Jefferson’s Separation Between Church and State

Friday, April 3, 2009

I’ve spent some time writing about Jonathan Edwards. I have to admit that I did live it dangling there, and you would be right to wonder what really happened to him after his self-exile to the Western Massachusetts Indian mission. Well, the answer is: not very much. Edwards hoped in his heart that the Great Awakening would lead to the Day of Judgement, and the thousand years reign of God directly on earth, when religion shall in every respect be uppermost in the world. But instead of the dawning of a general revival of the Christian Church, what Edwards got was the day to day routine of attending a mission to Indians whose language he did not speak, and an English congregation whose attention span was, in Edwards’ Judgement, not up to one of a kid.

His own attention soon went back to his early enchantment with philosophy. Between 1750 and 1757, he composed three great treatises in moral philosophy, on Original Sin, on Freedom of the Will, and the Nature of True Virtue; all awhile praying for a new Awakening, until the trustees of Princeton invited him to take up the presidency there in 1757. He goes there at the beginning of 1758, only to find that smallpox is in the neighborhood. He takes the inoculation, but the inoculation turns out to be more lethal than the smallpox. He dies of the complications.

What ultimately follows on the hills of the Great Awakening was not the new awakening Edwards hoped for, but a secular revolution. The leadership of the colonial Churches was not better prepared for the revolution than it had been for the Great Awakening. The vast majority of New England Congregationalists and Presbyterians supported the American cause. Even the Church of England, since it was legally a department of the English government, lost three quarters of its American clergy who exiled in England or Canada.

The Secular Revolution

For those Congregationalists and Presbyterians who joined the revolution, the war was seemed as a marvelous opportunity to condemn the corrupt commercialized society of Great Britain and any of its American partners and admirers. They also looked upon the Revolution as an opportunity to earn a special place of respect for Christianity in the construction of this new republic. This was, however, exactly what did not happen. The disruptions created by occupation, invasion and enlistments battered all of the Churches equally.

The Philadelphia's Baptist association saw its congregations decline from 42 to 26. Its membership dropped down by a fifth. Moreover, the revolutionary leadership was conformed by Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, John Adams, Hamilton, James Madison. These all were men with little interest in Christian theology, and whose case against the British was fed by secular political theory. Instead of leading the Revolution, the clergy of the American Churches found themselves being used by it. When the Revolution was over, instead of having a new public role for the Churches of American society, they found that they had lost almost all the vestige of the public roles they once had.

New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware eliminated all public funding for Churches in 1776. New York followed in 1777. In Massachusetts, the new revolutionary Constitution of 1780 kept public tax support for the Congregational Churches enforced, but it did not allow tax payers to send their tax money to Churches of their own choosing.

Virginia suspended taxation for the support of the Church of England in 1776, and in an effort to nail exclusion down more securely, Thomas Jefferson wrote a statute for religious freedom, adopted by the Virginia Assembly in 1786, with the support of Madison. It confirmed that “no man should be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever”. Jefferson statute for religious freedom was only the most famous of the efforts that Jefferson and Madison made to force religion off the public square.

The Wall of Separation

Sitting in the Confederation Congress in 1785, Madison actually opposed a plan to reserve public lands for the support of religion. Jefferson preferred putting the most useful facts from Greek, Roman, European and American history into the hands of children rather than the Bible. His 1817 plan for a system of public education in Virginia decreed that “no religious reading, instruction or exercise shall be prescribed or practiced”.

The involvement of Jefferson and Madison in Virginia’s dismantling of public religion gave the final blow to the hopes of the churches that the Revolution and the Millennium could be had for the same price. Congress stipulated that the first amendment shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting their free exercise thereof. Now, although technically this no-establishment clause only addressed the Federal government, and left states like Massachusetts free to establish state churches or state funding; it clearly set a direction to public policy that was not friendly towards an official seat for religion on the public square.

Religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his god”, Jefferson wrote sympathetically to a group of unhappy Connecticut Baptists, who had to put up with paying state taxes for religion until 1817. “I contemplate, said Jefferson, with sovereign reverence, those Americans who declare that their legislatures should make no law respecting and establishing religion, or prohibiting their free exercise thereof. Thus, building a wall of separation between Church and State.”

A wall of separation between Church and State was not what the righteous Presbyterians and Congregationalists of America had gone into the Revolution for. It became a very good question what they would propose to do about it. The first answer came from the disciples of Jonathan Edwards.