Did All Baptists Want a Wall?

Early Postures Toward Religious Liberty

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Pastor, Marion, Illinois

In 1801, the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut, penned a letter to the newly elected president, Thomas Jefferson, to declare their belief “that America’s God has raised you up to fill the chair of State out of that good will which he bears to the Millions which you preside over.”1 In their view, Jefferson was a divine instrument for the purpose of securing and safeguarding religious liberty. The Danbury Baptists were speaking on behalf of thousands of Baptists in the early United States who still endured the weight of religious intolerance by their respective state churches. But the Danbury Association did not speak for all Baptists.

Jefferson’s famous reply, in which he referred to the First Amendment as erecting “a wall of separation between Church & State,” has led many historians to frame virtually all Baptists as Democratic-Republicans who shared a similar view.2 However, most Baptists did not define religious liberty in such strict separationist terms. In fact, many believed that Jefferson’s ideas about God and government were harmful to society.

In an era of American history in which certain states still boasted a tax-supported church, many Baptists partnered politically with actual Christian nationalists to realize their own vision of an America where religion was not established but still encouraged.3 They locked arms with Congregationalists and Episcopalians, denominations that traditionally opposed disestablishment, to promote various moral and social causes, and to regulate matters like immigration and the influx of foreign (i.e., French) ideas. Like many Baptists today, they emphasized freedom of conscience and the importance of the Bible to shape the minds and morals of citizens.

These Baptists help to expose two myths about religion in America: (1) The earliest Baptist supporters of the First Amendment intended a “wall” between church and state. (2) Baptists in the early United States agreed upon a universal definition of religious liberty.

Four Kinds of Baptists

The ultra-Jeffersonian Baptist John Leland (1754–1841) once called religious liberty the “polar star” of Baptist politics.4 However, to borrow a biblical analogy, in their pursuit of the “polar star” of religious freedom, Baptists did not always arrive in the same Bethlehem.

“Many Baptists believed that Jefferson’s ideas about God and government were harmful to society.”

Although Leland has become somewhat famous for wheeling his 1,235-pound cheese to the White House as a gift to his “hero” Jefferson, not every Baptist was a self-professed “dyed-in-the-skin” Democratic-Republican.5 On one hand, due to their common cause in disestablishing religion, there is a sense in which every Baptist in the early United States was “Jeffersonian.” On the other hand, most Baptists were not willing to remove religion from government in the same way that Jefferson wished to extricate government from religion.

In fact, there were at least four kinds of Baptists who qualified their Jeffersonianism: (1) those Democratic-Republicans who supported Jefferson but did not share his view of religious liberty, (2) Federalists who applauded Jefferson’s push for religious liberty but who partnered with establishmentarians due to a common belief in the importance of Christianity as the basis for good government, (3) anti-Jeffersonians who believed Jefferson’s ideas were dangerous and undermined public morality, and (4) those who were so disillusioned with party politics that they chose not to support any candidate, including Jefferson. Like their spiritual descendants today, Baptists in the early republic were a diverse bunch.

Democratic-Republican but Not Separationist

Isaac Backus, pastor of Middleborough Baptist Church in Massachusetts, had every reason to be a Jefferson man. At the Continental Congress in 1774, John Adams dismissed the former Congregationalist when the latter contended for “the liberty of worshipping God according to our consciences, not being obliged to support a ministry we cannot attend.”6 Like most Separate Baptists, Backus had experienced the hostility of the so-called “Standing Order” clergymen in the Federalist Party. As the chairman of the Grievance Committee in the Warren Association, he documented complaints of religious persecution by Baptists.

But Backus was not interested in building a wall between church and state. He believed in the “sweet harmony” between religion and civil government, and he also did not object to compulsory attendance at public worship, teaching of the Westminster Confession in New England schools, and strict observance of the Sabbath.7 Backus once referred to Roger Williams’s Rhode Island as an “irreligious colony,” bristling at the thought of a more secular America where Christianity was removed from the public square.

Thomas Baldwin defended Jefferson publicly after his election in 1800. However, as pastor of Second Baptist Church of Boston and as chaplain of the General Court of Massachusetts, Baldwin was on friendly terms with Federalists. In the so-called “benevolent empire” that arose in the early republic, Baldwin worked with Congregationalists in various moral and missionary endeavors.8 Of Baldwin it was said that “no important association seemed complete unless it had enrolled him as its President.”9

However, Baldwin’s vision of America included more than voluntary societies. He also campaigned for publicly funded biblical education. In a sermon delivered before the Federalist governor of Massachusetts in 1802, Baldwin insisted that there was cause “no more deserving of legislative attention, than the education of youth and children.” Without the “religion of the Bible,” he argued, America would certainly lose its most basic liberties. Sensitive to the “irreligion” sometimes associated with the “Republican name,” Baldwin’s response to the First Amendment wasn’t to keep Bibles out of schools, but to teach children “the essential articles of the ‘Faith once delivered to the Saints.’”10

Federalists Who Appreciated Jefferson

The second group of Baptists who did not adopt Jefferson’s “wall” metaphor were not Democratic-Republicans at all. These Baptists affiliated with the Federalist party not because they believed that religion should be wedded to the state, but because they feared the tyranny of a state completely divorced from religion.11

Charleston Baptist Richard Furman honored Jefferson as a founder of the nation, but he aligned with Federalists because they shared his ideal of a Christian citizenry. Furman was vice president of the Charleston Bible Society, which met in the home of his friend and vice-presidential candidate Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. Furman’s Southern network included Episcopal and Presbyterian pastors, and his favorite American theologian was Yale President Timothy Dwight, the leading clergymen of the “Standing Order” and the grandson of Jonathan Edwards.12 He also partnered with the most notable Federalists in the South when he led in the formation of a “Society” in Charleston “for encouraging Emigration of virtuous citizens from other countries.” According to his own combination of religious liberty and religious nationalism, Furman, a slaveowner, sought to regulate the influx of “those about to leave Europe” whom he deemed injurious to American society.13

There were, in fact, a host of Baptist Federalists in the early republic, men who did not excoriate Jefferson publicly but who were suspicious of his beliefs. These men included Hezekiah Smith, Oliver Hart, Morgan Edwards, James Manning, and Henry Holcombe. John Mason Peck named his youngest son after John Adams.14 Not surprisingly, they were proponents of education and moral improvement, causes they believed to be impossible with a “wall” separating church and state. To reach the poor and spread the gospel, these men worked with all sorts of Protestant denominations — and sometimes with Roman Catholics. In New Orleans in 1817, the young Federalist William B. Johnson was even asked to preach at St. Louis Cathedral for a benefit for the Poydras Orphan Asylum. Father Anthony of the local diocese approved of the homily, but he requested to “see his sermon before he preaches it.”15


The third group of Baptists who opposed Jefferson’s “wall” were in fact Jefferson’s most bitter opponents. These Baptists defy the stereotypical Lelandian caricature of Baptists who praised “America’s God” for raising up Jefferson. In fact, they were anti-Jeffersonian.

Jonathan Maxcy was a brilliant college President who served at three different institutions. He spent most of his career in New England and South Carolina, two hotbeds of Baptist Federalism. Maxcy was judged by some to be a “violent politician” whose “sarcasms against the Anti-Federalists” were viewed as incompatible for a man of his office. The year before “the revolution of 1800,” Maxcy warned his audience of “foreign foes and domestic traitors” in America who were “continually advancing opinions and doctrines which tend to its subversion.” The nativistic Maxcy believed that Jefferson posed a threat to religious liberty with his “foreign influence and foreign intrigue” and his “utmost efforts to ruin our government.”16 His case against a Jeffersonian wall was simple: “The most salutary laws can have no effect against general corruption of sentiments and morals. The American people, therefore, have no way to secure their liberty, but by securing their religion.”

Samuel Stillman, the pastor of First Baptist Church of Boston, launched the same kind of verbal assaults in Jefferson’s direction. In 1795, he warned his hearers of “men of boundless ambition, who become heads of parties, and spare no pains to get into place.”17 These kinds of thinly veiled shots at Jefferson were not uncommon in New England, even among Baptists.

Neither Democratic-Republican nor Federalist

Stillman was a personal friend of John Adams. However, the last group of Baptists who opposed Jefferson were friends of neither Adams nor Jefferson. Some, like Georgia Baptist Jesse Mercer, simply did not vote, “for he said all parties had aberrated so far from the constitution, that he could not conscientiously vote for the candidates.”18 In 1798, Mercer wrote the article of the Georgia constitution guaranteeing religious liberty. However, at least by the end of Jefferson’s presidency, Mercer no longer identified with the principles that Jefferson had bequeathed to the Democratic-Republican party.

“Religious liberty has always united — and to some extent divided — Baptists in America.”

A closer look at the political leanings of Baptists in the early United States reveals a people who were remarkably similar to Baptists and other evangelicals today. They wrestled with the influence of ideas on society, the importance of shaping children’s minds, the responsibility of Christians to practice their faith, the relationship between religious liberty and nationalism, and the inherent tension of supporting political parties led by men who denied some of their most basic convictions. There is truly nothing new under the Baptist sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9).

By examining our Baptist ancestors, we are reminded that religious liberty has long united — and to some extent divided — Baptists in America. However, within this spectrum of views, it is doubtful that the majority of Baptists, including the Danbury Association, ever intended to build a “wall” between church and state.19

  1. To Thomas Jefferson from the Danbury Baptist Association, October 7, 1801. 

  2. Democratic-Republicans, or Jeffersonian Republicans, or simply Republicans, were those who belonged to the party of Thomas Jefferson, which splintered in 1824 and led to the founding of the modern Democratic party in 1828. These early Republicans are not to be confused with the current Republican party, or GOP, organized in 1854. A host of scholars have framed Baptists as if they were all Democratic-Republicans. See Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991), 34–36; Daniel L. Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State (New York: New York University Press, 2002), 10–27; Amanda Porterfield, Conceived in Doubt: Religion and Politics in the New American Nation (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012), 10. None of these scholars have identified Baptists in the early republic as uniformly Jeffersonian, nor have they contended that Baptists were in precise lockstep with Jefferson’s overall view of the separation of church and state. However, without accounting for the significance of Baptist Federalists and others, their respective portraits of Baptist life do not present the relationship between Jefferson and Baptists in its proper context. 

  3. I say “actual” Christian nationalist to denote someone in American history who actually advocated for religious establishment in America and not simply a twenty-first-century evangelical with conservative politics. This distinction is why Hillsdale historian Miles Smith is critical of the usage of the term “Christian Nationalist” to denote a Baptist today who holds to religious liberty. He has argued, “The fact remains that there is not, and has never been, any substantive establishmentarian tradition within the Baptist tradition. To suggest that Baptists could be Christian nationalist is then to move the term away from any potential Reformation-era connection and turn it essentially into a synonym for a sort of American Calvinist Baptist folk religion used almost exclusively for actuating political policy.” See Miles Smith, “The Uselessness of ‘Christian Nationalism,’” Mere Orthodoxy, July 18, 2022, https://mereorthodoxy.com/the-uselessness-of-christian-nationalism/. 

  4. John Leland, “Speech Delivered in the House of Representatives of Massachusetts, on the Subject of Religious Freedom, 1811,” in The Writings of the Late Elder John Leland, ed. L.F. Greene (New York: G.W. Wood, 1845), 354. 

  5. John Leland, “Blow at the Root,” in The Writings of the Late Elder John Leland, 235–55; John Leland, “Letter to Hon. R.M. Johnson, June 9, 1834,” in The Writings of the Late Elder John Leland, 648. Eric C. Smith has even argued that Leland himself was not a wall-builder: “It is unhelpful to call Leland a ‘strict separationist’ if that term implies the creation of a totally secular public square.” See Eric C. Smith, John Leland: A Jeffersonian Baptist in Early America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2022), 94. 

  6. Isaac Backus, A History of New England with Particular Reference to the Denomination of Christians Called Baptists (Newton, MA: Backus Historical Society, 1871), 2:201–2. Also participating in the exchange was Samuel Adams, John’s second cousin. 

  7. William G. McLoughlin, Soul Liberty: The Baptists’ Struggle in New England, 1630–1833 (Hanover, NH: Brown University Press, 1991), 195. 

  8. Baldwin even led other Baptists to work with Congregationalists. He pointed a young Andover student named Adiel Sherwood to the Savannah Missionary Society in Georgia, an organization that included a mixture of Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Baptists. See Jarrett Burch, Adiel Sherwood: Baptist Antebellum Pioneer in Georgia (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2003), 12–13, 17–18. 

  9. Daniel Chessman, ed. Memoir of Rev. Thomas Baldwin, D.D., Late Pastor of the Second Baptist Church in Boston (Boston: John Peak, 1841), 66. 

  10. Thomas Baldwin, A Sermon, Delivered Before His Excellency Caleb Strong (Boston: Young & Minns, 1802), 16. 

  11. For a more thorough examination of Baptist Federalists, see Obbie Tyler Todd, “Baptist Federalism: Religious Liberty and Public Virtue in the Early Republic,” Journal of Church and State 63, no. 3 (Summer 2021): 440–60. 

  12. While in Savannah in 1795, Furman was invited to preach by Rev. Edward Ellington at the Episcopal Church to over five hundred people. See Richard Furman, “Charleston, Sept. 28, 1795,” in Life and Works of Dr. Richard Furman, D.D., ed. G. William Foster, Jr. (Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle, 2004), 120; William T. Brantly, “Extracts from Dr. W.T. Brantly’s Sermon Delivered in 1825,” Life and Works of Dr. Richard Furman, 221. 

  13. In a letter to his sister on April 1, 1795, Furman wrote, “It has met with remarkable success; most of the notable characters in Charleston having embarked in the Design. . . . The exertions of Dr. Ramsay have however had great influence in forwarding the Design. Judge Grimke, John Rutledge, Jr., Mr. Dessaussure, the lawyer, and myself were on the Committee which formed the rules and the Paper of Information which accompanies this.” See Furman, “Charleston, April 1, 1795,” Life and Works of Dr. Richard Furman, 119. Mr. Dessaussure is presumably Henry William Dessaussure. For a look into Dessaussure’s Federalist politics, see Jonathan J. Den Hartog, Patriotism and Piety: Federalist Politics and Religious Struggle in the New American Nation (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015). 

  14. John Mason Peck, Forty Years of Pioneer Life: Memoir of John Mason Peck, D.D., ed. Rufus Babcock (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1864), 215. 

  15. Hortense C. Woodson, Giant in the Land: The Life of William B. Johnson (Springfield, MO: Particular Baptist Press, 2005), 41–2. 

  16. Jonathan Maxcy, “An Oration Delivered at the First Congregational Meeting House, in Providence, on the Fourth of July, 1799,” in The Literary Remains of the Rev. Jonathan Maxcy, D.D., ed. Romeo Elton (New York: A. V. Blake, 1844), 381–84. 

  17. Samuel Stillman, Thoughts on the French Revolution (Boston: Manning & Loring, 1795), 10. 

  18. Charles D. Mallary, ed., Memoirs of Elder Jesse Mercer (New York: John Gray, 1844), 100–101. 

  19. Philip Hamburger has cast doubt upon the assumption that the Danbury Baptists gave Jefferson’s letter their approbation. See Hamburger, Separation of Church and State (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004), 163–65. 

is pastor of Third Baptist Church in Marion, Illinois, and adjunct professor of theology at Luther Rice College and Seminary. He is the author of Let Men Be Free.