Jefferson’s Church and State Policy Defined Further

The idea that Thomas Jefferson, a key founding father and our third president, believed in the separation of God and state is a myth. He did believe that the institution of the church and the institution of the state should be separated. He even used the phrase “separation of church and state” in a letter, that the Supreme Court cited in a key 1947 decision on church-state relations. But Jefferson did not believe in that God should have nothing to do with our government. In fact, Jefferson wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence which declares that our rights come from the Creator. Jefferson, later in life, entertained some serious doubts (privately) about core Christian doctrines. But our book, DOUBTING THOMAS, shatters the myth that he was some sort of lifelong atheist.

When he was president, Jefferson wrote to many clergymen and he to them. He was viewed positively by Christians in his day, as a champion of religious freedom. He received letters from friendly Presbyterians, Quakers, Baptists, and Methodists. One very important letter from one of the foremost leaders of the Presbyterians in the nation in the early 1800’s helped clarify Jefferson’s church and state policy even more sharply.

Earlier in 1806, Rev. Samuel Miller served as the national moderator of the Presbyterian General Assembly. He had long been a political supporter of Jefferson and had often corresponded with Jefferson on missions, etc, beginning as early as Jefferson thanked Miller in February 29, 1804, for a book and said he “…shall with pleasure avail himself of his first leisure to read it. He salutes him with respect & friendship.” A similar reply from Jefferson on May 13, 1805 gave thanks for “the pamphlet he has been so kind as to send him, which he has perused, as he does whatever comes from his pen, with great pleasure. He salutes mr. Miller with esteem and respect.”

But now in 1808, Rev. Miller wrote to the President on the topic of presidential prayer proclamations. He knew Jefferson felt it violated the prerogative of the states, but clergy in his city suggested that Jefferson could “recommend” national days of prayer without requiring its observance and thus avoid violating Jefferson’s understanding of the Constitution. Now he wrote to the President saying in part: “I hope You will pardon the liberty which I take in addressing You on a subject of considerable delicacy. Several of my Clerical brethren, and other friends of Religion, in this city, deeply affected with the present aspect of our public affairs, have lately expressed an earnest wish that we might be called upon, as a nation, to observe a day of Fasting, Humiliation and Prayer. The object of this letter is frankly to ask, whether such an application to you would be agreeable or otherwise….Allow me, Sir, further to observe, that while I should be much gratified at your viewing this subject with a favorable eye, both as a warm friend of the proposed Solemnity, and as a cordial well-wisher to your happy administration; yet if it would be, on the whole, more agreeable to your wishes that no such application, as that alluded to, should be made, I shall consider it as my duty to oppose, and endeavor to prevent it. I have only to add, that, in making this communication, I act without the suggestion, and without the knowledge of any other person. I have the honor to be, Sir, with very great respect, Your sincere friend & humble Servant.”

Rev. Miller is asking the president to call for a national day of prayer. Long story short: Jefferson thinks that that is the states’ prerogative, not the federal government’s prerogative. So he denied Miller’s request. When he was governor, Jefferson DID call for a statewide day of prayer. But he did not think it appropriate at the federal level. Next blog we’ll explore this further.

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