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Thomas Jefferson Versus the Historians: Christianity, Atheistic Morality, and the Afterlife

  • Arthur Scherr
Abstract

For many years, the Religious Right has argued that Thomas Jefferson's “wall of separation” metaphor, expounded in his address to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802, did not reflect his true views on cooperation between Church and State; and that he was actually a devout Christian who embraced a symbiotic relationship between them. Recent scholarship, concurring with these views, contends that Jefferson's thoughts and actions, both in political office and as a private individual, reflected his desire for government participation in religious ceremonies and his sincere dedication to the Christian faith. This article refutes such arguments. It compares Jefferson's ideas with John Adams's more orthodox opinions, particularly in their attitudes toward the connection between atheism and personal morality. The article notes that Jefferson, while endorsing Jesus' ethical teachings, also embraced philosophical materialism. He probably did not believe in an afterlife. Jefferson's most thoroughgoing rejection of organized Christianity occurred in old age, when his fading hopes for religious reform latched onto Unitarianism.

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1 For example, see the debate inspired by the works of American University law professor Daniel L. Dreisbach and James H. Hutson, Head Manuscript Librarian at the Library of Congress and an eminent historian. They assert Jefferson's devotion to religion, his diligent church attendance, and his adherence to “minimalist Christianity” rather than deism. Among Hutson's most relevant works on the question are: A Wall of Separation,” Library of Congress Information Bulletin 57, no. 6 (June 1998):136139, 163; Thomas Jefferson's Letter to the Danbury Baptists: A Controversy Rejoined,” William and Mary Quarterly 56, no. 4 (October 1999): 775790; Religion and the Founding of the American Republic (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1998); Church and State in America: The First Two Centuries (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008); Forgotten Features of the Founding: The Recovery of Religious Themes in the Early American Republic (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2003); and The Founders on Religion: A Book of Quotations (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005). Dreisbach's most significant contributions include: Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State (New York: New York University Press, 2002); A New Perspective on Jefferson's Views on Church-State Relations: The Virginia Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom in its Legislative Context,” American Journal of Legal History 35, no. 2 (April 1991): 172204; ‘Sowing Useful Truths and Principles’: The Danbury Baptists, Thomas Jefferson, and the ‘Wall of Separation,’Journal of Church and State 39, no. 3 (1997): 455501; and Mr. Jefferson, a Mammoth Cheese, and the ‘Wall of Separation Between Church and State’: A Bicentennial Commemoration,” Journal of Church and State 43, no. 4 (Autumn 2001): 725745. Apart from Healey, Robert M.'s older volume, Jefferson on Religion in Public Education (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1962), which covers more than its title suggests, perhaps the best summary of Jefferson's religious views is Sheridan, Eugene R., “Introduction,” in Jefferson's Extracts from the Gospels, ed. Adams, Dickinson W. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983), which surprisingly ignores Jefferson's favorable opinion of atheism. Moreover, Sheridan misreads Jefferson's famous letter of August 10, 1787 to Peter Carr, viewing it as literal evidence of French religious radicals' malign influence, instead of what Jefferson obviously intended: a reductio ad absurdum of the opinions for and against Christ's divinity. Like many other historians, Sheridan exaggerated Jefferson's late-life devotion to Christianity. He equated his intellectual and philological interest in the New Testament; his enthusiasm for Jesus' humane and pragmatic moral doctrines, such as the Sermon on the Mount; and his policy of equal treatment for all denominations at the capital during his presidency, with a religious “conversion” experience. Despite the excellence of Sheridan's essay on Jefferson's religion, he exaggerates the importance of Jefferson's letter to Peter Carr in 1787, taking literally Jefferson's anti-Christian statements (about Jesus' illegitimacy, that he was a “madman” who believed he was God), when Jefferson was merely presenting these extreme points of view to his young nephew for effect, to persuade him to “let reason be your guide.” See also Sheridan, “Liberty and Virtue: Religion and Republicanism in Jefferson's Thought,” in Thomas Jefferson and the Education of a Citizen, ed. Gilreath, James (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1999), 242263. For a recent study by an expert on colonial Virginia's religious institutions (though not on Jefferson) that substantially agrees with Hutson, see Buckley, Thomas E., “Placing Thomas Jefferson and Religion in Context, Then and Now,” in Seeing Jefferson Anew: In His Time and Ours, eds. Boles, John B. and Hall, Randal L. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2010), 126151. Buckley's numerous articles on Jefferson often exaggerate his support for organized religion and overlook his defense of atheism. Jefferson's opinions on religion are receiving increased attention from non-historians. In November 2011, an exhibit of Jefferson's scrapbook of clippings from the New Testament in four different languages, which he titled “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth,” opened at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, which owns the originals. This event has ostensibly revived interest in Jefferson's religious attitudes among the general public. See the following cover story, Carlson, Peter, “Did Jefferson Believe in God? The Bible According to Thomas Jefferson,” American History (October 2011), 2631; and Peter S. Onuf, “Thomas Jefferson and Deism,” History Now (September 2011), https://www.gilderlehrman.org/history-by-era/age-jefferson-and-madisonreligion/essays/thomas-jefferson-and-deism. Carlson further propagated his view that Jefferson was a deist in Who was Thomas Jefferson?The Humanist 72, no. 2 (April 2012), 1923.

2 For Roger Williams, see Gaustad, Edwin S., Faith of Our Fathers: Religion and the New Nation (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987), 23, 46; for Burgh, see Kramnick, Isaac and Moore, R. Laurence, The Godless Constitution: The Case Against Political Correctness (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1996), 8283, 97. Although Dreisbach depicts Jefferson as a friend of organized religion in his book, Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation Between Church and State (71–82), has a detailed account of Williams and Burgh as sources for the metaphor, and inclines to the view that Jefferson found it in Burgh's writings.

3 Barton, David, The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You've Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2012); and Throckmorton, Warren and Coulter, Michael L., Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims About Our Third President (Grove City, Pa.: Salem Grove Press, 2012).

4 Dreisbach, Thomas Jefferson and the Wall of Separation, 57–60.

5 See Gaustad, Faith of our Fathers, 45, 54–57; and Kramnick and Moore, A Godless Constitution, 96–97.

6 Hening, William W., ed., The Statutes at Large of Virginia: being a collection of all the laws of Virginia from the first session of the legislature, in the year 1619 (Richmond: R. & W. & G. Bartow, 1828), 1: 289–90.

7 Jefferson's Autobiography, in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Bergh, Albert E. (Washington, D.C.: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1907), 1:910, quoted in Drieisbach, Jefferson and the Wall of Separation, 58–59.

8 The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Bergh, 1:10; Dreisbach, Jefferson and the Wall of Separation, 59. See also Resolution of the House of Burgesses Designating a Day of Fasting and Prayer, May 24, 1774, in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Boyd, Julian P. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1950), 1:105107. Ironically, Boyd suspected that one of Jefferson's sources from Rushton for his fasting day proclamation was a proclamation by King Charles I in 1642 (106n).

9 Randolph, Edmund, History of Virginia, ed. Shaffer, Arthur H. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1970), 203304.

10 Dreisbach, Jefferson's Wall of Separation, 59; and Buckley, “Jefferson and Religion,” 135, both view this fasting proclamation incident as evidence of what Buckley calls Jefferson's “religious perspective” (135), even though Jefferson considered it only as a sly, pragmatic political maneuver expressly directed to uniting the southern colonies behind Massachusetts. For other commentaries on Jefferson's Fast Day measure in 1774, see McKinley S. Lundy, Jr., “Thomas Jefferson and Political Preaching: Two Case Studies of Free Religious Expression in the American Pulpit” (M.A. thesis, Vanderbilt University, 2005); and Irvin, Benjamin H., Clothed in Robes of Sovereignty: The Continental Congress and the People Out of Doors (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 111. For Jefferson's opposition to clerical pronouncements on politics from the pulpit, see Jefferson to Peter H. Wendover, March 13, 1815, in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Bergh, 14:283.

11 Dickson, Charles Ellis, “Jeremiads in the New American Republic: The Case of National Fasts in the John Adams Administration,” New England Quarterly 60, no. 2 (June 1987): 187207.

12 Dreisbach, Jefferson and Wall of Separation, 58.

13 Ibid., 59. For Jefferson's thanksgiving proclamation, see The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Boyd, Julian P. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1951), 3:177–79.

14 Proclamation, November 11, 1779, Appointing a Day of Thanksgiving and Prayer, in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 3:177–179; Samuel Huntington, Circular to the Governors of the States, October 20, 1779, enclosing resolve of Congress recommending that Thursday, December 9, be appointed a day of public thanksgiving, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 3:109.

15 The text of the bill, Bill 85. A Bill for Appointing Days of Public Fasting and Thanksgiving,” is in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Boyd, Julian P. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1950), 2:556. For Madison's role, see Boyd's editorial note which states that Jefferson did not write this bill; it was “in [a] clerk's hand” (The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 2:556); Jefferson “endorsed” it—a term which the editors of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson use merely to mean that he summarized its contents and noted the date he received it, on the back of the document or its envelope—as “A Bill Concerning Public Fasts.” Dreisbach interprets the editors' use of the word literally, as meaning that Jefferson personally approved the bill. For the short, probably incomplete list of bills for which Jefferson claimed credit, see “Memorandum by Jefferson on Bills to be Drafted,” in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 2:664–665, which Boyd confusingly referred to in his editorial notes as “Document IV, Part V.”

16 Dreisbach, Jefferson and Wall of Separation, 59.

17 Dreisbach, Jefferson and the Wall of Separation, 57–59. See also Buckley, “Jefferson and Religion,” 136–37. Dreisbach and Hutson's views are treated sympathetically in Cogliano, Francis D., Thomas Jefferson: Reputation and Legacy (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2006), 152155.

18 Jefferson's First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1801, in Thomas Jefferson: Writings, ed. Peterson, Merrill (New York: Literary Classics of the U.S., 1984), 494, 496; and Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1805, Thomas Jefferson: Writings, ed. Bergh, 523. Buckley aptly finds Jefferson's words in his Second Inaugural evocative of Robert N. Bellah's later concept of “civil religion” in “Jefferson and Religion,” 136. On the basis of this quotation, however, he ascribes to Jefferson the belief that “Divine Providence guided” the young republic, as “the new Israel,” something that he actually never said in personal letters.

19 For the mention of God's supervision and “overruling providence” in the inaugural addresses of Jefferson's predecessors (for instance, Adams), see Schlesinger, Arthur M. Jr., and Israel, Fred L., eds., I Do Solemnly Swear: The Inaugural Addresses of the Presidents of the United States, 1789–2001 (Philadelphia: Chelsea House Publications, 2001), 5 (for Washington's first inaugural), 8–13 (for Adams's first inaugural).

20 Dreisbach, Jefferson and Wall of Separation, 153–154. Buckley incompletely quotes a section of Jefferson's letter to Miller, making it appear that, in accordance with his advocacy of federalism and state's rights, Jefferson supported intervention by the individual states in the religious practices of their citizens, though not by the national government in “Jefferson and Religion,” 145. On Samuel Miller as a Democratic-Republican during the 1790s, see Young, Alfred F. Jr., The Democratic-Republicans of New York: The Origins, 1763–1797 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1967), 352353, 447, 524.

21 Samuel Miller to Jefferson, January 18, 1808, in The Thomas Jefferson Papers Series 1, Library of Congress, available online, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.mss/mtj.mtjbib018126.

22 Jefferson to Samuel Miller, January 23, 1808, in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Bergh, 11:429; and in The Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.mss/mtj.mtjbib018142.

23 Ibid.

24 Jefferson to Benjamin Rush, September 23, 1800, in The Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.mss/mtj.mtjbib009434. Jefferson here, as almost everywhere else, spelled “god” in lower case. For Rush's letter to Jefferson, see Benjamin Rush to Jefferson, August 22, 1800, in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Oberg, Barbara B. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005), 32:111 (italics original).

25 An often overlooked, but useful account on Adams's belief in divine providence and immortality is Everett, Robert B., “The Mature Religious Thought of John Adams,” Proceedings of the South Carolina Historical Association (Columbia, S.C.: South Carolina Historical Association, 1966, 5357). In addition to Gaustad, in Sworn on the Altar of God and Faith of Our Fathers, a more recent work distorts Jefferson's religious views, going to the opposite extreme from Gaustad's efforts to depict him as a devout Christian. Political scientist Vincent Munoz, whose anachronistic objective is really to conjecture how Washington, Madison, and Jefferson would have decided various Supreme Court cases involving religious freedom, misguidedly argues that Jefferson intended to use state power to enforce conformity to his idea of the best, most “rational” religion (probably Unitarianism). Munoz, Vincent Phillip, God and the Founders (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009). Munoz is unaware that Jefferson was critical of Unitarians' attempts to bully other denominations once they gained power in Massachusetts. Jefferson hoped the Unitarians would emulate the Quakers, who, “keeping within the pale of Common sense, suffer no speculative differences of opinion any more than of feature, to impair the love of their brethren” (Jefferson to Benjamin Waterhouse, June 26, 1822, in Jefferson's Extracts from the Gospels, ed. Adams, Dickenson W. [Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983], 406). Jefferson probably provided the best refutation of Munoz's argument in his own writings. See, for example, Jefferson to Thomas Cooper, November 2, 1822, The Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.mss/mtj.mtjbib024489; and Arthur Scherr, “Letter to the Editor,” Indiana Magazine of History 96, no. 1 (March 2000): 106–107.

26 Gaustad, Sworn on the Altar of God; and Gaustad, Faith of Our Fathers, 107.

27 On Adams's conviction of the inevitability and desirability of religious establishments, see Witte, John Jr., “‘A Most Mild and Equitable Establishment of Religion’: John Adams and the Massachusetts Experiment,” Journal of Church and State 4, no. 21 (Spring 1999): 216. For Adams's early support of laws against blasphemy and sacrilege, see Witte, “A Most Mild and Equitable Establishment of Religion,” 217. For his change of mind, see Adams to Jefferson, January 23, 1825, in Adams-Jefferson Letters: The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson & Abigail & John Adams, ed. Cappon, Lester J. (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 607608.

28 For the Adams quotation from Discourses on Davila, see Peek, George A. Jr., ed., Political Writings of John Adams: Representative Selections (Indianapolis: Liberal Arts Press, 1954), 193194, extracted from Adams, Charles Francis, ed. The Works of John Adams (Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown, 1851), 4:274281 (italics original). An expert favorable discussion of Adams's religious views may be found in John Witte, Jr.'s articles, among them, “Adams and the Massachusetts Experiment”; and One Public Religion, Many Private Religions: John Adams and the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution,” in The Founders on God and Government, eds. Dreisbach, Daniel L. et al. . (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004), 2352. For a recent summary of Adams's and Jefferson's differences on religion, see Witte, John Jr., “Publick Religion: Adams v. Jefferson,” First Things: A Journal of Religion and Public Life 141 (March 2004): 2934.

29 John Adams to Benjamin Rush, April 12, 1809, in Adams, Charles Francis, ed., The Works of John Adams (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1854), 9:619.

30 John Adams to Francis Van der Kemp, October 2, 1818, in Adams Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society, microfilm, reel 123. Abigail Adams died on October 28, 1818 (Adams-Jefferson Letters, 529n). John Fea's recent influential work unconvincingly argues that this letter demonstrates that Adams favored unlimited religious freedom (Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? [Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011], 267). For the opposite view, see Howe, John R. Jr., The Changing Political Thought of John Adams (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1966), 227228. See also Hutson, The Founders on Religion, 134.

31 John Adams to Alexander B. Johnson, April 1823, in Adams Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society, microfilm, reel 124; and Adams to Jefferson, December 8, 1818, in Adams-Jefferson Letters, 530. As early as the age of fifty-three, in his famous letter to Philip Mazzei, Jefferson wrote, without any indication of finding solace in the idea of an afterlife, “I begin to feel the effects of age. My health has suddenly broke down, with symptoms which give me to believe I shall not have much to encounter of the tedium vitae” (Jefferson to Mazzei, April 24, 1796, in Thomas Jefferson: Writings, 1037).

32 John Adams, quoted in Manuel, Frank E., The Eighteenth Century Confronts the Gods (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1959), 274.

33 Ibid., 278. Despite his opposition to Dupuis's materialism, Adams admired Dupuis's erudition, claiming that his study of the origin of religious cults displayed “ten times more learning than [Joseph] Priestley ever possessed” (Adams to Francis Adrian Van der Kemp, October 23, 1816, in Adams Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society, microfilm, reel 122; quoted in Gaustad, Faith of Our Fathers, 89).

34 Jefferson to Edward Dowse, April 19, 1803, in Jefferson's Extracts from the Gospels, 330.

35 Adams to Jefferson, June 25, 1813, in Adams-Jefferson Letters, 334; Manuel, Eighteenth Century Confronts Gods, 278–279.

36 Adams to Henry Channing, November 3, 1820, in Adams, Charles Francis, ed., The Works of John Adams (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1856), 10:392393.

37 Adams to Jefferson, and Adams to Professor John Gorham, January 28, 1817, both quoted in Manuel, Eighteenth Century Confronts Gods, 279–280. By “materialism,” I mean simply the philosophical position that all things and beings, including “God” and “the soul,” are composed of tangible matter, capable of being physically grasped in some way, and that ghost-like spirits and invisible souls do not exist.

38 Adams to John Gorham, January 28, 1817, printed in Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society 10 (November 1867): 90.

39 William Plumer, notes of March 26, 1804, in Brown, Everett S., ed., William Plumer's Memorandum of Proceedings in the U.S. Senate, 1803–1807 (1923; New York: Da Capo Press,1969), 179180.

40 Charles Clay's theology and preaching have recently received rather fortuitously, an inordinate amount of attention. For the text of one of his sermons (“Sermon on Canticles,” 1773), see Bond, Edward L., ed., Spreading the Gospel in Colonial Virginia (Lanham, Md.: Lexington Books, 2005), 559569. His significance as an evangelical pre-Revolutionary Piedmont clergyman is stressed in Beliles, Mark A., “The Christian Communities, Religious Revivals, and Political Culture of the Central Virginia Piedmont, 1737–1813,” in Religion and Political Culture in Jefferson's Virginia, eds. Sheldon, Garrett Ward and Dreisbach, Daniel L. (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), 340. For biographical information on Clay, see Brown, Katharine L., Hills of the Lord: Background of the Episcopal Church in Southwestern Virginia, 1738–1938 (Roanoke: Diocese of Southwestern Virginia, 1979), 134135; Brydon, George Maclaren, Virginia's Mother Church and the Political Conditions Under Which it Grew (Philadelphia: Virginia Historical Society, 1952), 2:227228, 608–609; Clay, Mary Rogers, The Clay Family (Louisville, Ky.: John P. Morton and Company, 1899), 8486; Early, Ruth H., Campbell Chronicles and Family Sketches Embracing the History of Campbell County, Virginia, 1782–1926 (Lynchburg, Va.: J. P. Bell Company, 1927), 375; Rev. Goodwin, Edward Lewis, The Colonial Church in Virginia (Milwaukee: Morehouse Pub. Co., 1927), 260; Bishop Meade, William, Churches, Ministers and Families of Virginia (1872; Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincot & Co, 1857), 2:4850; and Moore, John Hammond, Albemarle: Jefferson's County, 1727–1976 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1976), 7778.

41 Gaustad, Sworn on the Altar of God, 211.

42 Charles Clay to Thomas Jefferson, December 20, 1814, in Jefferson's Extracts from the Gospels, 361–362. For Gaustad's identical error in Faith of Our Fathers: “So strongly did Jefferson feel about the necessity of public virtue that he was even willing, shuld it come to that, to have a perverted and corrupted Christianity rather than none at all. For no system of morality would work for the common man or woman ‘without the sanction of divine authority stampt upon it,’” (105). Gaustad's source is “JEFFERSON to Charles Clay” [sic], December 20, 1814, in Jefferson's Extracts, 362. It is surprising that, in light of all the attention that has been paid in recent years to Jefferson's religious views, no one before me has noticed Gaustad's twenty-five year error.

43 Conkin, Paul K., “The Religious Pilgrimage of Thomas Jefferson,” in Jeffersonian Legacies, ed., Onuf, Peter S. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1993), 20.

44 Ibid., 21.

45 Jefferson to J. P. P. Derieux, July 25, 1788, in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Boyd, Julian P. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1956), 13:418 (italics added).

46 Ibid., 418–419.

47 Kessler, Sanford, “Locke's Influence on Jefferson's Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom,” Journal of Church and State 25, no. 2 (Spring 1983), 235, 248.

48 Ibid, 247. Locke's Letter on Toleration specifically mentioned only “Mahometans,” as religionists who owed their first loyalty to a foreign power, namely their “muftis.” However, when Locke asserted, “That Church can have no right to be tolerated by the magistrate which is constituted upon such a bottom that all those who enter into it do thereby ipso facto deliver themselves up to the protection and service of another prince. For by this means the magistrate would give way to the authority of a foreign jurisdiction in his own country,” by implication he included the Roman Catholic Church, whose adherents supposedly owed allegiance to the Pope, an entity far more pertinent than Moslems to his readers' fears, as Guy Fawke's Day (1605) and the Lord George Gordon Riots in London in 1780 demonstrated. For the text of Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), translated from the original Latin by William Popple, see “A Letter Concerning Toleration,” James's Liberty file collection index, http://jim.com.tolerati.htm.

49 Kessler, “Locke's Influence on Jefferson's Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom,” 240.

50 Ibid., 244.

51 The Papers of Thomas Jefferson 1:548, 551n. These statements were contained in Jefferson's personal “Notes on Locke and Shaftesbury: Locke's works 2d vol.,” in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 1:544–551.

52 Ibid., 548. I have slightly modernized Jefferson's capitalization.

53 James Fishback to Jefferson, June 5, 1809, and Jefferson to Fishback, September 27, 1809 (“Final State”), in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series, ed. Looney, J. Jefferson (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004), 1:255, 565566. Jefferson omitted a portion of his letter that mocked Moslem dogmas (such as wars over the length of Mohammed's big toe) and Christian “superstitions” from the letter before mailing it.

54 Jefferson to Thomas Leiper, January 21, 1809, in Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Ford, Paul L. (New York; G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1905), 9:238.

55 See especially Jefferson to Rush, April 21, 1803 in Thomas Jefferson: Writings, 1122–1126.

56 Jefferson, Thomas, Notes on the State of Virginia, ed. Peden, William H. (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1955), 159.

57 Price to Jefferson, October 26, 1788, in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Boyd, Julian P. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1958), 14:39. On Price's ideas, see Barnes, Winston H. F., “Richard Price, A Neglected Eighteenth Century Moralist,” Philosophy 17 (1942): 159173; Cone, Carl B., Torchbearer of Freedom (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1952); and Toohey, Robert E., Liberty and Empire (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1978).

58 Jefferson to Richard Price, January 8, 1789, in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 14:420. For Jefferson's enumeration of the “artificial systems” and “imposture” that orthodoxy had imposed on Jesus' ideas, see his note to himself in Jefferson to William Short, October 31, 1819, in Jefferson's Extracts from the Gospels, 391n3.

59 Jefferson to Thomas Law, June 13, 1814, in Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, eds. Koch, Adrienne and Peden, William (New York: Random House, 1944), 637.

60 Jefferson to Peter Carr, August 10, 1787, in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Boyd, Julian P. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1955), 12:1516.

61 Ibid., 17.

62 Jefferson to Edward Dowse, April 19, 1803, in Jefferson's Extracts from the Gospels, 329–330. See also Benson, C. Randolph, Thomas Jefferson as Social Scientist (Rutherford, N.J.: Fairliegh Dicknson Univesity Press, 1971), 190.

63 Jefferson to Peter Carr, August 10, 1787, quoted in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Bergh, 6:260–261. In his letters, Jefferson always spelled “god” in the lower case, but Bergh, like most early editiors of his writings, perhaps because of their editors' religiosity, pretended that he capitalized it (“God”).

64 The delivery of this important letter was subjected to a “Freudian slip” on Jefferson's part. Revealingly for the light it sheds on Jefferson's unconscious fear of confessing his religious skepticism, after writing this daring letter to Carr he put it in his drawer (as David Hume did with his atheistic Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, which were not published until after his death). He “forgot” to mail it until he “discovered” it there nearly a year later. Jefferson to Peter Carr, August 6, 1788, in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 13:470. On Hume's caution in concealing his Dialogues from public view, see Becker, Carl L.'s renowned discussion in The Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1932), 6872.

65 Jefferson to Miles King, September 26, 1814, in Jefferson's Extracts from the Gospels, 360–361. See also Koch, Adrienne, The Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1943), 38.

66 Jefferson to Thomas Law, June 13, 1814, in Life and Selected Writings of Jefferson, 637. For Jefferson's ownership of the works of Holbach and other atheists, see Sowerby, E. Millicent, Catalogue of the Library of Thomas Jefferson (Washington, 1952–1959), 2:14, 25–26, 5:178, and passim. In System of Nature, Holbach employed the pseudonym, “Mirabaud,” while in Le Bon Sens he called himself “Jean Meslier.” On Jefferson's relationship with Condorcet; see Dumas Malone, Jefferson and the Rights of Man (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1951), 15, 109–110, 194, 235. In 1825, Jefferson compiled notes on D'Holbach's “writings . . . on the morality of nature and of the Christian religion” from Le Systeme Social, which were recopied by his secretary Nicholas Trist (Thomas Jefferson Papers, University of Virginia, microfilm, reel 10).

67 Jefferson to Thomas Law, June 13, 1814, in Life and Selected Writings, 637. Jefferson owned Claude Adrien Helvétius's Oeuvres Complétes in a 1781 French language version published at London in five volumes. Sowerby, Catalogue of the Library, 2:4.

68 Jefferson to John Adams, April 8, 1816, in Adams-Jefferson Letters, 467–468, my italics. This letter, among Jefferson's most famous, is available in numerous collections of his writings, see for example, Life and Selected Writings, 667–668; Thomas Jefferson: Writings, 1381–1384; and Padover, Saul K., A Jefferson Profile As Revealed in His Letters (New York: J. Day, 1956), 267270.

69 Sanford, Charles B., The Religious Life of Thomas Jefferson (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1984), 87, 93. For a contrary view, see Koch, The Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson, 28, 103–104.

70 Jefferson to John Adams, April 8, 1816, in Adams-Jefferson Letters, 467. Sanford, Religious Life, 100, 84, I have italicized Sanford's invented additions. For the source of the Jefferson quotation, Sanford cites The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Bergh, 14:468–469. However, upon examination the letter, even in this edition, does not include the italicized words and reads the same as the others. While the allusion to God makes Jefferson appear more orthodox than deistic, he simply did not use those words; Sanford's study consistently purports to make Jefferson more “Christian” than he was.

71 Jefferson to John Adams, April 8, 1816, in Adams-Jefferson Letters, 468. Charles A. Miller calls Jefferson “ a confirmed Newtonian in physics,” in Miller, Charles A., Jefferson and Nature (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1988), 273. For Jefferson's praise of the seventeenth-century empiricists, see Jefferson to John Trumbull, February 15, 1789, in Thomas Jefferson: Writings, 939–940. On the ambiguities and paradoxes of deist and anti-deist hysteria in Congregationalist Wethersfield, Connecticut, after the American Revolution, see Grasso, Christopher, “Deist Monster: On Religious Common Sense in the Wake of the American Revolution,” Journal of American History 95, no. 1 (June 2008): 4368.

72 Jefferson to Adams, April 11, 1823, in Adams-Jefferson Letters, 412.

73 Jefferson to John Adams, October 12, 1813, in Adams-Jefferson Letters, 384.

74 Boorstin, Daniel J., The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson (1948; Boston: Beacon Press, 1960), 159160.

75 Jefferson to William Short, April 13, 1820, in Jefferson's Extracts from the Gospels, 391–92.

76 Jefferson to William Short, April 13, 1820, Jefferson's Extracts from the Gospels, 392 (spelling and emphases original).

77 Jefferson to William Short, April 13, 1820, in Jefferson's Extracts from the Gospels, 392; and The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Bergh, 15:244. Bergh capitalizes “Him” and “His” at numerous points when Jefferson refers to Jesus, for example, “it is not to be understood that I am with Him n all His doctrines,” implying that Jefferson regarded Jesus as a divinity. However, Jefferson did not capitalize the pronouns relating to Jesus in either the polygraph or recipient's copies of the letter.

78 Jefferson to Adams, August 15, 1820, in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Bergh, 15:274, and Jefferson's Extracts from the Gospels, 400. Although Jefferson perhaps intended to increase his statement's drama by keeping Adams (who probably knew the answer) in suspense, alluding to the “Athanasian Creed” that declared belief in the Trinity orthodox Christian dogma, he wrote in a note to the polygraph copy of the letter: “That of Athanasius and the Council of Nicea anno 324,” Jefferson to John Adams, August 15, 1820, in Jefferson's Extracts from the Gospels, 401n2.

79 Jefferson to John Adams, August 15, 1820, in Adams-Jefferson Letters, 2:568.

80 For a recent article on the debate between Jefferson and Adams over materialism, see Robinson, Daniel L., “Jefferson and Adams on the Mind-Body Problem,” History of Psychology 6, no. 3 (2003): 227238.

81 Jefferson to John Adams, April 11, 1823, in Jefferson's Extracts from the Gospels, 410–412.

82 Jefferson to John Page, December 25, 1762, in Thomas Jefferson: Writings, 733–736.

83 Jefferson to John Page, July 26, 1764, in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Catanzariti, John (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997), 27:665. See also Douglas L. Wilson, “Jefferson and Bolingbroke: Some Notes on the Question of Influence,” in Religion and Political Culture in Jefferson's Virginia, 112–113.

84 On Jefferson's reference in 1776 to the ancient Jews' denial of an afterlife, see Fabian, Bernhard, “Jefferson's Notes on Virginia: The Genesis of Query XVIII, ‘The Different Religions Received Into that State?’William and Mary Quarterly 12 (1955): 124138.

85 “Syllabus of an Estimate of the Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus, Compared with Those of Others [April 1803],” enclosed in Jefferson to Benjamin Rush, April 21, 1803, in Thomas Jefferson: Writings, 1122–1126. Jefferson's habit of riding his horse rather than taking a carriage was unique to his presidency. See, for example, Samuel Taggart to Rev. John Taylor, January 13, 1804, in Haynes, George H., ed., “Letters of Samuel Taggart, Representative in Congress, 1803–1814,” Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society 33, April–October 1923 (Worcester, Mass.: American Antiquarian Society, 1924): 125. For an instance in which Jefferson, shortly after his daughter Mary's death, rode part of the way on horseback, alone, to Washington, D.C., because the roads were impassable for a carriage, see Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph, May 14, 1804, in The Family Letters of Thomas Jefferson, eds. Betts, Edwin M. and Bear, James A. Jr. (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1966), 259260; and The Thomas Jefferson Papers, University of Virginia, microfilm, reel 5.

86 “Syllabus of an Estimate of the Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus, Compared with Those of Others [April 1803],” enclosed in Jefferson to Benjamin Rush, April 21, 1803, in Thomas Jefferson: Writings, 1122–1126. On Jewish ethics, see Leviticus 19; and Roshwald, Mordecai, “The Peculiar Case of the Hebrew Bible,” Midwest Quarterly 39 (Autumn 1997): 90106, 92.

87 Jefferson to Maria Cosway, December 27, 1820, Jefferson Papers,” Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 7th Series (Boston: Massachusetts Historical Society, 1900), 1:303304. See also Malone, Dumas, Sage of Monticello (Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1981), 390–91. After quoting part of this letter, Robert M. Healey concludes that it proves Jefferson's belief in the afterlife. Healey, Jefferson on Religion in Public Education, 32. This is dubious, not only in light of Jefferson's philosophical materialism but because of his contempt for Roman Catholicism (Cosway's faith) as otiose, Platonic mysticism. For Jefferson's qualified endorsement of metaphysical materialism, see Koch, Philosophy of Jefferson, 94–104. Coining the term, “sensationalistic positivism,” Koch observes, “Jefferson's philosophy was materialism only to the extent that it was sensationalistic positivism” (104).

88 Jefferson to Rev. Isaac Story, December 5, 1801, in Jefferson's Extracts from the Gospels, 325–26. Story was the father-in-law of moderate Federalist Joseph Story, whom Madison appointed to the Supreme Court against Jefferson's advice.

89 Ibid., 326.

90 Corner, George W., ed., Autobiography of Benjamin Rush (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1948), 152. See also Schachner, Nathan, Thomas Jefferson (New York: T. Yoseloff, 1951), 642.

91 Jefferson to Rush, April 21, 1803, in Life and Selected Writings, 567. With little evidence, even the accomplished historian Andrew Burstein painfully attempts to depict Jefferson, whose rigorous empiricism and Epicurean philosophy he describes throughout his book, as a believer in the afterlife, Burstein, Andrew, Jefferson's Secrets: Death and Desire at Monticello (New York: Basic Books, 2005), 257263. On the inherent conflict between Jefferson's radical empiricism and Rush's evangelical Presbyterianism, see D'Elia, Donald J., “Jefferson, Rush, and the Limits of Philosophical Friendship,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 117, no. 5 (October 1973): 333343.

92 Benjamin Rush to John Adams, June 27, 1812, in Letters of Benjamin Rush, ed. Butterfield, L. H. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1951), 2:1144.

93 John Adams to Benjamin Rush, June 4, 1812, in Spur of Fame: Dialogues of John Adams and Benjamin Rush, 1805–1813, eds. Schutz, John A. and Adair, Douglass (San Marino, Cal.: The Huntington Library, 1966), 223; Butterfield, L. H., ed., Diary and Autobiography of John Adams (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1961), 3:335. On this incident, see also McGlone, Robert E., “Deciphering Memory: John Adams and the Authorship of the Declaration of Independence,” Journal of American History 85, no. 2 (September 1998): 431432.

94 John Adams to Benjamin Rush, June 4, 1812, in Spur of Fame, 223.

95 Jefferson's increasingly adamant rejection of organized Christianity appositely contrasts with the changing outlook of his proverbial foe, Alexander Hamilton, who, according to some scholars, became an ardent Christian in his last years. In July 1804, dying from the mortal wound inflicted by Aaron Burr in their famous duel, Hamilton pleaded (successfully) to receive the last rites of the Episcopal Church. When Jefferson, lying more peacefully on his deathbed at Monticello on July 3, 1826, mistakenly thought Reverend Frederick Hatch, rector of the Charlottesville Episcopal Church (which Jefferson had designed) had entered the room, he professed no desire to have the last rites performed. He merely said, “I have no objection to see him, as a kind and good neighbor.” Adair, Douglass G. and Harvey, Martin, “Was Alexander Hamilton a Christian Statesman?” in Fame and the Founding Fathers: Essays by Douglass Adair, ed. Colbourn, H. Trevor (New York: Norton, 1974), 141159; Burstein, Jefferson's Secrets, 276; Malone, Sage of Monticello, 498.

96 Jefferson to Benjamin Waterhouse, October 13, 1815, in Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Ford, 11:491–492.

97 Ibid., 492.

98 Peterson, Merrill D., Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), 976980. The most detailed study of Jefferson's conflict with Rice is probably Swift, David E., “Thomas Jefferson, John Holt Rice, and Education in Virginia, 1815–1825,” Journal of Presbyterian History 49, no. 1 (Spring 1971): 3258. On Jefferson and Cooper, see Cohen, Seymour S., “Correspondence of Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Cooper,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 147, no. 1 (March 2003): 3964. For a brief biography of Rice, see McCarthy, David B., “John Holt Rice,” in American National Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 18:418419.

99 Jefferson to William Short, April 13, 1820, in Jefferson's Extracts from the Gospels, 392–393.

100 Jefferson to Benjamin Waterhouse, June 26, 1822, in Jefferson's Extracts from the Gospels, 406.

101 Jefferson's “Syllabus of the doctrines of Epicurus,” in Jefferson to William Short, October 31, 1819, in Thomas Jefferson: Writings, 1430–1433.

102 Burstein, Jefferson's Secrets, 259. Richard, Carl J., The Founders and the Classics (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994), 191. Burstein, Jefferson's Secrets, 259, cites Richard to validate his argument that Jefferson believed in the soul's immortality. Jefferson to Francis Van der Kemp, January 11, 1825, Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Ford, 10:337. Burstein misdates the letter as January 1, 1825. See also Koch, Philosophy of Jefferson, 98–99.

103 Jefferson to Van Der Kemp, January 11, 1825, in Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Ford, 10:338; Burstein, Jefferson's Secrets, 259 [emphasis added].

104 Jefferson to Van Der Kemp, January 11, 1825, in Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Ford, 10:338; Burstein, Jefferson's Secrets, 259.

105 Jefferson to Van Der Kemp, January 11, 1825, in Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Ford, 10:338.

106 In addition to Onuf, “Thomas Jefferson and Deism,” see Peter S. Onuf, “Thomas Jefferson and American Democracy;” Eva Sheppard Wolf, “Natural Politics: Jefferson, Elections, and the People;” and Thomas E. Buckley, “Placing Thomas Jefferson and Religion in Context, Then and Now,” in Seeing Jefferson Anew, 13–39, 40–65, 126–151. Despite their unlikely titles, each of these chapters, sometimes inappropriately, manages to insert trendy comments about Jefferson's alleged affinity for Christianity.

107 See Jefferson to Peter Hercules Wendover, March 13, 1815 (draft), in Jefferson Papers: Retirement Series, 8:343; Jefferson to John Adams, November 25, 1816, Adams-Jefferson Letters, 496; Jefferson to Horatio Gates Spafford, January 10, 1816, in The Works of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Ford, Paul L. (12 vols.; New York, 1904–1905), 10:15; Jefferson to Thomas Ritchie, January 21, 1816, Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. Jefferson was especially alarmed by the program of nationwide missionary activities outlined by Lyman Beecher, chairman of the Presbyterian Committee of Supplies of the Education Society of the Connecticut, in such tracts as An Address of the Charitable Society for the Education of Indigent Pious Young Men for the Ministry of the Gospel (New Haven, 1814; Shaw and Shoemaker #30833), which he inveighed against in this letter to Spafford. For Roger Williams' harassment of Rhode Island Quakers, see Worrall, Arthur J., Quakers in the Colonial Northeast (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1980), 3640.

108 Onuf, “Thomas Jefferson and American Democracy,” 21. For an excellent summary of the complex Baptist divisions over freedom of religion in the early republic, see McLoughlin, William G., “The Role of Religion in the Revolution: Liberty of Conscience and Cultural Cohesion in the New Nation,” in Essays on the American Revolution, eds. Kurtz, Stephen G. and Hutson, James H. (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1973), 197255.

109 On Jefferson's admiration for the New England town meeting as a paradigm for local democracy (what he labeled “ward-republics”), see Matthews, Richard K., The Radical Politics of Thomas Jefferson (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1984), 1516, 81–89; Scherr, Arthur, “Thomas Jefferson's Nationalist Vision of New England and the War of 1812,” The Historian: A Journal of History 69, no. 1 (Spring 2007): 135, esp. 22–31; and Yarbrough, Jean, “Republicanism Reconsidered: Some Thoughts on the Foundation and Preservation of Republican Government,” Review of Politics 41, no. 1 (January 1979): 6195.

110 Wolf, “Natural Politics: Jefferson, Elections, and the People,” 56.

111 Jefferson to Stevens Thomson Mason, October 11, 1798, in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Oberg, Barbara B. (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2003), 30:560.

112 Jefferson's Address to the Citizens of Albemarle County, [February 12, 1790], in Thomas Jefferson: Writings, 491.

113 Adams's diary, quoted in Bemis, Samuel F., John Quincy Adams and the Union (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1956), 216217.

114 Jefferson to Charles Holt, November 23, 1810, in The Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.mss/mtj.mtjbib020444.

115 Turpin, William, “Tacitus, Stoic exempla, and the praecipuum munus annalium,” Classical Antiquity 27, no. 2 (October 2008): 359404.

116 Jefferson to Rev. Thomas Whittemore, June 5, 1822, in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Bergh, 15:374.

117 Jefferson's Epitaph [1826], in Thomas Jefferson: Writings, 706.

118 For the quotations of the Declaration in Jefferson's Autobiography, in ibid., 19, 24. By far the most valuable study of the “religious” aspects of the Declaration of Independence is Jayne, Allen, Jefferson's Declaration of Independence: Origins, Philosophy, and Theology (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1998). For useful studies of the topics discussed here in connection with the Declaration, see Armitage, David T., The Declaration of Independence: A Global History (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2007); Miller, Jefferson and Nature; and Onuf, Peter S., Jefferson's Empire: The Language of American Nationhood (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2000). On the profane nature of honor, see Nisbett, Richard and Cohen, Dov, Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South (Boulder, Col.: Westview Press, 1996); and Wyatt-Brown, Bertram, Southern Honor: Ethics and Culture in the Old South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982).

The author would like to thank the editors, for their advice and encouragement; and Dr. Cara Burnidge, assistant to the editors, for her patience and perseverance in copyediting the article.

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