Annotated Document


The Danbury Baptists wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson concerning freedom of religion, dated October 7, 1801. Jefferson received it on December 30, 1801 and he then responded with the following letter on January 1, 1802.


Danbury Letter Annotation
To messers. Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins, & Stephen S. Nelson, a committee of the Danbury Baptist association in the state of Connecticut.Gentlemen Jefferson is addressing this letter to members of a committee in the Danbury Baptist Association, whom had written a letter to him.
The affectionate sentiments of esteem and approbation which you are so good as to express towards me, on behalf of the Danbury Baptist association, give me the highest satisfaction. Here Jefferson thanks the Danbury Baptists for the letter they sent him to congratulate him on his presidency.
My duties dictate a faithful and zealous pursuit of the interests of my constituents, & in proportion as they are persuaded of my fidelity to those duties, the discharge of them becomes more and more pleasing. Jefferson has a duty to satisfy the interests of the people in the United States, since he is the president. It pleases him when he can get feedback from his people.
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, Jefferson agrees with the Danbury Baptists’ view that religion should not be mixed with government, as the Danbury Baptists’ expressed in their letter to him.
I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people 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 & State. *Here Jefferson is quoting the 1st Amendment, specifically the “establishment clause.” Jefferson’s use of the word “thus” produce much of the controversy surrounding this letter because it implies that he is claiming the idea of a “wall of separation between Church & State” is inherent in the constitution via the 1st Amendment.
Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties. Jefferson interprets the amendment as the people’s mandate for religious freedom. Jefferson hopes that the state religions still established at that time will be disestablished, but he does not promise to make any definite moves to affect such change because the 1st amendment only applied to the federal government at the time and not the state governments.
I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection & blessing of the common father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves & your religious association, assurances of my high respect & esteem. Jefferson concludes the letter with a prayer in response to the blessing written to him by the Danbury Baptists. Although Jefferson was known to never openly discuss his specific religious beliefs, he often offered prayers to friends and colleagues, following social and political conventions of the time.
Th JeffersonJan. 1. 1802.  Jefferson’s signature.

The Unedited Text: Compare and Contrast

The majority of the edited version of Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists contains the same text as the original version of his letter. When the Danbury Letter was going to be displayed in the Library of Congress’s Manuscript Division, the FBI used modern technology to uncover the words that were originally inked out. They discovered that 30 percent of the draft had been deleted, the bulk of which begins halfway through the second paragraph, after Jefferson quotes the First Amendment and originates the phrase “Wall of Separation,” and extends until Jefferson’s closing prayer.

The edited version of Jefferson’s letter expresses a similar idea, but it is much less direct and confrontational. Jefferson was trying to defend himself against accusations about why he refused to celebrate Thanksgiving, as George Washington had. Jefferson accused the Federalists of using thanksgivings and fasts as a way to force religion into the government and turn it into a tyrannical authority like the King in England, whom he refers to as “the Executive of another nation.” Jefferson wrote this letter because he wanted to affirm that he supported religion but did not believe that religion had a place in government.

To view the recently discovered unedited letter, click here.

To view the original document text, click here.