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.