Did you know that America once had a President who did not even want to recognize Thanksgiving as a national holiday? His efforts to explain solidified his famous doctrine. ◊
A Christian group sought the protection of religious freedom from the newly installed U.S. president. They wrote him a congratulatory letter in which they also lamented their ongoing persecution in their community perpetuated by their own state’s constitution.
it seemed as though state officials openly favored another religious group, and that while not forcing anyone to attend, the state did provide tax benefits to this other religious church which was the favored denomination of many influential state politicians.
The letter was sent on October 7, 1801 by the Danbury Baptists Association of Danbury, Connecticut, to President Thomas Jefferson, the newly elected 3rd President of the US as of March 4 of that same year. (Note: national elections held in November was established in 1845.)
The eloquent letter sent by the Danbury Baptists noted that
“What[ever] religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor[ity] part of the state) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights.”
These Baptist Christians were actually appealing to Jefferson’s known aversion to the mixing of church and state affairs. Even though the American Revolution (1765-1783) had ushered in a new federal Constitution and Bill of Rights that prevented Congress from establishing any sort of national religion or religious preference, a handful of states — including Connecticut and Massachusetts — still lacked similar religious liberty protections, even into the early 19th century.1
The Baptists felt as though they were at the mercy of state officials who favored the Congregational Church in Connecticut.
Little did they know that their little letter would inspire Jefferson’s doctrine of the “separation of church and state” – the popular notion often used today as a political cudgel.
Thomas Jefferson – 1st Anti-Thanksgiving President?
George Washington called for an official celebratory “day of public thanksgiving and prayer“ in 1789. While Congress overwhelmingly agreed to Washington’s suggestion, the holiday did not yet become an annual event until Abraham Lincoln thanked God at the height of the Civil war in 1863:
I do, therefore, invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.2
As for Thomas Jefferson, he believed that endorsing Thanksgiving as a public holiday meant supporting state-sponsored religion. His political enemies, the Federalists, used his stance on the separation of church and state to convince Americans that he was an atheist. Jefferson saw this as an opportunity to explain his views. Perhaps his response to the Baptists, which would be widely read, could make his views clearer and protect him against those slurs.
Nixed Letter Draft
In a draft of the letter, Jefferson faced the Federalist accusations head-on, explaining that he considered declaring fasts or days of thanksgiving to be expressions of religion and that he opposed them because they were remnants of Britain’s reign over the American colonies.
But his Attorney General and friend, Levi Lincoln, warned him that his words might be construed as a criticism of New England, where the feast of thanksgiving had become a beloved tradition. After careful consideration, Jefferson decided to drop the reference from his letter. His public reply to the Danbury Baptists did not include a comment on public celebrations of thanksgiving.3
Rather, Jefferson told them he believed in “a wall of separation between Church and State.” Here is the final letter:
Gentlemen, 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 & 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.4
Giving Thanks Nevertheless
Jefferson was not an atheist. He believed in a creator if not in the deity of Jesus Christ. In 1779 he did declare a day of Thanksgiving and Prayer while serving as Governor of Virginia. His principled rationale was that he merely considered days of thanksgiving the responsibility of states, not the federal government.
We need not bicker about politics and religion. God is God, Creator and Father and Author of Life. Jesus is the incarnation of the Living God in human flesh who lived and died and rose to provide an atonement for the sins of all mankind. The Bible is the Word of God for all of us to read and understand the revelation of this amazing story from beginning to end.
Thanksgiving is a human institutional holiday that merely recognizes our gratefulness to God for all that He has done. On this holiday, and every day, may we see past the human issues and focus on the blessings of a loving and good God.
Have a Happy and Grateful Thanksgiving.
“Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” – 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18
1 October 7: Danbury Baptists Inspire Jefferson’s “Separation of Church and State” Doctrine, in Today in Connecticut History, October 7, 2017, https://todayincthistory.com/2018/10/07/october-7-danbury-baptists-jefferson-separation-of-church-and-state/#.
2 President Lincoln Proclaims Official Thanksgiving Holiday, History.com, November 20, 2020, https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/lincoln-proclaims-official-thanksgiving-holiday.
3 Thomas Jefferson’s Complicated Relationship with Thanksgiving, by Erin Blakemore, History.com, November 21, 2017, https://www.history.com/news/thomas-jeffersons-complicated-relationship-with-thanksgiving.
4 The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, “To the Danbury Baptist Association”, Volume 36: 1 December 1801 to 3 March 1802, Princeton University Press, 2009, p. 258. https://jeffersonpapers.princeton.edu/selected-documents/danbury-baptist-association-0