Thomas Jefferson

Scholarly analysis and quotes that demonstrate that our founding fathers were more likely Religious Deists than traditional Christians

“Deism was the theology dominant amount intellectuals in the English-speaking world, and he doubtless considered himself a Deist. He believed that the existence of creation presupposed a creator. He was disposed to believe that the creator was just, probably even benevolent. From various sources, but particularly from the writings of the Deist philosopher Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, he derived the conviction that no mystical revelation would provide the answers to his questions. Reason would be his only dependable guide.” (Mapp, P. 6)

”But Jefferson felt an almost personal antipathy for the great Greek (Plato) and blamed him for introducing needless mystification into both philosophy and theology. He blamed St. Paul for muddying with cloudy Platonisms the pure springs of Jesus´ thought.” (Mapp, P. 11)

“Jefferson rejected the Trinitarian concept of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost (Spirit). Once he wrote to Adams: “It is too late in the day for men of sincerity to pretend they believe in the Platonic mysticisms that 3 are 1, and 1 is 3, and yet that the 1 is not 3, and the 3 are not one…..But this constitutes the craft, the power, and the profit of the priests.” (Mapp, P. 11)

“Because he believed that the clergy exercised undue power through collaboration with agents of the state, he believed that they should automatically be barred from political office. He went so far as to call them “the real anti-Christ.” (Mapp, P. 12)

“He had accepted Bolingbroke´s judgment that a “system of ethics….collected from writings of ancient heathen moralists, of Tully, of Seneca, of Epictetus, and others, would be more full, more entire, more coherent and more clearly deduced from unquestionable principles of knowledge” than any sayings attributed to Jesus”. (Mapp, P. 13)

“By the time Jefferson completed his 2 Jesus-centered compilations, he concluded that the Nazarene´s precepts were “the most pure, benevolent, and sublime which have ever been preached to man.” (Mapp, P. 13) However, this does not mean that he thought that Jesus was the son of God.

“The year 1776 was for Jefferson threefold year of independence, one in which he publicly declared an end to his country´s colonial status and advocated religious freedom while confiding to friends his conviction that the true principles of Jesus were to be found in the gospels rather than in the epistles. Jefferson did not accept as literal truth everything in the gospels. He apparently believed that they were inspired by God but he did not believe that every word was dictated by Him. He believed that they were composed by fallible men who, however conscientious they might be, were subject to the usual limitations of human knowledge and intelligence. In fact, he noted that they were not even among the best educated people of their time and place. But in general, he trusted their reporting of the words of Jesus.” (Mapp, P. 15) RDs do not hold this same belief and are much more skeptical or agnostic about this point.

“For distortion of Christ´s teachings, Jefferson blamed not the simply fishermen among the apostles but rather a sophisticated, well educated product of Greek, Roman, and Jewish cultures. Saul of Tarsus, who say the light on the road to Damascus and became St. Paul, was to Jefferson the arch villain in the history of Christianity. Jefferson saw Plato as a Platonist who had brought be clouding mysticism to Jesus´ clear moral teachings. Jefferson included Matthew, Mark, Luke and John´s quotations from Jesus in his versions of the New Testament, carefully excluding all references to miracles, saying that there has no historical evidence to prove that they were not the products of superstition or overheated imaginations. The epistles of Paul he excluded altogether. He said that he had no difficulty separating the treasure from the dung.” (Mapp, P. 16)

“But The Philosophy of Jesus, consisting entirely of selections from the English Bible´s books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, remained unknown to his children and grandchildren. Without the evidence of letters that Jefferson wrote to some of his closest friends, especially Joseph Priestly, John Adams, and Benjamin Rush, a casual reader of the book might not suspect that the scholarly statesman had systematically eliminated all references to miracles and the supernatural. Jefferson did not advertise his rejection of the mystical accounts of the Bible.” (Mapp, P. 17)

“Jefferson continued to balk at the concept of the virgin birth. On April 11, 1923, he wrote to Adams: “The truth is that the greatest enemies of the doctrines of Jesus are those calling themselves the expositors of them, who have perverted them for the structure of a system of fancy absolutely incomprehensible, and without any foundation in his genuine words. And the day will come when the mystical womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. But we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with all this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this the most venerated reformer of human errors.” (Mapp, P. 19)

“The skepticism that Jefferson absorbed as a teenager caused him to question not only accepted political institutions of the day but also the church and even religion itself. There is no evidence that he became an atheist. After all, he was trying to follow the dictates of logic, and no one has ever found a logical proof for atheism. But he probably did become an agnostic (as a teenager).” (Mapp, P. 6)

“But in later years he talked about a “merciful Providence”, conferring personality on an abstraction. Long before his death, he was counseling youngsters in his family to “adore God”. (Mapp, P. 13) – But God, not necessarily Jesus Christ.

”In this same letter, however, Jefferson espoused the traditional Christian view of eternal life. He said that, like Adams, in contemplating death, he was content to submit to the will of “the god of Jesus, and our God”. He concluded the message to his old friend: “I join you cordially, and await his time and will with more readiness than reluctance. May we meet there again (in the next world) in Congress, with our ancient colleagues, and receive with them the seal of approbation “well done, good and faithful servants.” (Mapp, P. 19) - He mentions the God of Jesus not Jesus as the son of God.

“Continuing to belong to the Episcopal Church even when at variance with some of its central doctrines did not seem to discomfort Deistically included founders such as Jefferson, for they liked its liturgy and the historical cadences of its language.” (Holmes,

“During and after his years at William & Mary, Jefferson copied an enormous amount of the writings of Deistic thinkers into his copybooks.” (Holmes, P. 80)

The 1st three board members of UVA were Jefferson, Madison and Monroe; sermon attacking UVA as non-Christian. (Holmes, P. 86)

“Jefferson is often described as a Unitarian. Although he designed the first Episcopal church in Charlottesville, it is that city´s Unitarian church that is named for him. This identification of Unitarianism with Jefferson seems accurate.” (Holmes, P. 86-87)

“As Jefferson saw it, rational empirical investigation determined what constituted reality. When viewed from this perspective, the Trinity was – in his words – “incomprehensible jargon,” “metaphysical insanity,” a “hocus-pocus phantasm of a god like another Cerberus, with one body and three heads,” a “deliria of crazy imaginations, as foreign to Christianity as is that of Mohamet,” and “abracadabra”. Like other Deists, Jefferson viewed mystery as a disguise for absurdity. “I should as soon undertake to bring the crazy skulls of Bedlam to sound understanding,” he wrote to the Unitarian Benjamin Waterhouse” (Holmes, P. 87)

“Whether Jefferson would have formally left the church of his ancestors is unclear. He remains listed in many histories as an Episcopalian rather than a Unitarian for the probable reason that Piedmont Virginia contained no Unitarian church. Unitarian societies were established in Baltimore, Georgetown, and the District of Columbia in the early part of the 19th century, but these cities were much too far from Monticello. When Jefferson lived in Philadelphia, however, he attended Joseph Priestly´s Unitarian Church.” (Holmes, P. 87-88)

“In addition, in some famous correspondence with a Unitarian minister, he predicted that Unitarianism would soon sweep the nation: “I rejoice that in this blessed country of free inquiry and belief, which has surrendered its creed and conscience to neither kings nor priests, the genuine doctrine of only one God is reviving, and I trust there is not a young man now living who will not die an Unitarian.” (Holmes, P. 88) Anticipated American Revolution correctly but not this. Deism in all forms virtually disappeared by 1820.

“Like Adams, Jefferson would have fallen into the category of Unitarians who believed that Jesus was “from below”. But unlike some early Unitarians, he did not go beyond believing that Jesus became the moral example for humans while he was below. To him, Jesus was always a man. His view of Jesus contained no role for a virgin birth, incarnation, resurrection, miracles, or adoption into divine status.” (Holmes, P. 88)

“Jefferson´s great grandson classified him as a “conservative Unitarian”. While close to the truth, that classification may not be definitive. In Jefferson´s ear, the description better applies to figures such as John and Abigail Adams, who believed in Jesus as a savior and redeemer and who held a generally supernaturalist view of the Bible. Instead, the term that seems most accurate for Jefferson is “moderately Unitarian”. In any event, that description may be as good as we can give a man who classified himself religiously as “of a sect by myself, as far as I know.” (Holmes, P. 88)

“After initially fearing that he could no longer believe in the religion in which he was raised, Jefferson reads Joseph Priestly´s History of the Corruptions of Christianity at some point after the Revolution. In 1813, Jefferson wrote to Adams that he had read Priestly´s book “over and over again.””. (Holmes, P. 82) Priestly was, after Payne, one of the foremost deists of his time.

“Yet Jefferson also believed that the writers….of the New Testament had mixed in “so much ignorance, so much absurdity, so much untruth, charlatanism and imposture, as to pronounce it impossible that such contradictions should have proceeded from the same being.” (Holmes, P. 84)

“Knowing his political future and the controversial character of his religious views, Jefferson was reticent about his beliefs. When he sent his thoughts on religion (often in great detail) to friends, he generally requested that they show them to no one. Despite his caution, his opinions on religion had become well known in the country as early as 1800, when he ran unsuccessfully for the presidency. Jefferson himself was to blame for this exposure, for his one book, Notes on the State of Virginia…contained certain passages that seemed to display him as a Deist. “it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods, or no god,” Jefferson wrote in his chapter on religion. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg”. In addition to opposing established churches and religious coercion, he also wrote: “millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned…” (Holmes, P. 81)

“During the election Congregationalist clergy – generally Federalists in political loyalty – went so far as to assert that Christians would be forced to hide their Bibles as well as to worship in secret if the unchristian Jefferson were elected.” (Holmes, P. 81)

“In his accompanying letter, he described Jesus of Nazareth as “no imposter himself, but a great Reformer of the Hebrew code of religion.” Jefferson then declared that he disagreed with the Galilean on some matters. “It is not to be understood that I am with him in all his doctrines. I am a Materialist; he takes the side of Spiritualism; he preaches the efficacy of repentance towards forgiveness of sin, I require a counter-poise of good works to redeem it, etc. etc.” (Holmes, P. 83) –

“Having disagreed with Jesus, Jefferson then indicated what he admired about Jesus: it is the innocence of his character, the purity and sublimity of his moral precepts, the eloquence of his inculcation, the beauty of his apologues in which he conveys them, that I so much admire….Among the sayings and discourses imputed to him by his biographers, I find many passages of fine imagination, correct morality, and of the most lovely benevolence.” (Holmes, P. 84) Once again, Jefferson cannot agree or disagree with Jesus because we do not and in RD opinion cannot know if these were his words or the words that his followers or subsequent generations attributed to him.

“That Jefferson attended and supported other churches does not make him a Baptist, Presbyterian, or evangelical Episcopalian, any more than his regular reading of the Bible makes him an orthodox Christian. Like many churchgoers, he was always able to tune out points of doctrine with which he disagreed.” (Holmes, P. 85) – Importance of religion and God but not necessarily Jesus.

“He remained a Deist in rejecting the rituals and sacraments of institutional religion as the proper forum for worship. For Jefferson, true worship consisted of love and tolerance for human beings according to the ethical teachings of Jesus. He viewed these precepts as “the most pure, benevolent, and sublime which have ever been preached to man.” Despite the frequent bickiner of Christians about the fine points of dogma, he hoped that they and others could agree about the morals of Jesus.” (Holmes, P. 85) – If Jesus gave us the most sublime ethics and morals of our time, it still does not make him the Son of God or divine, and it is illogical to conclude the second point from the first.

“For this reason, Jefferson refused to serve as godfather for children of friends in Anglican baptisms, for godfathers had to profess a belief in what he viewed as the unreasonable doctrine of the Trinity. “The person who becomes sponsor for a child, according to the ritual of the Church in which he was educated,” Jefferson politely wrote to a friend who asked him to serve as a godparent in 1788, “makes a solemn profession before God and the world, of faith in the articles, which I had never sense enough to comprehend, and it has always appeared to me that comprehension must precede assent.” (Holmes, P. 87)

“In his last years, Jefferson clearly moved toward a more traditional interpretation of Christianity. He valued Jesus as a person even more highly. Unlike some (clasical) Deists, he came to believe in prayer and in a life after death. But belief in an afterlife and in a God who hears prayer were standard Unitarian beliefs of the time. Holding them did not move him into the category of orthodoxy.” (Holmes, P. 88) RD = life after death, RD does not = prayer.

AGAINST CLAIMES THAT HE WAS AN ATHEIST

“He was largely free of denominational prejudices, though he resented “New England divines” who warned that he was the antichrist. Students of his life disagree as to whether he was an Episcopal vestryman, but he was at least nominally Episcopal. He was christened in an Anglican ceremony and married by an Anglican priest. An Episcopal clergyman presided at his funeral rites. Whether or not he was a vestryman has little bearing on his personal religious responsibilities and their members´ creedal allegiances were less important than their patriotism.” (Mapp, P. 15)

“His public utterances therefore furnish few clues to his personal religious convictions. But there are some. As a candidate for president in 1801, he disdained to answer the charge that he was an atheist, but in his first inaugural address he said the American people were “enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter.” (Mapp, P. 9)

“But he (Jefferson) also recognized that the churches could be used in the struggle with England, and he sought to use them for this purpose.” (Wabash, P. 4)

“Not surprisingly, Jefferson accepted religion as an ethical guide, but had little faith in theology or dogma. That is not to suggest, however, that he wanted his religious views known. Far from it. He did not want his religious views published for fear of the public reaction, and published such words as the “Jefferson Bible”, posthumously. Here again he refused to do anything that might undermine orthodox religion. That is because – while it was unreasonable, and unattractive to “right” thinking people, it did serve the positive social good of helping to insure morality among the masses.” (Wabash, P. 4)

“Yet where Christianity was concerned, Jefferson was not anti-institutional, for he firmly believed that morality was rooted in religion.” (Holmes, P. 84) Pro God and religion, not Christianity

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