Thomas Jefferson, Christian?

(Not So's You'd Notice)

By Ed Buckner | 17 April 2023
Letters to a Free Country

Image of U.S. two dollar bill. (Image: Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

I’ve commented, recently, on what an interesting man Thomas Jefferson was. He was brilliant, a polymath who knew so much about many different things, arguably a great President, certainly an important American founding father (principal author of the Declaration of Independence, principal author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty, and more). He was also a slaveholder and, erratically, a defender of slavery, and an overt racist and a sexist. His exploitation and abuse of Sally Hemings is an American scandal—and, as my beloved wife noted on hearing that possibly Hemings loved Jefferson (rather than being raped because he “owned” her) the great crime was that he could exploit and abuse her, whatever she wanted or didn’t want.

Jefferson was, in other words, a boundlessly important, consequential, complex, honorable, and dishonorable and disgusting man. Many books have been written about him (my favorite is Thomas Jefferson: Author of America (2005) by Christopher Hitchens) and historians are unlikely to stop analyzing Jefferson as long as the United States persists.

There is in downtown Louisville, KY, a famous statue of Jefferson atop the Liberty Bell. There are many, many statues of Jefferson all around the US, of course, but did you know that this one commemorates the fact that Jefferson was Governor of Kentucky (sort of) when Louisville was founded in 1780 and signed the founding city charter in May 1780? (You could look it up.)

Jefferson was an ardent supporter of separation of church and state (he even invented the term in his famous letter, as President, to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut, in 1802). and he wrote at length to debunk the idea that our laws are based on Christianity (Leonard Levy noted in Treason Against God [1981] that “Jefferson wrote voluminously to prove that Christianity was not part of the law of the land and that religion or irreligion was purely a private matter”).

But what about Jefferson’s own religion? Was he an atheist, as he was called during his lifetime? Was he a Christian, as he himself wrote? It’s complicated, but the answer to both questions is “No, not really.”

Well before Jefferson became President, he wrote a telling letter to his young (then 17) nephew Peter Carr, on August 10, 1787. In that letter Jefferson made clear that he thought it wise to question with an open mind the existence of God:

 
. . . shake off all the fears of servile prejudices under which weak minds are servilely crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal for 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. You will naturally examine first the religion of your own country. Read the bible then, as you would read Livy or 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. Examine upon what evidence his pretensions are founded, and whether that evidence is so strong as that it’s [sic] falshood [sic] would be more improbable than a change of the laws of nature in the case he relates.… Do not be frightened from this enquiry by any fear of it’s [sic] consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is no god, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in it’s [sic] exercise, and the love of others which it will procure you. If you find reason to believe there is a god, a consciousness that you are acting under his eye, and that he approves you, will be a vast additional incitement. If that there be a future state, the hope of a happy existence in that increases the appetite to deserve it; if that Jesus was also a god, you will be comforted by a belief of his aid and love. In fine, I repeat that you must lay aside all prejudice on both sides, and neither believe nor reject any thing because any other person, or description of persons have rejected or believed it. Your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven, and you are answerable not for the rightness but uprightness of the decision.…

Some insight about Jefferson and religion (and the government) came from Frederick Clarkson in 2013 in an essay called “Elections and Evangelicals: Thomas Jefferson’s Twilight Reminder About Religious Equality:

As Jefferson rose in national life, especially in his runs for president, his political opponents, notably Calvinist clergy aligned with the Federalist Party, attacked his religious character. He was called an “anti-Christ,” an “atheist” and a “French infidel,” because of his association with the philosophers of the Enlightenment during his tenure as ambassador to France. “Numerous sermons were preached,” writes Jefferson scholar Charles Sanford, “warning that if Jefferson was elected, he would discredit religion, overthrow the church and destroy the Bible.” When news came that Jefferson had been elected president in 1800, people in New England actually hid their Bibles – certain that agents of Jefferson would be coming to seize them. The anti-Jefferson preachers had “warned that electing a ‘deist or an infidel’ to the presidency would be ‘no less than a rebellion against God,’ and would end in the destruction of the churches and a reign of infamy.”

Although he was careful not to publicly discuss his personal religious views, his role in advancing religious equality and working against the established churches of the time was well known. Jefferson did not respond to attacks on his religious character from the partisan press and pulpits. But he did discuss the matter in private correspondence with his friend, Dr. Benjamin Rush. One of his statements in a letter is considered so representative of his thought and the struggles and meaning of his life that it is engraved around the inside of the rotunda of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.: “I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”

Jefferson, after being absurdly excoriated as an enemy of Christianity in the 1800 election leading up to his becoming President, made clear in his inaugural address that he was committed to religious liberty for all. Sometimes that is even excerpted by those who claim that the US is a Christian nation:

This does indeed show Jefferson’s strong commitment to religious liberty, and it certainly suggests he was a believer in God—but a Christian?

To quote Michael E. Buckner in our book, In Freedom We Trust (2012), pp. 83-84—

Thomas Jefferson, the principal drafter of the Declaration, declared “I am a Christian” [April 21, 1803] but did not accept the doctrines of the virgin birth, the resurrection of Jesus, the divinity of Jesus, or any miraculous powers ascribed to Jesus, nor did he believe in original sin or justification by faith. Although Jefferson often referred to himself as a “Christian,” he viewed Jesus of Nazareth as a great man and a moral and religious reformer, and not as the Christ or Messiah. In a letter to William Short, October 31, 1819, Jefferson listed doctrines which he explicitly rejected: “the immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity; original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of the Hierarchy, etc.” In a later letter to Short, in April 1820, Jefferson clarified further: “It is not to be understood that I am with him [Jesus Christ] in all his doctrines. I am a Materialist; he takes the side of Spiritualism; he preaches the efficacy of repentance toward forgiveness of sin; I require a counterpoise of good works to redeem it. . . .”

Jefferson, who wrote a number of times about blasphemy laws (which he detested—more about blasphemy later—possibly this Friday)—was adamant about the foolishness of the doctrine of the Trinity and expressed outrage about John Calvin and the role Calvin played in the brutal execution of Michael Servetus (arguably the first Unitarian) for blasphemy and heresy in October 1553 in Geneva. In Jefferson’s old age (he was my age!), he wrote scathingly about this in that letter to William Short in 1820:

The Presbyterian clergy are loudest. the most intolerant of all sects, the most tyrannical, and ambitious; ready at the word of the lawgiver, if such a word could be now obtained, to put the torch to the pile, and to rekindle in this virgin hemisphere, the flames in which their oracle Calvin consumed the poor Servetus, because he could not find in his Euclid the proposition which has demonstrated that three are one, and one is three, nor subscribe to that of Calvin that magistrates have a right to exterminate all heretics to Calvinistic creed. they pant to reestablish by law that holy inquisition, which they can now only infuse into public opinion.

And, by the way, Jefferson wrote scathing denunciations of the Catholic church as well, attacking priests and popes with vigor—though only in private correspondence. (He was also harshly critical of Jewish and Hebrew theology, at least close to being antisemitic.) If Jefferson could be called a Christian, it’s not the sort of Christian most modern preachers would recognize as one. And if he could be called an atheist, it isn’t by any definition that makes any sense to me. So what should he be called regarding religion? Some say “Unitarian” fits, and he did once call himself that—but not often. Some have labeled him a deist, and by some definitions—but not others—that fits.

So, if not a Catholic Christian or a Protestant Christian, not Jewish, not Muslim, not atheist, probably not deist or Unitarian—then what? In my opinion, the term that best fits him across his whole life is “freethinker”—one who is, as one online definition has it,—

a person who thinks freely or independently : one who forms opinions on the basis of reason independently of authority. Especially : one who rejects or is skeptical of religious dogma.

Jefferson did not routinely call himself a freethinker (some of his enemies did) and I’m not the first to call that admiringly. Joseph Lewis, in a speech and subsequent pamphlet, Thomas Jefferson: Freethinker (1925) did so, though I haven’t read it.

The single best evidence of this about Jefferson is his 1787 letter to his nephew (excerpted above), but as I see it, all through his public and private communication over eight decades “freethinker” persists in being the most accurate descriptor.

Ed Buckner is an American atheist activist who served as president of the organization American Atheists from 2008 to 2010. He served as executive director for the Council for Secular Humanism from 2001 to 2003 and was once the Council’s southern director. He is the author (with Michael E. Buckner) of In Freedom We Trust: An Atheist Guide to Religious Liberty (Prometheus Books, 2012).

Thomas Jefferson Documentary – Biography of the life of Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson – Author of The Declaration of Indepence & 3rd U.S. President | Mini Bio | BIO

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