Separation of Church and State
Thomas Jefferson on Separation of Church and State
All quotation taken from Andrew Lipscomb and Albert Bergh, The
Writings of Thomas Jefferson, in 20 volumes. Additionally, a great
collection of Jefferson quotes can be found on the Jefferson pages at the
Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) was the principle author of the Declaration
of Independence, the third President of the United States, and a primary
architect of the American tradition of separation of church and state.
Like many of the founders, Jefferson was a prolific writer and frequently
commented on both religion and Constitutional Law. Jefferson authored the
Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, one of
the most important separationist documents of the eighteenth century.
A good discussion of Jefferson's attitude toward separation and public
education can be found in an extract from Leonard Levy's Jefferson
and Civil Liberties: The Darker Side.
Constitution gives no power over religion to the federal government:
On the benefits of religious liberty:
Believing 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 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 (Letter to the
Danbury Baptists, 1802).
Religion is a subject on which I have ever been most scrupulously reserved.
I have considered it as a matter between every man and his Maker in which
no other, and far less the public, had a right to intermeddle (letter
to Robert Rush, 1813).
I consider the government of the United States as interdicted by the
Constitution from intermeddling in religious institutions, their doctrines,
discipline, or exercises. This results not only from the provision that
no law shall be made respecting the establishment or free exercise of religion,
but from that also which reserves to the states the powers not delegated
to the United States. Certainly, no power to prescribe any religious exercise
or to assume authority in religious discipline has been delegated to the
General Government. It must rest with the States, as far as it can be in
any human authority (letter to Samuel Miller, Jan. 23, 1808).
I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil
magistrate to direct its exercises, its discipline, or its doctrines; nor
of the religious societies that the general government should be invested
with the power of effecting any uniformity of time or matter among them.
Fasting and prayer are religious exercises. The enjoining them, an act
of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself
the times for these exercises and the objects proper for them according
to their own particular tenets; and this right can never be safer than
in their own hands where the Constitution has deposited it... Every one
must act according to the dictates of his own reason, and mine tells me
that civil powers alone have been given to the President of the United
States, and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents
(letter to Samuel Miller, Jan. 23, 1808).
No provision in our Constitution ought to be dearer to man than that
which protects the rights of conscience against the power of its public
functionaries, were it possible that any of these should consider a conquest
over the conscience of men either attainable or applicable to any desirable
purpose (Letters to the Methodist Episcopal Church at New London, Connecticut,
Feb. 4, 1809).
To suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field
of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles
on supposition of their ill tendency is a dangerous fallacy which at once
destroys all religious liberty, because he being of course judge of that
tendency will make his opinions the rule of judgment and approve or condemn
the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or differ from
his own (Statute for Religious Freedom, 1779).
In matters of religion, I have considered that its free exercise is
placed by the constitution independent of the power of the federal government.
I have therefore undertaken, on no occasion, to prescribe the religious
exercises suited to it; but have left them, as the constitution found them,
under the direction of state or church authorities acknowledged by the
several religious societies (Jefferson's Second Inaugural Address).
In justice, too, to our excellent Constitution, it ought to be observed,
that it has not placed our religious rights under the power of any public
functionary. The power, therefore, was wanting, not less than the will,
to injure these rights (Letter to the Society of the Methodist Episcopal
Church at Pittsburg, Dec. 9, 1808).
Skepticism toward religious authority:
...(O)ur rulers can have no authority over such natural rights, only
as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we never submitted,
we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate
powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others.
But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or
no god. In neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg (Notes on Virginia,
Reason and free inquiry are the only effectual agents against error.
Give a loose to them, they will support the true religion by bringing every
false one to their tribunal, to the test of their investigation. They are
the natural enemies of error, and of error only (Notes on Virginia,
...(T)o compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation
of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical;
that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious
persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions
to the particular pastor whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose
powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness (Virginia Statute for
Religious Freedom, 1789).
...(P)roscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence by laying
upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument,
unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving
him injuriously of those privileges and advantages to which, in common
with his fellow citizens, he has a natural right; that it tends also to
corrupt the principles of that very religion it is meant to encourage,
by bribing, with a monopoly of worldly honours and emoluments, those who
will externally profess and conform to it (Virginia Statute for Religious
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 (Letter to the Virginia
Among the most inestimable of our blessings is that...of liberty to
worship our Creator in the way we think most agreeable to His will; a liberty
deemed in other countries incompatible with good government and yet proved
by our experience to be its best support (Reply to Baptist Address,
Thomas Jefferson, moral relativist:
The clergy, by getting themselves established by law and ingrafted into
the machine of government, have been a very formidable engine against the
civil and religious rights of man (Letter to J. Moor, 1800).
The clergy...believe that any portion of power confided to me [as President]
will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly:
for I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every
form of tyranny over the mind of man. But this is all they have to fear
from me: and enough, too, in their opinion (Letter to Benjamin Rush,
History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining
a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which
their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for
their own purposes (Letter to von Humboldt, 1813).
In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty.
He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return
for protection to his own (Letter to H. Spafford, 1814).
Nature has constituted utility to man the standard and test of virtue.
Men living in different countries, under different circumstances, different
habits and regimens, may have different utilities; the same act, therefore,
may be useful and consequently virtuous in one country which is injurious
and vicious in another differently circumstanced (Letter to Thomas Law,
As the circumstances and opinions of different societies vary, so the
acts which may do them right or wrong must vary also, for virtue does not
consist in the act we do but in the end it is to effect. If it is to effect
the happiness of him to whom it is directed, it is virtuous; while in a
society under different circumstances and opinions the same act might produce
pain and would be vicious. The essence of virtue is in doing good to others,
while what is good may be one thing in one society and its contrary in
another (Letter to John Adams, 1816).
Reading, reflection and time have convinced me that the interests of
society require the observation of those moral precepts only in which all
religions agree (for all forbid us to steal, murder, plunder, or bear false
witness), and that we should not intermeddle with the particular dogmas
in which all religions differ, and which are totally unconnected with morality
(Letter to J. Fishback, 1809).
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