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Was Thomas Jefferson a Christian?

April 4, 2012
By Bruce Dudley

Recently the nation has received much exposure to issues bearing on religion as the GOP primaries grind on to an uncertain outcome.

We note, also, that President Obama's own religious faith remains a focus of attention among many on the right side of the political spectrum.

With this month marking an anniversary of Thomas Jefferson's birth, the continuing furor over the role of religion in American politics brings to mind our third president's views on the subject.

Article Photos

This portrait of Thomas Jefferson was painted by Mather Brown in 1786, the year the state of Virginia adopted the Jefferson-penned Statute for Religious Freedom.

Interestingly, Jefferson's opinions about religion evolved unevenly over his long lifetime and changed as he aged. During his early youth he basically went through the motions of religious observance without much thought of adhering to the Anglican faith of his parents. At the time, in fact, Jefferson considered Christianity to be largely an exercise in superstition.

Later, as a student at the College of William and Mary, Jefferson was greatly influenced by the faculty of that institution, especially the world view of William Small, who introduced him to the ideas of European Enlightenment thinkers.

While at college, Jefferson steeped himself in the classical writings of ancient and modern philosophy. The young student was particularly impressed by the scathing biblical criticism offered up by the more skeptical scholars down through the centuries.

As one of the current Republican candidates for that party's presidential nomination has suggested, exposure to higher education can radically change the outlook of an impressionable student!

Jefferson's doubts regarding traditional biblical accounts increased during his adult years, and long before the American Revolution the sage of Monticello embraced the deistic opinions held by the great French philosopher Voltaire.

As Jefferson and many of his fellow revolutionaries believed, the existence of God could be deduced through reason rather than biblical revelation or prophecy.

A broad tolerance of diversity also became a central tenet of Jefferson's religious philosophy. This was clearly evident in his encyclopedic observations appearing in "Notes on the State of Virginia," written in 1782 when he remarked that "it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty Gods, or no God."

The author of the Declaration of Independence embellished on this belief some years later in a letter to Margaret Bayard Smith: "I never told my own religion, nor scrutinized that of another. I never attempted to make a convert, nor wished to change another's creed. I have ever judged the religion of others by their lives. ... For it is in our lives, and not in our words, that our religion must be read."

After his election to the presidency, Jefferson found only limited time to ponder religious questions, and his vivid memory of the election of 1800 made him cautious about expressing thoughts on that subject.

Jefferson had good reason to keep his most deeply held beliefs about organized religion private and away from the critical eye of the public. He cherished his reputation and remembered the bitterly fought election which brought him to power. It was then, for the first time in our history, that religion became a major campaign issue.

During that contest, Jefferson was accused of being a howling atheist and was savagely slandered by the opposition party newspapers. The Hamilton-led Federalists and their supporters viciously attacked Jefferson, charging that if elected, he would wage war on all Christian faiths. Some ministers in New England even went so far as to advise worshipers to hide their Bibles in order to protect them from confiscation and destruction should the heathen Jefferson be elected.

It's not surprising that Jefferson kept a low profile for the remainder of his life when it came to religion.

Although finding little time for the further study of religion while president, Jefferson composed a syllabus in 1803 comparing the moral doctrines of Jesus with those of ancient philosophers. He would not, however, reach a final assessment of Jesus and his teachings until many years later, after retiring from public life and returning to Monticello.

With the GOP's religious zealots interjecting religious discourse into the 2012 election season, one can well imagine what Jefferson might think. Considering his skepticism about mixing religion with politics, he would surely be saddened and appalled.

Very early in his political career, Jefferson advocated that there be a wall of separation between government and religion. He, in fact, viewed the wall of separation to be part of God's plan.

His striking metaphor elegantly describes the proper relationship between church and state in the modern world - a principle of separation which was established when Jefferson drafted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, adopted by that state in 1786.

Just four years before his death in 1826, Jefferson explained to a Unitarian clergyman why he had avoided identification with any religion during his life: "I have never permitted myself to mediate a specified creed. These formulas have been the bane and ruin of the Christian church, its own fatal invention, which, through so many ages, made Christendom a slaughter-house, and at this day divided it into casts of inextinguishable hatred to one another."

In that twilight time of his life, the thoughtful Virginian stated the three main things Jesus taught:

1. That there is only one God, and he all perfect

2. That there is a future state of rewards and punishments

3. That to love God with all thy heart, and thy neighbor as thyself, is the sum of religion.

In those final years, Jefferson completed a project begun during his presidency. He painstakingly examined the gospels and extracted what reason revealed to him as Jesus' actual words, in contrast to the corruptions inserted falsely by the apostles years later. For the scholarly and scientifically inclined Jefferson, the truth of Christ's wisdom was easily discerned. According to Jefferson, this analytical process was similar to separating the wheat from the chaff, as simple as finding "diamonds in dunghills."

Finally, Jefferson felt strongly that the Author of Nature ordained that the human mind was destined to be free. It ought not be forgotten that when he "swore upon the altar of god, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man," Jefferson most assuredly was thinking about religion as much as despotic authority.

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Bruce Dudley lives in Camden, Del. and Paul Smiths.

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Sources:

Cousins, Norman (1958) "In God We Trust: The Religious Beliefs and Ideas of the American Founding Fathers"

Beran, Michael Knox (2003) "Jefferson's Demons: Portrait of a Restless Mind"

Ellis, Joseph (2002) "American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson"

Ferling, John (2004) "Adams and Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800"

Hayes, Kevin J. (2008) "The Road To Monticello: The Life and Mind of Thomas Jefferson"

Kaminski, John P. (2006) "Citizen Jefferson: The Wit and Wisdom of an American Sage"

Malone, Dumas (1962) "Jefferson and the Ordeal of Liberty"

Malone, Dumas (1979) "Jefferson the President: First Term 1801-1805"

Shuffelton, Frank (2009) "The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Jefferson"

 
 

 

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