Why President Jefferson Would Not Call for a Day of Prayer—As President (but he did as Governor)

Thomas Jefferson did many things showing support, even as president, for religion in the public square. For example, he regularly the Christian church services held Sunday mornings at the U.S. Capitol during his presidency. As governor of Virginia, he had written a Prayer Proclamation. But he didn’t think the federal government should interfere with the states when it comes to religion. Like our other founding fathers, Jefferson did not believe in the separation of God and state—but rather in the idea that should not be a national denomination. (Even some states had state-churches at the time the First Amendment was adopted. Here’s a portion of our book, DOUBTING THOMAS, which shows that Jefferson was not some sort of lifelong skeptic. He did have serious doubts late in life of some core Christian doctrines. But he certainly didn’t buy into the ACLU’s vision of strict separation of church and state, which often boils down to state-sanctioned atheism.

When Jefferson was president, a minister from New England, Samuel Miller, who was a Jefferson-supporter, wrote to the president. Miller, being a supporter, perceived a conflict that could occur (if they sent him their advice and he rejected it) and wanted to help the president avoid more bad press in the Federalist-dominated New England religious world. Jefferson’s reply to Rev. Samuel Miller on January 23, 1808 again declined to support proclamations by the Chief Executive, but Jefferson explained (as Miller had suspected he would) that it solely was due to his view that it violates the states’ and individual citizen’s prerogative (i.e., federalism):

“…I consider the government of the United States as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with 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 [i.e., the First Amendment], but from that also which reserves to the states the powers not delegated to the United States [i.e., the Tenth Amendment]. Certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise or to assume authority in religious discipline has been delegated to the general [i.e., national] government. It must then rest with the states as far as it can be in any human authority. But it is only proposed that I should recommend, not prescribe a day of fasting and prayer. That is, that I should indirectly assume to the U. S. an authority over religious exercises which the Constitution has directly precluded them from.

“…I am aware that the practice of my predecessors may be quoted. But I have ever believed that the example of state executives led to the assumption of that authority by the general government, without due examination, which would have discovered that what might be a right in a state government, was a violation of that right when assumed by another [i.e., national government]. Be that as it may, everyone must act according to the dictates of his own reason, & mine tells me that civil powers alone have been given to the President of the U.S. and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents;…and I pray you to accept the assurances of my high esteem & respect.”

Rev. Miller apparently convinced his colleagues to make no appeal to the president on this front, and this highest of Presbyterians in the nation remained a supporter while Jefferson was alive.

We should not continue to confuse Jefferson’s deference to the states versus the federal government as meaning that Jefferson was against religious expression in the public square.

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