The American Vision: A Biblical Worldview Ministry

Religion and the Presidency - Thomas Jefferson: Part 1

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Early in his campaign for president Jefferson was accused of being an atheist by many prominent clergymen. One of Jefferson’s most vocal early critics was Timothy Dwight, president of Yale. On July 4, 1798, Dwight delivered a speech urging the voters to defeat the Jeffersonians—“the illuminati, the philosophers, the atheists, and the deists.” Dwight predicted dire consequences if Jefferson and his party were to be elected to office: “We may see the Bible cast into a bonfire, the vessels of the sacramental supper borne by an ass in public procession, and our children, either wheedled or terrified, uniting in chanting mockeries against God.”[1] Dwight was overly pessimistic at the time. The effects he predicted took nearly two hundred years to be realized.

Rev. William Linn of New York voiced similar concerns over a Jefferson presidency when he proclaimed that “the election of any man avowing the principles of Mr. Jefferson would . . . destroy religion, introduce immorality, and loosen all the bonds of society.” He further warned that “the voice of the nation in calling a deist to the first office must be construed into no less than a rebellion against God.”[2] The New England clergy especially vilified Jefferson, “whom they hated for ‘disbelief in the deluge and his opposition to Bible reading in the schools.’“[3] Even the press got into the act. The Federalist Gazette of the United States (September 10, 1800) framed the key question of the election, “to be asked by every American, laying his hand on his heart, as: ‘Shall I continue in allegiance to God—and a Religious President; Or impiously declare for Jefferson—and No God!!!’”[4]

While Jefferson was no atheist, he was no evangelical Christian either. He would only tolerate a religion that fit his conception of reasonableness. Jefferson nearly abandoned any appreciation for Christianity until he read Joseph Priestly’s An History of the Corruptions of Christianity (1793). Through this work and Priestly’s Socrates and Jesus Compared Jefferson no longer rejected Christianity, only what he believed were its “corruptions.” He alleged that the core of Christianity had been obscured by Jesus’ disciples, the apostle Paul being the first to conceal Jesus’ “genuine precepts.” By stripping away the corruptions, Jefferson contended, the true Christian would rediscover the “genuine precepts of Jesus himself.”[5]

With respect to the “genuine precepts of Jesus,” Jefferson wrote to Benjamin Rush, “I am a real Christian . . . sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others.” While the ancients offered much that was noteworthy, their ethics “were not only imperfect, but often irreconcilable with the sound dictates of reason.”[6] This dismissal of the “ancients” included those of the Hebraic writers. Jefferson believed that a better system of ethics was needed and regarded Jesus as an ethical innovator. He surmised that since Jesus left nothing from His own pen, “his sublime teachings fell into the hands of ‘the most unlettered, and ignorant of men.’ Thus, his teachings have reached us in a form that is ‘mutilated, misstated, and often unintelligible.’“[7]

Jefferson demonstrated his high regard for the ethics of Jesus while maintaining his anti-supernatural worldview by producing The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, a book which is often published as The Jefferson Bible. Jefferson studied the gospel accounts to extract from them what he believed to be the uncorrupted sublime moral teachings of Jesus without the supernatural “additions.” While Jefferson included Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus, he omitted references to angels and heavenly announcements pertaining to the event. In addition, “when Jesus performed a miracle in connection with some teaching, the teaching survived, the miracle did not. . . . Jefferson included verses detailing the death of Jesus but not the resurrection. No Easter morning sun rises in Jefferson’s ‘Bible.’“[8] His expurgated edition of the gospels ends this way: “There laid they Jesus, and rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulcher, and departed.”

Jefferson hoped to present a “reasonable Christianity, a religion that ennobled the human race and in no way degraded or deluded it.”[9] For all of his anti-biblical statements and beliefs, Jefferson understood that “no system of morality would work for the common man or woman ‘without the sanction of divine authority stampt upon it.’“[10] But Jefferson’s claim that “divine authority” was necessary to sanction a system of moral dogma is problematic because he had stripped Jesus of His divine authority. Why should anyone pay attention to the ethical precepts of an itinerant carpenter whose followers supposedly corrupted His teachings? What criteria could Jefferson use to determine what constituted a universal moral precept? Certainly reason could not be the final arbiter. Reasonable men disagree on what’s reasonable.

Aware of the anti-religious climate that was directed at him, Jefferson kept most of his religious views private.

Endnotes:

[1] Quoted in Tim Hackler, “Jefferson and the Religious Right: New England Clergy Led America's First Negative Campaign,” Tulsa World (September 24, 1994), Opinion Section, 1.
[2] Noble E. Cunningham, Jr., In Pursuit of Reason: The Life of Thomas Jefferson (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 1987), 225.
[3] Hackler, “Jefferson and the Religious Right,” 1.
[4] Cunningham, In Pursuit of Reason, 225.
[5] Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Rush (April 21, 1803). Quoted in Edwin S. Gaustad, Neither King Nor Prelate: Religion and the New Nation, 1776–1826, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, [1987] 1993), 100.
[6] Jefferson to Rush. Quoted in Gaustad, Neither King Nor Prelate, 100.
[7] Gaustad, Neither King Nor Prelate, 101.
[8] Gaustad, Neither King Nor Prelate, 103.
[9] Gaustad, Neither King Nor Prelate, 103.
[10] Gaustad, Neither King Nor Prelate, 105.

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