It is not for me to pronounce on the hypothesis you present of a transmigration of souls from one body to another in certain cases. The laws of nature have withheld from us the means of physical knowledge of the country of spirits, and revelation has, for reasons unknown to us, chosen to leave us in the dark as we were. When I was young I was fond of the speculations which seemed to promise some insight into that hidden country, but observing at length that they left me in the same ignorance in which they had found me, I have for very many years ceased to read or to think concerning them, and have reposed my head on that pillow of ignorance which a benevolent Creator has made so soft for us, knowing how much we should be forced to use it. I have thought it better, by nourishing the good passions & controlling the bad, to merit an inheritance in a state of being of which I can know so little, and to trust for the future to him who has been so good for the past. (Thomas Jefferson to Rev. Isaac Story, 1787)
I have, on these pages, defended the notion that America was founded an unorthodox Christian nation, which some have argued must be a contradiction in terms. Rather than argue the coherence of the concept, let me for a change illustrate its application in practice. I have also argued the irrelevance of the personal faith of individual founders, when what is really relevant is their theory of statecraft and the role, if any, that religion in general or Christianity in particular plays in the establishment of good government. My post is therefore by my own standards irrelevant, but may yet nonetheless be interesting...
The picture that I have tried to paint of founding-era American Christianity is of extreme Protestantism, taking positions whose roots are in Reformation criticisms of Rome and reapplying them in American Christians' criticisms of European Christianity in general, and Anglicanism in particular. This American über-Protestantism involved, among other things, open hostility to clerical prerogatives and church authorities, to the degree that even denominations that were episcopally organized (Lutherans, Anglicans, Catholics, Orthodox) refused to have bishops in America prior to the revolution, despite enormous numbers of members of episcopally organized denominations. Similarly, functions which, in Europe, were responsibilities of church hierarchies, such as prosecution of heresy, witchcraft, profanity, blasphemy, idolatry, adultery, sodomy, and Sabbath-breaking, were responsibilities of the civil government in America, so church hierarchies were unneeded and unwelcome, because the civil government enforced religious discipline.
Another aspect of über-Protestantism in America was individual bible study and individual interpretation, which obviously was rooted in Reformation teachings but was carried much further here than in Europe, as demonstrated by the cacophonous multiplication of bible-based (and tradition-deprived) Christian sects flourishing throughout the colonies. A further aspect of this über-Protestantism was individual accountability of civil servants, at all levels of government, directly to God, for integrity in discharging their offices, contrary to the European divine-right model where the monarch was responsible to God (and ordained by, and policed by, the church), but lower-level servants were responsible to the monarch rather than directly to God. The swearing of oaths, with a hand on the bible and God as either addressee or witness, was known in Europe (notably in English coronation ceremonies), but was practiced on an unprecedented scale in America, because of the American über-Protestant theological understanding of individual responsibility to God for official actions even when occupying a position subordinate to a higher human authority in civil government.
A further aspect of this über-Protestantism is, as I have maintained, an extreme theological position on the necessity of freedom of conscience, that assent to correct dogma is in itself without value if it does not come freely and with, or through, a personal transformation or regeneration. Thus, e.g., the faith of those raised from childhood in traditional Christianity (with infant baptism) was suspect to Roger Williams, as they may never have had the transformative experience related to choosing Christ. Not that American Christianity denied the value of teaching children Christian beliefs and principles, but that American Christianity has a strain (of which Williams’ theology was an extreme expression) of ill-disciplined individualism: you have to do it for yourself.
It is in terms of this understanding of what American Christianity was at the time of the founding that I interpret Jefferson's various writings as I know them, and find him to be an American Christian in this radical über-Protestant sense.
First, though, consider the quote at the top of this post: apart from the curiosity of a Christian minister propounding unorthodoxies (transmigration of souls) and Jefferson being in the position of damping any enthusiasm for said unorthodoxy, Jefferson is there presenting as his own practice a difficult but valid Christian position with respect to metaphysics: rest your head, if you can, on the pillow of ignorance. This is not heresy per se, though it is dangerous. To understand why this might be is to appreciate the proper and improper roles and uses of doctrine and dogma.
Christian doctrines, such as those of the triune Godhead and hypostatic union of two natures in Christ, exist not that we must believe them but rather that we might avoid various errors. Many Christians might argue otherwise, that you must believe X, Y, and Z to be saved, but they quickly back down (in my experience anyway) when you bring up the cases of children and those of simple intellect (never mind that even those of average intellect can be tripped up easily when asking them to explain the Trinity). What is crucial to understand here is that children and the simple-minded do not get saved "on a waiver", as it were, but rather at the head of the line: Christ taught us that we should all strive for child-like faith, Christ taught that the least among us were first in his kingdom, etc.
In seeking his own simple faith Jefferson may have wandered into error (his combined expression of faith in God for his eternal future and moral conduct meriting salvation, given above, smacks of semi-Pelagianism), but this is precisely the danger of self-informed theology without the safety net of dogma. It is not that you have to believe dogma to be saved (child-like faith, if you can achieve it, is better than intellectual assent to dogma), but rather that dogma protects you from the errors of intellect (errors that children and the simple-minded are immune to) that beleaguer those of us impelled to think too much, and who insist on understanding before believing. In seeking simple faith Jefferson was trying his best to be Christian, though he may have fallen into heresy along the way. Still, just as I have argued before that Arius was Christian, so I would argue that Pelagius was Christian, and Jefferson with him (note that as I use the terms, “Christian heretic” is not a contradiction, nor is “eternally condemned Christian”).
That said, Jefferson’s views are more complicated than he let on above. I don’t believe that he succeeded in resting his head on that pillow of ignorance, at least not on the question of the nature of Christ. But first, for Jefferson’s understanding of the role of reason in morality and in forming faith (two sides of the same coin for him), I turn to his 1787 letter to Peter Carr, his ward (and de facto adopted son). Pardon the length, but I don’t want to bias the quote by excerption:
Moral philosophy. I think it lost time to attend lectures in this branch. He who made us would have been a pitiful bungler if he had made the rules of our moral conduct a matter of science. For one man of science, there are thousands who are not. What would have become of them? Man was destined for society. His morality therefore was to be formed to this object. He was endowed with a sense of right & wrong merely relative to this. This sense is as much a part of his nature as the sense of hearing, seeing, feeling; it is the true foundation of morality, & not the το καλον, truth, &c. as fanciful writers have imagined. The moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of man as his leg or arm. It is given to all human beings in a stronger or weaker degree, as force of members is given them in a greater or less degree. It may be strengthened by exercise, as may any particular limb of the body. This sense is submitted indeed in some degree to the guidance of reason; but it is a small stock which is required for this: even a less one than what we call common sense. State a moral case to a ploughman & a professor. The former will decide it as well, & often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules. In this branch therefore read good books because they will encourage as well as direct your feelings. The writings of Sterne particularly form the best course of morality that ever was written. Besides these read the books mentioned in the enclosed paper; and above all things lose no occasion of exercising your dispositions to be grateful, to be generous, to be charitable, to be humane, to be true, just, firm, orderly, courageous &c. Consider every act of this kind as an exercise which will strengthen your moral faculties, & increase your worth.
Religion. 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. You will naturally examine first the religion of your own country. 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. Examine upon what evidence his pretensions are founded, and whether that evidence is so strong as that its falsehood would be more improbable than a change in the laws of nature in the case he relates. For example in the book of Joshua we are told the sun stood still several hours. Were we to read that fact in Livy or Tacitus we should class it with their showers of blood, speaking of statues, beasts, &c. But it is said that the writer of that book was inspired. Examine therefore candidly what evidence there is of his having been inspired. The pretension is entitled to your inquiry, because millions believe it. On the other hand you are astronomer enough to know how contrary it is to the law of nature that a body revolving on its axis as the earth does, should have stopped, should not by that sudden stoppage have prostrated animals, trees, buildings, and should after a certain time have resumed its revolution, & that without a second general prostration. Is this arrest of the earth’s motion, or the evidence which affirms it, most within the law of probabilities? You will next read the new testament. It is the history of a personage called Jesus. Keep in your eye the opposite pretensions 1. of those who say he was begotten by god, born of a virgin, suspended & reversed the laws of nature at will, & ascended bodily into heaven: and 2. of those who say he was a man of illegitimate birth, of a benevolent heart, enthusiastic mind, who set out without pretensions to divinity, ended in believing them, & was punished capitally for sedition by being gibbeted according to the Roman law which punished the first commission of that offence by whipping, & the second by exile or death in furcâ. See this law in the Digest Lib. 48. tit. 19. §. 28. 3. & Lipsius Lib. 2. de cruce. cap. 2. These questions are examined in the books I have mentioned under the head of religion, & several others. They will assist you in your inquiries, but keep your reason firmly on the watch in reading them all. Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of it’s consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is no god, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort & pleasantness you feel in it’s exercise, and the love of others which it will procure you. If you find reason to believe there is a god, a consciousness that you are acting under his eye, & that he approves you, will be a vast additional incitement; if that there be a future state, the hope of a happy existence in that increases the appetite to deserve it; if that Jesus was also a god, you will be comforted by a belief of his aid and love. In fine, I repeat that you must lay aside all prejudice on both sides, & neither believe nor reject anything because any other persons, or description of persons have rejected or believed it. Your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven, and you are answerable not for the rightness but uprightness of the decision. I forgot to observe when speaking of the new testament that you should read all the histories of Christ, as well of those whom a council of ecclesiastics have decided for us to be Pseudo-evangelists, as those they named Evangelists. Because these Pseudo-evangelists pretended to inspiration as much as the others, and you are to judge their pretensions by your own reason, & not by the reason of those ecclesiastics. Most of these are lost. There are some however still extant, collected by Fabricius which I will endeavor to get & send you.
In this passage Jefferson begins by denying that reason (“science”) can discover the truths of morality, he affirms the role of conscience and endowment by our creator with moral sense, the need (in moral matters) for a very limited degree of reason (less than that needed for common sense), Jefferson holds up Rev. Laurence Sterne as the best author to read on morality (his sermons, quite conventional, are hard to find today, but in the 18th century they were in wider circulation than his Tristram Shandy), cautions against novelty or innovation in religion (as religion is important and the consequences of error are serious), stresses making sure your religious opinion is your own and not adopted servilely (beginning with reaching your own conclusion on the existence of God), calls for studying the Bible (neither servilely accepting the authority of authors, nor skeptically denying that they could in fact be inspired as claimed), calls for forming an opinion about Jesus (implicitly some middle-ground position between two extremes explicated by TJ), advises including the apocryphal gospels as sources to consider in learning about Christ, etc.
This may not be what some Christians today would teach their adult children (though I see nothing to omit, not even the bit about apocrypha, just more that I would add to it, orthodox traditionalist that I am), but in light of the picture that I have painted of early American Christianity with its emphases on informed free acceptance of belief, individual bible study and interpretation, and conscience rather than reason as the organ of faith (with the resulting conflation of morality and faith, preference for uprightness rather than rightness, and reverence for natural law), Jefferson’s guidance is consistent with revolutionary era American Christianity, albeit Jefferson is not mainstream even by that off-center standard. Jefferson is extreme mainly for what he neglects to say, rather than for what he says – he is extreme in his simplification.
Jefferson was, of course, a bible editor, as was Luther (in spirit if not in practice). Jefferson’s guidance to Carr above was more Calvinist than Lutheran, since Calvin wrote that men of reason could, with sufficient familiarity, discover scriptural canon for themselves, and therefore didn’t need the assistance of any editors (“mediators”) including some writings and excluding others. Anyway, as for Jefferson’s own views when he applied his reason to scripture, what we have in Jefferson’s two scriptural compilations is enough to establish Christian religion of a compact, streamlined variety. Instead of focusing on what Jefferson cut out, or on his chutzpah in taking a razor to scripture in the first place, what can we learn from what he chose to include?
The Jesus of Jefferson taught the eternity of our souls, with the possibility of ending up in eternal fire, Providence, a coming Son of Man, that this world we live in is evil, a coming bodily resurrection, a day of judgment, angels, demons, the Devil, Hell, and God. Christ’s morality, as endorsed by Jefferson, includes all manner of non-rational and non-naturalist teachings, such as that the reward will be the same for those who work for God all their lives, and those who come to God at the last minute; woe unto those who laugh, and also unto those held in high esteem by their peers; that it is wrong to invite friends, neighbors, or relatives over for dinner, because they might do the same to you; if someone forces you to walk a mile, then walk a second as well; that one man repenting his sin is better than ninety-nine men who live their lives without sin; that we must fast and conceal the fact that we are doing so, etc. The Jesus of Jefferson teaches the people in parables with secret meaning revealed only to his disciples; was baptized and observed the Sabbath (apart from healing); denied his mother and brothers; forbade a man to bury his dead father, and another to say farewell to his household; taught that a handicapped man was born blind so that the works of God could be made manifest. I could go on, but you get the idea: this is no rationalism, nor is it naturalism. This is transcendental morality and revealed religion.
Is this Christianity? What did Jefferson make of all this? That’s a separate post, coming eventually.
But what of all the quotes, trotted out ad nauseam by Christian Nation deniers, supposedly indicating Jefferson’s hostility to Christianity? As I read them, they express no such hostility, especially in light of the interpretation of early American Christianity that I have given. Here are some commonly quoted passages, harvested from CN denier websites (no quality control by me), collected by how I see them consistent with unorthodox American Christianity:
Anti-clericalism (core Protestantism):
History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes.
I join you, therefore, 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.
In every country and 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.
The Christian priesthood, finding the doctrines of Christ leveled to every understanding, and too plain to need explanation, saw in the mysticisms of Plato materials with which they might build up an artificial system, which might, from its indistinctness, admit everlasting controversy, give employment for their order and introduce it to profit, power and pre-eminence…
If anybody thinks that kings, nobles and priests, are good conservators of the public happiness, send him here [Paris]. It is the best school in the universe to cure him of that folly. He will see here with his own eyes that these descriptions of men are an abandoned confederacy against the happiness of the mass of the people.
Priests...dread the advance of science as witches do the approach of daylight and scowl on the fatal harbinger announcing the subversions of the duperies on which they live.
My opinion is that there would never have been an infidel, if there had never been a priest. The artificial structures they have built on the purest of all moral systems, for the purpose of deriving from it pence and power, revolts those who think for themselves, and who read in that system only what is really there.
Purification of received Christianity (return to primitive Christianity, core Protestantism):
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.
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.
Anti-clericalism and emphasis on free assent to faith:
The returning good sense of our country threatens abortion to their hopes, & they [the clergy] believe that any portion of power confided to me, will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly; for I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. But this is all they have to fear from me: & enough too in their opinion, & this is the cause of their printing lying pamphlets against me…
Making up your own mind, not joining groups (adopting anyone’s beliefs by the bundle):
I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else where I was capable of thinking for myself. Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent.
You say you are a Calvinist. I am not. I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know.
It is not to be understood that I am with him [Jesus] in all his doctrines. I am a Materialist.
Personal confrontation with scripture and theology (ill-disciplined individualism):
The whole history of these books [the Gospels] is so defective and doubtful that it seems vain to attempt minute enquiry into it: and such tricks have been played with their text, and with the texts of other books relating to them, that we have a right, from that cause, to entertain much doubt what parts of them are genuine. In the New Testament there is internal evidence that parts of it have proceeded from an extraordinary man; and that other parts are of the fabric of very inferior minds. It is as easy to separate those parts, as to pick out diamonds from dunghills.
Among the sayings and discourses imputed to him [Jesus] by his biographers, I find many passages of fine imagination, correct morality, and of the most lovely benevolence; and others again of so much ignorance, so much absurdity, so much untruth, charlatanism, and imposture, as to pronounce it impossible that such contradictions should have proceeded from the same being.
If we could believe that he [Jesus] really countenanced the follies, the falsehoods, and the charlatanism which his biographers [Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John,] father on him, and admit the misconstructions, interpolations, and theorizations of the fathers of the early, and the fanatics of the latter ages, the conclusion would be irresistible by every sound mind that he was an impostor…
To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial, is to say they are nothings, or that there is no god, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise: but I believe I am supported in my creed of materialism by Locke, Tracy, and Stewart. At what age of the Christian church this heresy of immaterialism, this masked atheism, crept in, I do not know. But heresy it certainly is.
And 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 Minerve in the brain of Jupiter. But may we hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this most venerated reformer of human errors.
It is between fifty and sixty years since I read it [the Apocalypse], and I then considered it merely the ravings of a maniac, no more worthy nor capable of explanation than the incoherences of our own nightly dreams.
Tolerance of diversity (a necessary by-product of freedom of conscience):
Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined and imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one-half the world fools and the other half hypocrites.
But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.
Anti-Catholicism and anti-sacramentarianism (you have to look up the original letter from Price to Jefferson to understand what Jefferson is reacting to here):
I concur with you strictly in your opinion of the comparative merits of atheism and demonism, and really see nothing but the latter in the being worshipped by many who think themselves Christians.
General lack of understanding:
I can never join Calvin in addressing his god. He was indeed an Atheist, which I can never be; or rather his religion was Daemonism. If ever man worshipped a false god, he did.
The hocus-pocus phantasm of a God, like another Cerberus, with one body and three heads, had its birth and growth in the blood of thousands and thousands of martyrs…
The Athanasian paradox that one is three and three but one, is so incomprehensible to the human mind, that no candid man can say he has any idea of it, and how can he believe what presents no idea?
Non-denominationalism (corollary of radical individualism and refusal to adopt beliefs by the bundle):
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between church and State.
If by religion, we are to understand sectarian dogmas, in which no two of them agree, then your exclamation on that hypothesis is just, 'that this would be the best of worlds if there were no religion in it'.
It is not so in the districts where Presbyterianism prevails undividedly. Their ambition and tyranny would tolerate no rival if they had power. Systematical in grasping at an ascendancy over all other sects, they aim, like the Jesuits, at engrossing the education of the country, are hostile to every institution they do not direct, and jealous at seeing others begin to attend at all to that object.
The Presbyterian clergy are the loudest, the most intolerant of all sects; the most tyrannical and ambitious, ready at the word of the law-giver, if such a word could now be obtained, to put their torch to the pile, and to rekindle in this virgin hemisphere the flame in which their oracle, Calvin, consumed the poor Servetus, because he could not subscribe to the proposition of Calvin, that magistrates have a right to exterminate all heretics to the Calvinistic creed! They pant to re-establish by law that holy inquisition which they can now only infuse into public opinion…