The claim that Thomas Jefferson was influenced by local Baptist congregations in his ideas of democracy appeared persistently in print throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The source of these claims may lie in an 1826 newspaper article. On July 14, 1826, just ten days after Jefferson's death, the following article entitled "ANECDOTE OF MR. JEFFERSON" appeared in the Christian Watchman:
MR. EDITOR,— The following circumstances, which occurred in the State of Virginia, relative to Mr. JEFFERSON, were detailed to me by Elder ANDREW TRIBBLE, about six years ago, who since died when ninety-two or three years old. The facts may interest some of your readers —
ANDREW TRIBBLE was the Pastor of a small Baptist Church, which held its monthly meetings at a short distance from Mr. JEFFERSON'S house, eight or ten years before the American Revolution. Mr. JEFFERSON attended the meetings of the church for several months in succession, and after one of them, asked Elder TRIBBLE to go home and dine with him, with which he complied.
Mr. TRIBBLE asked Mr. JEFFERSON how he was pleased with their Church Government? Mr. JEFFERSON replied, that it had struck him with great force, and had interested him much; that he considered it the only form of pure democracy that then existed in the world, and had concluded that it would be the best plan of Government for the American Colonies. This was several years before the declaration of American Independence. To what extent this practical exhibition of Religious Liberty and Equality operated on Mr. JEFFERSON'S mind, in forming his views and principles of religious and civil freedom, which were afterwards so ably exhibited, I will not say.1
The article continues on to describe the persecution of the Baptists in Virginia at the time of Tribble's encounter with Jefferson, and the article is signed simply, "A FRIEND." In some sources, the "friend" to whom Tribble related the story and who, in turn, related it to the newspapers was James Fishback, another Albemarle County resident who later moved to Kentucky. Fishback exchanged letters with Jefferson on more than one occasion.2 Although there was a clergyman named Andrew Tribble in Albemarle County at the time in question, no record of any meeting or communication Tribble may have had with Thomas Jefferson has been found.3 This does not preclude the possibility that they did meet, but it makes proving the veracity of the story that later appeared in the Christian Watchman difficult.
Regardless of whether the story is true or not, it has been remarkably persistent. It appeared in a number of newspapers in the months and years immediately following its first appearance in the Christian Watchman, and it was still appearing in newspapers as late as 1880.4 One notable recounting of the story claims that Dolley Madison had confirmed its authenticity:
... a gentleman of the highest respectability, and well known in North Carolina, told the writer that his attention having been called to the statement, and he knowing that the venerable Mrs. Madison had some recollections on the subject, asked her in regard to them. She expressed a distinct remembrance of Mr. Jefferson speaking on the subject, and always declaring that it was a Baptist church from which these views were gathered.5
No corroborating evidence of Dolley Madison's exchange with the "gentleman ... well known in North Carolina" has been discovered. Another printing of the story adds that a Reverend Mr. Brice, on hearing the story, claimed that Jefferson had visited his congregation in Richmond, and had made the same comments to him as he had to Tribble. Reverend Brice's story has not been substantiated, either.6 Still other instances of the story do not mention Tribble at all, but emphasize the purported influence the Baptist church had on Jefferson's ideas of government and religious freedom. The story was appearing in religious histories by the 1850s,7 and was even repeated by Calvin Coolidge in a 1926 speech.8 As with the specific reference to Tribble, no mention has been found in Jefferson's own writings of any influence the local Baptist congregation or the Baptist church in general may have had on his political and religious ideas.
- Anna Berkes, March 25, 2008; updated August 31, 2011
3. For Tribble's presence in Albemarle County, see Woods, Albemarle, 133. According to Woods, the first Baptist congregation in the county was established in early 1773; Tribble became their pastor in 1777.
4. See "Congregationalism and the State," The Congregationalist (Boston, MA), September 1, 1880, pg. 4, issue 35, col C.