The Religion of Thomas Jefferson
By David Barton
Of the 200+ Founding Fathers, the faith of most can be clearly identified. For example, one can say with great certainty that Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Roger Sherman, and William Livingston were definitely Christians; and one can say with equal certainty that Charles Lee, Henry Dearborn, Thomas Paine, and Ethan Allen definitely were not; but Thomas Jefferson’s faith is much more difficult to label with certainty.
Some assert that Jefferson was a Christian; others that he was not; and the source of this contradiction is Jefferson himself, for his own writings contain content that can be used to prove either position. Yet while the condition of Jefferson’s private faith is subject to speculation, his public actions regarding Christianity are not.
For example, Jefferson began his federal career in 1789 as Secretary of State to President George Washington, and one of his early assignments was to oversee the layout and construction of Washington, D. C. In late 1800, the new Capitol building was ready, and on December 4, Congress (with Vice President Thomas Jefferson presiding over the U. S. Senate) approved a plan whereby Christian church services would be held each Sunday in the Capitol.
Throughout Jefferson’s presidency, he faithfully attended the Capitol church (arriving each week on horseback) and did not even allow bad weather to impede his attendance. He had the Marine Band play at the worship services, and under his tenure Sunday services were also started at the War Department and Treasury Department. Of his faithful participation at the Capitol church, he explained:
No nation has ever existed or been governed without religion – nor can be. The Christian religion is the best religion that has been given to man and I, as Chief Magistrate of this nation, am bound to give it the sanction of my example.
Other presidential actions of Jefferson included:
• Urging local governments to make land available specifically for Christian purposes;
• Federally funding Christian missionaries to the Indians and providing funds to erect a church building in which they might worship;
• Assuring a Christian school in the newly purchased Louisiana Territory that it would receive “the patronage of the government”; and
•Closing presidential documents with “In the year of our Lord Christ” (see inset).
Before his presidency and while Governor of Virginia, Jefferson called for a time of prayer and thanksgiving, asking the people to give thanks . . . that He hath diffused the glorious light of the Gospel, whereby through the merits of our gracious Redeemer we may become the heirs of His eternal glory.
His call further asked Virginians to pray that . . .
He would grant to His church the plentiful effusions of Divine grace and pour out His Holy Spirit on all ministers of the Gospel; that He would bless and prosper the means of education and spread the light of Christian knowledge through the remotest corners of the earth.
As a state legislator, Jefferson introduced the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom to disestablish the Anglican Church and place all Christian denominations on an equal footing. He also introduced a number of other religious bills, including “A Bill for Punishing Disturbers of Religious Worship and Sabbath Breakers,” “A Bill for Appointing Days of Public Fasting and Thanksgiving,” and “A Bill Annulling Marriages Prohibited by the Levitical Law and Appointing the Mode of Solemnizing Lawful Marriage.”
There are many additional examples, and Jefferson’s public actions certainly show no hostility toward Christianity; in fact, they display a strong support for public Christian expressions and practices. Nevertheless, two major accusations of irreligion wrongly persist against him, one related to the “Jefferson Bible” and another concerning the University of Virginia.
The So-Called “Jefferson Bible”
According to this allegation, Jefferson made his own Bible (i.e., “The Jefferson Bible”) by removing from the Gospels the miracles and parts with which he disagreed; but there are many problems with this charge.
First, Jefferson was one of the founders of the Virginia Bible Society and contributed liberally to the distribution of the complete, unedited, traditional Bible.
Second, no such work as a “Jefferson Bible” actually exists; it is a widely-used pejorative concocted by modern writers loosely referring to one of two works that Jefferson prepared about the teachings of Jesus (the first in 1804 and the second in 1820). Significantly, Jefferson assigned a specific title to each work accurately describing its scope and purpose; neither was a “Bible.”
For years prior to the 1804 work, Jefferson had taken an active role in promoting Christianity among the Indians. He not only signed numerous federal laws to that end but also carried on a correspondence about the subject with several ministers and government officials, who recommended “a plan by which the blessing of Christianity might be propagated among the heathen.” One friend showed Jefferson a sermon endorsing a plan whereby just the simple teachings of Jesus (i.e., Jesus’ own words) were presented to Indians, avoiding the many controversial doctrines over which groups of Christians so often fought. Jefferson took two Bibles that he had in the White House, cut the words of Jesus from those Bibles, and pasted them into a separate folio, arranging them so that Indians could read the teachings of Jesus in a non-stop, end-to-end fashion.
Jefferson titled that work “The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, being Extracted from the Account of His Life and Doctrines given by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; Being an Abridgement of the New Testament for the Use of the Indians, Unembarrassed [Uncomplicated] with Matters of Fact or Faith beyond the Level of their Comprehensions.” This work is the so-called “Jefferson Bible,” and significantly, it did include miracles, such as Jesus’ command to His disciples to heal the sick and raise the dead, the account of the resurrection of Jarius’ daughter, the healing of the bleeding woman, the healing of two blind men, the casting out of a demon, and other acts of a miraculous and supernatural nature.
Jefferson’s second religious work was undertaken more than a decade later. Titled “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth,” Jefferson took the moral teachings of Jesus and arranged them end-to-end in four side-by-side columns – one column in English, Latin, French, and Greek.
Jefferson described that work to his friend, the Rev. Charles Clay:
Probably you have heard me say I had taken the four Evangelists, had cut out from them every text they had recorded of the moral precepts of Jesus, and arranged them in a certain order; and although they appeared but as fragments, yet fragments of the most sublime edifice of morality which had ever been exhibited to man. (emphasis added)
Because the purpose of the 1820 work was to compile the morals of Jesus from his teachings, that work did not contain miracles. As confirmed by Jefferson scholar, Dr. Mark Beliles:
Because of Jefferson’s intention to compile primarily what Jesus taught rather than what he did, many of the miracles and other events included in the Gospels concerning Jesus were naturally deleted.
Today, some claim that the 1820 work (rather than the 1804 work) is the “Jefferson Bible,” but that 1820 work was not for public use and Jefferson would never have allowed it to have been described as a “Bible”; it was merely a personal devotional aid for his own use. Jefferson’s eldest grandson noted that his grandfather “was in the habit of reading nightly from it before going to bed.”
How did either of Jefferson’s simple works on the words of Jesus come to be characterized by modern writers as a supposedly anti-Christian “Jefferson Bible”? A contemporary researcher has accurately reported:
Unfortunately, all those who have published the “Jefferson Bible” since 1903 have been almost universally either Unitarian or rationalist and secular in their approach, and their introductions to the book have. . . . misrepresented Jefferson’s motivations and beliefs to conform to their own theological assumptions or agendas.
Jefferson’s So-Called “Secular” University of Virginia
Modern critics also assert that that Jefferson founded the University of Virginia as America’s first explicitly secular school – that he barred religious activities and instruction from the curriculum and that the University had no chaplain; however, Jefferson’s writings readily disprove those charges. For example, he personally:
• Directed the Professor of Ethics to teach students “the proofs of the being of a God – the Creator, Preserver, and Supreme Ruler of the Universe – the Author of all the relations of morality and of the laws and obligations these infer”;
• Directed the Professor of Ancient Languages to teach Biblical Greek, Hebrew, and Latin so that students would be equipped to read and study the “earliest and most respected authorities of the Christian Faith” and he also placed “the writings of the most respected authorities of every sect [denomination]” in the university library;
• Arranged the curriculum so that religious study would be an inseparable part of the study of law and political science;
• Invited several denominations to establish seminaries at the University and participate in student instruction; and
• Ordered that a room in the University Rotunda “shall be used for . . . religious worship,” stating that “the students of the University will be free and expected to attend.”
Additionally, contrary to modern claims, the University of Virginia did have chaplains who oversaw “the regular services of the Sabbath [and] a Sabbath School” as well as “the monthly concert for prayer.” Furthermore, University students who studied for the Gospel ministry were exempted from normal tuition fees.
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Jefferson’s actions definitely do not indicate that he was irreligious or hostile to Christian public policy. In fact, two centuries ago he accurately noted: “My views are very different from that anti-Christian system imputed to me by those who know nothing of my opinions.”
So do Jefferson’s public actions therefore mean that he was personally a Christian? Not necessarily. He called himself a Christian on multiple occasions but those declarations do not settle the matter, for there were also times when he stated that he rejected the divinity of Christ, the virgin birth, and the inspiration of the Scriptures. (Significantly, however, historical analysts have pointed out that of the nearly 20,000 letters Jefferson wrote, only half-a-dozen – a very miniscule percentage – raise any questions as to orthodox Christian teachings.)
Jefferson’s public pro-Christian actions are numerous and his private letters raising concerns are few, but they definitely do exist. It is therefore difficult to take any absolutely firm position on the personal faith of Thomas Jefferson.
Dumas Malone, the Pulitzer-Prize winning biographer of Thomas Jefferson, recognized this difficulty, acknowledging that on the one hand, “This apostle of spiritual freedom regarded himself as a Christian, and unquestionably he was one in his ethical standards,” but that on the other hand, “Jefferson did not refer to the Messiah, the Savior, or the Christ, but he had unbounded admiration for Jesus.”
Probably no human today can know for sure whether or not Jefferson finished his life as a Christian according to an orthodox definition; only God knows. But while the condition of his private personal faith might be questioned, what cannot be questioned is the fact that Jefferson was not a Deist, a secularist, or irreligious but rather a strong promoter of public religion, being pro-Christian in his demeanor and endeavors.