by Jared Farley
I just returned from a trip to Virginia to explore Monticello (Thomas Jefferson’s home), Ashlawn-Highland (James Monroe’s home), and Montpelier (James Madison’s home). While at Monticello’s gift shop I spotted a thin monograph entitled “Jefferson and Religion” by Eugene R. Sheridan with an introduction by famed religion scholar Martin E. Marty. It is published by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation as part of the Monticello Monograph Series. Sheridan was the former senior associate editor of the Jefferson Paper Project at the University of Virginia.
In short, I purchased this volume on Saturday afternoon and have already finished reading through it twice! I highly recommend everyone who is serious about understanding Jefferson’s religious faith secure a copy for themselves (it is available on Amazon.com). The value of the work is that Sheridan organizes everything around the clearest description I have ever encountered about Jefferson’s actives and purposes surrounding his creation of his famed “Syllabus” (1803), “The Philosophy of Jesus” (1804), and “The Life and Morals of Jesus” (1819/1820?). I have always struggled attempting to understand what Jefferson's purpose was with these documents and Sheridan (I think) has lifted the fog for me.
Generally, I place value upon a book if it meets two criteria. First, based upon what I know from my previous reading, does the author seem to know what he/she is talking about? Sheridan clearly meets this standard. He wonderfully laces his description of Jefferson’s faith journey with the most appropriate extracts from his personal correspondences and writings. Secondly, what did I learn from the work? By this standard, Sheridan again exceeds my expectations, specifically concerning Jefferson's "Philosophy".
I humbly admit that I was more confused and uninformed about Jefferson’s “Syllabus”, “Philosophy”, and “Life & Morals” than what I realized before reading this monograph. In fact, I did not completely understand that these are in fact three separate, distinct works. Let me describe each of them below.
Jefferson composed his “Syllabus” in 1803 after having read and been “inspired” by Dr. Joseph Priestley’s pamphlet “Socrates and Jesus Compared” (1803). Of course, Dr. Priestley was the English Unitarian minister whose two-volume “An History of the Corruptions of Christianity” (1793) had moved Jefferson into his “unitarian conversion” during the 1790s, and away from the more nature-based deism of his young adulthood. What stimulated Jefferson was Priestley’s use of the comparative method to show the value of Jesus’ system of morality in comparison to the ancient Greek philosopher, Socrates. Jefferson quickly wrote to Priestley asking him to consider expanding this “pamphlet” into a more extensive work comparing Jesus’ philosophy to not only Socrates, but to many of the other philosophers of antiquity (“the leading Epicurean and Stoic philosophers”) as well as the Jews. Jefferson thought that only then would it be possible to truly show the genius of Jesus’ teaching and his role as a great and historic moral reformer. Thus, Jefferson composed his “Syllabus” as a kind of general outline of what he thought would be important for Dr. Priestley to include in this proposed volume.
[It is often incorrectly thought that Jefferson composed his "Syllabus" for Dr. Benjamin Rush, but that is only partially true. What many do not understand is that the document Jefferson sent to Rush was simply a second draft of a letter he had sent to Dr. Priestley two weeks earlier providing him an outline of the type of comparisons he would like to see in Dr. Priestley's upcoming book. If you miss that connection to Dr. Priestley, you miss probably one of the most important reasons for Jefferson composing his "Syllabus" and you also miss an important clue as to the purpose behind Jefferson's "Philosophy" from 1804. (see pages 35-37 in Sheridan's work). If you read Jefferson's "Syllabus" carefully, you will notice a couple places where it becomes obvious that this document is not simply a statement of his faith, but it is rather providing suggestions for a larger project.]
However, Jefferson had two other purposes in composing his “Syllabus”. First, his views on religion had come under public attack during the 1800 presidential election by his Federalist opponents. While he refused to publicly address these attacks as a matter of principal (for he believed that an individual’s faith should remain completely a private matter and by addressing the issue he would provide their charges additional publicity), he did want to assure his close friends and family members that he was not as unorthodox in his views as other elites in the United States, like Thomas Paine, or some of the French revolutionaries and philosophers. Therefore, when his “Syllabus” was completed Jefferson sent it to 8 individuals (his friends Dr. Benjamin Rush and Priestley, his daughters- Martha Jefferson Randolph and Mary Jefferson Eppes, and several members of his Cabinet, including his Secretary of War Henry Dearborn, his Attorney General Levi Lincoln, his Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin and his Postmaster General Gideon Granger).
But secondly, Jefferson also wanted Priestley’s work (hopefully based upon his “Syllabus”) to be distributed to the general public “in order to foster the social harmony he cherished as one of the bulwarks of the American republic” (p. 34). The election of 1800 had stirred considerable partisan and religious passions across the new nation and Jefferson was concerned that the social fabric of the young country was coming undone. One of the biggest divisive elements separating the Federalist supporters from his Democratic-Republican supporters were doctrinal views about the Christian religion. His hope for Priestley's work would be that it might help ferment a new type of Christianity in the nation…a Christianity not based upon doctrines or dogmas, which were often irrational and divisive, but upon the general moral teachings of Jesus, upon which almost all American Christians could agree.
Within the pages of his “Syllabus”, Jefferson reduced the teachings of Jesus to three major points. First, Jesus believed in monotheism, as did his fellow Jews. Next, “he preached a system of morality that was far superior to those of the ancients and the Jews,” in that rather than focusing on irrational and legalistic rules, Jesus preached “The Golden Rule” which required followers to be charitable to others and treat others as you would like to be treated yourself. And finally, Jesus taught about the existence of an afterlife “in order to encourage virtuous conduct in the here and now” (p. 38).
However, Jefferson soon realized that his “Syllabus” was incomplete and if Priestley’s work was ever to truly serve the purpose of unifying the nation under a more rational and general Christianity, it needed to include “an introductory section consisting of the moral teachings expressed in the ipsima verba of the great reformer himself” (p. 43). Thus, when Jefferson set out to create/compose his “Philosophy” in 1804, his intention was that it would serve as another rough draft for Dr. Priestley to use in his upcoming volume comparing the moral philosophy of Jesus to the ancient philosophers and Jews. The important point being, Jefferson intended his “Philosophy” to be publicly distributed and widely read to foster and promote his version of a primitive and rationalistic Christianity (although through the name and hand of Dr. Priestley….Jefferson was acting as Priestley’s anonymous research assistant!). And this is a very important point; Jefferson realized he was collaborating with Dr. Priestley on this project and if his "Philosophy" was to be incorporated into Priestley's volume it would have to be satisfactory to both Jefferson, Priestley and their larger American readership! In other words, Jefferson's "Philosophy" is not necessarily a direct statement of his theology!
So while Jefferson's "Philosophy" ended up being on of the books he used in his private devotions, the project that produced that work did not start out with that as its intention!
Another important point concerning Jefferson’s “Philosophy” which is often overlooked is that he did not rely exclusively upon his own authority in composing this volume from the New Testament. Jefferson used Dr. Priestley’s “A Harmony of the Evangelists in English” (1780) and “A Harmony of the Evangelists in Greek” (1777) to help guide him in making decisions about what to include and what to exclude in composing/crafting his volume. Therefore, Jefferson apparently did not think he was undertaking this task solely upon his own individual authority (reason). He was using the writing of the famed Unitarian theologian to help guide him.
Jefferson quickly set out to compose/construct his “Philosophy” by ordering four copies of the New Testament on January 20, 1804 (two in English, and one in both Greek and Latin). He received these volumes on February 4, 1804. Apparently, once he received the volumes he decided to reduce the scope of the project (probably because he was serving as president at the time and pressed for time), but he quickly cut and pasted the two English copies into a new 46 page work he titled “The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth extracted from the account of his life and doctrines as given by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Being an abridgement of the New Testament for the use of the Indians unembarrassed with matters of fact or faith beyond the level of their comprehensions” (p. 44). [A very important point which Sheridan notes, is that the word “Indians” here is a code word for his Federalist and orthodox attackers. Sending his “Philosophy” to Native Americans simply does not fit with the rest of the events and evidence in the story and there is no record he ever attempted to have the “Philosophy” distributed to Native Americans.] Jefferson worked so rapidly on this project that he had the finished project to the printer and had the finished volume bounded by March 10, 1804 (p. 44).
What Sheridan apparently was unable to determine was exactly when Jefferson found out that Dr. Priestley had died on February 6, 1804. Did Jefferson complete his “Philosophy” despite Dr. Priestley’s death, or was he simply unaware that Priestley had died until his effort was almost complete? Remember, Jefferson wrote that he completed this entire project in only a few evenings at the White House. Did he entertain the thought of still including his “Philosophy” with Priestley’s work that would eventually be published posthumously? Nobody knows the answers to these questions.
Only the handwritten title page and the table of contents of “Philosophy” have survived. However, scholars do have the English volumes from which Jefferson extracted his “Philosophy”, so we do have a pretty good understanding of what passages from the New Testament were included in this work. [Side note, the Greek and Latin volumes of the New Testament that Jefferson ordered, but did not end up using for his "Philosophy" in 1803, ended up being the very volumes he ended up using for "Life and Morals" fifteen years later.]
Near the end of 1804, Priestley’s comparative analysis of classical and Christian morality was posthumously published under the title “The Doctrines of Heathen Philosophy, Compared with those of Revelation”. However, Jefferson was greatly disappointed by Priestley’s last work. Perhaps because Priestley was nearing his demise, his writing style and conclusions were not crisp and lucid as his earlier scholarly works had been. Because of this, and because Priestley was unable to act upon Jefferson’s suggestion to include an introduction along the lines of his “Philosophy”, Jefferson did not believe “Doctrines of Heathen Philosophy” would ever be widely read or understood by the general public nor advance primitive and rational Christianity in the United States.
For a brief period in 1816, Jefferson thought he had discovered a new unitarian theologian to adequately complete the project that he and Dr. Priestley had started in 1804, a Dutchman named F. A. Van der Kemp. Van der Kemp was a friend of John Adams, who was living in upstate New York after having immigrated to the U.S.. When Adams and Jefferson renewed their friendship following Jefferson’s retirement from the White House, Jefferson had sent Adams a copy of his “Syllabus” and a detailed description of his “Philosophy”. In 1813, Adams allowed Van der Kemp to read the “Syllabus”, although he refused to allow the Dutchman to copy it as to not violate Jefferson's trust. However, reading Jefferson's "Syllabus" sparked an interest in Van der Kemp who subsequently wrote to Jefferson in March 1816 “not only ask[ing] for a copy of the “Syllabus” to use in connection with a life of Jesus he planned to write, but also requested permission to publish the document, without attribution, in a Unitarian journal in England to promote a discussion of Jesus’ true merits.” (p. 56).
In a sign of good faith, Jefferson agreed to both requests to help formulate a friendship with this religious scholar. Van der Kemp did manage to arrange for publication of the “Syllabus” in the October 1816 issue of the “Monthly Repository of Theology and General Literature” (a low-circulation English Unitarian periodical), however the editor of the publication provided a little more information about the source of the document than what Jefferson felt comfortable having publicly known (the publisher wrote that the “Syllabus” came from a "prominent American statesmen"). But Van der Kemp did not end up pursuing a grander investigation into the historical Jesus and his moral teachings as he had promised Jefferson in exchange for permission to publish his “Syllabus”.
The motivation for Jefferson for composing/constructing his “The Life and Morals of Jesus” (sometime around 1819-1820) some fifteen years after his construction of “Philosophy” was much more personal in nature than the earlier volume. Jefferson always regretted not finishing a multi-lingual compendium of Jesus’ moral teachings (with the Greek and Latin columns) which would include not only Jesus’ moral philosophy, but also his teachings and activities. Jefferson composed his work explicitly for his own personal devotionals and based it upon his own theology about Jesus. “He never mentioned this collection of Gospels verses in his surviving correspondence, nor did he even reveal its existence to the members of his own family. Only after his death did they become aware of it.” (p. 63). This volume is probably closer in style and organization to what Jefferson originally wanted to sent to Dr. Priestley in 1804, but he also probably felt more comfortable making it closely match his own personal theology because he was fairly sure he was not composing it for wider distribution, or for Dr. Priestley eyes and approval. It is this volume that is widely known as the “Jefferson Bible”, has survived, and is stored as a complete volume at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.
In conclusion, the main points of all this are as follows:
- Jefferson, in part, created his "Syllabus" as an outline to assist Dr. Priestley's writing of a book Jefferson suggested he undertake.
- A second purpose of Jefferson's "Syllabus" and Priestley's book was to help the cause of primitive Christianity in the United States (Remember what is happening in New England at this point between the theologically liberal Unitarians and more orthodox Congregationalists.)
- A third purpose of Jefferson's "Syllabus" was to provide some family and friends in his inner circle a better understanding of his version of Christianity.
- In similar fashion, Jefferson created his "Philosophy" as a draft to be utilized by Dr. Priestley in his upcoming book comparing the moral philosophy of Jesus with those of the ancient philosophers and Jews. It is unknown if Jefferson found out about Rev. Priestley's death prior to composing his "Philosophy" and if that had any impact concerning the composition of that work, which was finished before and professionally bounded on March 10, 1804.
- Jefferson was planning on utilizing Dr. Priestley's "Harmonies" in composing his "Philosophy", so it may not have entirely been Jefferson's original work or a direct statement of his theology. (Again, we don't know if Jefferson's plans changed, or if the text of "Philosophy" changed once Jefferson found out about Priestley's death.)
- If Jefferson stuck to his original plans concerning "Philosophy", then that work is a mixture of Jefferson and Priestley's views and not simply Jefferson's. Plus, it was intended to serve as an introduction for Priestley's upcoming book, so it had to be acceptable to the general American reading audience.
- If Jefferson stuck to his original plans concerning "Philosophy", then his "Life and Morals" might be a better indicator of his theological views since: 1) He had more time to work on it; 2) He was not writing in conjunction with someone else; 3) He never intended "Life and Morals" to be published under his name or anyone else's, and therefore, could be more honest.
If anyone wants me to expand on any of the points above, just ask. Sheridan's monograph has pretty good annotated endnotes and I can probably tell you why he has come to the conclusions he had arrived at. Additionally, it would be great if someone reading this knows of some evidence concerning when Jefferson discovered that Dr. Priestley had died...please post a comment if you do!