The American Vision: A Biblical Worldview Ministry

Religion and the Presidency - Thomas Jefferson: Part 2

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Aware of the anti-religious climate that was directed at him, Thomas Jefferson wrote to Benjamin Rush that he would not publish The Life and Morals of Jesus. Did he fear public retribution?

[I am] averse to the communication of my religious tenets to the public, because it would countenance the presumption of those who have endeavored to draw them before that tribunal, and to seduce public opinion to erect itself into that inquest over the rights of conscience, which the laws have so justly proscribed.[1]

Jefferson knew that his unorthodox views, especially his rejection of the belief that Jesus is God in human flesh and the promised redeemer of mankind, would prove difficult for him and his party.

Here is one of the great ironies of history: The patron saint of absolutist Church-State separation, Thomas Jefferson, produced a volume that extracts the morals of Jesus, a system of ethics he describes as “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.”[2] He decided to suppress the volume’s publication because his unorthodox beliefs would not have been accepted by the generally orthodox public. He feared “public opinion.” And yet Jefferson’s “wee little book,” as he called The Life and Morals of Jesus, was later published by an order of Congress in 1904.[3] If a contemporary conservative president had produced a similar work and had its publication financed by Congress, he would have been vilified by the liberal left for mixing religion and politics and violating the First Amendment to the Constitution! While Jefferson was unorthodox in his beliefs about the divinity of Christ and the revelatory character of the Bible, he was not opposed to applying religious precepts to morality.

Thomas Jefferson had a hand in a draft document that proposed A Bill for Proportioning Crimes and Punishments for the state of Virginia. Jefferson’s revision was a bold attempt to remedy a number of inequities in the common law, which James Madison described as “Our old bloody code.” With an attempt to modify the list of crimes that merited capital punishment, Jefferson set about “to relax the severity of punishments, and to make them at the same time more humane and more rational.”[4] While Jefferson had one foot firmly placed in the world of the Enlightenment, his other foot remained in the world of the Bible, the basis of much of English Common Law. Moreover, Jefferson’s Enlightenment worldview did not cloud his judgment as a realistic observer of human nature. In Section I of the proposed bill, Jefferson wrote:

Whereas it frequently happens that wicked and dissolute men, resigning themselves to the dominion of inordinate passions, commit violations on the lives, liberties, and property of others, and the secure enjoyment of these having principally induced men to enter into society, government would be defective in its principal purpose, were it not to restrain such criminal acts by inflicting due punishments of those who perpetuate them.[5]

Note that Jefferson believes that people can be “wicked.” In addition, notice that Jefferson outlines what can be defined as a biblical model for civil government—“to restrain such criminal acts by inflicting punishments”—based on Romans 13:1–4. He goes on to revive the biblical ideal of “an eye for an eye,” meting out punishment “in proportion to [the] offence.” For example, theft was punished by hard labor and two-fold restitution (e.g., Exodus 22:4, 7; Luke 19:8–9) instead of “deprivation of . . . limb” (Sec. II). In Section XV of the bill Jefferson actually applied the lex talionis literally: “Whosoever on purpose, shall disfigure another, by cutting out or disabling the tongue, slitting or cutting off a nose, lip, or ear, branding, or otherwise, shall be maimed, or disfigured in like sort.”

The modern-day image of Jefferson as a social and political liberal would be shattered after a single reading of his proposed bill. Capital punishment is maintained for murder and treason while rescinded for all other crimes.


[1] Quoted in Russell Kirk, The Roots of American Order, 3rd ed. (Washington, DC: Regnery/Gateway, 1992), 343.
[2] A letter to John Adams in 1813. Quoted in Douglas Lurton, “Foreword,” The Jefferson Bible (Cleveland, OH: The World Publishing Company, 1942), ix.
[3] Dumas Malone, Jefferson and His Time, Jefferson the President: First Term, 1801–1805, 6 vols. (Boston, MA: Little, Brown and Company, 1970), 4:205.
[4] Malone, Jefferson and His Time: Jefferson the Virginian, 1:270.
[5] Thomas Jefferson, A Bill for Proportioning Crimes and Punishments in Merrill D Peterson, ed., Thomas Jefferson: Writings (New York: The Library of America, 1984), 349.

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