Christianity and Government, Thomas Jefferson

On December 3, 1803, it was recommended by President Thomas Jefferson that the Congress of the United States pass a treaty with the Kaskaskia Indians. Included in this treaty was the annual support to a Catholic missionary priest of $100, to be paid out of the Federal treasury. Later in 1806 and 1807, two similar treaties were made with the Wyandotte and Cherokee tribes. The treaty provided:

“And whereas the greater part of the said tribe have been baptized and received into the Catholic Church, to which they are much attached, the United States will give annually, for seven years, one hundred dollars toward the support of a priest of that religion, who will engage to perform for said tribe the duties of his office, and also to instruct as many of their children as possible, in the rudiments of literature, and the United States will further give the sum of three hundred dollars, to assist the said tribe in the erection of a church.”

President Thomas Jefferson also extended, three times, a 1787 act of Congress in which special lands were designated:
“For the sole use of Christian Indians and the Moravian Brethren missionaries for civilizing the Indians and promoting Christianity.”

Keep in mind that this was from the same Thomas Jefferson who coined the famous phrase “wall of separation” between church and state.  The interesting thing, of course, is that the phrase “wall of separation” was never placed into law by Jefferson or any of his contemporaries, for the phrase is not in the US constitution.  It was first introduced into law by the US Supreme court who put it into a decision in the 20th century. So while Jefferson’s “wall of separation” phrase was never put into law by Jefferson, he did put into law several payments for Christian missionaries.

However, to be fair to history, we must also view the following quote from Jefferson’s Autobiography. In November 1776, just a few months after the Colonies had declared independence and before the revolutionary war and new constitution, Jefferson and four others were appointed as a committee to review the laws, now that they were independent of England. Jefferson includes the following discussion about religious freedom:

“The bill for establishing religious freedom, the principles of which had, to a certain degree, been enacted before, I had drawn in all the latitude of reason & right. It still met with opposition; but, with some mutilations in the preamble, it was finally passed; and a singular proposition proved that it’s protection of opinion was meant to be universal. Where the preamble declares that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word “Jesus Christ,” so that it should read “a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion” the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of it’s protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.”

So what should we conclude? First, Jefferson was one man, and by no means representative of the entire whole of opinion in his day. He wrote the autobiography later in life, when he was somewhat bitter to religion. Second, the first amendment was not written to remove all religion from the public eye, nor did the drafters use it at the time to remove all religion from government spending. Third, they viewed Christianity as their religion, but wanted to provide religious freedom to all, in public. Fourth, the people in the 1700’s defined religious freedom very differently than how the supreme court defined it in the 1900’s.

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About humblesmith

Christian Apologist & Philosopher
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