Saturday, July 19, 2008

Thomas Jefferson: Christian Restorationist

Researching the individual religious beliefs of our various founding fathers has become a favorite pastime of mine. Whether it is trying to understand the mystery of George Washington, the complexity of Benjamin Franklin, or the "heretical" views of Thomas Paine, the topic of our founding fathers and their religion has captivated the attention of the public. Yet despite this attraction to the founders and their religion, I am amazed at the fact that so many historians, theologians, and common history buffs still push for a singular religious label when it comes to our founders. For example, we have all heard it said that Benjamin Franklin was a Deist, and that George Washington was a Theist, U(u)nitarian, devout Christian, etc. While these labels carry with them a certain degree of truth, it would be foolish to suggest that they contain all we need to know. After all, Franklin referred to himself as a "thorough deist" and a "devout Christian" at different points in his life. From the evidence available Washington's personal faith contained components of Christianity and deism. Simply put, it would be foolish of us to assume that a singular label -- i.e. Christianity, Deism, etc. -- is sufficient in explaining the religious views of our founding fathers.

With that said, I want to focus on one founder that has fallen victim to this "single religious label" phenomenon that I have mentioned above. We have all heard it said that Thomas Jefferson was clearly a deist. After all, the man rejected the divinity of Jesus, changed the Bible to fit his personal creed, and openly criticized organized religion on a number of occasions. While I cannot refute the validity of these facts, I do not believe that they can be used to conclusively label Jefferson as a Deist and nothing more. As Tom Van Dyke has pointed out in one of his posts on Jefferson:

Thomas Jefferson was no "deist." His God was no cosmic watchmaker; he was active in the affairs of men ... I also noted that the Jefferson Bible left in The Lord's Prayer, which is probative, because when your watch breaks, you don't pray to Timex."
Mr. Van Dyke is absolutely right. Jefferson's God was an intervening force that helped to shape the course of mankind. As Mr. Van Dyke effectively points out, Jefferson never subscribed to the idea of an absent god/cosmic clockmaker.

With that said, I am in no way suggesting that deism played NO role in the religious views of Thomas Jefferson. I am simply saying -- and I believe Mr. Van Dyke is as well -- that deism only tells part of the story. When it comes to Jefferson and deism, perhaps Dr. Larry Cebula put it best when he wrote:

"I think you (and many others) make a mistake by applying a dictionary definition of Deism as if it were a set of principles equivalent to a religious test. Surely 18th century Deism was much more loose than that, more a set of inclinations and ideas than a set of fixed principles. It is hard to define precisely but I know it when I see it. If Deism was a big tent, Jefferson was at least a frequent visitor, and often made his home there."
(see comments section at this link).

It is not my intention to engage in a debate over Jefferson's deism. I believe that it is both reasonable and appropriate to embrace what both Tom Van Dyke and Larry Cebula point to. Deism played a role in Jefferson's faith to be sure, but it does not tell the entire story. With that said, I now want to turn to the main point of my post, which I hope will provide an additional interpretation of Jefferson's faith.

In my opinion, Thomas Jefferson's personal religion can be better understood when we recognize a few of the religious constants that he accepted throughout the course of his life:

1.) Jefferson loved Jesus but not Christianity.

2.) Jefferson loved scripture but despised its current interpretation.

3.) Jefferson believed in reason and not faith.

4.) Jefferson embraced the internal benefits of religious devotion but detested the outward demonstrations of Christian zealots.

In summation, I believe that in addition to his Christian and deist leanings, Jefferson was deeply influenced by his belief in Christian RESTORATIONISM, which caused Jefferson to accept what he believed were the true doctrines of Christ and to reject the distorted orthodoxy of his day.

Point #1: Jefferson loved Jesus, but not Christianity:
For Jefferson, the religion of Jesus Christ was simple. As he stated in an 1818 letter to Wells and Lilly of the Classical Press:

"I make you my acknowledgement for the sermon on the Unity of God, and am glad to see our countrymen looking that question in the face. it must end in a return to primitive Christianity" [my emphasis].

Jefferson's desire to return to the roots of "primitive Christianity" were the result of his conviction that the Christian religion had strayed from the true doctrine of Jesus Christ. As Jefferson stated on another occasion:

"The religion-builders have so distorted and deformed the doctrines of Jesus, so muffled them in mysticisms, fancies and falsehoods, have caricatured them into forms so monstrous and inconceivable, as to shock reasonable thinkers...Happy in the prospect of a restoration of primitive Christianity, I must leave to younger athletes to encounter and lop off the false branches which have been engrafted into it by the mythologists of the middle and modern ages." [my emphasis]. (Thomas Jefferson, The writings of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 7, H.A. Washington, ed., pp210, 257).
Later in his life, in a letter to Francis van der Kemp, Jefferson stated:

"I trust with you that the genuine and simple religion of Jesus will one day be restored: such as it was preached and practised by himself. very soon after his death it became muffled up in mysteries, and has been ever since kept in concealment from the vulgar eye" [my emphasis].
For Jefferson, true Christianity was not to be had in the ceremonial rituals of communion or the Calvinist doctrine of grace. Instead good works and moral behavior were the TRUE doctrine of a Christian:

"My fundamental principle would be the reverse of Calvin's, that we are to be saved by our good works which are within our power, and not by our faith which is not within our power."
(Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Parker, May 15, 1819).
As evidenced above, Jefferson's love for Jesus came not from a pious devotion to orthodoxy, but from a sincere appreciation of his doctrine. Jefferson sincerely believed that Christ's doctrines were to be admired and emulated. With regards to the morals of Jesus, Jefferson stated:

"It is the innocence of his character, the purity and sublimity of his moral precepts, the eloquences of his inculcations, the beauty of the apologues in which he conveys them, that I so much admire."
It was in his admiration of the example and doctrine of Jesus, not his devotion to pious orthodoxy, that Jefferson developed a love for Jesus. Perhaps Steven Waldman, author of the book, Founding Faith, points to Jefferson's love of Jesus best when he writes:

"Jefferson was driven to edit the Bible the way a parent whose child has been kidnapped is driven to find the culprit. Jefferson loved Jesus and was attempting to rescue him" (Founding Faith, 73).

Point #2: Jefferson loved scripture but despised its current interpretation:

In my opinion, there can be little doubt that Thomas Jefferson was a supporter of scripture. The simple fact that Jefferson spent so many years tediously dissecting the Bible to fit his personal beliefs is evidence of this fact. While there is no doubt that Jefferson's "tinkering" with the Bible has caused Christians to take an antagonistic stance against Jefferson, it is still worth analyzing the motives behind Jefferson's Bible editing.

As Steven Waldman stated in the quotation noted above, Jefferson's intentions behind altering the Bible were based on his belief that Christianity had strayed from the religion of Christ. As Jefferson stated in a letter to Samuel Kercheval in 1810:

"But a short time elapsed after the death of the great reformer of the Jewish religion, before his principles were departed from by those who professed to be his special servants, and perverted into an engine for enslaving mankind, and aggrandizing their oppressors in Church and State: that the purest system of morals ever before preached to man has been adulterated and sophisticated by artificial constructions, into a mere contrivance to filch wealth and power to themselves: that rational men, not being able to swallow their impious heresies, in order to force them down their throats, they raise the hue and cry of infidelity, while themselves are the greatest obstacles to the advancement of the real doctrines of Jesus, and do, in fact, constitute the real Anti-Christ."
And to John Adams in 1813, Jefferson wrote:

"It is too late in the day for men of sincerity to pretend they believe in the Platonic mysticisms that three are one, and one is three; and yet that the one is not three, and the three are not one . . . But this constitutes the craft, the power and the profit of the priests. Sweep away their gossamer fabrics of factitious religion, and they would catch no more flies. We should all then, like the Quakers, live without an order of priests, moralize for ourselves, follow the oracle of conscience, and say nothing about what no man can understand, nor therefore believe."
It is clear that the reasons behind Jefferson's desire to "edit" the Bible were motivated out of his distrust for pious Christian leaders and from his sincere belief that Christianity had fallen from its true course.

When it comes to the Jefferson Bible, it is interesting to note just what kind of changes he chose to make. Clearly Jefferson did not intend to write his own version of the Bible, but instead hoped to recover some of the "missing" or "altered" truths that had been lost over time. Again, Jefferson hoped to RESTORE the true nature of Christ's religion as it was once contained in the Bible of old. A good example of Jefferson's passion to "correct" the Bible can be found in his 1823 letter to John Adams, in which he states:

"[A]nd his doctrine of the Cosmogony of the world is very clearly laid down in the 3 first verses of the 1st. chapter of John, in these words, `{en arche en o logos, kai o logos en pros ton Theon kai Theos en o logos. `otos en en arche pros ton Theon. Panta de ayto egeneto, kai choris ayto egeneto ode en, o gegonen}. Which truly translated means `in the beginning God existed, and reason (or mind) was with God, and that mind was God. This was in the beginning with God. All things were created by it, and without it was made not one thing which was made'. Yet this text, so plainly declaring the doctrine of Jesus that the world was created by the supreme, intelligent being, has been perverted by modern Christians to build up a second person of their tritheism by a mistranslation of the word {logos}. One of it's legitimate meanings indeed is `a word.' But, in that sense, it makes an unmeaning jargon: while the other meaning `reason', equally legitimate, explains rationally the eternal preexistence of God, and his creation of the world. Knowing how incomprehensible it was that `a word,' the mere action or articulation of the voice and organs of speech could create a world, they undertake to make of this articulation a second preexisting being, and ascribe to him, and not to God, the creation of the universe."
In addition to pointing out where he believed the original translation of the Bible had gone wrong, Jefferson often took the liberty of changing certain parts of the Bible's text in an effort to make it sound more "Christ-like." For example, instead of keeping the biblical verse found in Matthew 5: 48, which states, "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect," Jefferson removed the verse completely and then added what was a twist of Luke 6: 36 when he wrote "Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful." Clearly Jefferson felt that a number of biblical texts had been changed to pollute of subjugate the minds of mankind.

When it comes to the Jefferson Bible, it is also important to note the fact that all miracles -- i.e. raising Lazarus from the dead, turning water into wine, walking on water, etc. -- were removed from Jefferson's final draft. This helps to clearly illustrate the fact that Jefferson, despite his devotion to the example and doctrine of Christ, never acknowledged him as divine or as the savior of mankind. In fact, Jefferson even stated to his friend, John Adams, that:

“The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.” (Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, April 11, 1823).
For all of his praise and devotion to Jesus, Jefferson never publicly recognized him as the son of God.

Point #3: Jefferson believed in reason and not faith:

As one of the quintessential Enlightenment thinkers of early America, it should come as no surprise that Thomas Jefferson favored reason to faith. As mentioned above, Jefferson's removal of all miracles from his draft of the Bible suggests that he put little to no stock in faith-based stories, which he undoubtedly considered to be fables. In addition, Jefferson admonished his family and friends to put their trust in reason, not faith. As he wrote to Peter Carr in 1787:

"Your reason is now mature enough to examine this object. In the first place divest yourself of all bias in favour of novelty & singularity of opinion. Indulge them in any other subject rather than that of religion. It is too important, & the consequences of error may be too serious. On the other hand shake off all the fears & servile prejudices under which weak minds are servilely crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear...Read the bible then, as you would read Livy or Tacitus. The facts which are within the ordinary course of nature you will believe on the authority of the writer, as you do those of the same kind in Livy & Tacitus. The testimony of the writer weighs in their favor in one scale, and their not being against the laws of nature does not weigh against them. But those facts in the bible which contradict the laws of nature, must be examined with more care, and under a variety of faces. Here you must recur to the pretensions of the writer to inspiration from god." [My emphasis].

Point #4: Jefferson embraced the internal benefits of religious devotion but detested the outward demonstrations of Christian zealots:

This final point was perhaps the biggest pet-peeve of all for Thomas Jefferson. For a man that fought for religious freedom and equality, Jefferson could also not help but notice how pious expressions of religion had caused the world a great deal of harm. As he states in his Notes on the State of Virginia:

“Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burned, tortured, fined, and imprisoned, yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half of the world fools and the other half hypocrites.”
For Jefferson, religion best served mankind when it was left to the individual and not the clergy:

"Say nothing of my religion. It is known to God and myself alone. Its evidence before the world is to be sought in my life" (Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, January 11, 1817).
In Jefferson's mind, this was the only true way to be a Christian. As Jesus himself had admonished to, "Take heed that ye do not your alms before men" (Matthew 6:1). With this in mind, it is understandable why Thomas Jefferson would refer to himself as a "true Christian." As he stated in a letter to Benjamin Rush:

"I am a Christian, in the only sense he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; & believing he never claimed any other."
In conclusion, Thomas Jefferson's religion was anything but simple. Defining him exclusively as a deist or any other label is both counterproductive and incomplete. Clearly Jefferson was influenced to a degree by deism, Christianity, U(u)nitarianism, etc. With that said, it is essential that we recognize the passionate devotion to RESTORATIONISM that literally guided Jefferson's walk through his personal labyrinth of religious devotion. Jefferson's love and admiration for the doctrines of Jesus, along with his appreciation of scripture, devotion to reason, and his appeal to private communion with God, all helped to shape Jefferson's religious perspective. By advocating a return to the original doctrines of Christ, Jefferson's Christian RESTORATIONISM is as important to his overall religious DNA as were deism and Christianity.


Jonathan Rowe said...

From skimming over your post, very interesting. I think you are absolutely right that Jefferson thought he was a "restorationist." However, besides the issue with the Trinity, there is also the issue that while Jefferson probably thought some of the Bible was divinely inspired, he also probably thought some of it wasn't. And what he would disregard as the "corrupted" parts of the Bible's text, some might argue form core parts of authentic Christian doctrine.

For instance, Jefferson thought Paul was one of the first corrupters of Christianity! Christianity without the Apostle Paul's explications...that's something.

Our Founding Truth said...

Jefferson denied the fundamentals of the Bible, thus he was not a Christian.

Thomas Jefferson was the pinnacle of ignorance, and occupied the pit of scholarship by not providing one reason how the Apostles and Early Church corrupted the Bible. What an embecile!

It's a wonder why he didn't deny the works of Aristotle, Plato, Cicero, Socrates, and every other philosopher.

Brad Hart said...

OFT states:

"Jefferson denied the fundamentals of the Bible, thus he was not a Christian.

Thomas Jefferson was the pinnacle of ignorance, and occupied the pit of scholarship by not providing one reason how the Apostles and Early Church corrupted the Bible. What an embecile!"

Harsh words, OFT. According to YOUR definition of Christianity I guess Jefferson was not a Christian. However, YOUR definition is not EVERYONE'S definition.

I realize that we are arguing doctrine here, so there is no chance of changing anyone's persuasion. With that said, I think it is unfair to call Jefferson -- one of America's greatest thinkers -- an embecile (Sp. Imbecile).

Brad Hart said...

Also, thanks for the comments, Jon. You are right about Paul. That is one big piece of evidence that I forgot to include.

Lindsey Shuman said...

What an enjoyable post. Very fresh and even-handed. I found myself taking a different look at Jefferson's faith.

Our Founding Truth said...

However, YOUR definition is not EVERYONE'S definition.>

All that matters is the Bible's definition, and Jefferson denied them.

Inerrancy, Deity, and Virgin Birth of Jesus, Vicarious Blood Atonement, Resurrection from the Dead, Physical Return to the Earth, and future judgment by Jesus of every human being.

These are ABSOLUTELY taught in the Bible, a denial of any, the Holy Spirit will reject.

Trust in Jesus as your Savior, and you will understand


Brad Hart said...

OFT stated:

"All that matters is the Bible's definition, and Jefferson denied them.

For some that is all that matters. For others there is much more.

"Inerrancy, Deity, and Virgin Birth of Jesus, Vicarious Blood Atonement, Resurrection from the Dead, Physical Return to the Earth, and future judgment by Jesus of every human being.

These are ABSOLUTELY taught in the Bible, a denial of any, the Holy Spirit will reject.

WOW! I sure feel bad for all those Hindu's, Africans, Buddhists, etc. that were never born into a position where they could have even heard of Jesus to begin with. According to your definition they are going to burn in hell since they never accepted Jesus or the Bible.

I'm sure glad that Christians today don't embrace an western bias to their religion!!!

bad Jim said...

A very nice piece - and what a great blog! Scads of new stuff every day.

I was a little disappointed to find that Jefferson thought that God had to intervene to keep the planets in their orbits. (May have read that at Steven Waldman's blog. Newton said as much, but, by the time Jefferson wrote this, Laplace had published his Celestial Mechanics and said, "I have no need of that hypothesis." TJ was still buying books at the time, but he certainly wasn't keeping up on his astronomy.

Brad Hart said...

Thanks for the comment, bad jim. We are glad you enjoy the blog. Please feel free to stop by any time and comment to your heart's content!

Our Founding Truth said...

WOW! I sure feel bad for all those Hindu's, Africans, Buddhists, etc. that were never born into a position where they could have even heard of Jesus to begin with. According to your definition they are going to burn in hell since they never accepted Jesus or the Bible.>

I fell I should be paid for giving you bible lessons. If you start reading the bible starting in the Gospel of John, and go through to Acts, you will understand what God says about people's destiny not ever hearing who Jesus is.

Acts 10 and Romans go over this; a man to accountability has no excuse, because of the visible creation, showing God's attributes;if Hindus want to worship the creation, that is their problem, God is not mocked.

If a man will use his common sense and diligently seek after the truth, Jesus will reveal himself to him, it has been documented by people in Africa, as well as with Cornelius in Acts 10.


Brad Hart said...

Your are boring me to death, OFT.

"If a man will use his common sense and diligently seek after the truth, Jesus will reveal himself to him, it has been documented by people in Africa, as well as with Cornelius in Acts 10."

WOW! I guess Gandhi, despite all the good he did, is royally screwed, as is every other human that doesn't buy into the God of OFT.

Jonathan Rowe said...


You raise a pretty serious issue in orthodox Christendom. It's sounds so obviously self-evidently true that Ghandi isn't in Hell. Yet, better witnessed to the Christian faith than OFT believe exactly this.

The Roman Catholic Church has struggled with this and many higher ups hold out hope for universal salvation.

But ultimately this idea of eternal damnation and all non-Christians going there is one big reason why I could never be a Christian in this traditional sense.

Whatever I deserve for my sins, I don't deserve to be thrown into a lake of fire for all eternity. It's not possible that a good God would do such a thing. This doesn't make believers hope for something better, but this is not "better." Even if one is saved one inevitably will have unsaved loved ones. Cosmic reality becomes very bad news with a silver line that you can escape the fate that will befall the majority of humanity.

I've debated a lot of evangelicals and I have a hunching suspicion that though they say they believed in eternal damnation for all who don't accept Christ, feel like they have to publicly defend this idea (because that's what their traditional theology holds), many of them privately don't believe this and hope it not to be true.

Brad Hart said...

Excellent points, Jon. I've had my share of debates on these points as well. You are 100% right to point out how contradictory it sounds for a loving God, who as Jesus points out, loves mankind more than "many sparrows" and has numbered "the hairs of our head" but is somehow willing to toss people like Gandhi into eternal fire. How many BILLIONS of the human race have gone throughout life without ever hearing of Jesus?

I'm in complete agreement with you on this one, Jon. It just makes no sense. It will never cease to amaze me when "Christians" openly condemn non-Christians, Muslims, atheists, homosexuals, etc. I realize that I am opening up a new can of worms here, but I do believe it is related. Openly condemning another for their apparent lack of "salvation" through Christ is contradictory to history, since most of the human race lived and died without ever hearing the name Jesus.

The Shawcrofts said...

I love it! Especially the part about a restoration of primitive Christianity. I know a pretty good story about Restoration...

YAHyeshe said...

as a Follower of Messiah, i do not concern myself with any of the "supernatural" of Scripture....I Believe that a man named "Jesus" was birthed into our dimension (i do not care how!) and Lived a childhood that made the Creator smile, and upon this man's self-realization (whether through "supernatural" or not!) of HIS POSITION within our dimension, knew that his Faith would bring about his suffering and eventually dying for the Reality that Lived Inside!!! I Do believe that this man's "Invisible Spirit, was "Raised" and appeared to many....i have certain discrepancies that i find in our translations about "thomas touching his nail scars" because why then would he tell his earthly mother, "do not touch me, for i have not ascended to the Father"....but as to the testimony of Sha'ul (aka Paul), this man was a Pharisee of Pharisees (politician of politicians), Jew of all Jews, as "religous" as there was at the time.....and for him to go off the "Deep End" of himself, to Grasp tightly to this "suffering Messiah" and even Follow this "Messiah" in speaking out to an "ignorant people" (Greeks), and Teaching the Hebrew Roots to a people who worshiped statues, should speak for itself....Sha'ul wrote his first letters to "Galatia" decades before the first "Gospel" was ever you have any objections to "Paul's" Teachings..? The Debate i wish to have is not "God or no God" but rather, man's manipulation and struggle for Power within the "religious peoples"....make NO mistake, Following Messiah is not a "religion", it is a Journey.....

YAHyeshe said...

As to those who cling to a "christianity" without original thoughts within themselves, questions within themselves, and Seek Scripture, not the americanized "bible", these shall Live....John 3:16 is narrowly read as "whosoever" but it also defines the Coming scenario for those "whosoever not"....Perish with this dimension, simply put....i am not concerned with "how" and for "how long"....Protection from this Purging, IS Salvation...don't fool yourselves

Mike D said...

I have also been trying to see through the fog to see what the founding fathers actually believed.

This article has helped pull together some quotes that help us form a clearer picture.

It seems like the founding fathers were alot like some of today's politicians. Each has a belief in God but may not necessarily accept the full counsel of the Bible.

It is vital for believers to accept the full counsel of scripture otherwise there is a risk of being deceived with heresy. Jesus said "I am the way, the Truth and the life" and "No man can come to the Father but through me".

Jesus said, "wide is the way that leads to destruction, many travel on it" and "Narrow is the way that leads to life, few there be that find it."

We need'nt try to broaden the entrance into the kingdom of God by letting people believe whatever they want to believe, but instead get out there and preach the truth of the gospel so that the lost world may find the hope of eternal life that is only in Christ.

Thanks for the article!