Thursday, September 11, 2008

Thomas Jefferson Was a Christian???

An "Expert" Attempts
to Explain Jefferson's Faith
by Brad Hart

Thomas Jefferson was a Christian. Don't believe me? Just ask Thomas Jefferson and Monticello "expert" Gary Sandling. Though he actually never makes this claim in his own words, CNN anchor Jill Doughty insists that this is Sandling's assertion. Here is the video clip:

Thomas Jefferson a Christian? Hardly. For example, take Jefferson's views on the Trinity. In an 1813 letter to John Adams, Jefferson states:

"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."
In addition, Jefferson made it very clear that the miracles attributed to Jesus as the savior of mankind were not a part of his personal creed:

“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).
And then there are Jefferson's sentiments in his Notes on the State of Virginia, which demonstrate his less-than-benevolent view of the overall impact that Christianity has made on the world:

“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.”
While the abundance of evidence makes it clear that Jefferson was far from being a believing Christian, it is worth noting that Jefferson maintained a strong appreciation for the life and example of Jesus Christ. For Jefferson, Jesus was the premiere philosopher of mankind, not the demigod figure of Christian religion.

In an earlier post, I have argued my assertion that Jefferson, though not a believing or practicing Christian, was very much interested in the RESTORATION of what he saw as the true doctrine of Christ. As Jefferson stated:

"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).
And in a letter to Francis van der Kamp, Jefferson states:

"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."
It was in his admiration of the example and doctrine of Jesus, not his devotion to pious orthodoxy, that Jefferson developed an admiration for the TEACHINGS of Jesus, which he saw as having been distorted and fabricated to benefit the priests and pastors of Christianity.

So, in short, Jefferson WAS NOT a Christian. Instead, he should be understood as a man who sought to RESTORE what he perceived were the original truths of Jesus himself. Hence, Thomas Jefferson is a Christian Restorationist...a non-believing Christian Restorationist.


Tom Van Dyke said...

You know, Brad, I think I'm going to enjoy my new role as media critic around here.

Per my last dispatch to our blogsister Lori Stokes in a previous comment section, it's clear that the problem isn't "Gary Sandling," whoever the hell he is, but CNN anchor Jill Doughty.

So let's focus on the real problem.

"Sandling"---your link is dysfunctional, BTW, but it really doesn't matter---is patently wrong for the reasons you document so well. You make a slam-dunk case.

But why does she [read: CNN] give this fellow "Sandling" airtime? Do she/they think he has a credible argument, or do they put him up so you can disprove him and then ridicule him?

Either way, CNN is either

a) completely ignorant of Jefferson's extensive canon on religion or

b) being totally disingenuous, putting "Sandling," an obvious intellectual fraud, up on national TV for well-informed people like you to dismember, and [quite properly] mock.

But casting a pall on anyone who argues for a "theistic rationalist" [let alone "Judeo-Christian"] influence on the Founding...

Which edition of the "Sandling" straw man shall we tilt at first, Brad? Your call. I'm appalled at CNN's behavior either way, but, as I'm becoming an expert on disingenuousness, I think b) holds more probative value.

Eric Alan Isaacson said...

It's hard for me to see why Jefferson doesn't qualify as a Christian if he called for "a restoration of primitive Christianity" and a return to the religion of Jesus. You've shown that Jefferson wasn't a Trinitarian, Brad. You haven't shown that he wasn't a Christian.

Brad Hart said...


One reason why Jefferson is clearly not a Christian rests in the fact that he completely rejected any and all Christian "miracles." If you read through Jefferson's "Bible" you will see that virtually every Christian miracle has been removed. Jefferson rejected the virgin birth, the trinity, resurrection, salvation through the death of Christ, etc. I just don't see how somebody can be considered a Christian when they reject all of that.

You are right to point out that Jefferson believed in returning to the primitive doctrine of Christ. However, this does not mean that Jefferson was a Christian. What Jefferson meant by "restoration" was to bring back the original teachings of Jesus, which he believed were good maxims to living a moral life. Primitive Christianity -- in Jefferson's mind -- did not mean believing in the trinity, resurrection, virgin birth, etc. For Jefferson, these were the very distortions of Jesus' true message that needed to be weeded out.

Again, this is just one example that I believe proves Jefferson was not a Christian. There are others, but it is 11:00 here in the west so I am off to bed.

Brad Hart said...

TVD states:

it's clear that the problem isn't "Gary Sandling," whoever the hell he is, but CNN anchor Jill Doughty.

I am in partial agreement here with you. CNN is partially to blame, but this does not mean that Sandling is off the hook. After all, if you were being interviewed about the religious beliefs of a founder who clearly wasn't a Christian, I think you would want to make that fact as clear as possible. Obviously Sandling did not leave that kind of an impression on CNN.

Maybe CNN went off on a tangent and Sandling really isn't to blame. If that is the case -- and when is the media EVER wrong =) -- then shame on them. Either way, this segment still comes off bad for Mr. Sandling. You would think that a JEFFERSON EXPERT of all people would make it VERY clear Jefferson was not a Christian.

So, I would agree with your point in regards to CNN, but I am not willing to let Sandling off the hook.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Christian charity---and even the harshest fundamentalist theology---obliges that we let ignorant people off the hook, as long as their ignorance isn't willful, Brad. Thomas Aquinas, at least, does not consign Aristotle to hell.

And I believe Mormonism has embarked on a project backdating the baptism of everyone who was ever born, including those currently residing in graves, unless I misunderstand the process.

You would know more about that than I or anyone else here, so please do let us know if I'm wrong about that. Me, I think the idea is gentle and kind and fully in the spirit of Christian charity. I wouldn't be as happy to go to heaven if I knew Aristotle was excluded simply because he was born in the wrong place and time.

Still stuck back on a) and b), meself.

Eric Alan Isaacson said...

I recall John Adams once wrote:

"Howl, snarl, bite, ye Calvinistic, ye Athanasian divines, if you will; ye will say I am no Christian; I say ye are no Christians, and there the account is balanced. Yet I believe all the honest men among you are Christians, in my sense of the word."

Jefferson and Adams used the word in a sense that did not exlude people because of differences over what look to me like relatively petty details - - virgin birth, miracles, etc.

If you want to say that three of our nation's first six presidents weren't Christians - - and that President William Howard Taft wasn't a Christian either - - so be it. We can agree to disagree.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Alan, I was so looking forward to your reply on this article on John Quincy Adams, especially since you recently put him forward as a "unitarian" president. In time, I'm sure.

I see you've now put a post of your own into this blog called "America’s Founding Faiths – Supporting the Right of Same-Sex Couples to Marry."

Well done, Alan. There can be no doubt that the Founders and the Faith of Our Fathers---as some people sing about it---would agree with you wholeheartedly. The only wonder would be why they didn't think of it sooner.

Jonathan Rowe said...

I think the value in Mr. Isaacson's post is post is showing how the Churches of the Founders have evolved and the connection between the classical liberalism they embraced during the founding era and the modern liberalism of today.

Wolves evolved into dogs and dinosaurs into chickens. Re the same sex marriage issue I'll let you all decide how closely related the animals are.

Lori Stokes said...

...Brad says, "What Jefferson meant by "restoration" was to bring back the original teachings of Jesus, which he believed were good maxims to living a moral life. Primitive Christianity..."

It's funny that that was exactly the platform of the New England Puritans! They used the phrase "primitive Christians" or "primitive church" continually to describe what they wanted to get back to.

I'm not saying Jefferson's beliefs mirror the Puritans', but the coincidence is noteworthy.

Brad Hart said...

I think we all may be differing on the definition of Christianity. The reason I don't call Jefferson a Christian is due to the fact that he refused to believe in most of its fundamental tenants -- i.e. Jesus is the son of God, he came to earth to save mankind from sin, etc.

With that said, I am not in disagreement with the points made by TVD, Eric, or Lori. I think our differences come from the fact that the term "Christianity" is so very hard to define. After all, there are thousands of brands of Christianity, each believing -- or not believing -- in certain components of the faith.

Tom, you bring up a good point when it comes to my Mormon faith. In fact, this would be a topic worth exploring. The Mormon Church believes strongly in the idea of vicarious baptism for those that have died. In fact, the Mormon Church has baptized virtually every single founding father in this way. Now, I don't want to get into a theological discussion over why this is a wonderful/ridiculous belief. People are free to believe what they will when it comes to this issue, and I do not take offense when people attack this particular component of the Mormon Church. With that said, I do think it would make for an interesting post here at American Creation. There is quite an interesting story behind it.

Now, speaking strictly as a Mormon and NOT a history geek, I will tell you that I believe Jefferson was SPOT ON when it came to his opinion of Christianity. In many respects, his desire to see primitive Christianity brought to life is similar to that of Joseph Smith. The reason that I don't mention this in my post is because I choose to not inject my religious beliefs here at American Creation. As a result, I try to stick to the historical evidence, which I believe clearly proves that Jefferson had serious doubts about the validity of the Christian faith.

Thanks for all the great comments. I am enjoying this thread!

Eric Alan Isaacson said...


I'm afraid I don't understand.

Why would you expect me to "reply" to the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society's online bio for John Quincy Adams?

I agree with its author, Charles A. Howe, that John Quincy Adams was more theologically conservative than his father, John Adams, but that John Quincy Adams gradually "moved from a near-Calvinist to a Unitarian position."

I'm surely not going to contest the fact that John Quincy Adams was among the founding members of the First Unitarian Church of Washington, D.C., today known as All Souls Church, Unitarian.

Nor will I take issue with the fact that John Quincy Adams also joined the Unitarian church back home in Quincy. Indeed, I paid my respects at his crypt, in his church, United First Parish Church of Quincy, Massacusetts, this very summer.

Eric Alan Isaacson said...


I've been told that Joseph Smith's mother, Lucy Mack Smith, was a Universalist, and that Joseph Smith himself once penned a tract defending Universalist principles.

I've not, however, looked into whether either assertion is accurate.


Brad Hart said...


I think you are right about J. Smith defending Universalist principles. In fact, he injected a number of them into the Mormon faith.

As for Lucy Mack Smith, I am not sure. I know that her father, Solomon Mack, was a strong believer in a number of Universalist principles, so it would not surprise me if she did. However, I also know that she favored the Methodist Church for a long period of time as well.

You have sparked my interest, Tom. I will try to find out and get back to you on it!

Phil Johnson said...

A comment I made for this post doesn't show up. Apparently I had pushed the wrong key. Anyway...
I think I agree with Eric's first comment here. Jefferson and Jesus would have got along famously.
I think Jefferson was more a Christian than most I know that profess to be.

bpabbott said...

There is a lot of good discussion, which I will need to dig into later ... for the moment I'll offer a comment of Jefferson's Christianity.

Brad: >>One reason why Jefferson is clearly not a Christian rests in the fact that he completely rejected any and all Christian "miracles." If you read through Jefferson's "Bible" you will see that virtually every Christian miracle has been removed. Jefferson rejected the virgin birth, the trinity, resurrection, salvation through the death of Christ, etc. I just don't see how somebody can be considered a Christian when they reject all of that.<<

One perspective is that Jefferson rejected the material indiscretions that crept in and corrupted the story of Jesus' life. From that perspective, Jefferson is more a Christian than the majority ... although some may debate whether Jefferson's Jesus qualifies as "the Christ".

However, by the generally accepted definition of Christian, Jefferson certainly does not qualify.

Regarding Jefferson's legacy, I agree with Phil. Jefferson is more a Christian than most profess to be.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I think I wrote this aphorism once before somewheres, but so be it: The only problem with Christianity is Christians.

Hope you'll find that one worthy of a chew or two, too, Ben.


Brian Tubbs said...

I think the best way to define a term - ANY term - is to look at the ORIGIN of the term. The term "Christian" is first seen in the biblical book of Acts, where followers of Jesus were given that name. What's interesting is that these were followers of Jesus, who claimed that Jesus was the Son of God and that Jesus had risen from the dead and ascended up to heaven. So, "Christians" - historically speaking - were people who embraced the deity and resurrection of Jesus. By that historical definition, Thomas Jefferson would not qualify as a Christian.

bpabbott said...

Brian: "Thomas Jefferson would not qualify as a Christian."

I agree completely!