Friday, May 4, 2018

Do not misrepresent your sources (Day of Prayer edition)

Thomas Jefferson: Quote Him Correctly!

A follow-up comment in reference to my article in The Washington Post (May 3, 2018) about the National Day of Prayer (using Roger Williams's discussion of the wheat and tares parable).

In the course of my research for the essay, I carefully read through the web pages of the National Day of Prayer Task Force.

To my surprise, I discovered that they quote Thomas Jefferson as apparently being in favor of the government proclaiming Days of Prayer.

Here is the quote that is displayed prominently on their website:
"Fasting and prayer are religious exercises; the enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the time for these exercises, and the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and right can never be safer than in their hands, where the Constitution has deposited it." —Thomas Jefferson, 1808
Based on what I know about Jefferson and his thinking about religious liberty and the separation of church and state, I was immediately suspicious. I then went to the primary source for that quote, a Jan. 23, 1808, letter Jefferson wrote to the Rev. Samuel Miller:

Here is the paragraph in which that quote is found (emphasis mine):
I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct its exercises, its discipline, or its doctrines; nor of the religious societies that the general government should be invested with the power of affecting any uniformity of time or matter among them. Fasting & prayer are religious exercises. The enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, & the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the constitution has deposited it.
Since the sentence just before the quote used by the website of the National Day of Prayer Task Force used to "support" the National Day of Prayer directly states Jefferson's opposition to the practice, it seems to me that this misrepresentation is deliberate.

Jefferson clearly states his opposition to proclaiming days of prayer, and I believe the great Christian minister Roger Williams would as well (and James Madison also came to believe it was wrong).

As I tell my students, check (and recheck) your sources very carefully and do not--intentionally or unintentionally--misrepresent them.





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