Sunday, August 5, 2012

When Did Jefferson Become Anti-Trinitarian

I see Thomas Jefferson's July 25 1788 letter to Derieux as expressing unitarian sentiments, and claiming to have done so his entire adult life. Still, perhaps it isn't a smoking gun of anti-Trinitarianism (as Tom Van Dyke suggests). Yet, I think such smoking guns exist well before David Barton's claim of 1813. For instance, Jefferson's April 21, 1803 (while he was President!) letter to Benjamin Rush where Jefferson discusses his Syllabus. In the letter to Rush, Jefferson states:
To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. 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.
As I read the passage, Jefferson seems clearly to say that Jesus never claimed to be anything other than human. That is anti-Trinitarian. Likewise "Corruptions of Christianity" was termed by Jefferson's mentor, Joseph Priestley who defined those corruptions as Original Sin, Trinity, Incarnation, Atonement, and Plenary Inspiration of the Bible. Immediately after Jefferson sent his Syllabus to Rush, he then sent a copy to Priestley, with a note. Jefferson does tell Priestley there may be "a point or two in which [they] differ." Indeed, Jefferson later explicitly rejected the Virgin birth and Resurrection, both of which Priestley believed. Jefferson says to Priestley his Syllabus "omits" the question of Jesus' divinity. The Syllabus itself claims the issue of Jesus being a member of the Godhead is "foreign" to the view expressed in the Syllabus. The overall context of these communications seems firmly unitarian. Though I see the quotation to Rush that Jesus never claimed anything other than "human excellence" as anti-Trinitarian.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Though I see the quotation to Rush that Jesus never claimed anything other than "human excellence" as anti-Trinitarian.

I don't have a problem with this formulation, Jon, although I'd call it non-Trinitarian, as opposed to the vociferous opposition of Jefferson's later life which is clearly anti-Trinitarian.

I'm not one to overly parse single quotes, but Jefferson here in the letter to Rush seems to be open to what would be self-described as "Unitarian Christianity"

which held Jesus as a messiah, as a Savior, on a mission from God where he spoke with Divine Authority.

"I am a Christian, in the only sense he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others..."

says Jefferson, and so said the unitarians of that era who, although making Jesus less than God, made him out to be at least unique among all men ever born.

In preference to all others, IOW, a Messiah, a Savior, one who brought the Word of God to man, and in doing so, saved him.

And only open to the idea, mind you, instead of closed. The Jefferson of retired life to which Barton refers, no. Not only anti-Trinitarian, but the words of Jesus carrying no divine authority more than any other man's.

Just because Barton doesn't nail it doesn't mean he might not have stumbled onto something here. Jefferson seems far less cautious and more opinionated theologically [to the point of haughtiness] later in life.

Jason Pappas said...

Is there any evidence in Jefferson's commonplace books? Perhaps his interest in Bolingbroke has some indication of his leanings.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Copying passages into his "Commonplace Book" doesn't mean he necessarily agrees, I would think.

Although it does mean he finds the thoughts interesting and worthy of further consideration. certainly the part about the scriptures being corrupted by the evangelists and later church authors stuck. On the other hand, the part that elevates Tully [Cicero] and Seneca over Jesus doesn't fit with other quotes exalting Jesus' message and morality.

Bolingbroke's Influence on Thomas Jefferson
Lord Viscount Bolingbroke (1678-1751), an English deist, was a lifelong favorite of Jefferson. In his Literary Commonplace Book, a volume compiled mostly in the 1760s, Jefferson copied extracts from various authors, transcribing from Bolingbroke some 10,000 words, six times as much as from any other author and forty percent of the whole volume. Young Jefferson was particularly partial to Bolingbroke's observations on religion and morality.
The Philosophical Works of the late Right Honourable Henry St. John,
Lord Viscount Bolingbroke [left page] - [right page]
Henry Saint-John, Viscount Bolingbroke, London: David Mallet, 1754
Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Library of Congress (60)
Thomas Jefferson's Literary Commonplace Book
In this part of his Literary Commonplace Book, Thomas Jefferson copied from Bolingbroke's Works, a passage unfavorably comparing New Testament ethics to those of the "antient heathen moralists of Tully, of Seneca, of Epictetus [which] would be more full, more entire, more coherent, and more clearly deduced from unquestionable principles of knowledge."
Literary Commonplace Book [left page] - [right page]
Thomas Jefferson, Holograph Manuscript
Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (61)

Jonathan Rowe said...


I agree the older Jefferson became more bitterly and militantly anti-Trinitarian.

Jason Pappas said...

Or he was more willing to express these thoughts in writing as he got older. Let's remember Jefferson was attacked in the election cycles of 1992 and 1994 on religious grounds. To express his thoughts, even in letters, would be reckless. Letters are often leaked--even by well respected individuals like Ben Franklin.

JMS said...

I recommend highly The Faiths of the Founding Fathers, Chapter 8, pp. 79-89 by Holmes, who cites the same passage to Dr. Rush as Jon did (p. 83).

A key point made by Holmes, that I think explains Jefferson's "moderate Unitarianism" (p. 88, Holmes's label, not mine) is that, "like many other Deists, [Jefferson] seems to have been a 'restorationist'." (p. 81)

Holmes also wrote this tantalizing but unattributed sentence on p. 82: "Jefferson read Joseph Priestley's History of the Corruptions of Christianity at some point after the Revolution."

And Holmes concludes (in line with his Monticello lecture) that, "Thomas Jefferson's religion was monotheistic, restorationist, reason-centered, Jesus-centered, anti-medieval, anti-Calvinist, anti-clerical and combative toward mystery." (pp. 88-89).

It is too bad we don't spend more time discussing the ideas from good history books like Holmes's, rather than Barton's fiction (although I share the desire to challenge and refute charlatans).

Tom Van Dyke said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tom Van Dyke said...

The folks at this blog read the source documents for themselves, Mr. JMS. We don't play dueling historians. Never did, hopefully never will.

I'll see your Holmes and raise you a Dreisbach!"

---I'll see your Dreisbach and raise you a Rodda!


---Four Braytons. Read 'em and weep.

Damn. Got me again. Nothing beats a Brayton, let alone four of 'em. I don't know why I even play this stupid game in the first place.

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jimmiraybob said...


I'm not sure what Holmes means by restorationist. Do you feel that he's stating that Jefferson wanted to restore an early, really early, Christianity (maybe more accurately, Jewish reform)?

And, when it comes to Jefferson's religious views, I think that "Jesus-centered" is too narrow and obscure other influences, such as Epicureanism and the work of Cicero. To the best of my knowledge Epicurus did not disallow a believe in God or gods but just taught that man shouldn't be fearful of the gods. And Cicero was as pious and devout as anyone, just not Christian.

Throughout his life it appears that he was always sifting and testing, via his reason.

I think that I'd consider Jefferson more ethics/morals centered, than centered on any one person.

PS, while some people dislike the works of historians, I'm not one. Thanks for the reference. And, lots of historians and their books have been referenced around here over the years.

JMS said...

Thanks jimmyraybob for your questions and coming to my defense for referencing historians. I won't be deterred by Tom's "we don't do this or that."

Tom - Jon's post was about the timing and development of Jefferson's pre-1813 anti-Trinitarianism to challenge the unsubstantiated assertions by Barton - who as we all know, has lots of primary sources - but by misusing them disqualifies himself from being considered a historian. So, I am not "playing" dueling historians, but citing a real scholar on in support of Jon's post.

jimmyraybob - Yes, by "restorationist Holmes means wanting to "restore" early, early Christianity before it was corrupted - not in the way Barton uses the term. And you are right about Jefferson's non-Christian influences, which he acknowledge in an April 9,1803 letter to Priestley (who dies in 1804):

"I should first take a general view of the moral doctrines of the most remarkable of the ancient philosophers, of whose ethics we have sufficient information to make an estimate, say of Pythagoras, Epicurus, Epictetus, Socrates, Cicero, Seneca, Antoninus. I should do justice to the branches of morality they have treated well; but point out the importance of those in which they are deficient."

Another great historian on this subject is Edwin Gaustad, specifically Chapter 5 of Sworn on the Altar of God (a "religious biography" of Jefferson), particularly the sub-section of "Unity Versus Trinity" pp. 138-140) that recounts the period of Jefferson's greatest thought about religion.

Again, the Priestley connection is crucial to understanding Jefferson's anti-Trinitarianism. Gaustad also reminds us that it was the English Unitarian Richard Price that introduced Jefferson to Priestley's works. Although Jefferson did not meet Priestley until 1797, Jefferson urged Priestley to migrate to America in 1794.

They key link is that Jefferson owned a 1793 edition of Priestley's History of the Corruptions of Christianity, and Gaustad opines that, "this one book influenced Jefferson's religious views profoundly."

"Priestley argued that the real 'mystery' of the Trinity was that so many Christians believed it. For Jesus did not teach it, the Bible did not proclaim it, and reason could not honor it." (p. 112)

Gaustad concludes that, "Jefferson's reading of Priestley ... awakened him from dogmatic slumber and pointed him toward a new reformulation or reformation of the Christian religion." (pp. 113-114)

Then Gaustad recounts Jefferson's exchange with Rush circa 1803 that Jon posted about.