Ask Rufus: Mississippi and the separation of church and state

July 13, 2013 6:37:28 PM

Rufus Ward - [email protected]


Today there is much discussion about prayer in schools and the separation of church and state. Very few people, though, realize the origin of that discussion and controversy. Even fewer know of the role Mississippi played in its beginning. 


At the time the Constitution was drafted the American people were still much concerned about the new government not establishing a national church as formerly British monarchs had decreed the Church of England to be. That freedom of religion was so important is shown by its inclusion with freedom of speech, press, assembly and petition in Article I of the Bill of Rights. 


Amendment I - Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. 


The original language only refers to the establishment or free exercise of religion and nowhere refers to a separation of church and state. So where did that language first appear?  


The first significant issue about church and state arose in 1801 when Connecticut's Danbury Baptist Association became concerned that the state legislature was about to grant special privileges to the Congregationalist Church. They wrote a letter to president Thomas Jefferson expressing concern over the infringement of their religious liberty.  


In response Jefferson wrote: "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 legitimate 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 should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church & State... 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 & esteem." 


Although it is Jefferson who is credited with declaring the wall separating church and state, it was President James Madison who first really acted on it. In 1811, he rejected two bill passing through Congress on the grounds that they violated the establishment clause of the Bill of Rights. 


One was: "An act incorporating the Protestant Episcopal Church in the town of Alexandria in the District of Columbia." The President objected as "because the bill exceeds the rightful authority to which governments are limited, by the essential distinction between civil and religious functions, and violates, in particular, the article of the Constitution of the United States, which declares, that " Congress shall make no law respecting a religious establishment." 


The other was a bill granting land to a Baptist church in Mississippi. One wonders if the protagonist there might not have been one George Poindexter. His ancestors were French protestants who fled to England to escape religious prosecution and then immigrated to Virginia, where his father was a Baptist minister.  


Poindexter moved to Natchez about 1802. He served as the Mississippi Territorial Attorney General, was involved in the arrest of Aaron Burr and, in 1807, became the Mississippi Territorial delegate to Congress, serving three terms. He served Mississippi in many positions of public trust including being elected the second Governor of the State of Mississippi. However, it was while he was Mississippi's Territorial Representative in Congress that Mississippi's mixing of church and state was to be approved by that body. 


The Mississippi controversy occurred in 1811 when Congress considered legislation, "that there be reserved the quantity of five acres of land, including Salem Meeting-house, in the Mississippi Territory, for the use of the Baptist Church, at said meeting-house." The legislation was on its way to be passed and enacted when President James Madison objected to it. 


He believed it to be unconstitutional "because the bill in reserving a certain parcel of land of the United States for the use of said Baptist Church comprises a principle and precedent for the appropriation of funds of the United States for the use and support of religious societies, contrary to the article of the Constitution which declares that "Congress shall make no law respecting a religious establishment."  


The bill was reconsidered by Congress and "the House negatived the Bill." Thus legislation pursued by the Mississippi Territory to aid a specific religious denomination helped define what constituted separation of church and state. 


Since the writing of Jefferson's 1802 letter courts have quoted it and recognized "a wall of separation between Church and State". It is a wall that over the last 200 years seems to have grown increasingly higher.

Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]