In 1801, as seen in a recent blog, a group of Baptists from Danbury Connecticut wrote to President Thomas Jefferson and related how pleased they were that he was president. They expressed concern that the government never take away their religious liberties. He wrote them back on Jan. 1, 1802, and it is from his reply that we get the phrase “separation of church and state” and not from the Constitution. The way Jefferson’s letter was later twisted is a travesty and has caused much confusion in church-state relations.
These Baptists were very pleased. The U. S. Supreme Court used this letter over a century and a half later to reframe church-state relations, which soon led to striking down school prayer and Bible reading. This formerly obscure letter is often quoted so it is given more discussion in a later chapter in our book, DOUBTING THOMAS. When Jefferson received the Danbury letter he also received one from the predominantly Baptist Committee of the neighboring community of Cheshire, Massachusetts. The letter bore the names of five men (Brown, Mason, Richardson, Waterman, and Wells) that said: “we believe the Supreme Ruler of the Universe, who raises up men to achieve great events, has raised up a Jefferson at this critical day, to defend Republicanism, and to battle the arts of Aristocracy;…To that infinite Being who governs the Universe we ardently pray, that your life and health may long be preserved…” Jefferson’s reply to the Committee of Cheshire, Massachusetts, on January 1, 1802, said that he concurred with them that the most precious aspect of the Constitution was “the prohibition of religious tests.” We have more to say about the Cheshire Baptists in a later blog.