Monday, July 30, 2012

Franklin and Jefferson on the Lord's Prayer

[Note: this is an expanded version of an earlier post that I wrote regarding Benjamin Franklin's version of the Lord's Prayer.]

Among the Founding Fathers, Franklin is usually thought to be one of the most secular.  This is a serious misreading of Franklin who, while not an orthodox Christian, was a strong theist who consistently thought of his religious views in relationship with the general teachings of Christianity regarding Providence, the power of prayer, and the Last Judgment.  Franklin even went so far as to update the Lord's Prayer from the New Testament for his own personal use, and that prayer definitely demonstrates Franklin's belief in a personal, Providential God who is the ground of the moral law and who cares for human beings.  
1.  Heavenly Father,
2.  May all revere thee,
3.  And become thy dutiful Children and faithful Subjects.
4.  May thy Laws be obeyed on Earth as perfectly as they are in Heaven.
5.  Provide for us this day as thou hast hitherto daily done.
6.  Forgive us our trespasses, and enable us likewise to forgive those that offend us.
7.  Keep us out of Temptation, and deliver us from Evil. 
Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, post-1784, quoted in The Founders on Religion:  A Book of Quotations, edited by James H. Hutson (Princeton Univ. Press: 2005), pg. 166.

If Franklin's version of the Lord's Prayer evidences a strong belief in a personal God who intervenes in human affairs and who answers prayer, the version provided by Thomas Jefferson in his own version of the Gospels, the so-called Jefferson Bible, is even more traditional -- deviating lightly from the version of the Lord's Prayer given in the Authorized King James Version.  Jefferson is often invoked by those hostile to religion as someone who was opposed to religion.  And it is true that Jefferson disagreed with orthodox Christianity and was a critic of organized religion for the most part.  But he also was a strong believer in a theistic idea of God, a deity who governs the world through Providence.  Jefferson's version of the Lord's Prayer evidences that belief.
Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed by thy name.  Thy kingdom come.  Thy will be done, as in heaven, so in earth.
Give us day by day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins; for we also forgive every one that is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil. 
Thomas Jefferson, The Jefferson Bible:  The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (Beacon Press: 1989), pg. 87.

When referring to the religious view of the Founders, it is easy to fall into anachronism on either side, either viewing the Founders as a whole as proto-evangelicals or viewing them as proto-free thinking "New Atheists."  Both views are incorrect.  Even the most secular of the Founding Fathers were strikingly religious by modern standards, and affirmed beliefs in strong-theism, of a personal God who intervenes in human affairs, responds to prayer, who authors a moral law, and who will hold each human being accountable for their violations of that law as well as for how they treat those who have sinned against them.  Ben Franklin and Tom Jefferson both testify to this fact.


Magpie Mason said...

Thanks for that.


Mark D. said...

You're more than welcome!

jimmiraybob said...

Jefferson's version of the Lord's Prayer

Technically, shouldn't this be King James' version of Luke 11/1-4? The verses that Jefferson snipped and pasted?

Also too, a small point, in my copy (p. 87) "so on earth" reads "so in earth," which I think is consistent with the KJB.

Tom Van Dyke said...

BTW, Jefferson's Bible includes the Last Judgment: Matthew 25:31-34, the story of the Sheep and the Goats.

People can see it for themselves here, in the Smithsonian's interactive Jefferson Bible, the actual cut-and-paste Jefferson did with his own hands.

"31 When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory:

32 And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats:

33 And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.

34 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:

35 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:


bpabbott said...

I do think it reasonable to describe Franklin as being the "most secular", but describing him or any other founder as "secular" is too far a stretch for the truth.

Mark D. said...

Jimmiray Bob, thanks for pointing out my typo, I've corrected it in the main text of my post.

Tom, yes, Jefferson very clearly taught the Last Judgment in his version of the Gospels -- in fact the most supernatural of the stuff he retained is the apocalyptic aspects of the Gospels. It think it is interesting that Jefferson expressed skepticism about Jesus's Virgin Birth, Atonement, and Resurrection, but insisted on the Second Coming!

Bpabbot, I think your approach is generally right, although I would quibble with who the "most secular" of the Founders would be. I would classify Paine as the most secular of the Founders, but even in his French Revolution phase he sounds to modern earns like a theocratic zealot. The Founders lived in a very different world than we do, and for them a very muscular and active -- if unorthodox -- religiosity was virtually universal. I am sure if one looks hard enough, one could find a stray agnostic in the bunch, but not in the First, Second or even Third Tiers of the Founders (to classify them like that).

jimmiraybob said...

I looked at it again and it appears that Jefferson's "Bible" contains a verbatim rendering of Luke 11/1-13 from the Cambridge ed. KJV(1), as would be expected if he just cut and pasted the portions that he felt were most likely authentic to Jesus' words/teachings. To refer to it as Jefferson's version of the Lord's Prayer suggests he somehow rewrote the original.

One thing that I didn't catch earlier is that the version on p. 87 as cited reads, "Our father which art in heaven" rather than "Our Father who art in heaven."

If it was Jefferson's purpose to discern and preserve what he felt were ideas/words attributable to Jesus(2), and, to the best of my knowledge, he made no explicit statements saying that he agreed theologically with all that he included in the Jefferson "Bible," how does including Luke 11/1-13 evidence Jefferson's theological beliefs rather than his belief that it best represented what Jesus said?

Jefferson is also on the record as stating that he was not in complete agreement with all of what Jesus said about theological doctrinal matters(3).


2) "Abstracting what is really his from the rubbish in which it is buried,..." from Letter to William Short, October 31, 1819.

3) The following from Letter to William Short, April 13, 1820.

"But while this Syllabus is meant to place the character of Jesus in it's true and high light, as no imposter himself but a great Reformer of the Hebrew code of religion, it is not to be understood that I am with him in all his doctrines."

"The Syllabus is therefore of his doctrines, not all of mine. I read them as I do those of other antient and modern moralists, with a mixture of approbation and disent."

jimmiraybob said...

I should clarify that I'm not saying that Jefferson didn't believe in a judgement after death. I just can't think of any corroborating evidence that may be available.

While I see Jefferson as a strict materialist, primarily because he says so himself, he seems to have been trying to synthesize a Christian notion of God with an Epicurean materialism, all the while steeped in Ciceronian Stoicism (mainly political but likely also including Cicero's ideas on God or the gods).

Mark D. said...


Thanks for the background. I went back to my copy of the Jefferson Bible and my initial restatement of Jefferson's text was correct, so I have gone back and changed it again in my main post.

Jefferson did, from all accounts I have read, believe in a future Judgment. I have not read that he was a materialist, although I have not given the matter much study.

Thank you for your comments. They are food for thought.

Jason Pappas said...

Jefferson may have included a prayer but is there any indication that he thought prayers were answered?

Let’s consider another hypothesis. He took out miracles in historic time but he allows divine intervention at the start and end of time. He is a creationist and he has a Last Judgment. The in-between he is materialist. Comments?

Mark D. said...

Jason, sounds likes something that would be a good topic for a post on the main page!

Jason Pappas said...

I was think about it but wondered if I was up to the task. I think Jimmiraybob has a better handle on the subject. Jimmiraybob, do you have some references on Jefferson's Epicurean outlook? Let me see what I can find.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Jimmiraybobperson is 100% accurate about the late Jefferson. But let's keep in mind he retired from public life in 1809.

Jefferson explicitly says he's a "materialist," disagreeing with that Jesus fellow.

Although above I point out that Jefferson's "Bible" leaves in The Second Coming, upon reading his body of work I have no doubt that Jefferson eventually considered himself Jesus of Nazareth's equal, if not his superior.

" is not to be understood that I am with [Jesus] in all His doctrines. I am a Materialist; he takes the side of Spiritualism; he preaches the efficacy of repentance towards forgiveness of sin; I require counterpoise of good works to redeem it, etc., etc."

[Letter to Short, 1820.]

"I require?" "I?" Thomas Jefferson thinks he's going to preside at the Last Judgment, not Jesus Christ.

I haven't seen anyone write about this, but by the end of his life, Thomas Jefferson's ego knew no bounds. He even figured he could teach Jesus a thing or two.

jimmiraybob said...

I am no expert on Jefferson's religion but I do find his approach to examining his own beliefs in the light of new information very interesting - very scientific and, in that respect, very Enlightenment.

One thing that appears to be a constant throughout his intellectual journey is that it was driven by curiosity and guided by evidence and reason.

At least by Aug 10, 1787 (Letter to his nephew Peter Carr(1)), he might be described as an agnostic free thinker using reason to examine religion in the light of Pagan sources (Livy & Tacitus in this letter) as well as the Bible:

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."

His anchor is the examination of naturalistic evidence (empirical naturalism) v. inspired supernatural attestations. This is at least consistent with Epicureanism.

There are numerous quotes from later in his life specifically regarding his materialistic and Epicurean world view. At one point he specifically calls himself an Epicurean(2). He owned multiple copies of Lucretius' De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things), a poetic rendition of Epicurean philosophy written in Rome in the 1st century BC and rediscovered and released to western Europe in the 15th century by Poggio Bracciolini(3).

I would recommend that anyone interested in leaning more about De rerum natura should read Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve: How the World Became Modern(4). A fascinating account and easy reading but may (or may not) overstate the case that modernity rests on a single source).

As to the possibility of Jefferson's synthesis of Epicurean philosophy/physics with his understanding of Jesus and scripture, he references Gissandi's work Syntagma in his 1819 correspondence with William Short(2). Pierre Gissandi was a 17th century French priest, mathemetician, philosopher that worked to reconcile Epicurean scientific/philosophic ideas with Christianity(5)(6). the earliest mention by Jefferson of Gissandi's Syntagma is in January 1816 in a letter to Charles Thomson(7).

I think that this thread of Jefferson's religious/spiritual development is largely unexplored, at least as far as my reading has carried me.

What I've presented so far is just a quick snippet. But I think that it deserves much more effort and will think about how I could do more given my time limitations; for an ambitious person there might even be a master's thesis in there somewhere.

Continued below

jimmiraybob said...

I'll just put in one more thing that I think applies to Jefferson's materialist approach and how he viewed some things that normally would be considered as supernatural in a more natural, material manner (very very Epicurean)(8):

"But enough of criticism: let me turn to your puzzling letter of May 12. on matter, spirit, motion etc. It's croud of scepticisms kept me from sleep. I read it, and laid it down: read it, and laid it down, again and again: and to give rest to my mind, I was obliged to recur ultimately to my habitual anodyne, ‘I feel: therefore I exist.’ I feel bodies which are not myself: there are other existencies then. I call them matter. I feel them changing place. This gives me motion. Where there is an absence of matter, I call it void, or nothing, or immaterial space. On the basis of sensation, of matter and motion, we may erect the fabric of all the certainties we can have or need. I can concieve thought to be an action of a particular organisation of matter, formed for that purpose by it's creator, as well as that attraction in an action of matter, or magnetism of loadstone. When he who denies to the Creator the power of endowing matter with the mode of action called thinking shall shew how he could endow the Sun with the mode of action called attraction, which reins the planets in the tract of their orbits, or how an absence of matter can have a will, and, by that will, put matter into motion, then the materialist may be lawfully required to explain the process by which matter exercises the faculty of thinking. When once we quit the basis of sensation, all is in the wind. 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."


2) Letter to William Short, October 31, 1819 at:





"...atomist matter theory, empiricist perspectives, explorations and defenses of the new physics, objections to the Meditations, and refutations of contemporary Aristotelians and mystical thinkers."


"And I wish I could subjoin a translation of Gosindi's Syntagma of the doctrines of Epicurus, which, notwithstanding the calumnies of the Stoics and caricatures of Cicero, is the most rational system remaining of the philosophy o[sic] the ancients, as frugal of vicious indulgence, and fruitful of virtue as the hyperbolical extravagances of his rival sects."

8) Letter to John Adams August 15 1820

jimmiraybob said...

I hope that the references above actually match up with the citations.:)

A couple more references:

jimmiraybob said...

I haven't seen anyone write about this, but by the end of his life, Thomas Jefferson's ego knew no bounds. He even figured he could teach Jesus a thing or two.

While this may sound startling to the modern ear and blasphemous to the Christian worldview, considering that Jefferson regarded Jesus as a man and not divine, the idea that Jefferson might think that if the two of them had a chance to sit around Monticello and ruminate (perhaps sipping some fine G. Washington whiskey....or European wine), there might be an equal exchange of information.

In other news, the Beatles claim to be more popular than Jesus. Film at 11.

Jason Pappas said...

I admit Jefferson’s letter to Peter Carr is a personal favorite of mine in that it inspired me to read the classics ... or should I say it shamed me into reading the classics after years of procrastination. I’ve been meaning to read Lucretius ... perhaps it’s time.

I’ve been perusing the archives at the Liberty Fund. There is indeed several points at which he mentions his materialism. However, he also has reservations on speculative metaphysics especially if something concrete and useful isn’t the result. Thus, his nominal materialism might not have had a substantial impact on his views and actions.

He seems to have understood Epicurus and (as modern scholars lament) understood that most of what we know about Epicurus comes from a hostile source--Cicero. But then Jefferson says some odd things. Carl Richards infers that Jefferson holds that Jesus was a materialist via this quote: “He [Jesus] told us indeed that ‘God is a spirit,’ but he has not defined what a spirit is, nor said that it is not matter. And the ancient fathers, generally, if not universally, held it to be matter.” (page 98 of “The Battle for the American Mind”)

Richards notes Jefferson maintains the Christian-like concept of an afterlife that is missing in Epicurus. But Jefferson believe it is earned by good deeds. Jefferson believes that Jesus’ thought was corrupted by Platonic mysticism and organized religion.

Jefferson’s thoughts on metaphysics seem slim. But his social thought is extensive. Here he holds Epicurean ethics and Jesus’ ethics as two major currents. Of course, it is Jefferson’s Epicurean ethics and Jefferson’s Jesus. The Epicurean worldview aims to avoid stressful, risky, painful endeavors in favor of the safe, modest, simple pleasures in life. It used to be called a consolation philosophy, one that arose in the Hellenistic period when the vibrant self-rule of sovereign self-ruled city states was replaced by the helplessness dangerous life under an autocrat.

Jefferson’s life is more Aristotelian as he strives to excel in civil affairs, architecture, mathematics, inventions, literature, etc. From what I read so far it seems that Jefferson sees the best pagan philosophers focusing on one’s own contentment while Jesus’ focusing on compassion (see the letter to William Short in your Gould link).

What is interesting is that during Jefferson’s life, Bentham was developing Utilitarianism which is a hedonic calculus like Epicureanism but with a Christian-like focus on others by making collective happiness the goal. One wonders if the elder Jefferson found this appealing but I see no mention of Bentham in Jefferson’s writings.

In any case, great links ... they're keeping me busy.

Jessica M. said...

Although I greatly admire Jefferson's contribution to our history, I'm also a devoted Catholic and believe in heaven and hell and just wondering if he still have the same view and if, regardless of his overwhelming ego, he was given a chance or privilege to meet Jesus to test his beliefs here on earth.