On June 21, 2005, David Holmes, then-Professor of Religion at The College of William and Mary, listed out key points of Jefferson's religious beliefs and practices and offered an answer to the oft-asked question of whether the Author of the Declaration of American Independence might have been a Unitarian.
Jefferson and Religion - A View by Professor David Holmes
I'm Arius of Alexandria,
the talk of the town,
friend of saints, Elect of Heaven,
filled with learning and renown.
If you want the Logos doctrine,
I can serve it hot and hot.
God begot him and
before he was begotten he was not.
Thomas Jefferson's great grandson famously declared that Jefferson was a conservative Unitarian. Is that statement true? Christian anti-Trinitarianism or, as it was called by the end of the Reformation, Unitarianism, has a long history.
Tonight I want to look at first quickly Unitarianism in early Christianity. Second, also quickly, at Unitarianism during the Reformation. And third at some of the characteristics of Jefferson's religion. And finally at the question of whether we can accurately view Jefferson as a creative heir to this Unitarian tradition.
The poetry you just heard came from one of the propaganda songs used by Arius of Alexandria. Arius was a Christian presbyter of great appeal who was theologically a subordinationist. What was a subordinationist? They are Christians who believe that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, but that he is not equal to God. And early Christianity contained many subordinationists. They fell into two schools.
The first school held that Jesus was a human being whom God had raised after his crucifixion to divine status. Their rallying cry was Jesus is from below. The second group of subordinationists held that Jesus was a divine being whom God had sent down to earth. Their rallying cry was Jesus is from above. And early in the 4th century Arius becomes the leader of the this second group. All subordinationists sited certain biblical passages supporting their position. Arius especially sites Proverbs: "The Lord created me at the beginning of this work, the first of his acts of old." He also sites Colossians: "Jesus is the image of the invisible God the first born of all creation." And he also uses John 14 where Jesus says quote, "if you loved me you would rejoice that I am going to the Father because the Father is greater than I", end quote.
And writings and sermons and in songs Arius teaches that Jesus was essentially a super angelic being whom God had created out of nothing. Hence, though immensely superior to humans, Jesus was subordinate to God. And for a time a majority of Christians accept this interpretation of Jesus. Arius is building upon a history every growing of early Christian subordinationism, and he almost succeeds. But in the fourth century a bishop named Athanasius -- not one of Jefferson's all time favorites -- and two church councils overthrow Arius's views. They issue the Nicene Creed still recited in Christian churches.
And that Creed asserts that Jesus is the son of God who is quote, "begotten not made, and one in being with the Father", end quote. And in the next century, another council declares that the Holy Spirit is divine. And since that time the Doctrine off the Trinity which Jefferson thought a quote "metaphysical insanity," end quote, has been a hallmark of orthodox Christianity and the union of church and state after the fourth century meant that Trinitarinism became the only interpretation permitted.
Now the Reformation. When many suppressed ideas re-emerged during the Reformation, a Spaniard named Michael Servetus advocated Unitarian views. He was a lawyer, a physician, and a geographer. In 1531, in Strasbourg, Servetus publishes a tretise that declares that the Doctrine of The Trinity makes Christians into Tri-theists.
"Where his treatise asks is that watch word of Jewish monotheism 'here O Israel the Lord our God is one.'" In the next year Servetus continues to assail the trinity. There's a death penalty throughout Europe against anti-Trinitarians, so he has to move from city to city. Under a false name he becomes the private physician to a Roman Catholic Archbishop in France. Outwardly he conforms to Roman Catholicism, but inwardly he is still thoroughly anti-Trinitarian.
Yet Servetus's concern about the doctrine, interestingly enough, is promoted by a concern for evangelism. He thinks that the expression of God as a trinity has kept the monotheistic Jews and Muslims from converting to the true faith of Christianity. Servetus is intensely biblical. He is passionately devoted to Jesus. But he holds that Jesus was only a temporary manifestation of God on earth. A manifestation who, like the rest of us, had not existed until the time of birth.
But that interpretation of course has not been a debatable proposition in Christianity since the fourth century, because the Nicene Creed asserts that Christians must believe in quote, "one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten son of God, begotten of his father before all worlds, who for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven," end quote. The trinity is enormously important for Christians.
First, it gives the teaching of Jesus authority. Second, it teaches that God himself died for humans, suffered the penalty for human sin. Third, it teaches that not a demigod from heaven, not a human adopted into the Godhead, but rather the son of God, God himself is constantly at the right hand of the Father interceding on behalf of sinful human beings. Thus he will not defect as the Prince, even the Prince of the angels had done.
So it's a tremendously important doctrine to this day. But it wasn't part of Servetus's propositional understanding of Christianity anymore than it was of Jefferson's. And for denying what Christianity has taught for at least 1,300 years Servetus was viewed as a blasphemer and heretic.
And now we come to the 1540s. Servetus is discovered, revealed as the Archbishop's physician so the inquisition suffers him to die by burning, but he escapes prison probably through bribery. And in the summer of 1553, he turns up of all places in John Calvin's Geneva. John Calvin. Another name Jefferson was not fond of.
Servetus stays in Geneva over Sunday. He goes to church, and he is recognized and arrested. He is tried by the city council of Geneva. They take testimony. They send Servetus's writings out for other opinions. In the end their verdict is unanimous: they sentence Servetus to be burned on a stake outside of Geneva.
On the morning of 27 October 1553, Servetus is lead to the stake. John Calvin has privately met with him in prison and sought a recantation. Calvin has also urged the council to execute Servetus by the more merciful means of decapitation by sword. But in neither case has he been persuasive. Calvin's chief ministerial assistant accompanies Servetus in the long procession from the prison to the stake.
During the trudge he urges Servetus to recant. Servetus replies that he has suffered unjustly but that he prays that God will forgive his accusers. The minister again urges his recantation that Servetus not go before God holding such views of the Trinity. At this point Servetus stops walking, asks forgiveness of his errors, of his ignorance, of his sins, but he still says nothing about the Trinity. The Geneva citizens have lined along the road to watch. Several times Servetus stops and asks the spectators to pray to God for him. But he still says nothing about his view of the Trinity.
On the hill Servetus is tied to the stake. When the executioner holds the fire in front of his face, he cries out so loudly that the watchers are horror stricken. Then the fires are lit. Servetus lingers for half an hour and dies with a prayer on his lips, "Oh Jesus son of the eternal God have pity on me. Oh Jesus son of the eternal God have pity on me."
Michael Servetus made the crucial denial of the preexistence of Christ and for this denial he was executed. But as Calvin's assistant noted, if Servetus had simply transposed the adjective in the final sentence of his life and prayed instead "Oh Jesus eternal Son Of God have pity on me" than he might have been cut down and saved. His last words were therefore a cry of defiance demand and of confession to God.
It was an age which took Christian theology seriously and Michael Servetus took theology seriously and courageously to the moment of his death. He died but his widely read books gave him disciples. They spread Unitarianism into Reformation of Europe for about 75 years in the 16th and 17th centuries until the Counter-Reformation obliterated Unitarianism from Europe.
Poland has an influential Unitarian church. Poland. Its leader is an Italian convert from Roman Catholicism, Faustus Socinus, and he issues the first Unitarian catechism. He asserts that Jesus of Nazareth was a human being, like all of us. But he had lived such a life of exemplary and peculiar obedience to the will of God that God had raised him to divine power and seated him at his right hand and given him a kind of delegated divinity, so that since his ascension Jesus has become hearer of prayer and an intercessor with God in heaven for sinful humans. And Unitarian thought also appears in England in the 17th century and in New England in the 18th.
Now Arius was declared a heretic. Servetus and Socinus left the churches of their upbringing. But Jefferson, the anti-Trinitarian, never formally did. And so many books will list him as a lifelong Episcopalian. And it is true that he was baptized, educated, married, and buried by Anglican and Episcopal clergy.
He served on the vestry, or governing body, of Episcopal parishes. He attended church regularly, and often those churches were Episcopalian. He contributed to Episcopal churches regularly, and he had his children not only baptized but also married under Anglican and Episcopal auspices. But was he an Episcopalian or a Unitarian? Here we have to make a judgment call. But it may not be that hard.
As many of you know Jefferson was generally reticent in public about his religious views. But as the years went on he revealed many of his views to correspondents such as Rush or Adams whom he believed could be trusted to be discreet. Jefferson described himself as a "sect unto myself." But I would say that his religion displays at least seven characteristics. I'll quickly look at three, and then look with a little more detail at the four, and then finish.
First Jefferson was anti-Medieval and anti-mystery. I take these in no special order. Jefferson saw the Middle Ages as a time of priestcraft and mystery. And he tended to equate mystery with fraud. We seem to have no evidence that Jefferson ever received holy communion though I wonder if he did not receive it once as a teen. Nor was he apparently confirmed though these admissions may stem from his disbelief that God can be encapsulated in bread and wine or that grace can be communicated through the weighing on of a bishop's hands.
And anyway, second, Jefferson was anti-clerical. He saw clergy as the authors of the corruptions that had crept into the religion of Jesus after his death. Jefferson's reading and his stay in Europe made him feel that kings and clergy were responsible for countless evils. He had some clerical friends and correspondents, but he clearly distrusted most Trinitarian clergy.
The powerful Calvinist clergy of New England strongly opposed him, and he returned the compliment. Thus it is no surprise that his favorite religious body, outside perhaps of Unitarianism, seems to have been the Quakers. A group that had neither clergy nor dogmatic creeds, though he seems to have ignored that they did have a lot of mystery.
Third, Jefferson was anti-Calvinist. Deism as we'll see in a minute had five points. Calvinism is also summed up in five points. Church historians remember them by the acrostic tulip, you think of Holland. Total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints. And Jefferson opposed every one of those points. He thought the predestinarian Calvin had not only terrible ideas but also worshipped quote "a malignant demon," end quote.
Jefferson summed up his views of Calvin in these words quote, "Calvinism has introduced into the Christian religion more new obscenities than its leader had purged it of old ones," end quote. And I might add, for balance, that one of the surprises in the graduate study of church history is that academic church historians tend not to view Calvin in that way at all. In point of act they tend to put him at the top of the Reformation hierarchy.
And now four more characteristics of Jefferson's religion and more detail.
Fourth, his religion was reason centered. In a letter to his nephew Jefferson declared quote, "reason causes a stronger religion than does revelation," end quote.
From the late 17th century on there was a school of religious thought in the West that was not necessarily Christian. It was a prevailing religious sentiment among the ruling classes not just in England not just in parts of the U.S. but also in Europe all the way to Russia. It taught that people should be skeptical on things that are dependent on faith and revelation alone. Most of you know of it, it was called Deism, in England its leading figures including an Archbishop of Canterbury. In America, its leaders included Ethan Allen, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Paine.
Today Deism's traditions are continued in the Masonic Order, in the Unitarian Universalist denomination, in the ethical culture movement, to some extent in the Friends or Quakers, and above all, in what might be called 'golf course religion.' Because whenever you hear someone say that he or she can worship God quote, "just as well playing golf amidst God's nature on Saturday or Sunday as I can in a church or synagogue full of hypocrites," end quote, then you know you're talking with a 21st-century Deist.
In the 18th century there were all kinds of Deists, it has to be emphasized. It wasn't a uniform movement, and some Deist’s thought of themselves as Christians and attended church and prayed and had a role for Jesus. And even served. As we've heard, in the clergy, the Congregationalists, the Episcopalians, and even the Roman Catholics in the early republic had deists not just in the pews but also in their clergy. There were mildly supernatural deists, there were anti-supernatural deists, and there were people in between.
But the tendency of all school of Deism was to emphasize two things first ethical endeavors. And second a kind of natural religion of reason that called into question many teachings and beliefs that were at the center of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
What were some of those rejected teachings? Well to name only four:
- A - the claims that the bible records divine revelation;
- B - the assertions that God or his agents interrupted the natural order of things and performed miracles;
- C - the Jewish claims about Moses, and the Christian proclamations about Jesus;
- And fourth, D - the belief of Jews and Christians that churches and synagogues with clergy and ordinances or sacraments and services of worship are actually necessary on earth.
Now if you remove such beliefs, then you end up with a very different kind of religion. And since Deism, like most movements, had wings, some Deists were more thoroughgoing in their rejections of these traditional teachings than others. But all tended to call them into question one classic five-point program of Deism for example went as follows:
- There is a God. He ought to be worshiped.
- Virtue being moral is the best way to worship him.
- There is a life after death.
- The good will be rewarded there.
- And the evil punished.
Now this program is far from atheism its author an Englishman was far more certain on these matters than some people are who are in the pews or pulpits today.
That's why it was so silly of Teddy Roosevelt to speak later of Tom Paine in famous words as quote, "a filthy little atheist," end quote. Paine's age of reason shows that Paine was far more certain of the existing, of the existence of God than are some practicing Jews or Christians perhaps today. I mean today we look out into the natural world and we see tsunami's and earthquakes and hurricanes and tornadoes and volcanic eruptions and epidemics and nature red, tooth, and claw.
But Paine and other Deists looked at nature and saw the handy work of a benevolent God. So we can't call this minimalist program of religion 'Atheism.' But that's why it's so inaccurate for some of Jefferson's opponents to have called him an atheist or an infidel. But it's equally hard to call Deism Judeo-Christian precisely because it omits such central beliefs as the chosen people; the revelation of Moses; the incarnation of God and Christ the saving death on the cross of Christ; or the role of synagogues and churches.
There was no mystery in Deistic religion, no need for revelation beyond that given by nature and by that supreme gift of God human reason. So Deism to conclude was the kind of belief that tended inevitably to undermine personal religion with such an understanding of existence. After all, why pray. Why be baptized or confirmed why go through a Bar Mitzvah? Why receive holy community? why indeed except for social or political reasons even attend any religious services?
During the late Colonial and early National periods this Deistic school was very strong among the male, Episcopalian gentry in Virginia. It was cutting edge thought. And so the center of deism in Virginia was William and Mary, then an Episcopal institution. And in New England its center was Harvard, a Congregationalist college that was in the process of becoming Unitarian.
As for Jefferson he seems clearly to have been a moderate representative of the deistic school. One who believed roughly in the five points of Deism, but along with other American Deists he added to these five points a belief in God as an overriding providence who guided the destinies of nations, and unlike some Deists, as the years went on he also came to believe that prayer had a purpose.
So that's the fourth characteristic of his religion. And now a fifth. Jefferson's religion was monotheistic and Jesus centered. He revered Jesus Christ as a moral exemplar. He thought Jesus had been wrong on some points, but he believed his teachings embodied the "most sublime system of morals" in the whole world. In a letter written from Monticello Jefferson praised quote, "the innocence of Jesus' character, the purity and sublimity of his moral precepts, the eloquence of his inculcations, the beauty of the epilogues in which he conveys them that I so admire," end quote.
It's not surprising that Jefferson saw Jesus through a Deistic lens. He thought the teachings of Jesus could pretty well be summed up in three points. First there's only one God, and he's all perfect. Second there's a future state of rewards and punishments. And third, to love God with all thy heart and thy neighbor as thyself is the sum of religion.
And as most of you know Jefferson, who read the bible often before bed, edited the four gospels to form a well known book on the life and morals of Jesus. He didn't write about anyone else. It was just Jesus. But like most Deists, Jefferson believed that nothing unreasonable could be true, for God is the God of reason not of irrationality. And so he removed from the four gospels everything that he thought a pious embellishment. And this meant that he removed the miracle stories using scissors and, uh, razors, the virgin birth, the resurrection and so on.
And now the sixth and seventh characteristic, sixth his religion was restorationistic, he sought to find and to restore primitive Christianity. Jefferson believed that after Jesus's death what he called 'corruptors' had gained control of the Christian church and distorted Jesus' message.
Among the corruptors he named were Platonic philosophy, Paul the Apostle, Athanasius, Augustan, Medieval Popes, John Calvin, and others. "To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed," Jefferson asserted in a letter," but not to the general precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian in the only sense in which I believe Jesus wished anyone to be, I'm sincerely attached to his doctrines in preference to all others. Ascribing to him every human excellence and believing he never claimed any other," end quote.
If the people could just discover what Jesus actually taught, Jefferson thought, rather than what later distortion said he'd taught, then, Jefferson believed, they might be saved from infidelity and create a more moral world.
Finally Jefferson was anti-Trinitarian. Arius, Servetus, and Socinus, figures with whom he was familiar, were supernaturalists. Theologically they were to the right of Jefferson because they believed in precisely the biblical miracles that he denied. Socinus, for example. God's voice from heaven saying "this is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased" his assign of Jesus' adoption into the God head. So to is his ascension.
But Jefferson stands as one with these three Unitarian fathers in their opposition to the Trinity. He calls the doctrine 'Greek arithmetic.' He speaks of quote, "the platonic mysticism that three are one and one is three," end quote. He deplores, quote, "the fanatic Athanasius who imposed upon Christianity the hocus-pocus phantasm of a God, like another Serverus, with one body and three heads," end quote.
And Jefferson once wrote to a Unitarian minister that quote, "the religion of Jesus is founded on the unity of God," end quote. So opposed was Jefferson to the Doctrine of the Trinity, in fact, that he would not stand godfather at Anglican and Episcopal baptisms in Virginia. Because as you and I know from the film Godfather, Part 1, a godfather has to be a pious fellow who will speak for a baby and declare that the child, could it only speak, would affirm certain Christian doctrines, including that of the trinity. And Jefferson was not about to impose that doctrine on any American child.
So our question, finally. Was Jefferson a Unitarian or an Episcopalian?
Well, I'm working with religion of modern precedence now, and I have to ask, was Richard Nixon a Quaker? Was John F. Kennedy a Roman Catholic?
Always we have the tension of religious affiliation versus doctrinal inclination. Always we have the tension of tribal loyalty and family heritage versus private belief. During his public career Jefferson was vilified for his religious beliefs, but that wasn't because he was an Episcopalian. He smarted from these attacks. He once spoke to William Short about, quote, "the inquisition of the public," end quote. A phrase Michael Servetus would have understood. He once wrote to a Unitarian minister keep me quote "from the fire and faggots of Calvin's victims Servetus," end quote.
When we read the correspondence of Jefferson and John Adams, we see that their religious views are very similar. Adams found it easy, easy to move from a Trinitarian denomination to a Unitarian, for he only had to say in his own pew. During his lifetime the liberal wing of New England Congregationalism, including his own parish in Quincy, broke away and formed the American Unitarian Association.
So it was easy for Adams. But Jefferson had no Unitarian church in Virginia to unite with. He once notes in a letter that the closest one is in Baltimore. He was always willing to ride from Monticello to church services, but not that far. And when Jefferson lived in Philadelphia he attended Joseph Priestly's Unitarian Church. His letters make it clear that he saw Unitarianism as primitive Christianity.
Thus I think we can safely classify America's third president as a conservative Unitarian. Like Adams, he would have fallen into the Socinian category of those who believed Jesus was quote, "from below," end quote. But his theology did not go beyond a belief that Jesus became the more example for humans while he was below.
Thomas Jefferson had a devotional side. He came to believe in the efficacy of prayer. He was hopeful about life after death. He liked the Anglican liturgy, and he did not feel an urgent need to separate himself from his ancestral church. He believed in a supreme being who created and sustained the universe, but his God was not the triune God of orthodox Christianity or of the Anglican tradition. Had he officially converted to his real home in Unitarianism, he would have been that movements most famous convert.
He's Jefferson of Monticello,
the talk of the town,
follower of Jesus, friend of Deists,
filled with learning and renown.
If you want the Enlightenment doctrine,
he can serve it cool and hot,
Trinitarianism begot him,
but an orthodox Christian he was not.
Professor David Holmes
June 21, 2005