Dear Friends Of Religious Freedom: A Timely Letter From Thomas Jefferson

Americans United for Separation of Church and State continues the struggle that Thomas Jefferson and the Baptists initiated more than 200 years ago.

Thomas Jefferson and the Baptists didn’t have much in common when it came to theology.

Jefferson, a deist, thought the moral teachings of Jesus were sublime, but he didn’t believe in the virgin birth, the divinity of Jesus or the inerrancy of the Bible. He thought the miracles reported in the New Testament were myths, and he considered the Christian doctrine of the Trinity incomprehensible.

Needless to say, his founding-era Baptist compatriots disagreed – to put it mildly.

But on one subject, Jefferson and the Baptists were in strong accord. They both supported church-state separation and individual freedom of conscience. They joined forces in passing the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and they stood side by side in support of the First Amendment’s religious liberty provisions.

In 1808, Jefferson wrote to a group of Virginia Baptists to celebrate their successful alliance.

“In reviewing the history of the times through which we have passed,” wrote Jefferson, “no portion of it gives greater satisfaction, on reflection, than that which presents the efforts of the friends of religious freedom, and the success with which they were crowned.

“We have solved by fair experiment, the great and interesting question whether freedom of religion is compatible with order in government, and obedience to the laws,” he continued. “And we have experienced the quiet as well as the comfort which results from leaving everyone to profess freely and openly those principles of religion which are the inductions of his own reason, and the serious convictions of his own inquiries.”

I think of Jefferson’s Nov. 21 correspondence with the Baptist associations at Chesterfield, Va., often at this time of the year. (The full text of the letter is below.)

Americans United for Separation of Church and State continues the struggle that Jefferson and the Baptists initiated back then. In my 30 years at Americans United, I have worked with Baptists, Catholics, Jews, Seventh-day Adventists, Christian Scientists, Episcopalians, Humanists, Unitarians, Methodists and Presbyterians. Our membership runs the gamut from agnostics and atheists to Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Wiccans and the whole American panoply of viewpoints about religion.

We disagree sharply about matters of faith, but – with Jefferson – we insist that every person has the constitutional right “to profess freely and openly those principles of religion which are the inductions of his own reason, and the serious convictions of his own inquiries.”

Thanks to each of you who join with us in advancing the cause of religious freedom. We expect difficult battles in 2011, but with your help our efforts can be crowned with success.

(The Wall of Separation will be on hiatus until Jan. 3. Happy New Year, everyone!)

TO THE GENERAL MEETING OF CORRESPONDENCE OF

THE SIX BAPTIST ASSOCIATIONS REPRESENTED AT

CHESTERFIELD, VIRGINIA.

WASHINGTON, November 21, 1808.

Thank you, fellow citizens, for your affectionate address, and I receive with satisfaction your approbation of my motives for retirement. In reviewing the history of the times through which we have passed, no portion of it gives greater satisfaction, on reflection, than that which presents the efforts of the friends of religious freedom, and the success with which they were crowned. We have solved by fair experiment, the great and interesting question whether freedom of religion is compatible with order in government, and obedience to the laws. And we have experienced the quiet as well as the comfort which results from leaving every one to profess freely and openly those principles of religion which are the inductions of his own reason, and the serious convictions of his own inquiries. It is a source of great contentment to me to learn that the measures which have been pursued in the administration of your affairs have met your approbation. Too often we have had but a choice among difficulties; and this situation characterizes remarkably the present moment. But, fellow citizens, if we are faithful to our country, if we acquiesce, with good will, in the decisions of the majority, and the nation moves in mass in the same direction, although it may not be that which every individual thinks best, we have nothing to fear from any quarter.

I thank you sincerely for your kind wishes for my welfare, and with equal sincerity implore the favor of a protecting Providence for yourselves.

Thomas Jefferson