by Jason G. Duesing
When Thomas Jefferson replied in 1802 to a letter from the Danbury Baptist Association on the topic of the freedom of religion, he likely did not realize the weight that its most well-known phrase would carry. The phrase was a “wall of separation between church and state”—and if Jefferson did not have a full grasp of his intended meaning, the subsequent generations have labored to supply it for him—but without unanimity.
A Wall Built
Whether or not Jefferson foresaw the impact his words would have, he clearly meant to protect the free practice of religion and to counteract the continued establishment of state churches. In that sense, Jefferson’s wall has served as a foundation of the history of religious freedom in the United States.
The building of the wall has origins in the sixteenth-century Reformation and the expansion of the Reformation among English dissenting believers—some of whom traveled to the New World in the seventeenth century. The state-church system extended to the colonies as well, and thus the building of the wall endured many stoppages. With the dawn of the eighteenth century and the Great Awakening of the 1730s, the connection between the state and church grew wider, making way for new ideas about religious liberty.
The conclusion of the French and Indian War in 1763 brought further economic and political tensions between the British motherland and the colonists that resulted in a tea party in Boston and the forming of the First Continental Congress. The colonists declared and won their independence, and, among many new ideas for this nation, the ground was cleared for the wall of separation to arise.
As Thomas Kidd and Matthew Harris note, “The two most celebrated confrontations over religious establishment and religious liberty took place in Massachusetts and Virginia.” Key building blocks in the formation of the wall of separation followed. In Massachusetts, a Baptist pastor and mobilizer for disestablishment, Isaac Backus, wrote An Appeal to the Public for Religious Liberty in 1773. Following the war, in 1786, Thomas Jefferson introduced his bill, the Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, that brought an end to the state-established church in Virginia.
Once the Constitution was ratified, its first amendment, adopted in 1791, ensured the free exercise of religion on the national level. Still, states like Connecticut and Massachusetts refused to fully adopt the disestablishment partition. Enter John Leland, friend of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and another Baptist pastor and spokesman for religious liberty. In that same year, Leland published his influential The Rights of Conscience Inalienable. As Kidd and Harris note, “Although Leland and Jefferson held very different personal religious beliefs, they both agreed that full religious freedom was an essential component of American liberty.”
Upon Jefferson’s election as president in 1801, the Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut, wrote him sharing that “they hoped that Jefferson’s victory might signal a rising tide of religious liberty that would ultimately transform the New England states into bastions of freedom.” In reply, Jefferson famously reflected that, with the approval of the First Amendment, the American people built “a wall of separation between church and state.” By 1821, Connecticut no longer held to state-established religion. Massachusetts was the last state to recognize the wall but did so on November 11, 1833.
The Baptist Mr. Underhill
Earl Grey, the cost of turnips, and the early crowds milling about the shops of High Street were probably the only things on Edward Bean Underhill’s mind on that November morning in 1833. Unbeknownst to Mr. Underhill, the conclusion of these significant strides forward in the struggle for religious freedom had taken place an ocean away. Underhill, a grocer in Oxford, England, like his father before him, had yet to leave his imprint on the heritage of Baptists and religious liberty at this time when Baptists in America were celebrating. Soon thereafter, however, his wife’s health-related issues caused Underhill to leave his occupation as well as the city of spires to devote “himself to the study of the history of the Baptist denomination.” Underhill would learn well of the beginnings and ongoing Baptist struggle for religious liberty.
The produce of Underhill’s new labors culminated in his chief contribution to Baptist heritage, the founding of the Hanserd Knollys Society. This society published early works of significant Baptist writers, focusing on the advancement of religious liberty. At the beginning of several of the ten total volumes published between 1846 and 1854, Underhill penned a continuous historical survey, later published in one volume as Struggles and Triumphs of Religious Liberty, which chronicled the advocates of the “rights of conscience,” many of whom were Baptists, from the time of Henry VIII to the settlement of New England.
Underhill saw these Baptists, and rightly so, as heroes worthy of honor because they “sounded the note of freedom for conscience as man’s birth-right” even while paying the ultimate price with “holy tears and the martyr’s blood.” Underhill’s survey of Baptists’ role in the advance of religious liberty served to remind his readers of the price that was paid for their freedom and to challenge them in the ongoing protecting and promoting of the freedom of religion for all.