Thomas Jeffersons Critique of Christianity
Communicated by: Dr. Patrick Furlong
Department of History
Jefferson trusted few men with his vision of reform and the knowledge of his religious convictions. These men, including John Adams, Joseph Priestley, Benjamin Rush, William Short, William Baldwin, Charles Thompson, Francis Adrian Van der Kemp and Benjamin Waterhouse, through their written correspondence with Jefferson, precipitated Jeffersons open (albeit paradoxically private) dialogue on the topic of religion. As one historian has noted, these letters allowed Jefferson to construct his private faith through a chapel of words.4 This series of correspondence, in which an exalted God emerged from the phoenix of Christianitys corruptions, helped Jefferson compose a faith of letters likened to the politically motivated republic of letters. Jefferson established a framework for bringing about public change by constructing a private religious dialogue. Thus the distinct Jeffersonian contradiction is present within the confines of this correspondence: the desire for privacy and the hope for playing an important role in historical transformation. Though Jefferson did not want to be in the spotlight, he yearned to ride the revolutionary cusp. His vision for reforming Christianity was hidden only well enough for public taciturnity in order to protect himself, but available for the historian to uncover in Jeffersons private letters. Political enemies leveling vindictive attacks may have been lurking, but so was the attentive eye of posterity.
Given Jeffersons complexities, it is ironic that he is constantly subject to simplifications. Even more so, historians tend to either elevate Jefferson to a status of reverence or to condemn him, calling into question supposed moral inconsistencies. The great Thomas Jefferson, so crucial in the development of ideals, dreams, and strength in the young republic, is sometimes expected by patriots and historians alike to be virtually faultless. The profundity of Jeffersons mind is therefore subject to higher standards. Accordingly, one approach in a study of the third president presents a Jefferson worthy of elevation to the American Pantheon. These overly-favorable accounts often try to explain away the contradictions, justify the inconsistencies, and camouflage the unpopular by emphasizing myth. The result is the mythical Jefferson; our Founding Father likened to the Roman counterparts of Romulus and Remus.
The opposite view is to wage war on this icon and paint this particular Founding Father as too inconsistent to merit reverence. For example, he was a politician who despised energetic government yet stretched his presidential power by purchasing the Louisiana Territory. He detested the idea of political parties, yet was himself the figurehead of the Republican Party. In light of these conflicting political aspirations, it becomes difficult not to question Jeffersons moral inconsistencies. How did this man condemn the ideology of slavery, while owning hundreds of slaves, perhaps fathering slave children, but doing nothing to end the peculiar institution? More importantly, how did a professed religious man attack Christianity, priests, and traditional belief? Because inconsistencies abound in Jeffersons actions in contrast to his beliefs, a clear-cut analysis of his various ideologies is difficult to obtain.
Nearly all facets of Jeffersons extensive interests therefore remain open to a wide range of interpretation. Mention the words Thomas Jeffersons religion and expect reactions on all ends of the theological spectrum. He was an atheist, or maybe a theist, or deist, an infidel perhaps, a Unitarian, Epicurean, materialist, secular humanist, naturalist, Episcopalian, or the purest rational Christian of the Enlightened Era. Sifting through these descriptions presents a broad range for analysis, and evidence from his writings provides rational justifications for all of these arguments. Yet the tendency in the scholarly assessment of Jeffersons religious beliefs is to state the expected, to argue the ordinary, and to repeat conventional wisdom. Historians, as well as theologians, often focus on the obvious concerning Jeffersons religious views. The assessments in the multitude of religious biographies present predictable conclusions. Three of the more renowned Jefferson religious biographers have laid this framework: Henry Wilder Foote, among others, has taken the chronological approach, Charles Sanford the topical, and Edwin Gaustad a blend of the two. The authors of these books seem apprehensive, unwilling to take a scholarly risk in the pursuit of Jeffersons elevated deity. This paper, however, seeks to cast aside conservative inhibitions in order to accurately examine just what Jeffersons religion meant for him, Christianity, and the young republic he helped form.
INTRODUCTION TO JEFFERSONS THEOLOGY
Thomas Jeffersons religious philosophy was most heavily influenced by the writings of John Locke. Two works by Locke, A Letter on Toleration (1689) and The Reasonableness of Christianity (1695), specifically shaped Jeffersons bill for establishing religious freedom. Locke presented a philosophical justification for religious toleration, one that Jefferson advocated in his writings and actions. Lockes belief in toleration, that no man, even if he would, can believe at anothers dictation induced Jeffersons internalization of religion. Jefferson emulated this doctrine of toleration, advocating that privacy and freedom meant everything in a personal relationship with the Supreme Creator. Locke coupled his emphasis on toleration with intellectual support of an eventual day of reckoning before a just God, further influencing Jeffersons understanding of religions role in society. Even though Jefferson rejected many orthodox Christian beliefs, he sided with Locke and whole-heartedly envisioned this day that God alone would evaluate ones life. It was this belief in the future judgement that naturally led to increased incentives for morality linked to self-interest.7 The future judgement provided impetus for a society to function cohesively under the premise of universal accountability. Jefferson found this argument both reasonable and necessary to the success of United States (and the world) at large.
Jefferson adapted the reasonable qualities of Lockes argument with the philosophical underpinnings of Thomas Paines natural theology. Jefferson extensively studied Paines The Age of Reason and agreed with Paines convictions that it was a grave injustice to lock God into a sacred text. This understanding of Paine immeasurably influenced Jeffersons dealings with the Bible. For Paine, the Word of God IS THE CREATION WE BEHOLD and through this, God speaketh universally to man.8 Jefferson absorbed this naturalism and sought to comprehend God in the laws of the universe, not doctrinal truths locked in scripture. For both Paine and Jefferson, the God in the Bible did not appeal to reason. That God required complex doctrines and priestly authority to guide in His9 discovery, excluding many from relating to God on a personal basis. For the reasonable person, the evidence available in creation was all that was necessary. God was not only reachable but also understandable. Based largely on Paines influence, Jefferson focused his critique upon such exclusivity, diligently seeking to free Christianity from the darkness.
More influential than both Paine and Locke in terms of Jeffersons critique of Christianity was Joseph Priestley. Jefferson was captivated with Priestlely, a Unitarian minister, and read his History of the Corruptions of Christianity with vigor. Jefferson claimed that the book was the groundwork of my view of this subject (corruptions of Christianity) and in general a major tenet of my own faith.10 Priestleys critique of Christianity was founded on the idea that reason and faith should function together to forge a stronger belief system. By convincing Jefferson that faith and reason could co-exist, Priestley played the critical role of rescuing Jefferson from totally rejecting Christianity. Or, at least, Priestley paved the way for paring away the corruptions, with the result that a reasonable person could be a Christian. Priestley justified a simplistic Christianity, one founded on reason, and Jefferson discovered the merits in the philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth due in large part to Priestleys reasonable defense of faith.
Another major influence upon Jeffersons theological development was Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke. Evidence of Bolingbrokes importance, Jefferson recorded sixty pages in his Literary Bible quoting and paraphrasing Viscount Bolingbroke, the longest single entry and the only one specifically about Christianity. These entries illustrate the most important contribution Bolingbroke made to Jeffersons theology, which was to argue against inspiration of the Bible because it was full of gross defects and palpable falsehoods such as no man who acknowledges a supreme all-perfect being can believe to be his [Jesus] word.11 Jefferson found merit in this ideology, and his criticism of Christianity reflects Bolingbrokes influence. For both Bolingbroke and Jefferson, those (referring to priests specifically) relying on inspiration and expounding doctrines based on revelation had created an imperfect image of God. Jefferson defended his rational God consistently on this basis. Adapting the religious ideas of Bolingbroke along with Locke, Paine, and Priestley, Jefferson forged an eclectic faith based on reason that he would build upon his entire life.
Jefferson molded and absorbed these various ideologies (among others) and elevated God to the stature of Rational Creator. As many enlightened reformers of his age rejected God and Christianity alike, Jefferson found a way to justify belief. By simplifying religion and remaining aloof to exclusivistic tendencies, Jefferson produced a rational theology that, although was at times considered outlandish, was not unique or radical. It may not have exactly fit the bill of orthodox traditionalism, but Jefferson stood amongst powerful company in his perception of a reasonable Deity. For instance, several of the Founding Fathers held an accepted belief in general principles of religion. As Ben Franklin noted in a letter to Ezra Stiles in 1790:
Here is my creed. I believe in One God, the Creator of the Universe. That he governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable Service we can render Him is doing good to his other children. That the soul of man is immortal and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this. These I take to be the fundamental principles of all sound religion.12These general principles of religion presented a belief structure independent of interpretation. Simple religion, as far as Jefferson and Franklin were concerned, represented what all could agree upon. Jeffersons axiom that What all agree upon is probably right; what no two agree in most probably is wrong,13 formed the basic framework of amiability that ultimately characterized his theology.
Jefferson shed light on the development of his theology in a lengthy letter to nephew Peter Carr. Jefferson suggested that Carr follow the simple spiritual path:
Divest yourself of all bias in favour of novelty & singularity of opinion shake off all the fears & servile prejudices under which weak minds are servilely crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.14The process of discovering God was a mental exercise of the highest order. Jefferson argued that blinded fear was no way to come to God. Rather, the foundation of discovery lay in establishing a simplistic relationship. Reason would guide the individual through the process with the end goal of a privatized personal connection to the Creating Force of the Universe.
In light of Jeffersons philosophical development, uncovering his theology requires caution and the casting aside of prejudice and traditionalism. When Jefferson claimed, I am a Christian in the only sense in which he wished anyone to be: sincerely attached to his doctrines in preference to all others,15 the issue appears simple. This innocent quotation, however, tends to baffle the mind. It is so lucid, yet latent with an esoteric tone of ambiguity. Indeed, throughout Jeffersons quotations, the ambiguities intermingle amongst ironclad principles. The white and black absolutes blend into an equivocal gray. So, in studying Jefferson, through both public and private writings, the challenge is overwhelming. His religion was not quite as simple as the previous quotation may infer.
Jeffersons religious philosophy represents a complex blend of many theological viewpoints. As Charles Sanford notes in The Religious Life of Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson was both a theist and a deist, Unitarian and Episcopalian, Epicurean and naturalist.16 Jefferson could simultaneously believe in a god that was at times the watch and at other times the intervening watchmaker. Taking this view into account, the exhaustive studies on Jeffersons religion have summarized his beliefs in a rather systematic way. The pattern in the discussion typically produces the following; he was raised Episcopalian, enlightened (during the Age of Reason) in his college years into a natural law ideology, valued the morals of Jesus Christ while detesting the corruption of the Christian religion, fought for separation of Church and State, believed Unitarianism would be Americas faith and died hoping to reunite with loved ones in the after life. Yet Jefferson denied orthodoxy in his approach of religion, so why has such an orthodox system developed in dealing with his religion? More importantly, what is left of Jeffersons religion to analyze, critique, understand, interpret, attack, praise or connect beyond his times to our own? The answer resides in dismantling the force that was promoting suppression, division, and limiting the individuals development of a personal theology, the Christian priestcraft.
THE ASCENSION OF THE CHRISTIAN PRIESTCRAFT AND THE FALL OF MAN
Jeffersons critique of the corrupted Christian faith presented a process of reformation. Cleansing the malformed religion to its primitive roots represented the only way to elevate and preserve the moral teachings of Jesus. Thus, true Christianity would be firmly established, and humanitys freedom would be elevated to lofty heights. While Jefferson believed himself to be one of these true, enlightened Christians, there are doubts as to what he meant by this proclamation. He undoubtedly believed that the pure moral precepts taught by Jesus himself comprised the most important philosophy the world had yet known. Jefferson wrote often to his letters of faith correspondents concerning this belief. One letter, written to William Short in 1820, outlined his evaluation of Jesus message. After removing the vulgar ignorance, the message highlighted a clear theology of
sublime ideas of the Supreme Being, aphorisms, and precepts of the purest morality and benevolence, sanctioned by a life of humility, innocence and simplicity of manners, neglect of riches, absences of worldly ambition and honors, with an eloquence and persuasiveness which have not been surpassed.18Although Jefferson referred to this sublime message as the most enlightened the world had yet known, he did not attempt to bury his thoughts in the sands of religious dogma established by church authority. Instead, he made the unpopular and sharp break with nearly every fundamental Christian doctrine. Although this caused discord, Edwin Gaustad argued that Jeffersons intentions were golden. Jefferson brought peace, not a sword. He would purify, not destroy. But a wider public has always had difficulty perceiving such distinctions clearly or accepting them generously.19 Reformation and purification were Jeffersons altruistic motives, not destruction and rejection.
Once Jeffersons altruistic motives are understood, the critique is generally less offensive. The fundamentals of the critique, with acknowledged influence by Joseph Priestley, hinged on Jeffersons disgust with anything held to be sacrosanct. Jefferson systematically rejected doctrines and perceptions of God that failed to meet the criterion of reason. The sacred text, therefore, was subject to historical criticism and forced to stand up to the test of reason, revelation and divine inspiration superseded by the knowable qualities of God evident in Creation, the fall of man discarded, the divinity of Jesus Christ plunged into the abyss, along with the mystical Trinitarian logic, the corruptions instituted by the amalgamation of church and state overcome by the principles of freedom, and, most importantly, the nature of the relationship of faith and reason was reconceived. The overriding goal of Jeffersons critique, accomplished through elevating reason over faith, was to demythologize Christianity. This process offered the rational mind the chance of accepting a religion of merit, sensibility and utility.
In contrast to a faith based on reason, many Biblical theorists view grace as the cornerstone of the Christian religion. Grace is reliant upon the centerpiece of Christianitys Great Mystery,20 the fall of man. The Great Mystery begins with the idyllic time in which Adam and Eve sustained an open dialogue with God in the Garden. They were tempted to eat fruit from the tree of knowledge. God had set up but one law, and they broke it. They wanted to have knowledge of good and evil and forsook their relationship with God for the pursuit of wisdom. For this first sin, all of humanity would suffer unto death. God, already having all foreknowledge of these events, sacrificed His perfect and only son for the sins of the world. This atonement bridged the gap between man and God again, with Jesus Christ as savior and mediator. The completion of the Great Mystery was that Satan knew that Jesus was the Son of God sent to rescue humanity from death. However, Satan fell for Gods strategic plan, killed Jesus Christ and played right into Gods hands. For Jesus was human, and could only walk the earth for a limited amount of space and time. Satan, by crucifying the Son of God, inadvertently allowed Jesus to defeat death and release the Holy Spirit. This Spirit, unlike the physical body of Jesus, possessed freedom of both space and time and was empowered to work within believers to freely spread the message Jesus taught about God. God had won the victory.
This Mystery presented severe problems for one trying to elevate an enlightened image of a rational God. Jefferson failed to understand how seeking wisdom could have caused God to punish humanity with death. The Old Testament, in Jeffersons eyes, generally painted a very dark and punitive picture of God, one who demanded faithful obedience by ignorant followers. Failure to obey resulted in wrathful destruction. What was the utility of Gods being omniscient and omnipresent if the plan from the beginning was imminent failure and a brutal sacrifice? Was this the same God who had created the universe with astounding beauty, marvel, and wonder? Was God so imperfect as to completely fail in dealing with humanity? Jefferson believed the answers to these question rested on the axiom of reason and utility, forcing one to reject the suppositions of the Great Mystery of Christianity. Painting a more enlightened picture, Jeffersons God was not the flawed Deity that Christians chose to worship. His critique of saving grace, or atonement, clearly came from Joseph Priestley. Priestley wrote of the fall of man:
As I conceive this doctrine to be a gross misrepresentation of the character and moral government of God, and to affect many other articles in the scheme of Christianity, greatly disfiguring and depraving it; I shall show, that it has no countenance whatever in reason, or the Scriptures; and, therefore, that the whole doctrine of atonement, with every modification of it, has been a departure from the primitive and genuine doctrine of Christianity.21Priestley and Jefferson believed that the very nature of atonement suggests that God, not humanity, was a failure. Humanity, being a creation of God, sinned (as God knew would happen), and thus required the sacrifice of the only sinless being, Jesus Christ. Even the Gospels failed to attribute atonement to Jesus, and Jesus himself never laid claim to this doctrine explicitly in his teachings. Rather, it was Paul and other early church fathers that implemented it.22 For Jefferson, the Pauline version of Christianity and priestly corruptions of the message led to the true fall of man, not Gods mistake of granting free will.
Much of Jeffersons critique of Christianity challenged the authority of the priests. Jefferson argued that the ascension of ecclesiastic power had effectively caused the true fall of man. By subjecting man (i.e. humanity) to oppression and stifling regulations, the priests plunged the freedom of the mind into the abyss. The nature of this oppression was neither innocent nor altruistic, as Jefferson noted to John Adams:
The Christian priesthood, finding the doctrines of Christ leveled to every understanding, and too plain to need explanation, saw, in the mysticism of Plato, materials with which they might build up an artificial system which might, from its [sic] indistinctness, admit everlasting controversy, give employment for their order, and introduce it to profit, power and pre-eminence.23According to Jefferson, the priests secured their future at the cost of the free faculties of reason, and humanity has paid the price ever since.
Jefferson wrote extensively and consistently concerning the abuse of Jesus message. Jefferson expressed his anger and disgust with the abuses most powerfully in a letter to William Baldwin in 1810:
That but a short time elapsed after the death of the great reformer of the Jewish religion before his principles were departed from by those who professed to be his special servants, and perverted into an engine for enslaving mankind, and aggrandizing their oppressors in church and state: that the purest system of morals ever before preached to man has been adulterated and sophisticated, by artificial constructions, into a mere contrivance to filch wealth and power to themselves, that rational men not being able to swallow their impious heresies, in order to force them down their throats, they raise the hue and cry of infidelity, while themselves are the greatest obstacles to the advancement of the real doctrines of Jesus, and do in fact constitute the real Anti-Christ.24Jeffersons language was abrasively pointed. This Anti-Christ intentionally injected corruptions, motivated by power and greed, and has prevented the pure message from reaching its highest potential. How could such a short time have elapsed after Christ spoke his enlightened message that corruptions and controversy entered? Ironically, although Jesus wrote nothing, corruption entered in because fallible men decided to record the simple philosophy.
Jefferson, as is true of much of the literate world, struggled with the fact that that Jesus Christ wrote not a single word. Although Jesus taught a sublime message that flourished in a short amount of time, he felt no need to record his teachings. How could a man with such an important morality to teach not record anything? This baffled Jefferson, who, on the other hand, meticulously recorded his thoughts, wishes, dreams and ideology so as to protect them for the sake of posterity. Most frustrating to Jefferson, because Jesus message was entrusted to fallible men after his death, it was defiled by the indoctrination of absurd dogmatic principles.
Jesus Christs decision to record nothing presented an opportunity for corruption. The decision perplexed Jefferson and brought out his fire, for he strongly believed that had the doctrines of Jesus been preached always as pure as they came from his lips, the whole civilized world would now have been Christian.25 So the ultimate question, why had Jesus not recorded his philosophy, forced Jefferson to evaluate the essential nature of the written word versus the character of the spoken word. This lacuna in written history conveniently occurred at a time when sacred text meant everything. Yet Jesus upended the belief of over-reliance on the sacred text by teaching a morality that eclipsed the law. He not only called into question the over-reliance on the sacred text, but Jesus himself pointedly wrote absolutely nothing. Although Jefferson struggled with the absence of a reliable text, he came to understand the significance of Jesus reliance on reason and the spoken word to spread the essential message. The text only came into existence after his death, and his morality was subjected to textual interpretation. Jefferson believed that if Jesus were to return to earth, the great moral teacher would not recognize one feature26 of the sublime system he taught.
To further the critique of written text, Jefferson set out to discredit the New Testament as a source of divine revelation by performing scholarly surgery upon the document. He first requested that Joseph Priestley put together a comprehensive biography of Jesus, but Priestley died before its completion. Jefferson also hoped that Adrian Van der Kemp would utilize an ambitious intellect to construct a work on the life and morals of Jesus. Because neither man could fulfill Jeffersons wishes, he decided to tackle the task himself.27 With Jesus evaluation of sacred text as the foundation, Jefferson pieced together his own versions of a non-sacred theology, entitled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, The Syllabus of an Estimate of the Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus, and The Philosophy of Jesus. These documents, though separate, have often been labeled incorrectly together and collectively referred to as the Jeffersonian Bible. They are however, distinct documents, compiled with different motivations and serving different means.
Jeffersons reasons to prepare his own versions of the New Testament still causes debate in historical circles. When Jefferson ran for the presidency in 1800, the Federalists, especially Alexander Hamilton, were mindful of his only published book, Notes on the State of Virginia (1787). Jefferson suggested in this book that the deluge never occurred, in spite of what was recorded in the Bible. Beyond that, he envisioned black inferiority as inherent in Gods multi-genesis of races. The nature of this publication was used as political ammunition to berate Jeffersons character. Political enemies petrified of a republican government and priests fearful of Jeffersons advocacy of freedom of religion and deistic beliefs fought diligently to prevent a non-traditional Christian from ascending to power in the United States. William Linn, a fiery New England preacher, founded his attack against Jeffersons bid for the presidency singly upon his [Jeffersons] disbelief of the Holy Scriptures; or, in other words, his rejection of the Christian religion and open profession of Deism.28 Jefferson remained silent through the attacks, choosing not to defend his beliefs in light of the heated political environment.
Historians have thus questioned the timing of Jeffersons construction of his New Testament. Fred Luebke, in The Origins of Thomas Jeffersons Anti-clericalism argued that it was the events of the 1800 election campaign that initiated Jeffersons respite against priestly authority. Jefferson wrote little on the topic, after all, before these attacks were leveled at him. After 1800, however, the writings seemed focused on the corruptions of Christianity introduced by the priestcraft.29 Several historians have concluded that such attacks led not only to his fiery written tirades upon the clergy, but also to his energetic pursuit of refining the Christian religion. It is indeed true that Jefferson struggled to reconstruct his public image after surviving the acrimonious harangues leveled against his religious beliefs during the 1800 presidential campaign. These two documents are therefore often accused of being politically motivated and defensive in nature. Indeed, Jefferson strategically released the documents, especially the Syllabus, to Republican friends for the purpose of defending his religious character. Both Sanford and Sheridan argue, however, that Jeffersons intensive readings of Priestleys defense of a reasonable and morally upright Christianity played more of a critical role in strengthening his resolve to record on paper his own personal understanding of Christianity.
Examining the subtitle of The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth further clouds the issue of motivation. The subtitle reads: extracted from the account of his (Jesus)life and doctrines as given by Matthew, Mark, Luke, & JoAdams, pages 19-23. hn. being an abridgement of the New Testament for the use of the Indians unembarrassed with matters of fact or faith beyond the level of their comprehension. The reasons could arguably have been purely for the Indians. Regardless of the motivations for recording his version of Jesus message, Jeffersons believed that Jesus presented a higher moral philosophy than anyone had before or after. To clarify the motivations at least for the construction of the Syllabus, Jefferson wrote to John Adams in 1813:
We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select even from the very words of Jesus, paring off the amphiboligisms into which they have been led by forgetting often or not understanding what had fallen from him, by giving their own misconceptions as his dicta, and expressing unintelligibly for others what they had not understood themselves. There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.30The motivation was thus to strip away the myth by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and arranging the matter which is evidently his and which is as easily distinguished as diamonds in a dunghill.31 He finished the Syllabus in slightly more than a month. Jefferson was pleased with this work, but yearned for a more complete analysis.32 Both the Syllabus and the Philosophy of Jesus served the purpose of defending his religious views and spurred his interest to complete a larger volume.
At some unknown time during Jeffersons retirement at Monticello, he further amended the Gospels. This document, entitled the Life and Morals of Jesus, was Jeffersons version of the New Testament, in English, French, Greek and Latin in parallel texts, pasted on eighty-five numbered leaves for the purpose of comparison. He intended to protect this document for his own reading and had little energy to ward off theological attacks upon his religious beliefs during his retirement. Jefferson entrusted the Life and Morals to no one but Fred A. Mayo, the binder of the document. Publishing and circulating his theology had proven a poor idea, and this construction was well protected. Jeffersons grandchildren were even unaware of its existence until after his death. Only remnants remain; but through careful analysis, a reliable text is available.33 The Life and Morals of Jesus deserves special attention because it represented the culmination of his views after his beliefs had fully matured, and it illustrated the nature of his critique.
Three methods of evaluating Jeffersons non-sacred New Testament are as follows: 1) the importance of the method of cutting and pasting, 2) what he included as important, and 3) what he excluded from his compilation. Jefferson sent a message through these three elements; the most important being that no text should be seen as infallible or sacred. Susan Bryan carefully analyzed the importance of Jeffersons style of constructing his non-sacred text in Reauthorizing the Text: Jeffersons Scissor Edit of the Gospels. She noted that, In essence, it is the authority of the spoken words of Jesus that Jefferson is attempting to rescue from the extraneous additions and interpretations that he believed had become sacrosanct by virtue of being locked into the written narrative.34 By deconstructing the sacred text, Jefferson authored a simple biography of Jesus fit for a rational mind.
Although Jefferson refused to write a religious autobiography, he nevertheless felt comfortable constructing a religious biography of Jesus. His methods for this project have been described as reckless, blasphemous, puzzling and even illogical. The work was indeed far from an orthodox compilation. Jefferson selected only those parts of Jesus life and teachings that he thought to be accurate and reasonable. Systematically choosing sections from the Gospels, often non-ordered sentences and phrases, Jefferson produced what he believed to be the original morality of Jesus. Jefferson effectively fragmented the Gospels to illustrate that the central message taught by Jesus could survive even the cut and paste method utilized. The authority of Jesus teachings did not rely on their inclusion within the sacred text, where they were subject to interpretation. Rather, their authority rested on the higher plane of utility and understanding. For a philosophy to be acceptable, it must be one of reason and justify consistency in its system of logic. Jeffersons version of Jesus morality met this standard, while traditional Christianity did not.
While Jefferson argued that traditional Christianity often developed complex doctrines based on irrational logic, the text he developed focused on Jesus parables and the teachers inquisitive nature. Most admirable to Jefferson was that Jesus challenged priestly authority. Jesus attempted to reform the Jewish religion by describing a loftier notion of relating to God. Jesus God was reachable, able to be experienced, personal and loving. He called into question the Jewish perspective of God, demanding the Jews to go beyond the text. Jesus presented a morality that was just, forgiving, philanthropic, and peaceful. More important to Jefferson, Jesus demanded resistance to authority if it infringed upon essential freedoms. By questioning authority and teaching a morality in parables that went beyond the text, Jesus elevated a new perspective of God. Jeffersons revised text presented Jesus not only as a great social reformer but also interlaced the image of an iconoclast.35
The theme throughout Jeffersons text was to sift out everything that he believed not to have come directly from Jesus in order to return to pure Christianity. Jefferson pointedly searched for and deleted Platonic references or anything of Pauls influence. Jefferson also excluded any miracles, other than healing, that went beyond the natural world. For Jefferson, miracles distracted the reasonable person from the message of morality that deserved attention. Most importantly, Jefferson left out all references to divinity attributed to Jesus by himself or by others. In fact, anything pointing to Trinitarian logic was discarded to preserve a message that could be understood by the common individual. Through these exclusions, Jefferson wanted to show that Jesus Christ was human. Jesus was not God, nor was he performing miracles. By eliminating those mystical components that required faith, Jefferson established a Gospel of Reason, the heart of the Life and Morals.
Jefferson believed Jesus also presented a Gospel of Reason, but Jesus introduced his in a spoken message. Because Jesus relied on the vehicle of the spoken word and chose not to record his teachings, a powerful truth stands firm. Rely on individual mental capabilities, not the sacred text that relied on authoritarian indoctrination. Jefferson absorbed the idealism of both Jesus and Thomas Paine, in that the text not only limited a closer relationship to God but also suppressed the freedom God had given through the gift of reason. Paine promoted the ideal that God should be discovered in the natural order, not submerged in arcane text. Paine advocated that one search not the book called scripture, which any human hand might make, but the scripture called the Creation.36 Jefferson found in Paines natural philosophy a reasonable defense against authoritarian priests that had dominated the interpretation of scripture to set forth a particular image of God. Jefferson wrote to John Adams concerning his natural perspective of God:
I hold (without appeal to revelation) that when we take a new view of the Universe, in its [sic] parts general or particular, it is impossible for the human mind not to perceive and feel a conviction of design, consummate skill, and indefinite power in every atom of its [sic] composition. The movements of the heavenly bodies, so exactly held in their course by the balance of centrifugal and centripetal forces, the structure of our earth itself, with its distribution of lands, waters and atmosphere, animal and vegetable bodies, examined in all their minutest particles it is impossible, I say, for the human mind not to believe that there is, in all this, design, cause and effect, up to an ultimate cause, a fabricator of all things from matter and motion We see, too, evident proofs of the necessity of a superintending power to maintain the Universe in its course and order.37Jeffersons God of Reason required no blind faith. Doctrines and dogmas, however, were indeed indebted to blind faith. For this reason, Jefferson sought to discredit all authoritative interpretations from the Christian priestcraft.
Jefferson expressed his concern of authoritarian interpretation of religious views and issued a grave warning in his opening passage to A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom written in 1776. He declared his irascible temperament towards priests:
(that the priests) being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time.38Sacred text was the vehicle used by the priests to set up their own opinions and enslaved the ignorant and instilled fear to impose suppression and obedience. Jefferson proposed a stark contrast to the priestly authority and reduced the Bible to a historical and social document, open to critique and scholarly analysis as opposed to blinded reverence.
Of course Jefferson was not alone in this endeavor. Some historians have suggested that both Jefferson and John Locke (whose views are often manifested in Jeffersons philosophy) were the knights attempting to salvage Christianity from its oppressive tendencies. Yet Jefferson went beyond Locke in his critique of Christianity. The historian Sanford Kessler compared the two enlightened minds and concluded that it was Jefferson who sought to discredit both the Old and New Testament as sources of revealed truth, to debunk Judaism as well as all traditional understandings of Christian orthodoxy, and ultimately to subjectivize all religious belief.39 Kessler fails however to identify the purpose behind Jeffersons goals. For Jefferson, the demythification of Christianity liberated the teachings of Jesus Christ and created the perfect environment for a reasonable deity to flourish among reasonable minds. Jefferson therefore purified Christianity in order to modify and present the faith he believed Jesus had originally intended. This natural state of religion would be appealing to the enlightened and, therefore, Christianity would become the religion of reason. The God perceived by Jefferson broke free from doctrinal bondage, no longer mysterious and allusive. Knowledge of Jeffersons God demanded a reasonable, seeking mind, not blind reverence. Thus, anything in a religious system that could not stand up to the test of reason and utility were rejected outright.
Jefferson was henceforth resolutely disgusted with the peculiar Christian (supposedly a monotheistic based religion) belief in the Trinity. To consume the Trinitarian doctrine so dominant within the Christian religion was not only illogical but also lacked utility. This was a corruption that was not even within the sacred text. It was a magical creation at best. Jefferson strongly believed that such incoherent theology was to be subject to criticism:
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.40This creation by the priests leading up to the fourth century had fully incorporated Platonic mysticism and paganism in order to make Christianity more appealing and simultaneously confounding to the masses. Because no one could understand how one God is three, yet the three are not one, clarity required an authoritarian figure to decipher the illogical doctrine. By forcing such an unreasonable philosophy, the priestcraft initiated a firm hold on spiritual and mental freedoms.
The Trinity, however, represented much more than just an illogical dogma. For Jefferson, these metaphysical insanities hindered the growth of humanity and suggested mere relapses into polytheism, differing from paganism only by being more unintelligible.41 The Trinity survived and drew strength based on its exclusivity, both esoteric and demanding of authoritarian explanation. It frustrated many reasonable men, causing some to reject Jesus Christs message entirely. Belief in the Trinity served no moral utility and it was incomprehensible to logic. Worse yet, the believers in the Trinity persecuted those who cannot perceive the Geometrical logic of Euclid in the demonstrations of St. Athanasius that three are one, and one is three; and yet that the one is not three, nor the three one.42 For Jefferson, more important than the illogical doctrine itself was the way in which the church and state worked together to implement it into Christian mainstream thought.
Jefferson looked towards the fateful association of church and state, secured through Trinitarian mythology, as the ultimate means of suppressing humanitys essential freedoms. The history of the doctrines origins shed light on how church and state came to dominate society at large. Merely three centuries after Jesus message of the loving singular God, a great debate had arisen concerning the nature of Jesus himself. This debate culminated under the rule of the Roman Emperor, Constantine. Constantine ended the persecution of the Christians, it is believed, after his eyes were opened to the Savior following the victory at the Milvian Bridge in 312. He threw his political clout behind the Christian church and made Christianity a political tool. This association of the Roman Empire and the Christian church came at a time when debate was still alive as to the nature of the Father-Son relationship. On May 20, 325, Constantine summoned the Council of Nicaea to establish uniformity of opinion and end the debate of the relationship of God and Son. Constantine exerted immense pressure to solve the dispute. The council, under the heavy-handed pressure of having the Roman Emperor residing over the debate, decided that God and Son were co-equal as a doctrine that should become Christian truth. The Athanasian Creed was the result, and Constantine instantly supported the decision. Church and state were now linked by the notion that three Gods were no different than one.43
However, not all church teachers readily accepted this doctrine, and the philosophical struggle continued. How could the Logos, thought to be the Word of God and Jesus Christ, be divine and not suggest two Gods? This baffling formulation was causing religious unrest in the Roman Empire. By 380, the Emperor Valerian had issued a proclamation of intolerance:
We will that all our subjects believe the one divinity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, of majesty co-equal, in the holy Trinity. We will that all those who embrace this creed be called Catholic Christians. We brand all the senseless followers of other religions by the infamous name of heretics, and forbid their conventicles to assume the name of churches.44Toleration and debate disappeared in favor of authoritarian rule. The bond of Church and State represented the suppression of both mental faculties and bodily freedoms. Jefferson saw this development historically and found evidence in the Bible of its influence.
The heart of the Trinitarian logic hinges on the opening three verses of the book of John. Jefferson believed the corruption descended from the way these verses had been interpreted. For Jefferson, the translation was simple:
In the beginning God existed, and reason (or mind) [oo] was with God and that mind [oo] was God. This was in the beginning with God. All things were created by it, and without it was made not one thing which was made.45The key word, oo, which in English appears as logos, is a Greek term that has riddled interpreters for centuries. It is the creative essence, the form of Gods expression, the nature of the Divine will. While most Bibles simply refer to logos as the Word, it is entirely misleading. For God reveals the nature of being in many more ways than Words. Jefferson mocked the notion that this passage inferred a world created through Jesus. To conclude that Jesus was God based on this verse went beyond the fact that Jesus had explicitly taught the world was created by the supreme, intelligent being. This passage, therefore, had been perverted by modern Christians to build up a second person of their tritheism by a mistranslation of the word Logos.46 This verse had been unreasonably translated to advocate the doctrine of the Trinity, a common thread in mistranslation throughout the New Testament.
Certain verses within the New Testament cast serious doubt upon the Trinitarian logic and the corruption of the text point to a strong desire to establish the myth of the Trinity as sound doctrine. The most important is in the Book of John, ironically the book most strongly advocating a Trinitarian agenda. John 1:18, though clear in some versions of the New Testament, is perhaps the most enigmatic verse in other versions. Jefferson, because of the verses puzzling nature, of course excluded it, as well as most of John, from his New Testament translation. The King James reads, No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him. That Jefferson would have read this verse and concluded that it had no bearing on Jesus morality and therefore unimportant reveals a substantial shortcoming in Jeffersons analysis. Indeed, this verse holds the key to debunking the myth of the Trinity.
The verse presented in the King James is in clear and simple language, a reasonable translation from the Greek that is strongly supported in many early manuscripts.47 This verse actually reads simply in this light, to think of Jesus in the bosom (if that could be comprehended) of the Father, declaring the God that cannot be seen. To argue that Jesus Christ is God is to suggest an entirely different reading of this verse. For one, many people saw Jesus in his lifetime. How could no man have seen God when He walked the earth for roughly thirty-three years? More importantly, this verse defies any Trinitarian notions of a three-in-one God. Superiority of the Father is obvious, as is a unique but separate relationship between father and son. The changes within the text even recently to this verse prove that there is a strong effort to make the Trinity more convincing.
Jefferson warned of the danger of relying on textual translation. Nearly every new Bible, whether it be the New American Standard, The Living Bible or the New International Version (NIV) has reconstructed this verse in a puzzling way. The NIV now reads, No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Fathers side, has made him known. The Greek phrase has been changed from huios(son) to theos (God).48 Based on this paradoxical mistranslation, one can easily understand why Jefferson struggled with corruption of text. This version would suggest that God has never been seen but is in the Fathers bosom and declared himself. This verse has been perverted to an irrational level. Jefferson clearly understood the faults in Trinitarian logic, for it evaded reason and brought forth corruption within the text.
While corruption within the text deeply troubled Jefferson, the heart of his frustrations rested in the notion of divine and exclusive revelation. Jefferson followed the enlightened philosophy that God through nature indeed revealed the true essence of being and he argued it was not an inspiration limited to a select number of priests thousands of years ago. Thus the text was not inspired, and neither were the priests that had laid claim to a superior understanding of God. Jefferson believed that Christians tended to blindly accept the notion that God could only be known through the mystical vehicle of revelation. Reinforcing the exclusivism already evident pushed God farther from a personal relationship and greatly hindered spiritual development. Indeed, Jefferson believed that every Christian sect gives a great handle to Atheism by their general dogma that, without a revelation, there would not be sufficient proof of the being of god.49 The dogma of revelation was simply an additional mean to remove the faculty of reason from ones relationship with God.
The sum of these corruptions represented merely the peripheral problems that led naturally to the centerpiece of Jeffersons critique and the essence of his reform. The core of the critique centered on the relationship between faith and reason. Indeed, Jeffersons attempt to upend faith in light of reason represented a theological mutiny. As he declared to John Adams, for I suppose belief to be the assent of the mind to an intelligible proposition.50 The strength of believing in God and the essence of religion itself consists in the internal persuasion or belief of the mind.51 Jefferson subjected faith, the cornerstone of Christianity, to the test of reason.
Defining faith is an equivocal endeavor, if not an impossible one. For the sake of simplicity, this paper will suggest that faith is the hearts ability to know what the mind cannot comprehend. In light of this simple definition, Jeffersons faith inverted this relationship. For faith and reason, Jefferson stressed what the mind could know through witnessing the Creation, and decidedly downplayed the mystical distractions of the heart. However, Jefferson debated this conundrum, this relationship of head to heart, in the well-known letter to Maria Cosway written in Paris on October 12, 1786. Jeffersons faith was an offshoot of this internal dialogue.
While the letter in general is more than an internal dialogue of head and heart, the message was clear. His head defended the strength of intellectualism in life, for it was always in our power,
leading us to something new, never cloying, we ride serene & sublime above the concerns of this mortal world, contemplating truth & nature, matter & motion, the laws which bind up their existence, & that eternal being who made & bound them up by those laws.52This serene & sublime ride elevated knowledge of God, which created an appreciation for the obvious power more than blind faith could allow. The mind provided the best perspective of God, and thus realized the fullness of being and knowledge of the Creation in its natural forms. Yet Jeffersons heart denied the claims of the mind and asserted its power over the essentials of morality and faith itself:
In denying to you the feelings of sympathy, of benevolence, of gratitude, of justice, of love, of friendship, she has excluded you from their controul. To these she has adapted the mechanism of the heart. Morals were too essential to the happiness of man to be risked on the uncertain combinations of the head. She laid their foundation therefore in sentiment, not in science.53Faith was also too essential to be entrusted to the uncertain combinations of the head. Nature had thus provided a dichotomous strain. God could be known both by head and heart, reason and faith. For Jefferson, reasons value necessarily exceeded that of faith. Reason was grounded on knowledge, experience, critical analysis, and careful learning. Faith, on the other hand, was based in mystical aspiration, awareness of the unseen, and a heartfelt conviction of blinded belief. Faith and reason were independent of each other and Jefferson found a peaceful connection to God through his most powerful form of belief, the love of reason.
Jefferson illustrated that Jesus had already made the instrumental connection of faith and reason beyond any religion known to the world. Jesus philosophy extended beyond that of the Jews, and, as Jefferson surmised, (Jesus) pushed his scrutinies into the heart of man; erected his tribunal in the region of his thoughts, and purified the waters at the fountain head.54 Jesus had discovered the power of faith based on reason and firmly established it in the human mind. Jefferson, never one to hide his ambiguities however, further elaborated on this relationship to note that the heart ranked supreme, a more important element in life. He wrote, An honest heart being the first blessing, a knowing head is the second.55 Although the message was mixed, so was the goal. Jefferson strove to realize Jesus attempt to unify faith and reason, with more emphasis upon the later, for a richer connection to God.
Jefferson elevated reason and yearned for freedom in the analysis of Christianity, while effectively whittling away corruption. Through his attempt to expose the debauchery within Christianity, he sought to release the hold that clergy had placed upon the truth. He stressed scholarly criticism in reading the Bible historically. Some would suggest Jeffersons critique was harsh. But it was hard for Jefferson to disguise the ugly realities while exposing deep-seated degradation. He effectively separated the myth from simplicity. More importantly, Jefferson had purpose in his critique. It was not to kill God, bury Jesus, nor to burn the Bible. The purpose was to shed light upon the darkness and purify Christianity as a beacon of Gods power. He did not simply complain and stand idle, for the reforms Jefferson envisioned were grand and promised a simpler Christianity and a mightier America.
The author extends his gratitude to Dr. Furlong, Dr. Knowles, and Dr. Robbins for their guidance and comments on this research project.
1 Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Dr. Benjamin Rush. 21 April 1803. Roche, O.I.A., ed. The Jeffersonian Bible. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, Inc., 1964, page 348.
2 Letter to John Adams, 11 January 1817. Cappon, Lester, ed. The Adams--Jefferson Letters. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959, page 506.
3 Letter to Miles King, 26 September 1814. Roche, page 328.
4 Huntley, William B. Jeffersons Public and Private Religion. South Atlantic Quarterly Vol.79 (1980): page 290.
5 Jeffersons Report to visitors of Virginia School Boards, 7 October 1822. Roche, page 366.
6 This analysis will not cover great detail; rather it will highlight the influences and later sections of the paper will reveal more evidence for the various influences upon his theology.
7 Kessler, Sanford. Lockes Influence on Jeffersons Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom. Journal of Church and State Vol.25 (1983): pages 233-245.
8 Mead, Sidney Earl. The Old Religion in a Brave New World. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1977, pages 83-84.
9 The use of the term HIS is to specifically denote that the Bible God is a male figure, no gender equal language can ignore that message from the text.
10 Letters to Martha Jefferson Randolph, 25 April 1803, and to John Adams, 22 August 1813. Adams, Dickinson W. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Jeffersons Extracts from the Gospels. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983. Taken from Eugene R. Sheridans introduction, page 14.
11 Adams, page 6. Bolingbrokes quote is taken directly from the introduction by Eugene Sheridan.
12 Salisbury, Dorothy Cleaveland. Religion: As the Leaders of this Nation Reveal It. Daughters of the American Revolution Vol.106 (1972): page 541.
13 Letter to John Adams, 11 January 1817. Cappon, page 445.
14 Letter to Peter Carr, 10 August 1787. Peterson, Merrill, ed. Thomas Jefferson: Writings. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc., 1984, page 902.
15 Letter to Benjamin Rush, 21 April 1803. Roche, page 334.
16 Sanford, Charles B. The Religious Life of Thomas Jefferson Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1984, pages 85-92.
17 Letter to William Short, 4 August 1820. Roche, page 339.
19 Gaustad, Edwin. Sworn on the Altar of God: A Religious Biography of Thomas Jefferson. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996, page 146.
20 This term, Great Mystery, is alluded to in biblical commentaries and by many biblical scholars.
21 Brown, Ira V. Joseph Priestley: Selections from His Writings. University Park: Penn State University Press, 1962, pages 289-290.
22 Armstrong, Karen. A History of God. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993, page 307.
23 Letter to John Adams, 5 July 1814. Cappon, page 433.
24 Letter to William Baldwin, 19 January 1810. Adams, page 344.
25 Letter to Benjamin Waterhouse, 26 June 1822. Roche, page 342.
26 Letter to Charles Thompson (1816). Ford, Paul. ed. The Works of Thomas Jefferson. Vol.10, New York: G.P.Putnams Sons, 1905, page 6.
27 Adams pages 35-45. Introduction by Sheridan.
28 Anderson, Phillip J. William Linn, 1752-1808: American Revolutionary and Anti-Jeffersonian. Journal of Presbyterian History Vol.55 (1977): page 391.
29 Luebke, Fred C. The Origins of Thomas Jeffersons Anti-clericalism. Church History Vol.32 (1963): pages 350-356.
30 Letter to John Adams, 12 October 1813. Cappon, page 384.
32 Introduction by Sheridan. Adams, pages 19-23.
33 Foote, Henry Wilder. Thomas Jefferson: Champion of Religious Freedom, Advocate of Christian Morals. Boston: Beacon Press, 1947, pages 55-58.
34 Bryan, Susan. Reauthorizing the Text: Jeffersons Scissor Edit of the Gospels, Early American Literature Vol.22 (Spring 1987): page 22.
35 This analysis is even more evident in the Syllabus, which was a preview to the valued attributes of Jesus.
36 Gaustad, page 41.
37 Cappon, page 592.
38 Peterson, page 346.
39 Kessler, page 245.
40 Letter to Francis Adrian Van der Kemp 30 July 1816. Adams, page 374.
41 Letter to Jared Sparks, 4 November 1820. Adams, page 401.
42 Letter to William Canby, 18 September 1813. Adams, page 350.
43 Wierwille, Victor Paul. Jesus Christ is not God. New Knoxville: The American Christian Press, 1975, pages 11-26.
44 Foote, page 24.
45 Letter to John Adams, 11 April 1823. Cappon, page 593.
46 Ibid. The term logos is a very complex one. Dr. Wierwille and Dr. Eugene Carpenter, both biblical scholars, have noted the impossible nature of converting logos into English. To found such a fundamental doctrine upon this word is dangerous.
47 Greek New Testament, 4th ed., Trans. Barb Aland, et al. Germany: United Bible Studies, 1993, page 314.
48 Greek New Testament, page 314 and Greek English Interlinear Translation Trans. Arthur Farstad, et al. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, Inc., 1994, page 326. Biblical scholars, in support of the doctrine of the Trinity have altered the Greek text itself. Opinions may vary, but the son (huios) was used more often and by more reliable early church references. The term theos has been inserted because there are also some references to it in the early manuscripts. The debate is around which sources are more reliable. This illustrates the power that Biblical scholars have in deciding theology and influencing doctrines.
49 Letter to John Adams, 11 April 1823. Cappon, page 591.
50 Letter to John Adams, 22 August 1813, Cappon. page 367.
51 Roche, from Jeffersons Notes on Religion, 1787, page 351.
52 Letter to Maria Cosway, 12 October 1786. Peterson, page 872.
53 Ibid., page 874.
54 From Syllabus, Adams, page 334.
55 Letter to Peter Carr, 19 August 1785. Peterson, page 815.