The Wall of Separation Letter was written in 1802 by Thomas Jefferson during his presidency. The letter, addressed to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut, is notable as an eloquent statement of the principle of separation of church and state.
At the time the letter was written, the notion of separating the church from the state was considered by many as radical. Church and state were still unified in Great Britain and most British colonies. Even today, some Americans believe religious symbols, prayers, and songs should be included in civic life.
In his letter, Jefferson referenced and interpreted the U.S. Constitutions First Amendment language concerning religion with these now famous words: I contemplate with sovereign reverence the act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state.
Jeffersons letter was largely forgotten until 1878, when the Supreme Court declared, in Reynolds v. United States, that the wall of separation phrase may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the First Amendment. This interpretation was reinforced in 1948 in the case McCollum v. Board of Education, which prohibited religious instruction in public schools. In its decision, the Supreme Court declared that in the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect a wall of separation between church and state.
To messers. Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins, & Stephen S. Nelson, a committee of the Danbury Baptist association in the state of Connecticut.
The affectionate sentiments of esteem and approbation which you are so good as to express towards me, on behalf of the Danbury Baptist association, give me the highest satisfaction. my duties dictate a faithful and zealous pursuit of the interests of my constituents, & in proportion as they are persuaded of my fidelity to those duties, the discharge of them becomes more and more pleasing.
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.
I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection & blessing of the common father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves & your religious association, assurances of my high respect & esteem.
Jan. 1. 1802.