Interpreting Jefferson and you

What do you think I mean?

What do you think I mean?

The obstacles to kindling a “light unto your path” are daunting, but that is what evangelists in Denver and beyond face daily. There are open manholes; legal beagles biting at their ankles; and that gnarly misconception of what Jefferson meant in his letter to the Danbury Baptists so many years ago. Relativists like to point out that there are “many ways to interpret what our founding fathers meant by their letters.” For intellectual Biblical scholars, interpretation and systematic theology are close cousins and so interpretation is found in what many theologians have been analyzing for years. This week’s breakthrough question is:

“How can we kindle with kindness the knowledge of interpretation using Biblical mandate and motive, Systematic Theology as an approach; and Evangelical outreach and power of authority in giving people a choice in what they do with the message; mission and music of the Gospel?”

Digging for meaning

The Biblical, Systematic and Theological Interpretation is reaching an understanding of Biblical maps and charts. “What is the authors motive; approach and what is the authors power and authority in communicating the work.” In the case of Jefferson’s letter the answer is “What does in mean to the people who received the letter.” The second test is what does the letter mean to us today.  So evangelists are to bring some analysis to Jefferson’s letter which incidentally is the classic method to interpretation of historic documents and law throughout history. The method is actually a scientific process but it isn’t through until we build a bridge across the gap between meaning to people during the time of the writing and for the recipients and our time and how we exercise and legislate based on the document’s meaning then and now.

What the Danbury Baptists asked

Our sentiments are uniformly on the side of religious liberty: that Religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals, that no man ought to suffer in name, person, or effects on account of his religious opinions, [and] that the legitimate power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor. But sir, our constitution of government is not specific. Our ancient charter, together with the laws made coincident therewith, were adapted as the basis of our government at the time of our revolution. And such has been our laws and usages, and such still are, [so] that Religion is considered as the first object of Legislation, and therefore 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 acknowledgments, as are inconsistent with the rights of freemen. It is not to be wondered at therefore, if those who seek after power and gain, under the pretense of government and Religion, should reproach their fellow men, [or] should reproach their Chief Magistrate, as an enemy of religion, law, and good order, because he will not, dares not, assume the prerogative of Jehovah and make laws to govern the Kingdom of Christ.

“Sir, we are sensible that the President of the United States is not the National Legislator and also sensible that the national government cannot destroy the laws of each State, but our hopes are strong that the sentiment of our beloved President, which have had such genial effect already, like the radiant beams of the sun, will shine and prevail through all these States–and all the world–until hierarchy and tyranny be destroyed from the earth. Sir, when we reflect on your past services, and see a glow of philanthropy and goodwill shining forth in a course of more than thirty years, we have reason to believe that America’s God has raised you up to fill the Chair of State out of that goodwill which he bears to the millions which you preside over. May God strengthen you for the arduous task which providence and the voice of the people have called you–to sustain and support you and your Administration against all the predetermined opposition of those who wish to rise to wealth and importance on the poverty and subjection of the people.”

And may the Lord preserve you safe from every evil and bring you at last to his Heavenly Kingdom through Jesus Christ our Glorious Mediator.

Signed in behalf of the Association,

Neh,h Dodge }
Eph’m Robbins } The Committee
Stephen S. Nelson }


Jefferson answers:


“Gentlemen, The affectionate sentiment 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, and 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 and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature would “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church and 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 and blessing of the common Father and Creator of man, and tender you for yourselves and your religious association, assurances of my high respect and esteem.

Th Jefferson
Jan. 1. 1802


What it means to the recipients in 1801-1802  

When the Danbury Baptists write “predetermined opposition of those who wish to rise to wealth and importance on the poverty and subjection of the people,” they are making reference to what it meant to having “freedom of faith” upheld as the chief reason for the revolution. Being subject to a church run by the state in England, as most of the pastors had experienced, was something they asked for from a new president. And Jefferson responds with favor and assurance: “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church and State. ” Ironically both sides of the argument take this sentence to justify their means! So what do these letters really mean to us and can you build a bridge between the two?

Soundbites taken out of context

When interpretation is made the current debate is based on what Jefferson wrote, “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” clearly states Jefferson’s intentions and yet the rest of the sentence builds a wall that is suppose to protect the Baptists and anyone other church: “thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.

How now shall we minister?

Faith should not be determined by the government, and government should not be dictated by one church or religion. Yet while many feel that you can not “legislate morality,” it appears that the state is taking liberty with “legislating immorality,” as evidenced in light of the recent measures and redefinition of marriage and the legalization of marijuana. Evangelism is based on truth and justice and to have freedom to reach out with a message designed for the people. Invitation and free expression are the methods in which evangelism works worldwide. The free exercise of  living the mission at church; in the public square and beyond the walls of the church through evangelism; reaching out to “the least of these” through prayer and in building a common union in our towns and neighborhoods are where the message, mission and music should be heard. The freedom of choice on what you do with it is another story.






One thought on “Interpreting Jefferson and you

  1. Pingback: Interpreting Jefferson and you « East Coast Cafe-Triology

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