Thursday, September 16, 2010

"Mr. Jefferson I Know You are a Deist...Right?"

In light of some of the recent discussions on Jefferson I thought this might be an appropriate post. It's based on some earlier stuff that I have written but also includes some new material.

Bill Baker of Colonial Williamsburg is well known for his portrayal of President Thomas Jefferson. As can be expected of any person portraying Jefferson, Baker is well-acquainted with questions regarding Jefferson's religious beliefs. In the following video, Baker (Jefferson) is posed a question by an audience member who asks, "Mr. Jefferson, I know that you are a Deist. I'm wondering if this was the reason for your editing the Bible as we know it into your own version of the Bible?"

Mr. Jefferson's (Baker's) response is quite interesting. See for yourself:

The question is asked at 1:33 seconds.

For the most part, I agree with Bill Baker's depiction of Jefferson. However, I think that he oversimplified things just a bit (probably due to time constraints as he couldn't rant for hours on one single question). For me personally, Jefferson has always been a bit of an enigma. When I first started studying early American history years ago I hated Jefferson. Now he is my favorite founder of them all. And when it comes to his religious beliefs I believe that one cannot understand the man by simply skimming the surface. You must dive deep into the man to truly understand what he was all about.

And when it comes to his religion, I believe that Jefferson can be best understood and appreciated with the following four points:

1.) Jefferson loved Jesus but not Christianity.

2.) Jefferson loved scripture but despised its priestly/pastoral interpretation.

3.) Jefferson believed in reason and not faith.

4.) Jefferson embraced the internal benefits of religious devotion but detested the outward demonstrations of Christian zealots.

In short, I believe that in addition to his Christian and deist leanings, Jefferson was deeply influenced by his belief in CHRISTIAN RESTORATIONISM, which caused Jefferson to accept what he believed were the true doctrines of Christ and to reject the distorted orthodoxy of his day.

Point #1: Jefferson loved Jesus, but not Christianity:
For Jefferson, the religion of Jesus Christ was simple. In its purest form it represented (to Jefferson) the greatest philosphical strategy for acheiving harmony in one's life. However, Jefferson did not believe that organized Christianity was the vehicle by which Christ's teachings were to be taught to the mases. Quite the contrary. In fact, Jefferson believed that organized Christianity had actually distorted and ruined the teachings of Jesus. As he stated in an 1818 letter to Wells and Lilly of the Classical Press:

"I make you my acknowledgement for the sermon on the Unity of God, and am glad to see our countrymen looking that question in the face. it must end in a return to primitive Christianity" [my emphasis].

Jefferson's desire to return to the roots of "primitive Christianity" were the result of his conviction that the Christian religion had strayed from the true doctrine of Jesus Christ. As Jefferson stated on another occasion:
"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).
Later in his life, in a letter to Francis van der Kemp, Jefferson stated:
"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."
(Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Parker, May 15, 1819).
As evidenced above, Jefferson's love for Jesus came not from a pious devotion to orthodoxy, but from a sincere appreciation of his life philosophy. Jefferson believed that Christ's teachings were to be admired and emulated, not wrapped up in ceremonial liturgy. With regards to the morals of Jesus, Jefferson stated:
"It is the innocence of his character, the purity and sublimity of his moral precepts, the eloquences of his inculcations, the beauty of the apologues in which he conveys them, that I so much admire."
It was in his admiration of the example and doctrine of Jesus, not his devotion to pious orthodoxy, that Jefferson developed a love for Jesus. Perhaps Steven Waldman, author of the book, Founding Faith, points to Jefferson's love of Jesus best when he writes:

"Jefferson was driven to edit the Bible the way a parent whose child has been kidnapped is driven to find the culprit. Jefferson loved Jesus and was attempting to rescue him" (Founding Faith, 73).

Point #2: Jefferson loved scripture but despised its priestly/pastoral interpretation:

In my opinion, there can be little doubt that Thomas Jefferson was a supporter of scripture. The simple fact that Jefferson spent so many years tediously dissecting the Bible to fit his personal beliefs is evidence of this fact. While there is no doubt that Jefferson's "tinkering" with the Bible has caused Christians to take an antagonistic stance against Jefferson, it is still worth analyzing the motives behind Jefferson's Bible editing.

As Steven Waldman stated in the quotation noted above, Jefferson's intentions behind altering the Bible were based on his belief that Christianity had strayed from the original teachings of Christ. As Jefferson stated in a letter to Samuel Kercheval in 1810:
"But a short time elapsed after the death of the great reformer of the Jewish religion, before his principles were departed from by those who professed to be his special servants, and perverted into an engine for enslaving mankind, and aggrandizing their oppressors in Church and State: that the purest system of morals ever before preached to man has been adulterated and sophisticated by artificial constructions, into a mere contrivance to filch wealth and power to themselves: that rational men, not being able to swallow their impious heresies, in order to force them down their throats, they raise the hue and cry of infidelity, while themselves are the greatest obstacles to the advancement of the real doctrines of Jesus, and do, in fact, constitute the real Anti-Christ."
And to John Adams in 1813, Jefferson wrote:
"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."
It is clear that the reasons behind Jefferson's desire to "edit" the Bible were motivated out of his distrust for pious Christian leaders and from his sincere belief that Christianity had fallen from its true course.

When it comes to the Jefferson Bible, it is interesting to note just what kind of changes he chose to make. Clearly Jefferson did not intend to write his own version of the Bible, but instead hoped to recover some of the "missing" or "altered" truths that had been lost over time. Again, Jefferson hoped to RESTORE the true nature of Christ's religion as it was once contained in the Bible of old. A good example of Jefferson's passion to "correct" the Bible can be found in his 1823 letter to John Adams, in which he states:
"[A]nd his doctrine of the Cosmogony of the world is very clearly laid down in the 3 first verses of the 1st. chapter of John, in these words, `{en arche en o logos, kai o logos en pros ton Theon kai Theos en o logos. `otos en en arche pros ton Theon. Panta de ayto egeneto, kai choris ayto egeneto ode en, o gegonen}. Which truly translated means `in the beginning God existed, and reason (or mind) was with God, and that mind was God. This was in the beginning with God. All things were created by it, and without it was made not one thing which was made'. Yet this text, so plainly declaring the doctrine of Jesus that the world was created by the supreme, intelligent being, has been perverted by modern Christians to build up a second person of their tritheism by a mistranslation of the word {logos}. One of it's legitimate meanings indeed is `a word.' But, in that sense, it makes an unmeaning jargon: while the other meaning `reason', equally legitimate, explains rationally the eternal preexistence of God, and his creation of the world. Knowing how incomprehensible it was that `a word,' the mere action or articulation of the voice and organs of speech could create a world, they undertake to make of this articulation a second preexisting being, and ascribe to him, and not to God, the creation of the universe."
In addition to pointing out where he believed the original translation of the Bible had gone wrong, Jefferson often took the liberty of changing certain parts of the Bible's text in an effort to make it sound more "Christ-like." For example, instead of keeping the biblical verse found in Matthew 5: 48, which states, "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect," Jefferson removed the verse completely and then added what was a twist of Luke 6: 36 when he wrote "Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful." Clearly Jefferson felt that a number of biblical texts had been changed to pollute or subjugate the minds of mankind.

When it comes to the Jefferson Bible, it is also important to note the fact that all of Jesus' miracles -- i.e. raising Lazarus from the dead, turning water into wine, walking on water, etc. -- were removed from Jefferson's final draft. This helps to clearly illustrate the fact that Jefferson, despite his devotion to the example and doctrine of Christ, never acknowledged him as divine or as the savior of mankind. In fact, Jefferson even stated to his friend, John Adams, that:
“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).
For all of his praise and devotion to Jesus and his teachings, Jefferson never publicly recognized him as the Son of God.

Point #3: Jefferson believed in reason and not faith:

As one of the quintessential Enlightenment thinkers of early America, it should come as no surprise that Thomas Jefferson favored reason to faith. As mentioned above, Jefferson's removal of all miracles from his draft of the Bible suggests that he put little to no stock in faith-based stories, which he undoubtedly considered to be fables. In addition, Jefferson admonished his family and friends to put their trust in reason, not faith. As he wrote to Peter Carr in 1787:

"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...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." [My emphasis].

Point #4: Jefferson embraced the internal benefits of religious devotion but detested the outward demonstrations of Christian zealots:

This final point was perhaps the biggest pet-peeve of all for Thomas Jefferson. For a man that fought for religious freedom and equality, Jefferson could also not help but notice how overly-pious expressions of religion had caused the world a great deal of harm. As he states in his Notes on the State of Virginia:
“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.”
For Jefferson, religion best served mankind when it was left to the individual and not the clergy:
"Say nothing of my religion. It is known to God and myself alone. Its evidence before the world is to be sought in my life" (Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, January 11, 1817).
In Jefferson's mind, this was the only true way to be a Christian. As Jesus himself had admonished to, "Take heed that ye do not your alms before men" (Matthew 6:1). With this in mind, it is understandable why Thomas Jefferson would refer to himself as a "true Christian." As he stated in a letter to Benjamin Rush:
"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."
In conclusion, Thomas Jefferson's religion was anything but simple. Defining him exclusively as a deist or any other label is both counterproductive and incomplete. Clearly Jefferson was influenced to a degree by deism, Christianity, U(u)nitarianism, etc. With that said, it is essential that we recognize the passionate devotion to RESTORATIONISM that literally guided Jefferson's walk through his personal labyrinth of religious devotion. Jefferson's love and admiration for the doctrines of Jesus, along with his appreciation of scripture, devotion to reason, and his appeal to private communion with God, all helped to shape Jefferson's religious perspective. By advocating a return to the original doctrines of Christ, Jefferson's Christian RESTORATIONISM is as important to his overall religious DNA as were deism and Christianity.


Tom Van Dyke said...

"Say nothing of my religion. It is known to God and myself alone. Its evidence before the world is to be sought in my life" (Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, January 11, 1817).

Heh heh. I'm not the first one to observe that Jefferson said more about his religious beliefs than pretty much any other Founder or president. They were known to God, himself, and a hundred of his closest friends.

I've never seen evidence that Jefferson even believed the Bible, "revelation," came from God, that it was Divine Writ. It's problematic to associate other Founders with this [non-]belief, or any of his beliefs. As Jefferson said,
"I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know." [Letter to Stiles, 1819.]

Brad Hart said...

Yeah, I think that's a good point, and is something we should apply in general. You take the founders one man (or woman) at a time. Generalizations don't work. This is the PRIME REASON that I loathe assigning labels to the founding. "Theistic Rationalist" and "Christian" don't tell the whole story. Sure, some do fit into those labels but not everyone. We could say the same of the contributors to this blog. Are we all to be considered "Theistic Rationalists" or "Christians"? Those terms (and every other term I have seen put forth) just don't work...none atall.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I agree. To me the most workable idea is that our terms can at best be descriptive, not definitive.

Still, I think that "revelation" is the key concept. A universe where God makes his will explicitly known to man---by "revealing" it---is different from a universe where God doesn't.

As far as I know, only the Bible and the Quran make that claim for themselves. As I've written a number of times, my biggest surprise was learning that Founding-era unitarianism was not of Jefferson's stripe, but based on the Bible, revelation.

My own feeling is that American pluralism demands we respect another's beliefs based on "revelation," and that certainly includes the Quran, and, we must add at this point, The Book of Mormon.

Franklin was the embodiment---he accepted no revelation or doctrine based on it [although except for problems with the OT story of Jael, I don't know if he rejected any revelation either].

One of his last letters, again to Stiles:

I have ever let others enjoy their religious Sentiments, without reflecting on them for those that appeared to me insupportable and even absurd. All Sects here, and we have a great Variety, have experienced my Good will in assisting them with Subscriptions for building their new Places of Worship, and as I have never opposed any of their Doctrines I hope to go out of the World in Peace with them all.)

I think this is American religious pluralism in a nutshell, and on a practical level, we have so many sects we scarcely have a choice but to embrace such a pluralism.

I meself find many doctrines and sects absurd, but except in a theological discussion among people of sincere faith [or none], see no reason to oppose any of them when not necessary for public order.

[John Adams wrote something similar to Franklin. Indeed, vociferous anti-papist that he was, Adams was on the committee that helped build Boston's first Romish church!]

King of Ireland said...


Well done. But I think you make a bit of an over statement when you say that Jefferson believed in reason not faith. Miracles are not the only factor in faith. It takes faith to even believe God exists. This hits on what Tom just said about revelation. Go read my comment under Jon's new post that agrees with Tom. I do not want to repeat it all here.

Good job though.

Jason Pappas said...

Mr. Rowe, the way you describe Jefferson, especially his “reversal” of Calvin’s by-faith-only doctrine with a deeds-based practice, sounds as if you are trying to make Jefferson a forerunner of liberation theology or a social gospel. Would you go so far?

From the selections you present, I have to say Jefferson wasn’t a Christian but an admirer of Jesus’ philosophy. I wonder where Jefferson thought the corruption started. Aquinas? Augustine? Ambrose? Tertullian? Paul?

Brad Hart said...

I wouldn't go that far, Jason but I do agree that Jefferson was not a least not in the traditional orthodox sense of the word. I also think he was pretty clear on where he thought Christianity went sour. Jefferson HATED Paul with a passion and often spoke of him as being the downfall of Jesus' teachings. Oh, and by the way, I wrote this, not Jon, but I am flattered that you thought it was him. =)

King, I don't think that Jefferson was a man of faith for the simple reason that he refused to believe in the miracles. Sure we could say that Jefferson embraced a form of faith in "the laws of nature and nature's god" but beyond that I don't see much tangible faith with least not as Hebrews Chapter 1 defines it:

"Faith is the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen.

Jason Pappas said...

Thanks, Brad!

Hated Paul? I can't imagine the history of Christianity without Paul. I'm not aware of any Christian denomination that rejects Paul. Writings by Paul or about Paul (Acts) are 40% of the NT.

Unknown said...


God is unseen. But I do not want to nitpick your overall points are solid.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I agree with Brad on both Paul and miracles.

There is also a distinction to be made here between faith and faith in revelation. Two different things.

Unknown said...

"There is also a distinction to be made here between faith and faith in revelation. Two different things."

I guess I am going to nitpick. Jefferson had at least a little bit of the latter in that Jesus is part of Revelation not natural law. Jefferson is misunderstood as far as I can tell. He had a whole lot more faith than most would think.

Tom Van Dyke said...

I see no evidence Jefferson thought of Jesus as anything but a moral philosopher.

In fact, Jefferson has the temerity to disagree with Jesus on theology!

“I am a Materialist; he (Jesus) takes the side of spiritualism; he preaches the efficacy of repentance towards the forgiveness of sin; I require a counterpoise of good works to redeem it, etc., etc. It is the innocence of his character, the purity and sublimity of his moral precepts, the eloquence of his inculcations, the beauty of his apologues in which he conveys them that I so much admire...”

Now, how can you disagree with Jesus on theology?

King of Ireland said...

If you look at it that way I guess you can say that. I stand corrected and now concur that Jefferson had a measure of faith but not that much in special revelation. Though I am sure he agreed and disagreed with parts of the Old Testament which is special revelation as well.

Brad's overall point is a good one like I said.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Oh, I'm not disputing Brad's point. I nver wrote that tasty jefferson quote on the blog before. i've been meaning to make it a centerpiece of a post, but you know I'm more interested in kicking around the ideas.

As for the OT, Jefferson's disparaging view of Judaism--the Hebrews being fairly murderous as neighbors, etc.---my guess is Jefferson wouldn't give you 2 cents for it except maybe the Exodus.

King of Ireland said...

I was disputing it a bit but I think he is more or less right. I know you agree with him.