Open your Bible to Hezekiah 7:14 and you will read the well-known and oft quoted verse, “Heaven helps those who help themselves.” Ok, the fact of the matter is that verse, although often quoted, is not in the Bible. The book of Hezekiah is not in the Bible either, in case you were wondering! My point is, no matter how hard you look in the Bible you will not find that quote despite the popular belief that it is a biblical quote.
There is a similar belief about the well-known and oft quoted phrase, “the separation of church and state.” Popular belief is that this phrase is in the Constitution. The fact of the matter is the phrase is not in the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. (Maybe it’s in Hezekiah 7:15!)
While he was President, Thomas Jefferson received a letter from the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut. They wrote their letter on October 7, 1801 (ten years after the First Amendment had been ratified) because of their concern with Connecticut’s history of a state church. Historically, Connecticut’s official state church had taken action against Connecticut Baptists such as taxation and imprisonment. As an example of the persecution the Connecticut Baptists had suffered, the following happened in 1744: “…fourteen persons were arrested for holding a Baptist meeting, . . . tried, fined, and driven on foot through a deep mud (in February) to New London, a distance of twenty-five miles, and thrust into prison, without fire, food, or beds, where they remained, enduring dreadful sufferings, for several weeks." (The Baptists Encyclopedia, 1881)
It was this historical background that prompted the Danbury Baptist Association to write to President Jefferson concerning their fears of a state or even a federal church. They wrote in part, “Our sentiments are uniformly on the side of religious liberty: that Religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals, that no man ought to suffer in name, person, or effects on account of his religious opinions, [and] that the legitimate power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor. But sir, our constitution of government is not specific. Our ancient charter, together with the laws made coincident therewith, were adapted as the basis of our government at the time of our revolution. And such has been our laws and usages, and such still are, [so] that Religion is considered as the first object of Legislation, and therefore what religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the State) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights. And these favors we receive at the expense of such degrading acknowledgments, as are inconsistent with the rights of freemen. It is not to be wondered at therefore, if those who seek after power and gain, under the pretense of government and Religion, should reproach their fellow men, [or] should reproach their Chief Magistrate, as an enemy of religion, law, and good order, because he will not, dares not, assume the prerogative of Jehovah and make laws to govern the Kingdom of Christ.”
Jefferson responded on January 1, 1802 and his letter stated, “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature would "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.” And there you have it, the phrase “separation of church and state.”
Even more interesting is Jefferson’s original draft of his letter. The original draft, which was not sent, showed Jefferson clearly stating that as President he would not preside as leader over a state church. Jefferson wrote, “I have refrained from prescribing even those occasional performances of devotion, practiced indeed by the Executive of another nation as the legal head of its church, but subject here [in America], as religious exercises only to the voluntary regulations and discipline of each respective sect…” In other words, the President of the United States is not a religious leader or head of a state church.
I hope this has put the “separation of church and state” phrase in its proper perspective. It is not in the Constitution or Declaration of Independence. It was merely one phrase in a letter from President Jefferson trying to assure a group of Connecticut Baptists that the US would not have a state church.
Cross-posted at Back To The Constitution