Part 1

The State Becomes the Church: Jefferson and Madison

It is no exaggeration to say that on Sundays in Washington during the administrations of Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809) and of James Madison (1809-1817) the state became the church. Within a year of his inauguration, Jefferson began attending church services in the House of Representatives. Madison followed Jefferson's example, although unlike Jefferson, who rode on horseback to church in the Capitol, Madison came in a coach and four. Worship services in the House--a practice that continued until after the Civil War--were acceptable to Jefferson because they were nondiscriminatory and voluntary. Preachers of every Protestant denomination appeared. (Catholic priests began officiating in 1826.) As early as January 1806 a female evangelist, Dorothy Ripley, delivered a camp meeting-style exhortation in the House to Jefferson, Vice President Aaron Burr, and a "crowded audience." Throughout his administration Jefferson permitted church services in executive branch buildings. The Gospel was also preached in the Supreme Court chambers.

Jefferson's actions may seem surprising because his attitude toward the relation between religion and government is usually thought to have been embodied in his recommendation that there exist "a wall of separation between church and state." In that statement, Jefferson was apparently declaring his opposition, as Madison had done in introducing the Bill of Rights, to a "national" religion. In attending church services on public property, Jefferson and Madison consciously and deliberately were offering symbolic support to religion as a prop for republican government.

"A Wall of Separation"

Thomas Jefferson's reply of January 1, 1802, to an address of congratulations from the Danbury (Connecticut) Baptist Association contains a phrase familiar in today's political and judicial circles: "a wall of separation between church and state." Many in the United States, including the courts, have used this phrase to interpret the Founders' intentions regarding the relationship between government and religion, as set down by the First Amendment to the Constitution: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion . . . ." However, the meaning of this clause has been the subject of passionate dispute for the past fifty years.

Presented here are both the handwritten, edited draft of the letter and an adjusted facsimile showing the original unedited draft. The draft of the letter reveals that, far from dashing it off as a "short note of courtesy," as some have called it, Jefferson labored over its composition. Jefferson consulted Postmaster General Gideon Granger of Connecticut and Attorney General Levi Lincoln of Massachusetts while drafting the letter. That Jefferson consulted two New England politicians about his messages indicated that he regarded his reply to the Danbury Baptists as a political letter, not as a dispassionate theoretical pronouncement on the relations between government and religion.

Jefferson Attacked as an Infidel

During the presidential campaign of 1800, the Federalists attacked Thomas Jefferson as an infidel, claiming that Jefferson's intoxication with the religious and political extremism of the French Revolution disqualified him from public office. In this cartoon, the eye of God has instigated the American eagle to snatch from Jefferson's hand the "Constitution & Independence" of the United States before he can cast it on an "Altar to Gallic Despotism," whose flames are being fed by the writings of Thomas Paine, Helvetius, Rousseau, and other freethinkers. The paper, "To Mazzei," dropping from Jefferson's right hand, was a 1796 letter that was interpreted by Jefferson's enemies as an indictment of the character of George Washington.

The Providential Detection. Etching by an unknown artist, c. 1800. The Library Company of Philadelphia (159)

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Jefferson's Opinion of Jesus

In the 1790s, Thomas Jefferson, influenced by the writings of Joseph Priestly, seems to have adopted a more positive opinion of Christianity. In this letter to his friend Benjamin Rush, Jefferson asserted that he was a "Christian, in the only sense in which [Jesus] wished any one to be." In an attached syllabus, Jefferson compared the "merit of the doctrines of Jesus" with those of the classical philosophers and the Jews. Jefferson pronounced Jesus' doctrines, though "disfigured by the corruptions of schismatising followers" far superior to any competing system. Jefferson declined to consider the "question of [Jesus] being a member of the god-head, or in direct communication with it, claimed for him by some of his followers, and denied by others."

Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Rush, April 21, 1803. [page one] - [page two] - [page three] Holograph letter and syllabus. (Copyprint of verso.) Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (160)

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The Lord's Prayer in Jefferson's Hand

Jefferson liked to experiment with and use cryptology. There are several different codes in his papers at the Library of Congress, including this one based on the Lord's Prayer, which Jefferson carefully wrote out as a block of consecutive letters.

The Lord's Prayer. Thomas Jefferson, Holograph manuscript. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (161)

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The Jefferson Bible

It is thought that Jefferson prepared what is referred to as the "Jefferson Bible" in 1820. In this volume, Jefferson used excerpts from New Testaments in four languages to create parallel columns of text recounting the life of Jesus, preserving what he considered to be Christ's authentic actions and statements, eliminating the mysterious and miraculous. He began his account with Luke's second chapter, deleting the first in which the angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she would give birth to the Messiah by the Holy Spirit. On the pages seen here, Jefferson deleted the part of the birth story in which the angel of the Lord appeared to the shepherds. The text ends with the crucifixion and burial and omits any resurrection appearance.

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  • The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth extracted textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French & English. [index page one] -- [index page two] -- [index page three] Thomas Jefferson, c. 1820. National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution (162a)

  • The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth extracted textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French & English. [title page] - [page one] - [page two] Thomas Jefferson. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1904. General Collections, Library of Congress (162c)

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A Wall of Separation

The celebrated phrase, "a wall of separation between church and state," was contained in Thomas Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists. American courts have used the phrase to interpret the Founders' intentions regarding the relationship between government and religion. The words, "wall of separation," appear just above the section of the letter that Jefferson circled for deletion. In the deleted section Jefferson explained why he refused to proclaim national days of fasting and thanksgiving, as his predecessors, George Washington and John Adams, had done. In the left margin, next to the deleted section, Jefferson noted that he excised the section to avoid offending "our republican friends in the eastern states" who cherished days of fasting and thanksgiving.

Thomas Jefferson to Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins and Stephen S. Nelson, a committee of the Danbury Baptist Association in the state of Connecticut, January 1, 1802. Holograph draft letter, 1802. Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (163a)

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The Danbury Baptist Letter, as Originally Drafted

The Library of Congress is grateful to the Federal Bureau of Investigation Laboratory for recovering the lines obliterated from the Danbury Baptist letter by Thomas Jefferson. He originally wrote "a wall of eternal separation between church and state," later deleting the word "eternal." He also deleted the phrase "the duties of my station, which are merely temporal." Jefferson must have been unhappy with the uncompromising tone of both of these phrases, especially in view of the implications of his decision, two days later, to begin attending church services in the House of Representatives.

Thomas Jefferson to Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins and Stephen S. Nelson, a committee of the Danbury Baptist Association in the state of Connecticut, January 1, 1802. Letter, digitally revised to expose obliterated sections. Copyprint. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (163b)

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Jefferson at Church in the Capitol

The Library of Congress is grateful to the Federal Bureau of Investigation Laboratory for recovering the lines obliterated from the Danbury Baptist letter by Thomas Jefferson. He originally wrote "a wall of eternal separation between church and state," later deleting the word "eternal." He also deleted the phrase "the duties of my station, which are merely temporal." Jefferson must have been unhappy with the uncompromising tone of both of these phrases, especially in view of the implications of his decision, two days later, to begin attending church services in the House of Representatives.

Journal entry, January 3, 1802. Manasseh Cutler. Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Library (164)

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Jefferson and Family at Church

In this letter Manasseh Cutler informs Joseph Torrey that Thomas Jefferson "and his family have constantly attended public worship in the Hall" of the House of Representatives.

Manasseh Cutler to Joseph Torrey, January 3, 1803. [page one] -- [page two] -- [page three] -- [page four] Manuscript letter. Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Library (165)

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Reserved Seats at Capitol Services

Here is a description, by an early Washington "insider," Margaret Bayard Smith (1778-1844), a writer and social critic and wife of Samuel Harrison Smith, publisher of the National Intelligencer, of Jefferson's attendance at church services in the House of Representatives: "Jefferson during his whole administration was a most regular attendant. The seat he chose the first day sabbath, and the adjoining one, which his private secretary occupied, were ever afterwards by the courtesy of the congregation, left for him."

Reminiscences. [left page] - [right page] Margaret Bayard Smith, 1837. Manuscript volume. (Copyprint of verso). Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (166-166a)

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Incident at Congressional Church Services

In this letter Catherine Mitchill, wife of New York senator Samuel Latham Mitchill, describes stepping on Jefferson's toes at the conclusion of a church service in the House of Representatives. She was "so prodigiously frighten'd," she told her sister, "that I could not stop to make an apology, but got out of the way as quick as I could."

Catherine Akerly Mitchill to her sister, Margaret Miller, April 8, 1806. Manuscript letter. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (167)

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Madison Seen at House Church Service

Abijah Bigelow, a Federalist congressman from Massachusetts, describes President James Madison at a church service in the House on December 27, 1812, as well as an incident that had occurred when Jefferson was in attendance some years earlier.

Abijah Bigelow to Hannah Bigelow, December 28, 1812. [left page] - [right page] Manuscript letter. The American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts (168)

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Hymns Played at Congressional Church Service

According to Margaret Bayard Smith, a regular at church services in the Capitol, the Marine Band "made quite a dazzling appearance in the gallery . . . but in their attempts to accompany the psalm-singing of the congregation, they completely failed and after a while, the practice was discontinued."

"The President's Own" United States Marine Corp Band, ca. 1798. Watercolor, Lt. Col. Donna Neary, USMCR, late twentieth century. Copyprint. United States Marine Corp Band, Washington, D.C. (169)

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The Old House of Representatives

Church services were held in what is now called Statuary Hall from 1807 to 1857. The first services in the Capitol, held when the government moved to Washington in the fall of 1800, were conducted in the "hall" of the House in the north wing of the building. In 1801 the House moved to temporary quarters in the south wing, called the "Oven," which it vacated in 1804, returning to the north wing for three years. Services were conducted in the House until after the Civil War. The Speaker's podium was used as the preacher's pulpit.

The Old House of Representatives. Oil on canvas by Samuel F.B. Morse, 1822. Copyprint. In the collection of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Museum Purchase, Gallery Fund (170)

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A Millennialist Sermon Preached in Congress

This sermon on the millennium was preached by the Baltimore Swedenborgian minister, John Hargrove (1750-1839) in the House of Representatives. One of the earliest millennialist sermons preached before Congress was offered on July 4, 1801, by the Reverend David Austin (1759-1831), who at the time considered himself "struck in prophesy under the style of the Joshua of the American Temple." Having proclaimed to his Congressional audience the imminence of the Second Coming of Christ, Austin took up a collection on the floor of the House to support services at "Lady Washington's Chapel" in a nearby hotel where he was teaching that "the seed of the Millennial estate is found in the backbone of the American Revolution."

A Sermon on the Second Coming of Christ, and on the Last Judgment. Delivered the 25th December, 1804 before both houses of Congress, at the Capitol in the city of Washington. John Hargrove. Baltimore: Warner & Hanna, 1805. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (171)

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First Catholic Sermon in the House

On January 8, 1826, Bishop John England (1786-1842) of Charleston, South Carolina, became the first Catholic clergyman to preach in the House of Representatives. The overflow audience included President John Quincy Adams, whose July 4, 1821, speech England rebutted in his sermon. Adams had claimed that the Roman Catholic Church was intolerant of other religions and therefore incompatible with republican institutions. England asserted that "we do not believe that God gave to the church any power to interfere with our civil rights, or our civil concerns." "I would not allow to the Pope, or to any bishop of our church," added England, "the smallest interference with the humblest vote at our most insignificant balloting box."

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  • John England, Bishop of Charleston, South Carolina. Oil on canvas. Diocese of Charleston, Charleston, South Carolina (173)

  • The substance of a discourse preached in the hall of the House of Representatives of the United States, January 8, 1826. John England. Baltimore: F. Lucas, 1826. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (172)

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Woman Preacher in the House

In 1827, Harriet Livermore (1788-1868), the daughter and granddaughter of Congressmen, became the second woman to preach in the House of Representatives. The first woman to preach before the House (and probably the first woman to speak officially in Congress under any circumstances) was the English evangelist, Dorothy Ripley (1767-1832), who conducted a service on January 12, 1806. Jefferson and Vice President Aaron Burr were among those in a "crowded audience." Sizing up the congregation, Ripley concluded that "very few" had been born again and broke into an urgent, camp meeting style exhortation, insisting that "Christ's Body was the Bread of Life and His Blood the drink of the righteous."

Harriet Livermore. Engraving by J.B. Longacre, from a painting by Waldo and Jewett, 1827. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution (174)

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Communion Service in the Treasury Building

Manasseh Cutler here describes a four-hour communion service in the Treasury Building, conducted by a Presbyterian minister, the Reverend James Laurie: "Attended worship at the Treasury. Mr. Laurie alone. Sacrament. Full assembly. Three tables; service very solemn; nearly four hours."

Journal entry, December 23, 1804. Manasseh Cutler. Manuscript. Charles Deering McCormick Library of Special Collections, Northwestern University Library (175)

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The Treasury Building

The first Treasury Building, where several denominations conducted church services, was burned by the British in 1814. The new building, seen here on the lower right, was built on approximately the same location as the earlier one, within view of the White House.

Washington City, 1820. Watercolor sketch by Baroness Hyde de Neuville, 1820. I. N. Phelps Stokes Collection, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations (176)

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Adams's Description of a Church Service in the Supreme Court

John Quincy Adams here describes the Reverend James Laurie, pastor of a Presbyterian Church that had settled into the Treasury Building, preaching to an overflow audience in the Supreme Court Chamber, which in 1806 was located on the ground floor of the Capitol.

Diary entry, February 2, 1806. John Quincy Adams. Copyprint. Adams Family Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston (177)

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The Old Supreme Court Chamber

Description of church services in the Supreme Court chamber by Manasseh Cutler (1804) and John Quincy Adams (1806) indicate that services were held in the Court soon after the government moved to Washington in 1800.

The Old Supreme Court Chamber, ca. 1810, U. S. Capitol Building. Photograph by Franz Jantzen. Copyprint. Collection of the Supreme Court of the United States (178)

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Church Services in Congress after the Civil War

Charles Boynton (1806-1883) was in 1867 chaplain of the House of Representatives and organizing pastor of the First Congregational Church in Washington, which was trying at that time to build its own sanctuary. In the meantime the church, as Boynton informed potential donors, was holding services "at the Hall of Representatives" where "the audience is the largest in town. . . .nearly 2000 assembled every Sabbath" for services, making the congregation in the House the "largest Protestant Sabbath audience then in the United States." The First Congregational Church met in the House from 1865 to 1868.

Fundraising brochure. Charles B. Boynton. Washington, D.C.: November 1, 1867. Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (180)

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House of Representatives, After the Civil War

The House moved to its current location on the south side of the Capitol in 1857. It contained the "largest Protestant Sabbath audience" in the United States when the First Congregational Church of Washington held services there from 1865 to 1868.

The House of Representatives, 1866. Chromo-lithograph by E. Sachse & Co, 1866. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress (179)

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Part 1