Thomas Jefferson’s religious beliefs have long been a subject of public discussion, and were a critical topic in several of his important political campaigns as he was viciously and unfairly attacked for alleged atheism.
Jefferson took the issue of religion very seriously. A man of the Enlightenment, he certainly applied to himself the advice which he gave to his nephew Peter Carr in 1787: "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." Jefferson read broadly on the topic, including studying different religions, and while he often claimed that religion was a private matter “between Man & his God,” he frequently discussed religion.
Jefferson was deeply committed to core beliefs - for example, the existence of a benevolent and just God. Yet, as with any human, some of Jefferson’s beliefs shifted over time and were marked by uncertainty, and he accepted that some of his less central beliefs might be wrong; e.g. his belief that everything in the universe had a wholly material existence rather than there being both material and spiritual worlds. Jefferson insisted that such matters of dogma were not critical; telling one correspondent that on these “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.”
Care must also be taken in evaluating Jefferson’s statements on religion, both because he often defined terms in a rather idiosyncratic manner, and because many comments with literal religious significance must be understood in the context of social convention as much as theology (e.g. telling a bereaved spouse that he/she might meet the departed in an afterlife may evidence empathy as much as theology). Still, much can be said about Jefferson’s religion.
Jefferson was a devout theist, believing in a benevolent creator God to whom humans owed praise. In an early political text, he wrote that “The god who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time;…” He often referred to his or “our” God but did so in the language of an eighteenth century natural philosophy: “our creator,” the “Infinite Power, which rules the destinies of the universe,” “overruling providence,” “benevolent governor,” etc. In 1823, he wrote to John Adams referring to “the God whom you and I acknowledge and adore” while denouncing atheism.
Jefferson’s views on an afterlife developed over time, and historians disagree on what he believed in this regard. As a young man, he seemed to have a relatively conventional view of heaven. A firm believer in man’s free will, he thought that good works were the way to salvation and that rewards and punishments for actions on earth were “an important incentive” for people to act ethically. Yet, as his views matured, particularly his materialism, he likely encountered doubts. As he aged, Jefferson spoke passionately about the prospect of meeting loved ones in heaven, assuring a bereaved John Adams after the death of his wife Abigail, that “it is of some comfort to us both that the term is not very distant at which we are to deposit, in the same cerement, our sorrows and suffering bodies, and to ascend in essence to an ecstatic meeting with the friends we have loved & lost and whom we shall still love and never lose again.” In the end, he seems to have believed in a heaven or, at least, as historian Johann Neem says, he had “hope.”
Jefferson’s views on prayer are even more ambiguous. He dismissed Biblical miracles as myth, implying doubts about the efficacy of prayer. But he recognized an obligation of humans to worship God, and he often prayed publicly, at least in very broad terms. His second inaugural address included a prayer request for his listeners: “I ask you to join with me in supplications, that he [that Being in whose hands we are] will so enlighten the minds of your servants, guide their councils, and prosper their measures, that whatsoever they do, shall result in your good, and shall secure to you the peace, friendship, and approbation of all nations.” Of course, as with references to an afterlife, these prayers might be understood in the context of social convention and political posturing. In the end, it can be said that he prayed although apparently with little belief or expectation of miraculous divine intervention.
While Jefferson was a firm theist, the God in which he believed was not the traditional Christian divinity. Jefferson rejected the notion of the Trinity and Jesus’ divinity. He rejected Biblical miracles, the resurrection, the atonement, and original sin (believing that God could not fault or condemn all humanity for the sins of others, a gross injustice). In neither the eighteenth century nor today would most people consider a person with those views a “Christian.”
Given these views, Jefferson’s relationship with Christianity was complicated. He believed that Jesus was the “first of human sages,” noting that his philosophy, “freed from the corruptions of later times” – including Jesus’ divinity, resurrection, and miracles – “is far superior” to others because Jesus preached “universal philanthropy, not only to kindred and friends, to neighbors and countrymen, but to all mankind….” With this in mind, Jefferson said that Christianity would be the best religion in a republic, especially one like the United States with a broad diversity of ethnicities and religions. “[T]he Christian religion when divested of the rags in which they [the clergy] have inveloped it, and brought to the original purity & simplicity of its benevolent institutor, is a religion of all others most friendly to liberty, science, & the freest expression of the human mind,” he explained. It was a “benign religion … inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude and love of man, acknowledging and adoring an overruling providence.” Based on these understandings, Jefferson demonstrated a deep, even devout, admiration of Jesus, “the purity & sublimity of his moral precepts, the eloquence of his inculcations, the beauty of the apologues in which he conveys them...” At times, Jefferson described these moral and ethical teachings of Jesus as “primitive christianity” before its perversion by church leaders seeking temporal power.
It was in this context that Jefferson said that “I am a Christian,” a quote which is often repeated or referred to without context. What he said was “I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he [Jesus] wished anyone to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; & believing he never claimed any other.” What he embraced was Jesus’ moral and ethical philosophy, a “rational creed . . . universal & eternal,” what he elsewhere terms “Christianism.” Similarly, at one point he seemed to endorse “deism,” but only after defining the term as simply a belief in one god, more accurately “monotheism.”
Early in his presidency, Jefferson reexamined his own beliefs and expressed a renewed interest in Christianity. In 1803, he pieced together a short comparison of various religions and philosophies, including Christianity. This document is generally referred to as the “Syllabus.” The next year, Jefferson decided to comb through the Gospels and extract what he believed to be the real teachings of Jesus, devoid of perversions which had been made by church leaders over the centuries. He insisted that Jesus’ true words “are as distinguishable from the matter in which they are imbedded as diamonds in dunghills.” This short compilation is generally referred to as the “Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth” or the “Extracts.” Finally, in retirement, Jefferson set out to rework the “Philosophy” by taking four copies of the Gospels – in English, French, Latin, and Greek – and literally cutting-out with a razor those parts that he thought to be the legitimate teachings of Jesus, devoid of miracles and the resurrection. This work, entitled by Jefferson “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth,” is commonly referred to as the “Jefferson Bible.”
Setting aside his own abridgement, Jefferson did support the Virginia Bible Society in its efforts to ensure that any family in Virginia unable to afford a Bible could obtain one. He believed that the Bible contained useful lessons, in spite of its corruptions. At the same time, given his commitment to allow people to form their own religious beliefs, Jefferson pointedly argued that the Bible should be kept out of the hands of children, only made available after their own ability to reason independently had been established through study of history and philosophy.
In the end, categorizing Jefferson’s religion should be done with some caution. He was baptized and raised Anglican (and married and buried by Anglican ministers), but he rejected many of the tenets of that church. He regularly attended church of various denominations, but he declared that “I am of a sect by myself.” In simple terms, Jefferson is a theist (he believes in God). If a more precise label is sought, he might be labeled a Unitarian (a theist who rejects the Trinity), although there are many variations in Unitarians (some who believe Jesus was more than human, others who do not). In 1822, he boasted that “I confidently expect that the present generation will see Unitarianism become the general religion of the United States,” but he never formally joined that church. Technically, he was not a deist if the term is understood to mean belief in a god who created the universe and then left it to “run” on its own according to natural laws, a “clock-maker” god. Jefferson did believe that God actively engaged in time, sustaining creation on an ongoing basis; yet, in his rejection of Biblical miracles and belief that natural laws were the language of God, he certainly is deistic.
Importantly, Jefferson’s religious beliefs played a foundational role in his abiding commitment to religious freedom and separation of church and state.
1787 August 10. (Jefferson to Peter Carr). "Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. 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."
1802 January 1. (Jefferson to the Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut). "Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church & State."
1803 April 21. (Jefferson to Benjamin Rush). "[T]o the corruptions of Christianity, I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence, & believing he never claimed any other."
1813 May 31. (Jefferson to Richard Rush). "... the subject of religion, a subject on which I have ever been most scrupulously reserved. I have considered it as a matter between every man and his maker, in which no other, & far less the public, had a right to intermeddle."
1814 September 26. (Jefferson to Miles King). "I must ever believe that religion substantially good which produces an honest life, and we have been authorised by one, whom you and I equally respect, to judge of the tree by it's fruit. our particular principles of religion are a subject of accountability to our god alone. I enquire after no man's, and trouble none with mine: nor is it given to us in this life to know whether your's or mine, our friend's or our foe's are exactly the right."
1816 January 9. (Jefferson to Charles Thomson). "I too have made a wee little book, from the same materials, which I call the Philosophy of Jesus. it is a paradigma of his doctrines, made by cutting the texts out of the book, and arranging them on the pages of a blank book, in a certain order of time or subject. 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, very different from the Platonists, who call me infidel, and themselves Christians and preachers of the gospel, while they draw all their characteristic dogmas from what it’s Author never said nor saw. they have compounded from the heathen mysteries a system beyond the comprehension of man, of which the great reformer of the vicious ethics and deism of the Jews, were he to return on earth, would not recognise one feature. if I had time I would add to my little book the Greek, Latin and French texts, in columns side by side, and I wish I could subjoin a translation of Gassendi’s Syntagma of the doctrines of Epicurus, which, notwithstanding the calumnies of the Stoics, and caricatures of Cicero, is the most rational system remaining of the philosophy of the ancients, as frugal of vicious indulgence, and fruitful of virtue as the hyperbolical extravagancies of his rival sects."
1821 February 27. (Jefferson to Timothy Pickering). "[N]o one sees with greater pleasure than myself the progress of reason in it’s advances towards rational Christianity. when we shall have done away the incomprehensible jargon of the Trinitarian arithmetic, that three are one, and one is three; when we shall have knocked down the artificial scaffolding, reared to mask from view the simple structure of Jesus, when, in short, we shall have unlearned every thing which has been taught since his day, and got back to the pure and simple doctrines he inculcated, we shall then be truly and worthily his disciples: and my opinion is that if nothing had ever been added to what flowed purely from his lips, the whole world would at this day have been Christian. I know that the case you cite, of Dr Drake, has been a common one. the religion-builders have so distorted and deformed the doctrines of Jesus, so muffled them in mysticisms, fancies and falsehoods, have caricatured them into forms so monstrous and inconcievable, as to shock reasonable thinkers, to revolt them against the whole, and drive them rashly to pronounce it’s founder an imposter. had there never been a Commentator, there never would have been an infidel. in the present advance of truth, which we both approve, I do not know that you and I may think alike on all points. as the Creator has made no two faces alike, so no two minds, and probably no two creeds. we well know that among Unitarians themselves there are strong shades of difference, as between Doctors Price and Priestley for example. so there may be peculiarities in your creed and in mine. they are honestly formed without doubt. I do not wish to trouble the world with mine, nor to be troubled for them. these accounts are to be settled only with him who made us; and to him we leave it, with charity for all others, of whom also he is the only rightful and competent judge. I have little doubt that the whole of our country will soon be rallied to the Unity of the Creator, and, I hope, to the pure doctrines of Jesus also."
1823 April 11. (Jefferson to John Adams). "[T]he truth is that the greatest enemies to 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 generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the 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 all this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this the most venerated reformer of human errors."
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