“I am a Real Christian”: The Religious Views of Thomas Jefferson (Part 1 of 4)

Thomas Jefferson

 

Jefferson’s personal history…disgraceful conduct…reputation for free thinking and loose morality is admitted.[1]

“An atheist and fanatic.”[2]

“[His] knowledge of and admiration for the teachings of Jesus have never been equaled by any other president.[3]

“Jefferson’s religion…was misunderstood…criticisms came from those who knew neither Jefferson nor his religious beliefs.”[4]

 

It’s been two centuries since Thomas Jefferson lived and died. And his religious views still remain mysterious and murky.

Historically, Jefferson’s most combative critics? Christians. They were the first to tag him as an atheist (as a political punch).

Today, skeptics and Christians alike believe the Monticello man was anti-Christian, agnostic, or atheist, pointing to certain writings, or theological/political positions, or his “Jefferson Bible”—a vapid, empty and self-designed gospel (they say).

Finding the truth isn’t easy. Mostly, because Thomas Jefferson is a hard nut to crack.

Jefferson’s religious views were complex, but Christian.

As a man of the Enlightenment, Thomas studied philosophy, politics, science, history and religion. His private library contained nearly 6500 books. And yet, on matters of religion, he wrote sparingly. Nevertheless, in every missive in which Jefferson wrote on religion or his religious views he was never vague, disingenuous, or confused about his theology. Unlike today’s agnostic, there was no doubt where Jefferson stood.

Jefferson did have strong words for certain churches. He opposed the Anglican (Episcopal) church—in his day, the Virginia state religion—for its ecclesiastical hierarchies. As a Protestant, he was anti-Catholic, yet there was never a hint of being “anti-Christian” (as certain New England denominations feared and political opponents promoted in his day).

And there’s no evidence Jefferson denounced, nor ceased practicing Christianity. Throughout his life he practiced his Christianity in various forms, from Bible reading to prayer to church attendance to giving to missions.

Thomas Jefferson’s religious views demand context.

Jefferson’s more salient written statements seem to promote skepticism, giving the irreligious some ammunition, but when viewed in their wider contexts offer another perspective.

In 1787, for example, Jefferson encouraged his nephew Peter Carr to question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.”[5] Many argue that Jefferson is encouraging and embracing secular rationalism in this statement? Maybe. But the context also suggests Jefferson wanted Peter to view religion with more tolerance. It’s okay to question the existence of the Divine, to doubt and wonder because “if” there is a God then He would have no issue with the process of thinking through something. In other words, God is bigger than our doubts.

On another occasion, Jefferson penned (1801): “I … reposed my head on that pillow of ignorance which a benevolent creator has made so soft for us, knowing how much we should be forced to use it.”[6] Again, many skeptics employ this statement as evidence of Jefferson’s agnosticism? Possibly. However, the context is clear. Jefferson is responding to a query about the soul’s transmigration into eternity. It’s a  topic that, in his mind, wasn’t worth his time. Consequently, he preferred to remain ignorant (“I don’t know”) or apathetic (“I don’t care”) on the subject. Ironically, Jefferson rests his ignorance on a “pillow” that he believes was made by a “benevolent creator.” It’s difficult to argue for his unbelief in the same sentence that he affirms his faith in a creator God.

Jefferson’s framing faith was Anglican.

Thomas Jefferson’s religious views—particularly his Christianity—were rooted to his Anglican faith.

Jefferson was baptized and raised Anglican (Episcopal). Later, for political purposes, he affirmed its denominational creed, because all Virginia office holders were required by law to accept the state religion of  Anglicanism.

Thomas married a devout Anglican (Martha) and they had six children (all baptized Anglican). During this time, Jefferson was a dedicated Episcopalian. In 1776, Jefferson penned an extensive treatise he called “Notes on Religion” that included an affirmation of historic Christian doctrines.[7]  In the same year, Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence incorporated biblical themes that appealed for Divine Protection, argued for Divine Creation, and reminded readers of Divine Judgement. He also included four clear acknowledgments of God.

To his dying day, Jefferson seemed to maintain some form of Episcopalian faith, even though he embraced–for a season, in part, or permanently–a popular new form of Christianity known as Unitarianism. Nevertheless, at least one historian Charles B. Sanford has argued, “From the evidence of his life, we may safely conclude that Jefferson remained a member in good standing of his local Episcopal church all his life, in outward form at least.[8]

Jefferson flirted with doubt and disbelief.

Before he turned 40, Thomas Jefferson suffered the horrific loss of three children. Then, his beloved Martha died. These bereavements deeply depressed Jefferson for weeks.

Eventually he accepted a diplomat role in France. Once in Paris, the secular, hedonistic French culture seduced the spiritually wrecked Jefferson to towards a lifestyle of disbelief and self-indulgence. As many nonreligious types point out, Jefferson’s reading list now included skeptics like David Hume. It’s one of the reasons that upon his return to America that he was labeled an “atheist”–because he returned home with the clear stench of French hedonism and secularism upon his person.

The problem?  It didn’t stick. Jefferson eventually downplayed his French escapades and dismissed Hume’s dangerous ideas:  “I remember well the enthusiasm with which I devoured [Hume’s writings] when young, and the length of time, the research and reflection which were necessary to eradicate the poison it instilled into my mind.”[9]

Nevertheless, the French “ways” did influence Jefferson. He was never the same after 1789.

A New Kind of Christian

The early 1800s were precarious times. France was at war, and recovering from bloody, secular revolution. Meanwhile, America was test driving its new Constitution while a Second Great Awakening baptized the nation in a religious fervor that carved a “Christian” America frame for over a century.

This “awakening” birthed new types of non-denominational churches that promoted Christian unity, local church autonomy and a restored or “primitive” faith. Virginia was one of the places where the Second Great Awakening revivals burned hottest. Fellow Virginian and former secretary to Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis’ mother (Lucy), converted from her Anglican heritage to the firebrand Methodism of the second Great Awakening. Thomas Jefferson, who opposed hierarchical religion and appreciated unity and autonomy was also drawn to this type of liberating Christianity.

In fact, after retirement, he regularly attended religious services at the Albemarle Courthouse that featured preachers from a variety of different denominations.[10]

“I am a real Christian,” Jefferson confessed to a friend, a decade before his death, “that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus Christ.”[11]

What he meant by that declaration remains debatable. At the time, Jefferson was fully immersed in Unitarianism–a brand of Christianity considered heretical by more orthodox believers. Jefferson seemingly rejected (again, to what degree) core Christian doctrines, including Jesus’ divinity, resurrection and atonement.

Still this proves Thomas Jefferson was never fully atheist nor agnostic, despite what critics—then and now—say about him. Yes, his Christianity was clearly unorthodox, but perhaps he explored Unitarianism like he did French culture. It was a seasonal, momentary exploration that never drew him too far from his Anglican roots. Consequently, some fair-minded historians have described Jefferson as either a liberal Episcopalian or conservative Unitarian. But even these boxes don’t fit too well. Jefferson’s refusal to explain his religious views makes determining his precise opinions difficult, save one. In an apologetical letter to the devout Dr. Benjamin Rush, he rejected “state religion” and avowed: “I have sworn, upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”[12]

Nevertheless, historian Henry Randall, one of Jefferson’s earliest and most partisan biographers, concluded: Mr. Jefferson never, at any period of life, made himself an aggressive assailant of Christianity; … never, in a solitary instance, sought directly or indirectly to proselyte a human being to unchristian views, or to shake his conviction in Christian ones.[13]

Agree or disagree, Thomas Jefferson proved a new kind of Christian for a new kind of nation.

And maybe that’s what he envisioned all along.

 

PART TWO: THE BIBLE OF THOMAS JEFFERSON

 

SOURCES:

[1] “The Private Character of Thomas Jefferson” from The New Englander, printed in The Living Age, No. 892, July 6, 1861: 515.

[2] Alexander Hamilton’s charge against Jefferson, according to Charles B. Sanford, The Religious Life of Thomas Jefferson (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1984): 1.

[3] Ibid, 3.

[4] Ibid., 6.

[5] Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Peter Carr, with Enclosure, 10 August 1787: https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-12-02-0021

[6] Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Isaac Story, 5 December 1801: https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-36-02-0025

[7] Thomas Jefferson, The Works of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Paul Leicester Ford, Volume 2 (New York: G.P. Putman’s Sons, 1904), 255. Google Book download.

[8] Sanford, Religious Life of Jefferson, 1984: 5.

[ 9] Letter from Thomas Jefferson to William Duane, 12 August 1810: https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/03-03-02-0001-0002

[10]Thomas Jefferson and Religious Freedom,” The Jefferson Monticello: https://www.monticello.org/research-education/thomas-jefferson-encyclopedia/thomas-jefferson-and-religious-freedom/#fn-13

[11] Thomas Jefferson, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Albert Ellery Bergh, editor (Washington, D.C.: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904), Vol. XIV, p. 385, to Charles Thomson on January 9, 1816.

[12] Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Rush, September 23, 1800: https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-32-02-0102

[13] Henry S. Randall, The Life of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 1 (New York: Derby & Jackson, 1858): 495-96. Google Book download.

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