The Great Awakening and the Danbury Letter

Across Great Britain and America in the 1730s and 1740s, a religious revival known as the Great Awakening occurred. Evangelicalism emerged and became popular during this time period. Evangelicals in the Great Awakening were Christians of any Protestant denomination who strongly believed in promoting personal salvation over established church doctrines. They were particularly enthusiastic in their attempts to spread their faith. This newfound interest in religion in all of the American colonies was one of the major points of unification for the colonists as they headed into the American Revolution during the 1760s and 1770s.

Well known evangelicals of the time in the American colonies include Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield. Edwards was famous for his sermon entitled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” which carried the message that Hell is a real and horrific place that sinners will wind up in if they choose to defy God. Additionally, he preached for about 10 years in New England, emphasizing in his preachings that Christians should be unified and should avoid intolerance. Whitefield, another famous evangelical preacher in the American colonies, was originally a British minister until he migrated to the colonies to spread the Great Awakening. He was known best for traveling all over the thirteen American colonies to preach and drawing massive crowds of people wherever he went, leaving the true work of the Awakening to the individual pastors stationed at each church he visited.

With the increased emphasis on the individual, Protestant denominations that were not popular prior to the Great Awakening saw large gains in their number of supporters. Specifically, the Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists, who were all supporters of the Great Awakening and evangelicalism, grew to become the largest Protestant denominations in America. The Anglicans, Quakers, and Congregationalists, who opposed the Great Awakening, became less popular and saw decreases in their number of followers. Developments in the Great Awakening were not limited to these denominations, however. Deism emerged, which is conceptually the opposite of evangelicalism, and was advocated by elites. Famous deists of the time included Thomas Jefferson and John Adams.

Origin of the Baptists in Colonial America

The emergence of the Baptists in America was marked by the founding of the first Baptist Church in America in Providence, Rhode Island by Roger Williams in 1638. Roger Williams was originally a colonist in Boston, Massachusetts who had fled from England because he disliked the corruption in the Church of England. He was one of the many Separatists who fled to the colonies to “separate” from the Church of England. Due to persecution for his religious views, he fled Massachusetts, became a Baptist, and founded Rhode Island in 1635. Williams was a major proponent of religious liberty and separation of church and state. Thomas Jefferson uses the phrase “wall of separation” in his letter to the Danbury Baptists which was actually borrowed from Roger Williams, who originally said that there should be a “wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.”

During the Great Awakening in the 1730s and 1740s the popularity of the Baptist denomination grew, and today they are the largest Protestant denomination in America. Despite their great success and popularity, the Baptists were also the most persecuted religious denomination in America.

Persecution of Baptists

The Baptists were known as the most persecuted religious denomination in America. They refused to pay taxes to support their town ministers since those ministers belonged to different denominations and, as a result, they were thrown in prison. Besides imprisonment, other methods of persecution used against them included beatings, shootings, stonings, and drownings. Since they faced so much persecution, they were also the most active denomination in fighting for religious freedom and the separation of church and state.

Fight for Religious Liberty

The efforts to disestablish religion began at the state level in Virginia. The Baptists in Virginia wanted to remove the Church of England as the established church because they didn’t want to pay taxes to them. In 1786, Virginia obtained its religious freedom but the Baptists were still unsatisfied because the US Constitution did not provide adequate religious liberty at the federal level. Thomas Jefferson worked on passing a “Bill for Religious Freedom” that would prevent people from being forced into religion in any form, but was unable to finish because he had to leave to go to Paris and so James Madison took over for him. With the support of the Virginian Baptists, Madison was elected to Congress and, in return, Madison fought for religious liberty for them. In 1791, the Bill of Rights was added to the US Constitution, and the First Amendment explicitly granted religious freedom and prevented an established religion.

Danbury Baptists

The Danbury Baptists were a branch of the Baptist denomination in America, and they were formed in 1790. They consisted of 23 churches in Connecticut and three in New York. In October of 1800, the Danbury Baptist Association held a meeting in Colebrook, Connecticut to discuss concerns about religious liberty, and in particular their concerns about how as a minority denomination in Connecticut they felt overpowered by the Congregationalist majority. They agreed that they wanted to get Connecticut to remove all laws that were related to promoting an established religion in the state. Even though the meeting was limited to the Danbury Baptists, they wanted to get the support of as many people as possible, meaning they wanted to get the support of any other dissenters from all denominations who wanted to disestablish religion. A year later, the Danbury Baptists formed a committee consisting of 6 of their leaders in order to write a letter to the new President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson, asking for his support in fighting for religious liberty.

In their letter to Jefferson the Danbury Baptists spend a significant portion of the letter congratulating him on his presidency and praising him for his positive qualities. They open the letter by saying they are “among the many millions … who rejoice in [his] Election to office” and in their closing paragraph the authors seem to be purposefully trying to sweet talk the President into getting what they want. They describe Jefferson as having “such genial Effect,” “radiant beams of the Sun,” and “glow of philanthropy and good will.” Aside from this cajolery, the main purpose of their letter is to make a request that religious liberty might become an inalienable right as opposed to merely “favors granted.” The Danbury Baptists stated to Jefferson that they understood that he personally did not have the power to directly set state laws for religious liberty, but they remained confident that he could at least have some significant influence over their change. Jefferson responded to the Danbury Baptists in a now famous letter on January 1, 1802.


Discussion Questions:

1. How do you think the Great Awakening influenced the incoming struggles for religious liberty?

2. What was the cause of the persecution of the Baptists, and what was their response? Why might the Baptists have been the most persecuted Protestant denomination?

3. Why do you think the Danbury Baptists chose to address their concerns to Thomas Jefferson, and do you think the timing of their letter had any influence?