The Hedge of Separation?

-Submitted by David Drumm (Nal), Guest Blogger

Statue of Roger Williams

The earliest North American advocate of the separation between church and state was Roger Williams who founded not only the first Baptist Church on the continent, but also the colony of Rhode Island. In his 1644 book, The Bloody Tenent of Persecution, Williams used the phrase “[A] hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.”

Fortunately, Thomas Jefferson didn’t use “hedge” in his famous letter in reply to the Danbury Baptists. However, “hedge” does fit into Williams’ metaphor that uses garden and wilderness.

The Danbury Baptists were a minority religion in a Connecticut dominated by the Congregational church. In their letter to Jefferson, the minority Danbury Baptists wrote:

… what religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the State) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights: and these favors we receive at the expense of such degrading acknowledgements, as are inconsistent with the rights of freemen.

The Danbury Baptists were concerned with those “who seek after power & gain under the pretense of government & Religion.” Clearly the Danbury Baptists viewed their free exercise not as a right but as a gift bestowed by the government.

In Jefferson’s reply, he assured the Danbury Baptists that the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses built a “wall of separation between church and State.” In Everson v. Board of Education (1947), Justice Black wrote:

The First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach.

In Reynolds v. United States (1878), the Court wrote that Jefferson’s Danbury letter “may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the [first] amendment thus secured.”

H/T: Austin Cline.

16 thoughts on “The Hedge of Separation?”

  1. You asked a question: “Can anyone tell me what the “degrading acknowledgment” was? Why can’t I learn what this was all about?”

    If you thought you knew the answer, how come the question? If you thought you knew the answer, then asked the question as you did, I can only assume your question was intended to bait.

    If you think America is a communist country, then you (1) do not understand communism, (2) do not understand America, or (3) both.

  2. If ANYONE would like to read the complete file regarding the Danbury letter, which includes all of the correspondence that took place between Jefferson and his staff and the Danbury association, along with David Bartons misrepresentation of this information, please feel free to send me an email asking for it and I’ll send it with great joy in my heart!!! It’s about 10 pages of information in all.

    Thanks for the interest.

  3. Sorry to inform you, but the degrading acknowledgment was about the establishment of religion that the Danbury association had to deal with in the christian church state of Connecticut. It had to do with the way taxes were collected for the state approved church. My dear, I have not only read “the Danbury letter”, but I have read all of the string of letters related to the Danbury association, I am a specialist in the understanding of them and your absolutely off base. Have you ever read Jeffersons rough draft letter in response to the letter the Danbury association wrote Jefferson? Have you ever read the letters his staff wrote in exchange with Jefferson regarding responding to this situation? If you have, you would know that first off, this string of letters was tied to Jefferson NOT conducting religious ceremonies by issuing a day of fasting and prayer as president. Second you would know that the christians of Connecticut had an “establishment of religion” (ever heard that phrase before?) that stepped on the religious liberty of the Danbury association and their phrase “privileges granted” was a sarcasm to the fact that religious liberty is, according to Jefferson and the Danbury association, an “unalienable right”. And thirdly you would know that Jefferson intended for this letter to stand as a PUBLIC statement as to what the proper association between church and state should be, hence the phrase “separation of church and State”. And so on and so on,
    I correctly spell amerika with a “k” to make the point that amerika is a communist country, a christian communist country. And christians are the most historically ignorant people on earth. Especially David Barton and his followers. They, among 200 years of other christians, have made a christian communist country out of my country with more “establishments of religion” at the federal level than you can shake a stick at and I do resent it. Look it up.
    What do you think about that?

  4. Tony, read the letter from the Danbury Baptists carefully. By “degrading acknowlgement” (sic), they refer to their understanding that the practice of their “religious privileges” was a gift from the government, and not an inalienable right. The viewed such a gift as degrading and rightly so, had their understanding been correct. Jefferson, in his letter, tried to dispel their misunderstanding

    And by the way, ‘America’ is always capitalized and has no “k” in it.

  5. Can anyone tell me what the “degrading acknowledgment” was? Why can’t I learn what this was all about? Is it because amerika is a christian nationalist nation and christians don’t want to tell the world what this was all about? Rather amerikan christians want to cover such history?

  6. If you’ve traveled in rural England or many places in Europe, you’ll have seen that a tightly planted hedgerow is as good as a wall for keeping your animals enclosed. I think that’s the sense in which Roger Williams used the term. I doubt he was thinking of the low-cut, purely ornamental things we call “hedges” on a suburban lawnscape.

  7. RE: Nal, April 9, 2011 at 10:53 pm

    Picky, picky, picky.



    Trivial remains trivial.

    Not quite fixed…

    “Congregational Churches”

    That would fix it, but why bother?

    I lived in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, during part of 1988-89. At that time, the Stockbridge Town Hall building was owned by the local Congregational (United Church of Christ affiliation) church, as I guess it also was in the 1700s.

    Not any more.

    Actual separation of church and town only happened a few years ago…

    The last I knew, the old school building became, remodeled, the new Town Hall.

    Separation of church and state may not yet be in a state of completion.

  8. Not that it matters, but there has never been “the Congregationalist church,” as might be inferred from the following excerpt from the thread starter:

    The Danbury Baptists were a minority religion in a Connecticut dominated by the Congregationalist church.

    There were, and methinks yet are, Congregational Churches and/or Congregational Christian Churches. Each Congregational Church and each Congregational Christian Church is independent and autonomous, and there are only associations of individual churches and associations of associations. There has never been, in the U.S. such a thing as “The Congregational Church” other than as an individual congregation. There has apparently never been, to my knowledge and on checking Congregational and United Church of Christ Yearbooks, any “Congregationalist Church” in the U.S.

    Congregationalists are individual persons, and no individual person is a church, as two or more need to be gathered for there to be a church?

    And trivial mistakes are trivial.

  9. It is my understanding that each country had its own state sanction religion….if you were not that then you were not welcome….thus…In America we have Religious Freedoms…..which means that no state can endorse a state sanctioned religion…

    Wonderful work of art nal….

  10. Didn’t that wall take a hit recently with the Arizona credits to religious school case? I forget the name of the case.

  11. Neat. I didn’t know about the quote from Roger Williams. Thanks Nal.

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