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Jefferson's Religious Beliefs
Thomas Jefferson was always reluctant to reveal his religious beliefs to the public, but at times he would speak to and reflect upon the public dimension of religion. He was raised as an Anglican, but was influenced by English deists such as Bolingbroke and Shaftesbury. Thus in the spirit of the Enlightenment, he made the following recommendation 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."1 In Query XVII of Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson clearly outlined the views that led him to play a leading role in the campaign to separate church and state and that culminated in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom: "The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. ... Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error."2 Jefferson's religious views became a major public issue during the bitter party conflict between Federalists and Republicans in the late 1790s when Jefferson was often accused of being an atheist.
With the help of Richard Price, a Unitarian minister in London, and Joseph Priestley, an English scientist-clergyman who emigrated to America in 1794, Jefferson eventually arrived at some positive assertions of his private religion. His ideas are nowhere better expressed than in his compilations of extracts from the New Testament — "The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth" (1804) and "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth" (1819-1820?). The former stems from his concern with the problem of maintaining social harmony in a republican nation. The latter is a multilingual collection of verses that was a product of his private search for religious truth. Jefferson believed in the existence of a Supreme Being who was the creator and sustainer of the universe and the ultimate ground of being, but this was not the triune deity of orthodox Christianity. He also rejected the idea of the divinity of Christ, but as he wrote to William Short on October 31, 1819, he was convinced that the fragmentary teachings of Jesus constituted the "outlines of a system of the most sublime morality which has ever fallen from the lips of man."3 In correspondence, he sometimes expressed confidence that the whole country would be Unitarian, but he recognized the novelty of his own religious beliefs.4 On June 25, 1819, he wrote to Ezra Stiles Ely, "I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know."5
- Rebecca Bowman, 8/97
Records of Thomas Jefferson's church-going habits are far from complete. However, evidence does exist of his involvement with and attendance at local churches throughout his life. His accounts record donations to a number of different churches in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Charlottesville.6 As a young man, Jefferson served as a vestryman in Fredericksville Parish (Albemarle County).7 Margaret Bayard Smith, in her memoir The First Forty Years of Washington Society, recalled:
During the first winter, Mr. Jefferson regularly attended service on the sabbath-day in the humble church. The congregation seldom exceeded 50 or 60, but generally consisted of about a score of hearers. He could have had no motive for this regular attendance, but that of respect for public worship, choice of place or preacher he had not, as this, with the exception of a little Catholic chapel was the only church in the new city. The custom of preaching in the Hall of Representatives had not then been attempted, though after it was established Mr. Jefferson during his whole administration, was a most regular attendant. The seat he chose the first sabbath, and the adjoining one, which his private secretary occupied, were ever afterwards by the courtesy of the congregation, left for him and his secretary.8
Henry S. Randall, who interviewed Jefferson's family members for his three-volume Life of Thomas Jefferson, claimed that Jefferson "attended church with as much regularity as most of the members of the congregation – sometimes going alone on horseback, when his family remained at home."9
Primary Source References
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."10
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."11
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."12
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."13
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."14
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."15
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."16
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."17
- Adams, Dickinson W., Ruth W. Lester, and Eugene R. Sheridan, eds. Jefferson's Extracts from the Gospels: "The Philosophy of Jesus" and "The Life and Morals of Jesus." Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983. The introduction to this work is almost identical to the Monticello Monograph Jefferson and Religion (see below), but also includes facsimiles of Jefferson's two Bible compilations and transcriptions of letters in which Jefferson discussed his religious beliefs.
- Gaustad, Edwin S. Sworn on the Altar of God: A Religious Biography of Thomas Jefferson. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996.
- Holmes, David L. The Faiths of the Founding Fathers. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
- Ragosta, John. "Thomas Jefferson and Religion." In Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Article published August 10, 2012.
- Sheridan, Eugene R. Jefferson and Religion. Charlottesville: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation, 1998.
- Vicchio, Stephen J. Jefferson's Religion. Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock Pub., 2007.
- Look for further sources in the Thomas Jefferson Portal.
- 1. Jefferson to Carr, August 10, 1787, in PTJ, 12:15. Transcription available at Founders Online.
- 2. Notes, ed. Peden, 159.
- 3. Jefferson to Short, October 31, 1819, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Earl Gregg Swem Library, College of William and Mary. Transcription available at Founders Online.
- 4. For more information on Jefferson as a Unitarian and his personal beliefs, see David Holmes's June 2005 talk on Jefferson and religion (streaming video).
- 5. Jefferson to Ely, June 25, 1819, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. Transcription available at Founders Online.
- 6. See MB (index under Jefferson, Thomas > Religion).
- 7. Rosalie Edith Davis, trans. and ed., Fredericksville Parish Vestry Book, 1742-1787 (Manchester, MO: Rosalie Edith Davis, 1978-1981).
- 8. Smith, First Forty Years, 13.
- 9. Randall, Life, 3:555.
- 10. PTJ, 12:15. Transcription available at Founders Online.
- 11. PTJ, 36:258. Transcription available at Founders Online.
- 12. PTJ, 40:251. Transcription available at Founders Online.
- 13. PTJ:RS, 6:160. Transcription available at Founders Online.
- 14. PTJ:RS, 14:198. Transcription available at Founders Online.
- 15. PTJ:RS, 9:340-41. Transcription available at Founders Online.
- 16. Dickinson W. Adams, Ruth W. Lester, and Eugene R. Sheridan, eds., Jefferson's Extracts from the Gospels: "The Philosophy of Jesus" and "The Life and Morals of Jesus" (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 403. Transcription available at Founders Online.
- 17. Jefferson's Extracts, 412-13. Transcription available at Founders Online.