Perhaps the most well-known religious event and correspondence in Jefferson’s presidency took place in early 1802 connected to the issue of church and state relations. It involves Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut—a group of 26 churches in the western part of the state and eastern New York. They had supported Jefferson for president, and in their address, signed by Reverends Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins, and Stephen S. Nelson, they acknowledged God’s hand in raising him up, and then expressed their concern that their religious freedom could be threatened. Jefferson, upon receiving it, informed his Attorney General Levi Lincoln on January 1, 1802 that: “…The Baptist address, now enclosed, admits of a condemnation of the alliance between Church and State, under the authority of the Constitution. It furnishes an occasion, too, which I have long wished to find, of saying why I do not proclaim fastings and thanksgivings, as my predecessors did;…I know it will give great offense to the New England clergy [Federalists; certainly not the Baptists]; but the advocate of religious freedom is to expect neither peace nor forgiveness from them.”
In other words, here you have Christian opposition to such things as a national (at the federal level) day of fasting and prayer and thanksgiving. Why? They feel that it is something the national government should not be involved in. They are not promoting secularism. They are promoting non-sectarianism.
Attorney General Levi Lincoln advised Jefferson on how to reply so as not to offend most New Englanders regarding their fasting and Thanksgiving traditions. Connecticut native Gideon Granger also advised Jefferson that a reply expressing opposition to national fast days would “delight the Dissenters” but would be “felt by a great Majority of New England.” Jefferson’s reply to the Danbury Baptist Association on January 1, 1802 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 legitimate* powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people [i.e., the First Amendment to the Constitution] 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 reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection and blessing of the Common Father and Creator of man, and tender you for yourselves and your religious association, assurances of my high respect and esteem.”
It is interesting to note that a sentence in Jefferson’s first unsent draft of this letter was deleted because as he noted in the margin of the draft: “this paragraph was omitted on the suggestion that it might give uneasiness to some of our republican friends in the eastern states where the proclamation of thanksgivings &c by their Executive is an antient habit, & is respected.” The sentence that was deleted came immediately after the phrase “separation between Church and State.” It read: “Congress thus inhibited from acts respecting religion and the Executive authorised only to execute their acts, I have refrained from prescribing even occasional performances of devotion prescribed indeed legally where an Executive is the legal head of a national church, but subject here, as religious exercises only to the voluntary regulations and discipline of each respective sect.”
Jefferson had no problem proclaiming a fast day as governor of Virginia because that did not interfere with the prerogative of other states. And he had no problem as president in personally asking these citizens for their prayers. But he agreed with them to refrain from officially proclaiming a public day of prayer as president.
*The word “legitimate” is often incorrectly printed as “legislative.” Daniel Dreisbach made this discovery and made an excellent revisal of it. See Daniel L. Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State (New York: New York University Press, 2001), 98,181n. Interestingly, “Legitimate” was the word also used by Rev. John Leland much earlier in 1790 when arguing for religious freedom in his Virginia. Leland carried this letter from Jefferson back to Danbury.