quotations on Religious Liberty, Long Beach, CA: Centerline Press, 1991, p. 47.)

    The problem with this quote is that the letter cited, "Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, December 16, 1786," does not contain the quote. The proper cite is as follows:

    "We have solved by fair experiment, the great and interesting question whether freedom of religion is compatible with order in government, and obedience to the laws. And we have experienced the quiet as well as the comfort which results from leaving everyone to profess freely and openly those principles of religion which are the inductions of his own reason, and the serious convictions of his own inquiries." Letter to the Baptist Association at Chesterfield Virginia, November 21, 1808, Andrew Lipscomb and Albert Bergh, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 16, p. 320.

  3. "'I have recently been examining all the known superstitions of the world, and do not find in our particular superstition [Christianity] one redeeming feature. They are all alike, founded upon fables and mythologies.' (Letter to Dr. Woods"

    This quote appears in the 1906 book Six Historic Americans by John E. Remsburg, which is archived on the infidels.org website. http://www.infidels.org/library/historical/john_remsburg/six_historic_americans/chapter_2.html

    [excerpt]
    In the following significant passage we have Jefferson's opinion of the Christian religion as a whole:

    "I have recently been examining all the known superstitions of the world, and do not find in our particular superstition [Christianity] one redeeming feature. They are all alike, founded upon fables and mythologies" (Letter to Dr. Woods).

    Could a more emphatic declaration of disbelief in Christianity be framed than this?
    [end excerpt]

    Remsburg included this alleged quotation of Jefferson in his second chapter on Thomas Jefferson.

    The quote may also be found at http://www.positiveatheism.org/hist/quotes/jefferson.htm#PHONYJEFF which quotes it as follows:

    I have recently been examining all the known superstitions of the world, and do not find in our particular superstition one redeeming feature. They are all alike, founded upon fables and mythologies.

    -- Thomas Jefferson, letter to Dr. Woods (undated), referring to "our particular superstition," Christianity, from John E Remsburg, Six Historic Americans: Thomas Jefferson, quoted from Franklin Steiner, Religious Beliefs of Our Presidents (1936), "Thomas Jefferson, Freethinker"

    It is offered as well by positiveatheism.org/ from Franklin Steiner's 1936 book Religious Beliefs of Our Presidents at http://www.positiveatheism.org/hist/jeffstein.htm

    [excerpt] Thomas Jefferson, Freethinker
    In a letter to Dr. Woods, he said: "I have recently been examining all the known superstitions of the world, and do not find in our particular superstition (Christianity) one redeeming feature. They are all alike, founded upon fables and mythology." [end excerpt]

    ----------------------------------------------------------------------------

    It appears as well on far too many other web sites to mention here.

    This quote has been presented in two different ways--one that it is a letter from Jefferson to a mysterious Dr. Wood, and other is that it is a letter from Jefferson to Peter Carr, but no dates or other source identification in either case. There are also two versions of the same quote--the version that appears above and a second version that includes a portion of some of Jefferson's actual writings from his "Notes on Virginia. So far, nobody has been able to trace this quotation back to any actual primary source material. The trail of evidence begins and ends with Remsburg's book. No other reference to this "Letter to Dr. Woods" can presently be located.

    We suggest no version of this quote be used and that it be considered bogus.

  4. "The Government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion." -- George Washington

    The problem with this one is that there is no evidence that George Washington ever said it, saw it or knew it existed. For additional information on this see: Treaty of Tripoli, 1796: Little-Known U.S. Document Signed by President Adams Proclaims America's Government Is Secular

  5. "This would be the best of all possible worlds if there were no religion in it!!!" -- John Adams, letter to Thomas Jefferson

    The problem with this quote is it is taken out of context. Here is the quote restored to its context:

    Twenty times, in the course of my late Reading, have I been upon the point of breaking out, "This would be the best of all possible Worlds, if there were no Religion in it." ! ! ! But in this exclamati[on] I should have been as fanatical as Bryant or Cleverly. Without Religion this World would be Something not fit to be mentioned in polite Company, I mean Hell. So far from believing in the total and universal depravity of human Nature; I believe there is no Individual totally depraved. The mos abandoned Scoundrel that ever existed, never Yet Wholly extinguished his Conscience, and while Conscience remains there is some Religion. Popes, Jesuits and Sorbonists and Inquisitors have some Conscience and some Religion. So had Marius and Sylla, Caesar Cataline and Anthony, an Augustus had not much more, let Virgil and Horace say what they will.

    What shall We think of Virgil and Horace, Sallust Quintillian, Plin and even Tacitus? and even Cicero, Brutus and Seneca? Pompey I leave out of the question, as a mere politician and Soldier. Every One of the great Creatures has left indelible marks of Conscience and consequent of Religion, tho' every one of them has left abundant proofs of profligate violations of their Consciences by their little and great Passions and paltry Interests.

    Source of Information:

    Excerpt of letter from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, April 19, 1817 -- John Adams, quoted from Charles Francis Adams, ed., Works of John Adams (1856), vol. X, p. 254; The Adams Jefferson Letters, The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams, Edited by Lester J. Cappon, University of North Carolina Press (1959, 1987) p.509

  6. There are a number of places on the net where one can find the varieties of a quote attributed to Thomas Jefferson:

    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 the government reach actions only, and 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 and 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 man to all of his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

    This excerpt from Thomas Jefferson & the Danbury Baptists is a good example of how this quote is frequently used:


    Myths About the Separation of Church and State Exploring: Separation of Church & State > Church/State Myths

    Myth:

    Thomas Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists is not important.

    Response:

    Although the idea of a "wall of separation" originated with Roger Williams and not Thomas Jefferson, it is Jefferson's phrasing which has been most used by judges, lawyers and politicians when it comes to interpreting the First Amendment. This is unsurprising because of Jefferson's role in the development of our nation and our political system.

    The phrase itself stems from a letter which Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptist Church in Connecticut. Jefferson was president at the time and the Danbury Baptist Association had written to him on October 7, 1801, expressing their concern about their religious freedoms. At the time, they were being persecuted because they did not belong to the Congregationalist establishment in Connecticut. Jefferson responded to reassure them that he also believed in religious liberty and said, in part:

    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 the government reach actions only, and 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 and 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 man to all of his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

    Jefferson realized that a full separation of church and state did not exist yet, but he hoped that society would make progress towards that goal. Was this just a political ploy, however? It certainly can't be considered an off-hand comment, because Jefferson had it reviewed by Levi Lincoln, his attorney general, before he sent it. Jefferson is recorded as having told Lincoln that he considered this letter to be a means of "sowing useful truths and principles among the people, which might germinate and become rooted among their political tenets."

    This was, by the way, not the only time he used this phrase. It appears again in a letter he wrote to Virginia Baptists in 1808:

    Because religious belief, or non-belief, is such an important part of every person's life, freedom of religion affects every individual. State churches that use government power to support themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths undermine all our civil rights. Moreover, state support of the church tends to make the clergy unresponsive to the people and leads to corruption within religion. Erecting the "wall of separation between church and state," therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society.


    The problem is that it isn't a valid quote as the following shows:

    Thomas Jefferson on Politics & Government

    52. Freedom of Religion

    Because religious belief, or non-belief, is such an important part of every person's life, freedom of religion affects every individual. Religious institutions that use government power in support of themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths, or of no faith, undermine all our civil rights. Moreover, state support of an established religion tends to make the clergy unresponsive to their own people, and leads to corruption within religion itself. Erecting the "wall of separation between church and state," therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society.

    "We have solved, by fair experiment, the great and interesting question whether freedom of religion is compatible with order in government and obedience to the laws. And we have experienced the quiet as well as the comfort which results from leaving every one to profess freely and openly those principles of religion which are the inductions of his own reason and the serious convictions of his own inquiries." --Thomas Jefferson: Reply to Virginia Baptists, 1808. ME 16:320

    As you can see the first part is not a quote by Jefferson. It is commentary added by the editor, the late Eyler Robert Coates, Sr.

    Somehow or other at some time or other the commentary got added to the quote by someone and has been picked up by others and can be found appearing as:

    "Because religious belief, or non-belief, is such an important part of every person's life, freedom of religion affects every individual. Religious institutions that use government power in support of themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths, or of no faith, undermine all our civil rights. Moreover, state support of an established religion tends to make the clergy unresponsive to their own people, and leads to corruption within religion itself. Erecting the "wall of separation between church and state," therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society."

    Thomas Jefferson

    "Because religious belief, or non-belief, is such an important part of every person's life, freedom of religion affects every individual. Religious institutions that use government power in support of themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths, or of no faith, undermine all our civil rights. Moreover, state support of an established religion tends to make the clergy unresponsive to their own people, and leads to corruption within religion itself. Erecting the "wall of separation between church and state," therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society."

    Thomas Jefferson 1808

    again in a letter he wrote to Virginia Baptists in 1808:

    Because religious belief, or non-belief, is such an important part of every person's life, freedom of religion affects every individual. State churches that use government power to support themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths undermine all our civil rights. Moreover, state support of the church tends to make the clergy unresponsive to the people and leads to corruption within religion. Erecting the "wall of separation between church and state," therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society.

    Thomas Jefferson to Virginia Baptists in 1808

    Because religious belief, or non-belief, is such an important part of every person's life, freedom of religion affects every individual. State churches that use government power to support themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths undermine all our civil rights. Moreover, state support of the church tends to make the clergy unresponsive to the people and leads to corruption within religion. Erecting the "wall of separation between church and state," therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society.

    We have solved ... the great and interesting question whether freedom of religion is compatible with order in government and obedience to the laws. And we have experienced the quiet as well as the comfort which results from leaving every one to profess freely and openly those principles of religion which are the inductions of his own reason and the serious convictions of his own inquiries.

    -- Thomas Jefferson, to the Virginia Baptists (1808). This is his second use of the term "wall of separation," here quoting his own use in the Danbury Baptist letter.

    AND

    The 'Wall of Separation,' Again:

    Because religious belief, or non-belief, is such an important part of every person's life, freedom of religion affects every individual. State churches that use government power to support themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths undermine all our civil rights. Moreover, state support of the church tends to make the clergy unresponsive to the people and leads to corruption within religion. Erecting the "wall of separation between church and state," therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society.

    We have solved ... the great and interesting question whether freedom of religion is compatible with order in government and obedience to the laws. And we have experienced the quiet as well as the comfort which results from leaving every one to profess freely and openly those principles of religion which are the inductions of his own reason and the serious convictions of his own inquiries.

    -- Thomas Jefferson, to the Virginia Baptists (1808). This is his second use of the term "wall of separation," here quoting his own use in the Danbury Baptist letter. This wording was several times upheld by the Supreme Court as an accurate description of the Establishment Clause: Reynolds (98 U.S. at 164, 1879); Everson (330 U.S. at 59, 1947); McCollum (333 U.S. at 232, 1948)

    http://www.positiveatheism.org/hist/quotes/jefferson.htm


    Here are some examples of what one can find on the net with regards to this quote

    Google Search Page


    The Actual Letter to the Virginia Baptists 1808:

    To the General Meeting of Correspondence of the Six Baptist Associations Represented at Chesterfield, Virginia.

    Washington, November 21, 1808.

    Thank you, fellow citizens, for your affectionate address, and I receive with satisfaction your approbation of my motives for retirement. In reviewing the history of the times through which we have passed, no portion of it gives greater satisfaction, on reflection, than that which presents the efforts of the friends of religious freedom, and the success with which they were crowned. We have solved by fair experiment, the great and interesting question whether freedom of religion is compatible with order in government, and obedience to the laws. And we have experienced the quiet as well as the comfort which results from leaving every one to profess freely and openly those principles of religion which are the inductions of his own reason, and the serious convictions of his own inquiries. It is a source of great contentment to me to learn that the measures which have been pursued in the administration of your affairs have met your approbation. Too often we have had but a choice among difficulties; and this situation characterizes remarkably the present moment. But, fellow citizens, if we are faithful to our country, if we acquiesce, with good will, in the decisions of the majority, and the nation moves in mass in the same direction, although it may not be that which every individual thinks best, we have nothing to fear from any quarter.

    I thank you sincerely for your kind wishes for my welfare, and with equal sincerity implore the favor of a protecting Providence for yourselves.

    Source:

    The Writings of Thomas Jefferson. Definitive Edition Containing His Autobiography, Notes on Virginia, Parliamentary Manual, Official Papers, Messages and Addresses, and Other Writings, Official and Private, Now Collected and Published in Their Entirety for the First Time Including All of the Original Manuscripts, Deposited in the Department of State and Published in 1853 by Order of the Joint Committee of Congress with Numerous Illustrations and a Comprehensive Analytical Index,Albert Ellery Bergh Editor Vol. XVI.. Issued under the Auspices of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association of the United States Washington, D. C. 1907. Copyright, 1905, by the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association.


    AN ADDITIONAL FOLLOW UP:

    Convinced that religious liberty must, most assuredly, be built into the structural frame of the new [state] government, Jefferson proposed this language [for the new Virginia constitution]: "All persons shall have full and free liberty of religious opinion; nor shall any be compelled to frequent or maintain any religious institution": freedom for religion, but also freedom from religion. (Edwin S. Gaustad, Faith of Our Fathers: Religion and the New Nation, San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987, p. 38.Jefferson proposed his language in 1776.)

    http://groups.google.com/groups?q=madison+sect+jew&hl=en&lr=&selm=20030124052632.01168.00000156%40mb-fb.aol.com&rnum=6