Skip to comments.Thomas Jefferson: Deist or Christian? Dr. Kennedy says former president is ACLU's worst nightmare
Posted on 06/19/2002 12:07:28 AM PDT by JohnHuang2
Thomas Jefferson, as we all know, was a skeptic, a man so hostile to Christianity that he scissored from his Bible all references to miracles. He was, as the Freedom From Religion Foundation tells us, "a Deist, opposed to orthodox Christianity and the supernatural."
Or was he? While Jefferson has been lionized by those who seek to drive religion from public life, the true Thomas Jefferson is anything but their friend. He was anything but irreligious, anything but an enemy to Christian faith. Our nation's third president was, in fact, a student of Scripture who attended church regularly, and was an active member of the Anglican Church, where he served on his local vestry. He was married in church, sent his children and a nephew to a Christian school, and gave his money to support many different congregations and Christian causes.
Moreover, his "Notes on Religion," nine documents Jefferson wrote in 1776, are "very orthodox statements about the inspiration of Scripture and Jesus as the Christ," according to Mark Beliles, a Providence Foundation scholar and author of an enlightening essay on Jefferson's religious life.
So what about the Jefferson Bible, that miracles-free version of the Scriptures? That, too, is a myth. It is not a Bible, but an abridgement of the Gospels created by Jefferson in 1804 for the benefit of the Indians. Jefferson's "Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted From the New Testament for the Use of the Indians" was a tool to evangelize and educate American Indians. There is no evidence that it was an expression of his skepticism.
Jefferson, who gave his money to assist missionary work among the Indians, believed his "abridgement of the New Testament for the use of the Indians" would help civilize and educate America's aboriginal inhabitants. Nor did Jefferson cut all miracles from his work, as Beliles points out. While the original manuscript no longer exists, the Table of Texts that survives includes several accounts of Christ's healings.
But didn't Jefferson believe in the complete separation of church and state? After all, Jefferson's 1802 letter to the Baptists in Danbury, Conn., in which he cited the First Amendment's creation of a "wall of separation" between church and state, is an ACLU proof-text for its claim that the First Amendment makes the public square a religion-free zone. But if the ACLU is right, why, just two days after he sent his letter to the Danbury Baptists did President Jefferson attend public worship services in the U.S. Capitol building, something he did throughout his two terms in office? And why did he authorize the use of the War Office and the Treasury building for church services in Washington, D.C.?
Jefferson's outlook on religion and government is more fully revealed in another 1802 letter in which he wrote that he did not want his administration to be a "government without religion," but one that would "strengthen religious freedom."
Jefferson was a true friend of the Christian faith. But was he a true Christian? A nominal Christian as demonstrated by his lifelong practice of attending worship services, reading the Bible, and following the moral principles of Christ Jefferson was not, in my opinion, a genuine Christian. In 1813, after his public career was over, Jefferson rejected the deity of Christ. Like so many millions of church members today, he was outwardly religious, but never experienced the new birth that Jesus told Nicodemus was necessary to enter the kingdom of Heaven.
Nonetheless, Jefferson's presidential acts would, if done today, send the ACLU marching into court. He signed legislation that gave land to Indian missionaries, put chaplains on the government payroll, and provided for the punishment of irreverent soldiers. He also sent Congress an Indian treaty that set aside money for a priest's salary and for the construction of a church.
Most intriguing is the manner in which Jefferson dated an official document. Instead of "in the year of our Lord," Jefferson used the phrase "in the year of our Lord Christ." Christian historian David Barton has the proof the original document signed by Jefferson on the "eighteenth day of October in the year of our Lord Christ, 1804."
The Supreme Court ruled in 1947 that Jefferson's wall of separation between church and state "must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach." Judging from the record, it looks like the wall some say Tom built is, in fact, the wall Tom breached.
The real Thomas Jefferson, it turns out, is the ACLU's worst nightmare.
Anyone know the source of that claim?
"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 approve the homage of reason rather than of blind-folded fear. Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences.... If it end in a belief that there is no god, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise and in the love of others it will procure for you."
-- Thomas Jefferson, to Peter Carr, 10 Aug. 1787. (original capitalization of the word god is retained per original)
"Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus."
-- Thomas Jefferson, letter to Francis Adrian Van der Kemp July 30, 1816, denouncing the doctrine of the Trinity and suggesting it to be so riddled in falsehood that only an authoritarian figure could decipher its meaning and, with a firm grip on people's spiritual and mental freedoms, thus convince the people of its truthfulness
"I have recently been examining all the known superstitions of the world, and do not find in our particular superstition one redeeming feature. They are all alike, founded upon fables and mythologies. The Christian God is a being of terrific character -- cruel, vindictive, capricious, and unjust."
-- Thomas Jefferson, letter to Dr. Woods (undated), referring to "our particular superstition" Christianity, from by John E. Remsburg, Six Historic Americans: Thomas Jefferson, quoted from Franklin Steiner, Religious Beliefs of Our Presidents (1936), "Thomas Jefferson, Freethinker"
"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, letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823, quoted from James A. Haught, Breaking the Last Taboo (1996)
"We find in the writings of his biographers ... a groundwork of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticisms and fabrications."
-- Thomas Jefferson, to William Short, August 4, 1822, referring to Jesus's biographers, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.
"The Christian god can easily be pictured as virtually the same god as the many ancient gods of past civilizations. The Christian god is a three headed monster; cruel, vengeful and capricious. If one wishes to know more of this raging, three headed beast-like god, one only needs to look at the caliber of people who say they serve him. They are always of two classes: fools and hypocrites."
-- Thomas Jefferson, letter to his nephew, Peter Carr
"My aim in that was, to justify the character of Jesus against the fictions of his pseudo-followers, which have exposed him to the inference of being an impostor. For if we could believe that he really countenanced the follies, the falsehoods and the charlatanisms which his biographers father on him, and admit the misconstructions, interpolations and theorizations of the fathers of the early, and fanatics of the latter ages, the conclusion would be irresistible by every sound mind, that he was an impostor. I give no credit to their falsifications of his actions and doctrines, and to rescue his character, the postulate in my letter asked only what is granted in reading every other historian.... That Jesus did not mean to impose himself on mankind as the son of God, physically speaking, I have been convinced by the writings of men more learned than myself in that lore."
-- Thomas Jefferson, letter to William Short, August 4, 1820, explaining his reason for compiling the Syllabus of an Estimate of the Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus and referring to Jesus's biographers, the Gospel writers.
Jefferson was a Unitarian. If that makes him a non-Christian, then John Adams, Abigail Adams, John Quincy Adams, Millard Filmore, Daniel Webster and Julia Ward Howe (writer of the lyrics to the Battle Hymn of the Republic), who were also Unitarians, were not Christians either.
A refutation of the charge that Unitarians were not Christian was best answered in William Ellery Channing's 1819 Unitarian Christianity, or The Baltimore Sermon
Four is prophetic...and Biblical;
the rest are discernable in their intent only in full context.
Not so strange.
Jefferson, on the other hand, called himself a "real Christian," and referred to Jesus in a letter to Madison as "our saviour."
Jefferson clearly asserted that he believed that if the philosophy of Jesus (as expressed in words recorded as coming from Jesus' mouth) became the motivating force within the hearts of individuals throughout the world, a benevolent and peaceful society could be the result.
Given the state of relations between individuals and nations today, could he have been onto something here?
Further, is it just remotely possible that a current leader--ridiculed and maligned by the liberals for his debate response identifying Jesus as his favorite political philosopher--is it just possible that he, too, may have shared Jefferson's enthusiasm for the potential of a "heart" understanding of the philosophy of Jesus?
Jefferson, who gave his money to assist missionary work among the Indians, believed his "abridgement of the New Testament for the use of the Indians" would help civilize and educate America's aboriginal inhabitants.
Baloney. John Calvin was merrily burning Unitarians at the stake in the 1500's.
The Unitarianism of today has little to do with the Unitarianism of America's founding which was a Christian faith. However a revival is stirring. The American Unitarian Conference, dedicated to a renewal of the historic Unitarian faith, was founded in 2000.
You need to edookate yerself, Pappy. Unitarians, identifying themselves as Unitarian, have been around since at latest the 5th century.
For starters, see Origins of Unitarianism. You might want to look around the rest of the site, too. The UU makes a pretty admirable church.
The hardest thing to bear is having to restrain one's anger at the many ways that the Left has betrayed America. When we get angry, we cease to be persuasive, and actually play into their hands. But once your realize that the Left is all about lies in a war against reality, you have to struggle. You really do.
William Flax Return Of The Gods Web Site
He was more of a skeptic than you impute. If he had little patience with the clergy, then he had little with any profession of faith and none with any that placed one faith over another.
More Jefferson quotes:
Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting "Jesus Christ," so that it would read "A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;" the insertion was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.
-Thomas Jefferson, Autobiography, in reference to the Virginia Act for Religious Freedom
But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.
-Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, 1782.
Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because if there be one he must approve of the homage of reason more than that of blindfolded fear.
-Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Peter Carr, August 10, 1787
Among the sayings and discourses imputed to him [Jesus] by his biographers, I find many passages of fine imagination, correct morality, and of the most lovely benevolence; and others again of so much ignorance, so much absurdity, so much untruth, charlatanism, and imposture, as to pronounce it impossible that such contradictions should have proceeded from the same being.
-Thomas Jefferson, letter to William Short, April 13, 1820
Jefferson did say he wished everyone in America would become a Unitarian. But then Unitarians never had a creed everyone had to follow so he wasn't really imposing anything on anyone.
Oddly enough, at around the same time Jefferson made that statement, Unitarians and Congregationalists were engaged in a fight with Universalists and Baptists in Massachusetts who wanted to insert a clause into the state constitution mandating separation of church and state. The latter two resented state taxes going to fund Unitarian and Congregationalist churches. They lost the battle. Taxes were levied to support religion for another 15 years or so.
Q: What's the difference between a Universalist and a Unitarian?
A: Universalists believe God is too good for there to be a Hell. Unitarians believe they're too good for there to be a Hell.
Hear about the Unitarian who was asked if he had ever read the Bible?
"Hey, I started to," he replied "but I got halfway through and the Hero died."
I don't think anyone ever suggested Jefferson was an atheist. Nor is there any evidence that Jefferson was skeptic or agnostic about the existence of God. The debate seems to involve whether he was an orthodox Anglican Christian, a Unitarian or a deist.
The impression I get is that Orthodox behavior and language most like were survivals of his upbringing and not a reflection of the views of his maturity and old age. So what we're left with is the question of whether there is a difference between Unitarianism and deism. The definition of words like "Savior" and "salvation" and "our religion" is also relevant.
My guess is that there was a split between Jefferson sitting in his Anglican church or in his office at the White House, and Jefferson in his library or in his correspondence with close friends. Jefferson's "natural piety" and sense of responsibility were inspired by his office and this led him to be more disposed towards Orthodox theology, while his reading and writing reflected very different views. The chief executive of a great nation has to grant some validity or standing to the beliefs of his constituents, and great responsibilities awaken a belief in Providence. Other Presidents, most memorably Lincoln, are indications of this.
As for the often asked question of what Jefferson would do now it's difficult or impossible to answer. His background influenced so much of what he was and did, and that background is gone. Any eighteenth century officeholder would invoke God's name in important documents. What someone of Jefferson's ideas and temperament would do in our environment, really can't be determined. First of all, it depends on the answers we want to get: a Jefferson who accepted slavery, advocated frequent revolutions and the guillotine, and opposed standing armies might not be to our liking. Secondly he changed his mind over time, and his theory and practice differed. Also, you have to choose one side of this many-sided man and say "This is the essential, this is what he would carry forward to our own day," and answers about this will differ.
A case in point, is your stating the question as to Jefferson's religion as to whether he was an Orthodox Christian, a Unitarian or a deist. The structure you have set up is fallacious. He was an individual, who as most of us, strove to appreciate the truth. To even attempt to neatly classify him in terms of a broader array of theological types is to fail to understand that the actual Jefferson was none of the above. He believed that the God identified in the Bible was the Creator. He believed some of the teachings about that God and he doubted others--particulary as they had been translated and recorded. What he believed and what he doubted was set forth in a great wealth of writings. Why do we need to have a precise label for the end result? What clarity does the label add, that may not be found in his writings?
Take another example, of what you say. Jefferson did not "accept slavery". He believed it was a major mistake and involved a major injustice. He did not have a clear idea on what could be done about it. He was aware of the chaos that simply freeing the slaves, without a clear program for what would follow, could bring. If the past century has not confirmed Jefferson's skepticism on that issue, I do not know what would.
It is a serious mistake to judge the Founding Fathers as men who reflected merely their own era. They saw the problems of their era from the persepctive of the entire human experience. It is indeed that ageless quality that distinguishes them from the nearly incompetent political leadership of our day. They thought issues through from the standpoint of human history--not from how they would sound in thirty second sound bites.
William Flax Return Of The Gods Web Site
I have pretty much agreed with most of what I have ever read of D. James Kennedys writings, and even made a concerted effort to attend one of his Sunday morning services in Fort Lauderdale when I was in Florida about ten years ago. It was quite an experience.
If nothing else (although there is much else), the man is a treasure because he is one Christian pastor who is not afraid to speak his mind from the pulpit as regards the world situation/politics. He is incomparably knowledgeable about the state of the world (especially the importance that Israels survival plays in both the past, and future, of mankind in general).
Too many modern American Christian pastors believe that it is outside of their sphere of influence to speak to their congregations about the (strong and immutable) connection between scripture and the current (sorry) state of the world. Such pastors are shirking one of their most sacred responsibilities. James Kennedy accepts that responsibility and runs with it.
At the same time, I bristle slightly at his comment, Jefferson was not, in my opinion, a genuine Christian. I do not believe that anyone is capable of evaluating anyone elses commitment to his or her religious beliefs. We may see someone else exhibiting behaviors which fly in the face of our own definition of Christianity (or whatever religion we are considering). But we all, no matter our profession of faith, many times behave outside of that profession (Its the nature of the human animal.) Religion is a personal thing that should be displayed by our outward demeanor, but often is not. And classifying anyone elses devotion to his religion as existent or not based on our own subjective view of his behaviors bespeaks a type of spiritual arrogance. Criticize the behavior; do not evaluate the source from which it springs. Christians are not required to fall into neat little classifications which have been concocted by other men.
Jefferson's 1802 letter to the Baptists in Danbury, Conn....
I wish Tom had never seen fit to write the infamous Danbury letter. That short, three-paragraph note simply provided the church/state separatists with convenient and powerful revisionist history fodder. They have somehow succeeded in broadening the Constitution to include the crummy letter (as if to intimate that it were obviously a natural extension of Constitutional philosophy).
BTW, in that very letter, Jefferson states: Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God; that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship makes me wonder why Dr. Kennedy would question Jeffersons Christianity. It would appear that, since he relies on Jeffersons broad wisdom to support the balance of his essay, he ought also to rely on Jeffersons contention that a mans religion is a matter which lies solely between the man and his God and refrain from commenting on the authenticity of Jeffersons Christian faith. Even a man as devoted as Dr. Kennedy to advancing understanding of scripture, and applying its truths to the world around us, cant expect to have it both ways.
I don't know whether Jefferson was a Christian or not. Only he knew that. I know he championed the free expression of religion. And his own words have been used to suppress that for which he fought.
What could possibly strengthen religious freedom more than keeping the government from getting involved in it?
If this were guns, or taxes, I imagine the arguments here would be to keep the government out....
The arguement is consistent. Government should keep out of religion. There should be (and wasn't until recently) nothing preventing religion from becoming involved with government.
Current law on the first amendment is the opposite of what the founders intended.
Did Jefferson believe that the God of the Bible was the Creator? He believed in a Creator. But he was critical, not just of priests and dogma, but of the Bible and its religion, both of the Old and New Testaments. Jefferson did claim to be restoring true, rational religion and true Christianity, but he left out most of what the orthodox would recognize as Christian dogma. Kennedy's article may discribe the public Jefferson, but it doesn't begin to account for the Jefferson one meets in the great man's letters and private papers. Most of Jefferson's public writing does reflect a belief in God. In letters to John Adams and others, Jefferson declared himself an epicurean and a materialist. I suspect that what accounted for much of Jefferson's comments was his restless, intellectual nature, he was not one, like Washington, to accept the values and beliefs of his society outright.
Did Jefferson accept slavery? He saw its faults and evil, but by modern standards he did tolerate its existence. One can understand this in the context of Jefferson's time and the difficulties of emancipation, but it's not the heritage one wants to find in him. I don't fault Jefferson for not supporting immediate abolition, but I stand by my point that we choose the Jefferson that we honor, leaving out some of his acts and thoughts and emphasizing others.
I agree with you about the foresight and wisdom of the founders, but given the disagreements and bitter quarrels between them, we do have to rely on our own judgment when we consider them, though to be sure, such evaluations as we make should take into account the great insights and contributions they gave us.
Except that Dr. Kennedy, according to his column, hadn't arrived at his conclusion based on Jefferson's behavior, but based on what Kennedy alleges Jefferson said. If someone rejects Jesus' divinity, I'd say that objectively makes him not a Christian.
So the question comes down to, Did Jefferson say what the columnist alleged he said?
". . .we believe in the unity of Jesus Christ. We believe that Jesus is one mind, one soul, one being, as truly one as we are, and equally distinct from the one God. We complain of the doctrine of the Trinity, that, not satisfied with making God three beings, it makes; Jesus Christ two beings, and thus introduces infinite confusion into our conceptions of his character. This corruption of Christianity, alike repugnant to common sense and to the general strain of Scripture, is a remarkable proof of the power of a false philosophy in disfiguring the simple truth of Jesus.
According to this doctrine, Jesus Christ, instead of being one mind, one conscious intelligent principle, whom we can understand, consists of two souls, two minds; the one divine, the other human; the one weak, the other almighty; the one ignorant, the other omniscient. Now we maintain, that this is to make Christ two beings. To denominate him one person, one being, and yet to suppose him made up of two minds, infinitely different from each other, is to abuse and confound language, and to throw darkness over all our conceptions of intelligent natures. According to the common doctrine, each of these two minds in Christ has its own consciousness, its own will, its own perceptions. They have, in fact, no common properties.
The divine mind feels none of the wants and sorrows of the human, and the human is infinitely removed from the perfection and happiness of the divine.
Can you conceive of two beings in the universe more distinct? We have always thought that one person was constituted and distinguished by one consciousness. The doctrine, that one and the same person should have two consciousness, two wills, two souls, infinitely different from each other, this we think an enormous tax on human credulity. . .
We believe, then, that Christ is one mind, one being, and, I add, a being distinct from the one God. That Christ is not the one God, not the same being with the Father, is a necessary inference from our former head, in which we saw that the doctrine of three persons in God is a fiction.