Priority Mail: Why President Jefferson's Letter to the Danbury Baptists Is Still Being Read by Americans after 200 Years. (Cover Story)

By Boston, Rob | Church & State, January 2002 | Go to article overview

Priority Mail: Why President Jefferson's Letter to the Danbury Baptists Is Still Being Read by Americans after 200 Years. (Cover Story)


Boston, Rob, Church & State


On New Year's Day, 1802, Baptist minister John Leland arrived at the White House with a present for President Thomas Jefferson.

It was a "mammoth cheese," weighing more than 1,200 pounds and accompanied by a placard proclaiming: "The Greatest Cheese in America for the Greatest Man in America!" The gift came from a group of Baptists in Cheshire, Mass., where Leland, a former Virginia resident, had settled. The cheese wheel, the Baptists said, was given in appreciation of Jefferson's strong stand in favor of religious freedom and his opposition to all those who sought to impose state-sponsored orthodoxy.

Jefferson received the offering with enthusiasm, but consuming the delicacy created some special problems. Two years later it was still being served at White House dinners. Federalist Sen. William Plumer of New Hampshire sampled a piece while dining at Jefferson's table in 1804 and later remarked that it was "very far from being good."

Religious liberty seems to have been the topic of the moment at the White House that New Year's Day. A few hours later, Jefferson penned a famous letter about religious freedom and church-state separation. That missive, a reply to the Danbury, Conn., Baptist Association, contains Jefferson's view that the American people through the First Amendment have erected a "wall of separation between church and state." (Jefferson was apparently in a letter-writing mood that day. He also wrote two notes to sons-in-law, detailing the arrival of the "mammoth cheese.")

Jefferson's pronouncement in the Danbury letter has had a huge influence on the relationship between religion and government in the United States. Yet, while many people are familiar with the phrase "wall of separation between church and state," few know much about the letter that contains the famous passage.

Because this month marks the 200th anniversary of the Danbury letter, it's a good time to step back and take a look at Jefferson's missive and its impact on American history. But the place to start is not New Year's Day 1802 -- it's many years earlier. To really understand Jefferson's reply, it's important to know why the Connecticut Baptists wrote to him in the first place.

Baptists in Connecticut had been unhappy with their lot for a long time. Originally a type of mild Congregationalist theocracy, Connecticut had moved toward a different system of state-supported religion by the middle of the 18th century. Instead of a single established church, Connecticut allowed communities to vote on which church they wanted to support with tax funds. In practice, this meant subsidies for the Congregationalists, who wielded political control in most towns.

In 1784 state legislators passed a "Toleration Act" designed to allow members of dissenting faiths to be exempted from the majority-imposed church taxes -- but only after they had pleaded their case before a local magistrate and proved their membership in another denomination.

This may have looked like liberalization to Connecticut's leaders, but to members of often-persecuted minority faiths it was an outrageous violation of freedom of conscience. Further inflaming Baptist anger, a powerful combination of government officials and church leaders essentially ignored the Toleration Act, working in tandem to make it next to impossible for adherents of dissenting faiths to opt out.

The entire system riled Baptists. Even if they could successfully win an exemption from local church taxes, Baptists were offended at the very idea of having to appeal to a government official for this type of relief.

Jefferson's election to the presidency in 1800 gave Connecticut dissenters a glimmer of hope. Baptists in other states had worked with Enlightenment thinkers like Jefferson in an unusual alliance to champion religious liberty. Undoubtedly, Danbury's Baptists knew of Jefferson's leading role in the struggle to end state-established religion in Virginia. …

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