“A Wee Little Book”: The Bible of Thomas Jefferson (Part 2 of 4)

 

Jefferson Bible

 

Jefferson…wrote his own Bible that excluded all references to miracles, wonders, signs, virgin birth, resurrection, the God-head, and whatever else conflicted with his own religious thought.[i]

Robert S. Alley

 

These words–penned by an atheist–reflect a common belief that Thomas Jefferson was an irreligious Deist who “wrote his own Bible.”

Many secularists translate Jefferson’s supposed Deism into agnosticism and atheism.

According to this narrative, it’s Jefferson’s skepticism that supplied the motivation for his most devious deed of penning his own Bible. Similar to many skeptics and atheists today, Jefferson is proposed to have possessed so much hatred for Christianity that he intentionally, even maliciously, authored his own Bible, exorcising the original New Testament of its most offensive doctrines.

This narrative taints the sensibilities of normally reliable sources like Monticello.org, who repeat this idea in more subtle terms: “Jefferson decided to comb through the Gospels and extract what he believed to be the real teachings of Jesus, devoid of perversions…”  To their credit, this source admits ultimately that Jefferson was clearly an Anglican/Unitarian “theist” and not a “Deist.”

 

Surprisingly, many conservative Christians have also swallowed this secular narrative.

Creation scientist Don Landis penned “Thomas Jefferson…took scissors to the Gospels and cut out all references to anything supernatural.”[ii] This edited version of the Gospels also “rejected the superstitions and mysticism of Christianity” and removed “the miracles and mysticism of Jesus.”[iii]  This secular narrative affirms an original charge against Jefferson that he had disavowed his Anglican faith for French atheism. As evidence, he carved up the Gospels to remove what he felt wasn’t true.

For both the skeptic and the Christian, this “cut and paste” work is commonly known as “The Jefferson Bible.” 

But what’s the truth? What was this “Jefferson Bible?” Why did he create it? And did it reflect his emerging agnostic or atheistic theology?

 

Was Thomas Jefferson Ever an Atheist?

Jefferson published only one book in his life: Notes on Virginia (1785). It proved a contentious work for the former Virginia governor. His progressive views on the separation of church created fear among those who held to minority Christian denominational views, especially in Virginia. At the time, every state was colonized and constituted with a “state” religion. Pennsylvania was framed as the Quaker state. Rhode Island was constituted as Baptist. Maryland as Roman Catholic. And Virginia as Anglican.

In Jefferson’s gubernatorial days (1779-1781), all state officials–including the governor–had to swear allegiance to the Episcopal creed in order to hold office. Jefferson did not favor a state religion (any more than he did a national religion) and in his book he criticized this idea, as well as the Anglican denominational hierarchy and leadership. He also  promoted Virginia adopt a “separation of church and state” similar to the U.S. Constitution in order to give non-Anglicans (who were predominantly Christians in other denominations) their “freedom of religion” and civil rights. He wasn’t anti-Christian but anti-one church control. Jefferson opposed a state forcing a religion (even the Anglicanism that he agreed with).

 

Jefferson’s criticism of his own denomination sparked immediate conflict.

His critics, including Anglican clergy, questioned his motives and slandered his religious convictions. Political agitators used this opportunity to hang a libelous label on Jefferson: atheism. In today’s volatile political climate, racism would be that label but in Jefferson’s day, the worst thing a person could be called was an “atheist” or “infidel.” Such individuals were rare in early America. Even the Deist Thomas Paine didn’t go that far.

Most individuals accused of atheism fought back and, initially, Jefferson chose that route…but it only made matters worse. Ultimately, he chose to silence his critics by no longer speaking publicly about his religious convictions. But this unwillingness only fueled his political opposition. Jefferson’s silence, they argued, proved the merit of the charge. For Jefferson, it was damned if I do (speak out and defend) and damned if I don’t (stay silent). So he stayed silent. He never spoke publicly about his religious convictions again. Consequently, the charge of “atheism” followed him all his life.

 

The rumors of Jefferson’s atheism started after his return from France in 1789.

Bitter partisan politics between his Republican party and the Federalists detonated a host of allegations against Jefferson. Daniel Webster’s salacious accusations were particularly damning. He claimed Jefferson was “addicted to French tastes [and] principles…[with] a preference for French opinions, whether in politics, morals, or religion.”[iv] Jefferson was guilty by association. The French were infidels and “atheists,” and so was Jefferson. It didn’t matter if it wasn’t true. The weight of Webster’s words persuaded many, including Christian clergy, to believe Jefferson was a religious skeptic and morally loose. It’s their words that are repeated today by both the irreligious and religious.

 

But Jefferson was no atheist, nor unbeliever.

His time in France exposed him to Deism and skepticism, but, unlike Thomas Paine, Jefferson later rejected these views. His struggle with Anglicanism eventually led him to  abandon “traditional [Trinitarian] Christian doctrine” for a Unitarian “natural religion” featuring a “primacy of morality over dogma.”[v] But these theological moves were early. Jefferson’s lifelong refusal to speak on his religion only created confusion and misinterpretation. Even his affections with Unitarianism never resulted in church membership or even regular attendance at Unitarian meetings (save when he was in Philadelphia).

After his death, the falsehood of Jefferson’s atheism was propagated by his critics (who were mostly Christian clergy). In recent decades, Jefferson’s rumored “atheism” was hijacked as “fact” by skeptics wishing to rewrite American history toward a more secular view. They missed the point on why Jefferson was initially labeled an “atheist” and still propagated the “label” as truth. Similarly Christians continued the old lie, misinterpreting false charges of “atheism” by political opponents as evidence, as well as his Unitarian liberal theology on the nature of God.

The centerpiece evidence for both camps remained the “The Jefferson Bible.”

In reality, there’s no evidence Jefferson ever embraced atheism. It was a false charge then and its a false charge now.

 

Jefferson and Scripture

Thomas Jefferson appreciated sacred texts. He coveted and collected Bibles, even gave them as gifts. Jefferson enjoyed private conversations and letters on religion and biblical topics.

In his elder years, he confided: “I never to go bed without an hour’s reading of something moral, whereon to ruminate in the intervals of sleep.”[vi] His favorite read was a special collection of New Testament passages he assembled himself, cut from his New Testament and pasted into a bound volume.

Surprisingly, the claim that Jefferson hated Christianity or even the Bible fails in light of his personal spiritual practices and habits. Not only did he read and study the Bible, but he promoted it to others. For example, in 1814, Jefferson sent the Virginia Bible Society a $50 donation to help distribute Bibles to the poor. He included this message:

…I had not supposed there was a family in this state not possessing a bible and wishing without having the means to procure one. When, in earlier life I was intimate with every class, I think I never was in a house where that was the case. However, circumstances may have changed…I therefore [enclose to] you [cheerfully] an order…sincerely agreeing with you that there never was a more pure & sublime system of morality delivered to man than is to be found in the four evangelists.[vii]

Obviously if Jefferson was a serious skeptic, Christian antagonist and atheist, he’d not help fund Bible distribution nor affirm the biblical morality of the Gospel writers.

 

To the contrary, this “morality” is what led him to compile his “Bible.”

As a man of the Enlightenment, Jefferson was fascinated with the great philosophers of history. There were books circulating that compared Socrates, Plato and Aristotle to Descartes, Locke and Rousseau. In the early 1800s, Jefferson was also looking to the West.

In 1803, America completed the Louisiana Purchase with France and immediately sent Lewis and Clark on a westward trek up the Missouri to find the mythic waterway to the Pacific Ocean. Jefferson was aware that numerous Indian tribes existed in this land and he hoped to bring “peace and friendship” to the area. In Jefferson’s mind, peace could only come if all the Indians were of the same “ethical and moral” conviction.

 

Consequently, President Jefferson developed a “Syllabus” about the Bible that focused on its ethics and morality.

In 1803, Jefferson felt American democracy hinged upon a common civic “goodness.” Consequently, his “Syllabus” outlined the ethics and morals of Jesus and Christianity. In 1816, Jefferson penned a letter to Francis Adrian Van Der Kemp explaining this “Syllabus” and an “extract” he created to support it:

I believe it [the Syllabus] may even do good by producing discussion, and finally a true view of the merits of this great reformer [Jesus]. pursuing the same ideas after writing the Syllabus, I made, for my own satisfaction, an Extract from the Evangelists of the texts of his morals, selecting those only whose style and spirit proved them genuine, and his own: and they are as distinguishable from the matter in which they are imbedded as diamonds in dunghills. a more precious morsel of ethics was never seen. it was too hastily done however, being the work of one or two evenings only, while I lived at Washington, overwhelmed with other business: and it is my intention to go over it again at more leisure. this shall be the work of the ensuing winter. I gave it the title of ‘the Philosophy of Jesus extracted from the text of the Evangelists.’

This letter to Van der Kemp came with a warning: “Do not connect this work to my name.” Even in 1816, Jefferson still felt the sting of his critics and knew the dangerous implications of his work. Even though done, in his mind, with pure motive, Jefferson recognized that some would argue–just as they did and still do today–that he was messing with Divine Revelation and reworking God’s Word. It wasn’t true. In fact, Jefferson completed a rather common assignment in most Bible college classrooms for a “Life of Christ” class: read the Gospels and compile a list of Jesus’ moral teachings.

One interesting side note from this “Syllabus” of 1803 (p. 460-461): Thomas Jefferson defined “Deism” and it’s not how we define the term today. In his syllabus, Jefferson stated the ancient Jews were “Deists” because of their belief in only one God. That would also make Muslims and Christians Deists too, because Judaism, Christianity and Islam are the three monotheistic (one God) religions. Many skeptics today define Deism as synonymous with agnosticism and atheism, but that’s a notion with which Jefferson would disagree.

The Philosophy of Jesus

First, Jefferson never authored a Bible, nor called any writing of his “The Jefferson Bible.” Furthermore, he  likely would’ve objected to such a title on the same grounds that he didn’t want his name attached to it or any other work of its kind. The “Jefferson Bible” title was attached almost a century after Jefferson lived by people who did not know Jefferson personally.

After this Syllabus was created in 1803, Jefferson produced two separate compilations of extracts from the four gospels. The first was created in 1804 and titled, The Philosophy of Jesus. The second was compiled over the course of several years, and finally finished sometime in 1819-1820. This work is called The Life and Morals of Jesus.

Neither work was published nor known to the public until the mid-1800s. Jefferson never intended these documents to be publicly viewed. Consequently, they’ve always been shrouded by questions and open to  misunderstanding. Why did Jefferson compile these extractions? Did he target them toward a certain audience? Why did a collection of Bible verses solve the problem?

Historian Dickinson W. Adams proposed:

Jefferson was motivated by more than just a simple wish to rebut those who were assailing his character on religious grounds. He was also responding to another problem…how to guarantee the perpetuation of republican government in the United States at a time when…political factionalism and social disharmony…[threatened]…it’s basic foundations [viii]

 

During the 1790s, Jefferson grew concerned with America’s partisan conflicts.

The Founding generation fought over two topics: politics and religion. At a time when Jefferson’s own Episcopal faith was in crisis, the attacks that he was hostile to Christianity proved heartbreaking to our third President. Thomas found his peace in Unitarianism, a controversial monotheistic faith that preached Jesus wasn’t God (nor claimed to be). Christ’s earthly mission was to teach humans to be virtuous.[ix] Jefferson’s enlightened rationalism gravitated to Unitarian views on morality and non-trinitarianism, although again he never became a member of any Unitarian church nor is there evidence of church attendance.

One person that Jefferson trusted for the counsel on matters of religion was Dr. Benjamin Rush, whom Jefferson first friended in 1775. Rush was a devout, intellectual, fundamentalist Christian who served as Jefferson’s personal mentor (and pen pal) on religion. It was Rush’s influence that likely inspired Jefferson the President to compile his moral statements from Jesus’ teachings. In fact, Jefferson sent the Syllabus first to Dr. Rush on April 21, 1803.

In early 1804–the same year Lewis and Clark began their Expedition to the western sea–Jefferson culled Gospel verses where Jesus taught a moral truth. Then he clipped and pasted them into columns producing:

46 pages of pure and unsophisticated doctrines…[and] entitled it ‘The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth extracted from the account of his life and doctrines as given by Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John, being an abridgment of the New Testament for the use of the Indians unembarrassed with matters of fact or faith beyond the level of their comprehensions.[x]

The lengthy title reveals: 1) it’s an abridgment, not a complete work; 2) focused only on the four gospels; and 3) intended for use with the Indians to help them understand the “philosophy of Jesus.”

Jefferson only let a few people view this document, including Dr. Rush in 1803. When Rush died ten years later, Jefferson retrieved his abridgment from the family, then shelved it among his personal effects.

Over time, only two “clipped” Bibles, a list of verses, and the title page survived.

 

The Life and Morals of Jesus

A year later Jefferson started a new, more ambitious, multi-lingual compilation that he titled “The Life and Morals of Jesus.” The work would reflect his search for spiritual truth, using the four gospels translated through English, French, Greek and Latin.

He began his new compilation in 1805…and then stopped…likely from busyness as President of the United States.

Jefferson wouldn’t restart his project for several years, finally completing it in 1820.

After Thomas Jefferson retired to Monticello in 1809, Benjamin Rush helped reconcile his fractured, antagonistic relationship with John Adams. Like Jefferson, Adams rejected orthodox Christian doctrines and embraced the Unitarian faith. Between 1812 and 1825 these two Founding Fathers wrote dozens of letters to each other, some relating to Christianity. Adams pressed Jefferson to publish a book but ultimately these interactions inspired him to finish his compilation project.

In 1815, Jefferson confided to Rev. Charles Clay that he “had cut out from [the Gospels] every text they had recorded of the moral precepts of Jesus.”[xi] Once again this counters the narrative that he “cut out” the miracles. In reality, left the life, ministry and practices of Jesus alone. Jefferson “cut out” and “pasted” only the “moral precepts.” That was his focus. He wasn’t creating a new Bible or carving up the old one. Jefferson was putting together an “abridgment” of the moral and ethical teachings of Jesus. This time it wasn’t for the Indians, though. He was creating this unique volume for himself.

Jefferson penned the theologian Charles Thomson in 1816:

I, too, have made a wee-little book from the same materials, which I call the Philosophy of Jesus… a more beautiful or precious morsel of ethics I have never seen; it is a document in proof that I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus[xii]

 

In this letter Jefferson revealed this “wee little book” was about “ethics” not theology.

This is where Christian critics err. They have completely missed Jefferson’s point and confused his work with his beliefs, thinking he is maliciously attacking the New Testament to support his Unitarian or skeptic or atheist creed. But that’s simply not true. Jefferson, again, was creating a special volume of “beautiful…precious…ethics” on which to meditate.

His grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph revealed this truth in 1858:

[My grandfather] left two codifications of the Morals of Jesus—one for himself, and another for the Indians; the first of which I now possess…His codification of the Morals of Jesus was not known to his family before his death, and they learnt from a letter addressed to a friend that he was in the habit of reading nightly from it before going to bed.[xiii]

Jefferson never intended to publish “Life and Morals.” It was for his personal edification as a “real Christian” (his words). Jefferson never mentioned its existence to friends or family, who found the compilation upon his death. This special work was for his nightly moral edification alone. Think about it. Every night, before he retired, Jefferson read the Jesus’ words on how to live a good life. It’s no different than people who read the Proverbs daily for the same reasons.

 

So how did “Life and Morals” become the so-called Jefferson Bible?

After Jefferson’s death, this compilation stayed in the Jefferson family’s care for decades. It was among Jefferson’s most private effects and the family likely respected that privacy. Remember, Jefferson never wanted to publish this work. He was proud of it. Proud enough to share it with a few friends, including Dr. Rush and the theologian Charles Thomson, but he had no intentions of his prized abridgment reaching a wider audience.

Then in 1895, a Smithsonian librarian named Cyrus Adler learned of the work and that the family estate still possessed it. He purchased it for the Congressional library in 1895. That’s when it fell into the hands of a Iowa congressman named John Lacey. This “wee little book” of morals (sayings of Jesus) inspired the politician. Consequently, he decided to revive Jefferson’s book for national distribution in 1900. Two years later, Lacey initiated a resolution to print “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth” for every U.S. senator and representative. For the next half century, Jefferson’s work–never intended for public consumption–was distributed to every freshman U.S. senator and representative upon taking their oath of office.

 

Of course, it then was printed for every American to read.

The skeptics and secularists derisively renamed it “The Jefferson Bible.” Meanwhile, the old lies of Christian clergy regarding Jefferson’s “atheism” resurfaced and since this “Jefferson Bible” contained no “miracles” or doctrines referencing Jesus’ Divinity, the work was cast as a “cut and paste” Bible. Over time, the secular title and the sacred charge of atheism married into a single narrative. Of course, the skeptics, irreligious and atheists used Jefferson’s so-called “atheism” as proof for their own non-belief, fostering a lie that remains to this day (that Jefferson was an atheist). Meanwhile, Christians swallowed the lie that Jefferson’s “Bible” was a “cut and paste” job to support his irreligious and immoral beliefs and lifestyle.

Today, few Americans even know the original title, purpose or intended audience of Jefferson’s “Life and Morals of Jesus.”

And they should.

 

Thomas Jefferson was a religious reflection of his young nation.

It’s why we need to flip the script and tell the true story about this literary work and its author.

Thomas Jefferson was no atheist nor unbeliever. Whatever skepticism or “unbelief” (if any) he carried home from France was temporary. Jefferson was a complex man and a deep thinker, with affection for philosophy, ethics, morality and religion. He chose silence to quiet the critics in his day. Looking back, that strategy only fostered and framed the false claims of “atheism” in the decades after his death. His silence also negated more public proclamations that would’ve clarified his religious convictions.

All we know for sure is Jefferson grew up Anglican (Episcopal). He later rejected this childhood faith for Unitarianism, but never attached himself wholly to the point of membership or regular church attendance. Furthermore, there’s evidence (as will be revealed in part three of this series) that Jefferson’s Christianity was rather eclectic and “nondenominational.”

Like his politics, Jefferson’s religion and his religiosity was framed by a “we the people” (democratic, autonomous, non-hierarchal) ethic. He battled kings, popes and clerics with the same fury and held disdain for systems (political or religious) that oppressed or suppressed the citizen. He struggled with understanding the Trinity, but he’s not alone in that view. Even those who accept a Trinitarian view of God, have a difficult time conceiving it.

It’s why he could say, when all was said and done, “I’m a real Christian…a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.” 

Jefferson’s theology was open for conversation, but what truly inspired him was how Jesus lived–morally–in a corrupt world.

 

TO BE CONTINUED….THE CHURCH OF THOMAS JEFFERSION (PART THREE)

 

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SOURCES:

[i] “The Real Jefferson on Religion” by Robert S. Alley: https://secularhumanism.org/1998/10/the-real-jefferson-on-religion/  Accessed March 15, 2024.

[ii] “Jonah and the Great Fish” by Don Landis, Answers in Genesis: https://answersingenesis.org/bible-characters/jonah-and-the-great-fish/?gad_source=1&gclid=CjwKCAjw48-vBhBbEiwAzqrZVAmImjoSE_8u0LjvAW4S0ck-v1aO8UMtqNxMsXM_Hj9JPmHh-ziDohoC4isQAvD_BwE Accessed March 15, 2024.

[iii] “Thomas Jefferson on Christianity & Religion” compiled by Jim Walker, Free Republic: https://freerepublic.com/focus/news/745447/posts  Accessed March 15, 2024

[iv] Henry S. Randall, The Life of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 1 (New York: Derby & Jackson, 1858): 491. Download at Google Books.

[v] Dickinson W. Adams, ed., Jefferson’s Extracts from the Gospels: The Philosophy of Jesus and The Life and Morals of Jesus (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983), 9.

[vi] Thomas Jefferson Letter to Vine Utley (March 21, 1819): https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/03-14-02-0144  Accessed March 15, 2024.

[vii] Adams, Jefferson’s Extracts, 13.

[viii] Bible Society of Virginia: Thomas Jefferson Monticello: https://www.monticello.org/research-education/thomas-jefferson-encyclopedia/bible-society-virginia/  Accessed March 15, 2024

[ix] Adams, Jefferson’s Extracts, 14-16.

[x] Ibid., 28.

[xi] Andrew A. Lipscomb, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (Washington, D.C.: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904): 232-233.

[xii] Ibid., 385.

[xiii] Henry S. Randall, The Life of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 3 (New York: Derby & Jackson, 1858): 671-672.

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