Why Did Some Baptists Support Jefferson’s Bid for President?

January 5, 2016

Ronnie Rogers | Pastor
Trinity Baptist Church, Norman, OK

Thomas Jefferson was supported by some Baptists and Anti-Federalists, and disfavored by Congregationalists, Federalists, and others who believed in a stronger relationship between church and state. Jefferson and the Baptists worked closely in Virginia to disestablish the Anglican Church and establish religious freedom for dissenters. Baptists supported Jefferson’s bid for president because of his commitment to “the rights of conscience.”[1] (italics added) Just for the record, I do not believe Jefferson evidences true Christianity; additionally, I do not believe that the Baptists who supported him believed that being a Christian was essential for public office, nor do I.

At times, Jefferson’s separationist view is presented as absolute, but it was not. As president he refrained from public religious proclamations (although I do not think those violate the First Amendment), but he did make such proclamations as governor of Virginia. For example, as governor he gave a proclamation appointing a day of “publick and solemn thanksgiving and prayer” in November 1779.[2]

Moreover, even as president, he was not reticent in his use of religious language, which oftentimes was virtually impossible to distinguish from prior religious proclamations. Following are samplings of such language.

In his first inaugural address…gratefully acknowledging “an overruling Providence,” Jefferson wrote: “And may that Infinite Power which rules the destinies of the universe, lead our councils to what is best, and give them a favorable issue for your peace and prosperity.” His first annual message to Congress brims with thanksgiving: “While we devoutly return thanks to the beneficent Being who has been pleased to breathe into them the spirit of conciliation and forgiveness, we are bound with peculiar gratitude to be thankful to him that our own peace has been preserved through so perilous a season, and ourselves permitted quietly to cultivate the earth and to practice and improve those arts which tend to increase our comforts.” His second annual message opened with the following thanksgiving: “When we assemble together, fellow citizens, to consider the state of our beloved country, our just attentions are first drawn to those pleasing circumstances which mark the goodness of that Being from whose favor they flow, and the large measure of thankfulness we owe for his bounty.” Jefferson concluded his second inaugural address by asking Americans to join with him in prayer that the “Being in whose hands we are…will so enlighten the minds of your servants, guide their councils, and prosper their measures, that whatsoever they do, shall result in your good, and shall secure to you the peace, friendship, and approbation of all nations.” His public papers are replete with expressions of thanksgiving and devotion….In marked contrast to the separationist message of the Danbury letter, Jefferson demonstrated a willingness to issue religious proclamations in colonial and state government settings. For example, as a member of the House of Burgesses, on May 24, 1774, he participated in drafting and enacting a resolution designating a “Day of Fasting, Humiliation, and Prayer.” Jefferson recounted in his Autobiography: “We were under conviction of the necessity of arousing our people from the lethargy into which they had fallen, as to passing events [the Boston port bill]; and thought that the appointment of a day of general fasting and prayer would be most likely to call up and alarm their attention….[W]e cooked up a resolution…for appointing the 1st day of June, on which the portbill was to commence, for a day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer to implore Heaven to avert from us the evils of civil war, to inspire us with firmness in support of our rights, and to run the hearts of the King and Parliament to moderation and justice.” ….In 1779, when Jefferson was governor of Virginia, he issued a proclamation appointing a “day of publick and solemn thanksgiving and prayer to Almighty God.” (This proclamation was issued after Jefferson had penned his famous “Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom.” Also, in the late 1770s, as chair of the Virginia Committee of Revisors, he was chief architect of a revised code that included a measure entitled, “A Bill for Appointing Days of Public Fasting and Thanksgiving.”…The bill authorized “the Governor, or Chief Magistrate [of the Commonwealth], with the advice of the Council,” to designate days for thanksgiving and fasting and to notify the public by proclamation…. “Every minister of the gospel shall on each day so to be appointed, attend and perform divine service and preach a sermon, or discourse, suited to the occasion, in his church, on pain of forfeiting fifty pounds for every failure, not having a reasonable excuse.” Although the measure was never enacted, it was sponsored by Madison….The final disposition of this legislation is unimportant to the present discussion. The relevant consideration here is that Jefferson and Madison jointly sponsored a bill that authorized Virginia’s chief executive to designate days in the public calendar for fasting and thanksgiving.[3]

In light of these events, and that Jefferson did not draft the First Amendment, the phrase “wall of separation” should not be the gloss or final word on the First Amendment. He was minister to France and was out of the country when the Bill of Rights was adopted. He neither participated in the Constitutional Convention nor the First Federal Congress that in the summer of 1789 debated the content of a provision, which came to be known as the First Amendment that was later approved in September.[4] In addition, “it is obviously incorrect to substitute this private opinion for the First Amendment.”[5]

Therefore, the phrase “wall of separation,” along with the First Amendment, actually has for its purpose providing for the freedom of religion not freedom from religion. Therefore, in light of Jefferson’s practice as governor, communication with the Baptists, and his second inaugural address as president, it seems clear that he emphasized a jurisdictional understanding of the First Amendment based on federalism and freedom of conscience. Thus, in light of Jefferson’s statements and behavior, the theist is free to follow God both privately and publicly, and the atheist is equally free not to do so.



[1] Herbert M. Morais, “Life and Words of Elder John Leland” (M.A. thesis, Columbia University, 1928), 44-50 as quoted by Daniel L. Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation between Church and State, (New York: New York University Press, 2002), 13.
[2] Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson, 137, Appendix 4.
[3] Selected texts from Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson, 57-59
[4] Ibid., 98.
[5] Joseph H. Brady, Confusion Twice Confounded: The First Amendment and the Supreme Court: An Historical Study (South Orange, N.J.: Seton Hall University Press, 1954), 74, as quoted by Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson, 224.

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Ed Chapman

What other religions were there at the time besides Christianity? My understanding of the use of the word, “religion” at the time was in regards to differing Christian denominations, not as to what we use today to distinguish Muslims, or Buddhists, Shinto’s, etc.

Ed Chapman

Ed Chapman

Sorry about this addendum to my last comment, but I understand that Thomas Jefferson attended Christian church services in the US House of Representatives, and that Christian church services were pretty normally held there, and the reason that it was allowed, is due to there being differing Christian denominations being allowed, so as not to be preferential to any one denomination. My point is that the letter to the Baptists were to comfort the Baptists, not to tell them to sit down and shut up. In other words, the congregation is We The People, and as such, they can tell the state what to do, but the state cannot tell the church what to do. I think that American’s today have a different view of Separation of Church and State than that of what Thomas Jefferson did.

Ed Chapman

Thomas Jefferson
3rd U.S. President, Drafter and Signer of the Declaration of Independence

“God who gave us life gave us liberty. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the Gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever; That a revolution of the wheel of fortune, a change of situation, is among possible events; that it may become probable by Supernatural influence! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in that event.”
–Notes on the State of Virginia, Query XVIII, p. 237.

“I am a real Christian – that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus Christ.”
–The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, p. 385.

Jim P

Regardless about the motive of the ‘separation’ clause, it is respectful of people in the world as it is at the present time. ‘The kingdom of heaven’ has not yet become ‘the kingdom on earth.’ When it does than Church and State will be One. If God’s people ignore that dynamic today they will stay a frustrated bunch.


“‘The kingdom of heaven’ has not yet become ‘the kingdom on earth.’ When it does than Church and State will be One. ”

Are we sure the “kingdom of heaven” and the “kingdom of God” does not refer to Jesus Christ and subsequently as disciples our reflecting him back out into the world? We are to be the kingdom now on earth. Albeit imperfectly. God with us should make us different?

We certainly don’t need a state church for that. A huge problem from the Catholics to Protestants and even the Puritans.


Ed, Not that this answers your question about other religions during our Founding, but you might find this snippet from history interesting.


    Ed Chapman

    Hey Lydia,

    Yes, I am becoming more and more aware of that issue mainly due to the debate about the Treaty of Tripoli, in which Andrew Jackson proclaimed in that treaty that we are not a Christian nation. I believe, from my opinion only it seems, that the statement in that treaty is totally disingenuous. Reasons:
    1. The treaty was short term, not long term
    2. Why is any nations religious beliefs or non-beliefs in a treaty to begin with? Is that normal?
    3. Why was that treaty extremely important to the United States to begin with?
    4. What is the religion of those in Tripoli?
    5. Do the citizens, or the Government of Tripoli have a problem with Christians? Yes, absolutely they did.
    6. What would the repercussions be had was in fact stated that we are a Christian nation in that treaty?

    When I look at those questions, I conclude that the statement that we are not a Christian nation is disingenuous.

    Next, Our Declaration of Independence declares our separation from only one nation, and, as far as I know, there were no Muslims on the transports over here. Now, some may say that some of our founding fathers were deists. But, when I see a letter from Ben Franklin to the president of Yale, he states:

    “Here is my Creed. I believe in one God, the Creator of the Universe. That He governs it by His Providence. That He ought to be worshipped.

    “That the most acceptable service we render to him is in doing good to his other children. That the soul of man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental points in all sound religion, and I regard them as you do in whatever sect I meet with them.

    “As to Jesus of Nazareth, my opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the system of morals and his religion, as he left them to us, is the best the world ever saw, or is likely to see;

    “But I apprehend it has received various corrupting changes, and I have, with most of the present dissenters in England, some doubts as to his divinity; though it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the truth with less trouble. I see no harm, however, in its being believed, if that belief has the good consequence, as probably it has, of making his doctrines more respected and more observed; especially as I do not perceive, that the Supreme takes it amiss, by distinguishing the unbelievers in his government of the world with any peculiar marks of his displeasure.”
    –Benjamin Franklin wrote this in a letter to Ezra Stiles, President of Yale University on March 9, 1790.

    Now, that doesn’t sound like a deist to me. It sounds like a Christian that had doubts to the deity of Jesus, and didn’t have the desire or time to study it out. I conclude, therefore, that all of the signers of the Declaration of Independence were indeed Christians of various denominations, but they all believed in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. There were no Muslims, or Buddhists here yet. The word, “Faith” in Christianity, means that you LIVE what you believe at all times. You don’t leave your faith at the door when you enter a government building, or depart a church building. If Thomas Jefferson, as well as James Madison, attended Christian church services in a Government building, then God was never meant to be kicked out of government. Some might disagree with me, stating that I am declaring a theocracy. But it is clear to me that today’s use of that word is in no way yester-years use of the word. The big fight that I see from back then was in regards to the strict laws of the puritans, but most Christians believe that we are free, not to be entangled with religiosity, not religion. God is one who directs our steps…if we follow him always.

    Ed Chapma

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