Donate to RNS

NEWS FEATURE: Exhibit sparks debate on Jefferson’s church-state views

c. 1998 Religion News Service WASHINGTON _ A major Library of Congress exhibit of more than 200 items examining the role of religion in early American life has sparked a new church-state debate even as it winds up its Washington stay and prepares to visit a number of major U.S. cities. On Thursday (July 30), […]

c. 1998 Religion News Service

WASHINGTON _ A major Library of Congress exhibit of more than 200 items examining the role of religion in early American life has sparked a new church-state debate even as it winds up its Washington stay and prepares to visit a number of major U.S. cities.

On Thursday (July 30), a group of two dozen church-state scholars released a joint letter criticizing a paper the Library of Congress released June 1 in connection with the exhibit,”Religion and the Founding of the American Republic.”The Library’s paper portrayed Jefferson’s church-state separation view as political rather than principled.

The paper, authored by James Hutson, chief of the Library’s manuscript division, was based on a high-tech analysis of Jefferson’s famed 1802 letter _ included in the exhibit _ to the Danbury (Conn.) Baptist Association in which Jefferson used the metaphor of a”wall of separation”between church and state.

The analysis of the letter was conducted by the FBI, which used its technology to restore words Jefferson had crossed out in drafting the letter.

According to Hutson, the omissions suggest the Danbury Baptist letter”was never conceived by Jefferson to be a statement of fundamental principles; it was meant to be a political manifesto, nothing more.” Hutson’s paper was seized on by the Christian Coalition to argue that it is”a liberal myth”that Jefferson intended his words”to be used as a justification for expelling religious expression from the public square.” But the 24 scholars responding Thursday to Hutson’s paper said Hutson presented an”unbalanced treatment”of the topic.

The scholars said there may be several possible explanations for Jefferson’s crossing out of several words but they do not provide a basis for arguing”these omissions indicate that the reply was not `conceived to be a statement of fundamental principles,’ but rather `was meant to be a political manifesto, nothing more.'”Supporters of a broad understanding of Jefferson’s Danbury letter have never denied the relevant and pertinent political considerations; however, that fact does not negate either the significance of this statement or his commitment to the principle,”they said.

The response to Hutson was drafted by Robert M. O’Neill, professor of law at the University of Virginia, and Robert S. Alley, emeritus professor of humanities at the University of Richmond.

The Danbury letter is the centerpiece of the exhibit that will wrap up its Washington display on Aug. 22 and then travel to Indianapolis, Dallas, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Richmond, Va. Hutson has also written a 136-page catalogue to accompany the show.

While Jefferson’s letter has provoked debate, other items, including a stunning stained-glass window of the Founding Fathers bowed in prayer, testify to the significance of religion in public life.

There are revival hymnals, etchings, psalm books, Bibles, and other artifacts dating from the 17th to late 19th centuries that bear witness to the highly visible role religious traditions played in creating American democracy.

At the same time, the exhibit includes startling illustrations of early American religionists disemboweling, dunking, hanging, and roasting each other in the name of truth.

The exhibit also highlights the little-known fact that religious services were held in federal buildings and flourished there long after the Civil War.

For example, during the 1860s the House of Representatives was also known as one of the most popular houses of worship. In its liturgical heyday, the House attracted 2,000 people weekly to the”largest Protestant Sabbath audience … in the United States,”boasted then House Chaplain Charles Boynton.

Some of the other items on display include:

_ The portable, oak field pulpit evangelist George Whitefield used when he toured the colonies in the 18th century. The open-air pulpit, with its own rectangular platform, was a necessity since Whitefield was barred from preaching in many churches.

_ A stained-glass Liberty window from Christ Church in Philadelphia, including a pane depicting George Washington and other forefathers with clasped hands, kneeling for the first prayer in the Continental Congress in 1774.

_ A hand-colored engraving, called”The Tree of Life,”printed in 1791 by Methodist preacher John Hagerty of Baltimore. The engraving, based on Revelation 22:2, depicts the 12 fruits of salvation as a large crowd is shown complacently strolling along the Broad Way to the Bottomless Pit where the devil beckons.

_ An 1876 engraving of the bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, which depicts AME church founder Richard Allen surrounded by 10 bishops of the church. Bordering the corners of the detailed piece are pictures of the historically black Wilberforce University and Payne Institute. Other scenes depicted in the illustration include the sending of missionaries to Haiti in 1824.

_ A 1784 broadside containing Patrick Henry’s general assessment bill establishing a”Provision for teachers of the Christian Religion.”The bill assessed a tax for the support of religion but permitted individuals to earmark their taxes for the churches of their choice. Although the bill narrowly passed, final consideration was postponed and a year later, opponents, led by James Madison and with Jefferson’s encouragement from Paris, defeated it.

Eds: The exhibit’s companion catalog,”Religion and the Founding of the American Republic,”can be purchased for $21.95 from the Library of Congress gift shop. To order, call 202-707-0204.)