Religious Language in Jefferson’s Correspondence

The phrase “the separation of church and state” is not in the U.S. Constitution. Instead, it’s found in a private letter from Thomas Jefferson that the Supreme Court used in a 1947 decision that forever altered church/state relations in America. We are often given the impression that our third president was virtually an atheist, and he certainly did not want any kind of Christian influence in government or in the public square. Our book, DOUBTING THOMAS, shows that while Jefferson entertained (privately) some serious doubts about the faith later in life, he was certainly not a lifelong skeptic. Furthermore, he did not believe in the separation of God and state. He would not agree with the anti-Christian inquisition taking place in our time because of groups like the ACLU or the Freedom From Religion Foundation.

Here are some comments from our book, DOUBTING THOMAS, about Jefferson and some of his correspondence as his presidency was winding down. Regardless of Jefferson’s policy that restrained him from declaring national days of prayer, Jefferson had no qualms in using religious language in public documents such as on January 10, 1808, in his reply to the North Carolina Legislature, saying: “…I supplicate the Being in whose hands we all are, to preserve our country in freedom and independence, and to bestow on yourselves the blessings of His favor.” To the New York Society of Tammany on February 29, 1808, he wrote: “…I supplicate a protecting Providence to watch over your own and our country’s freedom and welfare.” And to the Delegates of the Democratic Republicans of Philadelphia on May 25, he said: “…I supplicate the care of Providence over the well-being of yourselves and our beloved country.” On February 16, 1809, his letter to the General Assembly of Virginia said: “…that the supreme Ruler of the universe may have our country under His special care, will be among the latest of my prayers.” On the same day he said to the citizens of Wilmington, “…I…offer to Heaven my constant prayers for the preservation of our republic…” On February 24 Jefferson mentioned “…religious rights;…under the favor of Heaven…” in his letter to the Republicans of Niagara.135 And on the same day, in his reply to an Address from the Republican Young Men of New London, Connecticut, he said: “…I join in supplications to that Almighty Being, who has heretofore guarded our councils, still to continue His gracious benedictions towards our country, and that yourselves may be under the protection of His divine favor.” And on March 2 his letter to the Tammany Society of Washington said: “…your prayers…I sincerely supplicate Heaven…”

Even at the beginning of his retirement Jefferson continued to receive thank you letters for his service to his country. He replied with religious language to Stephen Cross and the Republicans of Essex County, Massachusetts on March 28, 1809, saying: “…I sincerely supplicate that overruling Providence which governs the destinies of men and nations; to dispense His choicest blessings on yourselves and our beloved country.” The next day he said: “…I pray Heaven to keep you under its holy favor,” in his reply to the Friends of the Administration of the United States in Bristol County, Rhode Island. And two days later to the Democratic Republican Delegates from the Townships of Washington County, Pennsylvania, he said: “…by the favor of Heaven;…my prayers will ever be offered for your welfare and happiness.”

These letters do not seem to fit the idea of a president seeking to maintain a secular public life.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *