Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Thomas Jefferson and Religion

We recently visited Charlottesville, Virginia and had an opportunity to tour Monticello, the home Thomas Jefferson designed and lived in. We also made a brief visit to the University of Virginia, which he founded. I came away with a greater appreciation for Jefferson's genius. I've always heard that Jefferson was a deist and that he pieced together his own version of the Bible. I decided to look at those issues when we got home.

I am awed when I look at his political pedigree. Jefferson was the third president of the United States from 1801 to 1809. During his presidency, he purchased the Louisiana Territory from France (in 1803) and sent out the Lewis and Clark Expedition (from 1804 to 1806). He was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence (in 1776), served in the Continental Congress, representing Virginia, and was the governor of Virginia during the Revolutionary War (from 1779 to 1781). He was U.S. Minister to France (beginning in 1785), the first U.S. Secretary of State under George Washington (from 1790 to 1793), and the Vice President to the second president, John Adams. In a 1982 survey of historians, Jefferson was ranked as the fourth best president of the United States, after Lincoln, Washington and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

From a religious standpoint, Jefferson was raised in the Church of England when it was the established church of Virginia and funded by Virginia tax money. Other churches in Virginia at the time, such as the Presbyterians, Baptists and Methodists, received no tax support. At age 16, Jefferson started college at William & Mary in Williamsburg and spent two years there studying mathematics, metaphysics and philosophy. He read the writings of John Locke, Francis Bacon and Isaac Newton and was influenced by their philosophies. 

To hold political office in Virginia, as he did, you had to be Anglican and do nothing that did not conform with church doctrine. However, after the Revolution, the Church of England was disestablished in America and was reorganized as the Episcopal Church in America. Unfettered by the stricture of the religious requirement for political office, Jefferson took an active part in ensuring separation of church from the state. In 1779, he proposed "The Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom" which was adopted in 1786. It is interesting, when considering his incredible achievements, that he lists his authorship "of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom" as one of the three on his tombstone. The statute provided for separation of church and state and that civil rights have no dependence on religious opinions.
Accomplishments listed on Jefferson's tombstone.
When religion was disestablished in Massachusetts, he wrote to John Adams, "I join you...in sincere congratulations that this den of the priesthood is at length broken up, and that a Protestant Popedom is no longer to disgrace the American history and character." When he was in France as French Minister, prior to the French Revolution, he felt that the Catholic clergy was too involved in matters of civil government. He wrote that "in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own." Jefferson believed that the First Amendment to the Constitution required separation of church and state and he was quoted a number of times by the U.S. Supreme Court in cases interpreting the Establishment Clause, including the case of Reynolds v. U.S., which dealt with the LDS Church and bigamy. 

Up until about a year after his inauguration as President of the U.S., Jefferson attended the Episcopal Church regularly. Then he began attending church services in the House of Representatives which featured preachers of every Christian sect and denomination. Later in life, Jefferson attended church regularly, apparently the Episcopal church, but refused to be a godparent because he did not believe in the Trinity. 

Although Jefferson has been characterized as a Deist, he did not ever self-identify as a Deist. In a letter in 1819 he wrote, "You say you are a Calvinist. I am not. I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know."  He attended a Unitarian church  while living in Philadelphia and was a friend of Joseph Priestley, the minister. The Unitarians, like Deists, rejected the doctrine of the Trinity. In 1822 Jefferson wrote that the "genuine doctrine of only one God is reviving, and I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian." He also read the writings of Conyers Middleton, an English clergyman who questioned miracles and revelation. In a letter to John Adams in 1823, Jefferson wrote that the writings of Priestly and of Middleton are "the basis of my own faith...I cling to their learning, so much superior to my own." 

Jefferson believed in the "moral precepts of Jesus" which can't be found in "greater purity than in his discourses." The "doctrines of Jesus are simple" and lead to "the happiness of man." However, he believed that Jesus was surrounded by "dupes and imposters" that "mutilated" and "misstated" what he taught. In fact, he felt that the apostle Paul was the "first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus." In a letter to a nephew in 1787 he wrote, "Fix Reason firmly in her seat...Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason than of blindfolded fear...Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it end in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise and in the love of others which it will procure for you."

While president of the U.S., Jefferson started to piece together his own version of the Gospels. He literally cut and pasted, with a razor and glue, sections from the New Testament. The first draft was called "The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth...an Abridgement of the New Testament..." This was followed later by "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth: Extracted Textually from the Gospels..." It was completed in about 1820. He left out the virgin birth, miracles, divinity of Jesus and the resurrection and retained the moral philosophy. Interestingly, he also retained the Second Coming and a future judgment, including a heaven and hell. These documents were only known to a few friends during his lifetime, but they were published after his death as the "Jefferson Bible." The text of the Jefferson Bible can be found here.

As mentioned, Jefferson designed his own house on a 5,000 acre plantation near Charlottesville, and named it Monticello. Monticello is depicted on the back of the $2 bill. Work began on Monticello in 1768 and Jefferson first moved in to an outbuilding (the South Pavilion) in 1770. It was a thrill to visit the study or cabinet where he did scientific observation, architectural drafting, reading and writing, including his famous correspondence with John Adams, and the alcove bed right next to it where he slept and where he eventually died.
A view of the back of Monticello.
A side view of Monticello.
Front view of Monticello.
Dome Room
Sky light in the dome.
View through a round window in the Dome Room.
View from a window off the Dome Room.
Jefferson's Tombstone which is on the grounds at Monticello.
Jefferson also founded the University of Virginia in Charlottesville ("UVA") in 1819 and was the principal designer of the grounds. The design included the Rotunda on the UVA campus, which looks like an extension of Monticello, inspired by the Pantheon in Rome. Construction on the Rotunda started in 1822, but it was not completed until 1826 after Jefferson's death. UVA was different from other universities of that day as the campus surrounds the Rotunda which houses a library, rather than a church and reflects Jefferson's belief in separation of church and education. Members of the American Institute of Architects have identified the UVA campus as the most significant work of architecture in America. 
The Rotunda at the University of Virginia - designed by Thomas Jefferson.
A statue of Jefferson in front of the Rotunda.


  1. I just finished "Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power". He was an extraordinary man. I would love to visit Monticello.

  2. In many ways, Monticello is more interesting than the White House. It is amazing what one man accomplished.