The Religious Affiliation of Third U.S. President
President Thomas Jefferson was a Protestant. Jefferson was raised as an Episcopalian (Anglican). He was also influenced by English Deists and has often been identified by historians as a Deist. He held many beliefs in common with Unitarians of the time period, and sometimes wrote that he thought the whole country would become Unitarian. He wrote that the teachings of Jesus contain the "outlines of a system of the most sublime morality which has ever fallen from the lips of man." Wrote: "I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know." Source: "Jefferson's Religious Beliefs", by Rebecca Bowman, Monticello Research Department, August 1997 [URL: http://www.monticello.org/resources/interests/religion.html].
Although Jefferson was never an atheist, he was indeed a champion of religious freedom, and the "Positive Atheism" website has a page of quotes by Jefferson at:
Note that Thomas Jefferson, one of the nation's most popular and respected presidents, is claimed by many groups.
Jefferson was born into an Anglican family and was raised as an Aglican. He would later be considered an Episcopalian, after the Episcopal Church was officially founded as a separate province within Anglicanism in 1789 (after the Revolution and independence from England).
Later in his adult life Jefferson did not consider himself an Episcopalian, or a member of any other specific denomination. Later in life Jefferson held many clearly Christian, Deist, and Unitarian beliefs, but was not a member of any congregation or denomination. Today, many Unitarians sincerely believe that Jefferson should be "counted as" a Unitarian, just as many Christians point to Jefferson as a Christian, and many of the small number of Americans who identify themselves as Deists believe Jefferson should be classified a Deist.
Jefferson was never a member of the Unitarian denomination nor was he ever active in a Unitarian congregation. However, he did once write that he would have liked to be a member of a Unitarian church, but he was not because there were no Unitarian churches in Virginia. It is not unreasonable to identify Jefferson as a Unitarian (with the caveat that, technically speaking, he was not actually one). However, it is a mistake to extrapolate from Jefferson's stated admiration for Unitarianism the notion that he was somehow "un-Christian" or "non-Christian." It is true that contemporary Unitarian-Universalists now classify their denomination as a distinct religion not confined as a subset of Christianity (although a large proportion of individual Unitarian-Universalists do indeed identify themselves as Christians). However, in Jefferson's day, Unitarianism was considerably different from its present form, and there was no concept that it was a non-Christian religion. Unitarianism in Jefferson's time was regarded as one liberal Protestant denomination among many other Protestant denominations extant in America. Virtually nobody thought of Jefferson as a non-Christian (or even non-Protestant) president.
By some of the more narrowly-conceived definitions of the word "Christian" which are in use today, particularly among Evangelicals since the 1940s, it is entirely possible that Jefferson's beliefs would mark him as a "non-Christian." Defining Jefferson as a non-Christian must be done purely on contemporary theological grounds, because he was clearly a Christian with regards to his ethics, conduct, upbringing, and culture. Furthermore, to define Jefferson as a "non-Christian" requires using definitions retroactively to classify Jefferson counter to his own self-concept and the commonly understood meanings of words during his own time.
Adherents of other religious groups, including atheists and agnostics, also point to various writings of Jefferson which are in harmony with their positions. The difficulty in classifying Jefferson using a single word for religious affiliation does not stem from a lack of information, but rather a wealth of writing -- which can be interpreted differently depending on a person's perspective. Jefferson left a considerable amount of writing on political and philosophical issues, as well as writing about religion, including the "Jefferson Bible."
In a practical sense, classifying Jefferson as a "Deist" with regards to religious affiliation is misleading and meaningless. Jefferson was never affiliated with any organized Deist movement. This is a word that describes a theological position more than an actual religious affiliation, and as such it is of limited use from a sociological perspective. If one defines the term "Deist" broadly enough, then the writing of nearly every U.S. president or prominent historical figure could be used to classify them as a "Deist," so classifying people as such without at least some evidence of nominal self-identification is not very useful.
Although Jefferson's specific denominational and congregational ties were limited in his adulthood and his ever-evolving theological beliefs were distinctively his own, he was without a doubt a Protestant. One should keep in mind that despite his later self-stated non-affiliation with any specific denomination, he was raised as an Episcopalian, attended Episcopalian services many times as an adult and as President, and he expressed a clear affinity for Unitarianism. However these denominations may be classified now, uring Jefferson's lifetime, the Episcopal Church and the Unitarian Church were both considered to be Protestant denominations.
From: Rick Shenkman, "An Interview with Jon Butler ... Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?", posted 20 December 2004 on History News Network website (http://hnn.us/articles/9144.html; viewed 30 November 2005):
Mr. Butler, Dean of the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences at Yale University, is the author of Awash in a Sea of Faith: Christianizing the American People (Harvard University Press, 1990). This interview was conducted by HNN editor Rick Shenkman for The Learning Channel series, "Myth America," which aired several years ago...
[Interviewer:] Let's go through some of [the Founding Fathers]... Thomas Jefferson?
[Jon Butler:] Well, Jefferson's interesting because recently evangelicals, some evangelicals, have tried to make Jefferson out as an evangelical. Jefferson actually was deeply interested in the question of religion and morals and it's why Jefferson, particularly in his later years, developed a notebook of Jesus' sayings that he found morally and ethically interesting. It's now long since been published and is sometimes called, "The Jefferson Bible." But Jefferson had real trouble with the Divinity of Christ and he had real trouble with the description of various events mentioned in both the New and the Old Testament so that he was an enlightened skeptic who was profoundly interested in the figure of Christ as a human being and as an ethical teacher. But he was not religious in any modern meaning of that word or any eighteenth century meaning of that word. He wasn't a regular church goer and he never affiliated himself with a religious denomination--unlike Washington who actually did. He was an Episcopalian. Jefferson, however, was interested in morals and ethics and thought that morals and ethics were important but that's different than saying religion is important because morals and ethics can come from many sources other than religion and Jefferson knew that and understood that.
[Interviewer:] Where does he stand on Christ exactly?
[Jon Butler:] Jefferson rejected the divinity of Christ, but he believed that Christ was a deeply interesting and profoundly important moral or ethical teacher and it was in Christ's moral and ethical teachings that Jefferson was particularly interested. And so that's what attracted him to the figure of Christ was the moral and ethical teachings as described in the New Testament. But he was not an evangelical and he was not a deeply pious individual.
...The principal Founding Fathers--Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin--were in fact deeply suspicious of a European pattern of governmental involvement in religion. They were deeply concerned about an involvement in religion because they saw government as corrupting religion. Ministers who were paid by the state and paid by the government didn't pay any attention to their parishes. They didn't care about their parishioners. They could have, they sold their parishes. They sold their jobs and brought in a hireling to do it and they wandered off to live somewhere else and they didn't need to pay attention to their parishioners because the parishioners weren't paying them. The state was paying them.
From: Peter Roberts, "Thomas Jefferson" page in "God and Country" section of "Science Resources on the Net" website (http://www.geocities.com/peterroberts.geo/Relig-Politics/TJefferson.html; viewed 23 November 2005):
Religious Affiliation: None
Summary of Religious Views: Jefferson considered himself a deist; he also considered himself a follower of Jesus. This is not a contradiction, in Jefferson's view, because he believed Jesus to be merely human, not divine, and believed the precepts Jesus taught to be deistical. Much of traditional Christianity, Jefferson claimed, was error and corruption added by later followers of Jesus.
Jefferson was a strong supporter of the separation of church and state, believing that both government and religion would be strengthened by keeping each free of the corrupting influence of the other.
From a PBS website (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/jesus/jefferson.html):
Jefferson was convinced that the authentic words of Jesus written in the New Testament had been contaminated. Early Christians, overly eager to make their religion appealing to the pagans, had obscured the words of Jesus with the philosophy of the ancient Greeks and the teachings of Plato. These "Platonists" had thoroughly muddled Jesus' original message. Jefferson assured his friend and rival, John Adams, that the authentic words of Jesus were still there.
With the confidence and optimistic energy characteristic of the Enlightenment, Jefferson proceeded to dig out the diamonds. Candles burning late at night, his quill pen scratching "too hastily" as he later admitted, Jefferson composed a short monograph titled The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth. The subtitle explains that the work is "extracted from the account of his life and the doctrines as given by Matthew, Mark, Luke & John." In it, Jefferson presented what he understood was the true message of Jesus.
Jefferson set aside his New Testament research, returning to it again in the summer of 1820. This time, he completed a more ambitious work, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted Textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French and English. The text of the New Testament appears in four parallel columns in four languages. Jefferson omitted the words that he thought were inauthentic and retained those he believed were original. The resulting work is commonly known as the "Jefferson Bible."
From: B. J. Lossing, Signers of the Declaration of Independence, George F. Cooledge & Brother: New York (1848) [reprinted in Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, WallBuilder Press: Aledo, Texas (1995)], page 175:
Mr. Jefferson's family were among the early British emigrants to Virginia. His ancestors came from Wales... His grandfather settled in Chesterfield, and had three sons, Thomas, Field, and Peter. The latter married Jane, daughter of Isham Randolph, of Goochland, of Scotch descent... she became the mother of [Thomas Jefferson]... His father died when he was fourteen years old, leaving a widow and eight children... He left a handsome estate to his family; and the lands, which he called Monticello, fell to Thomas...
Thomas entered a grammar school at the age of five years, and when nine years he commenced the study of the classics with a Scotch clergyman named Douglas. On the death of his father, the Reveend Mr. Maury became his preceptor; and in the spring of 1760, he entered William and Mary College, where he remained two years. From Doctor William Small, a professor mathematics in the college, he received his first philosophical teachings, and the bias of his mind concerning subjects of scientific investigation seemed to have received its initial impetus from that gentleman.
From: B. J. Lossing, Signers of the Declaration of Independence, George F. Cooledge & Brother: New York (1848) [reprinted in Lives of the Signers of the Declaration of Independence, WallBuilder Press: Aledo, Texas (1995)], pages 182-183:
In the spring of 1826, [Thomas Jefferson's] bodily infirmities greatly increased, and in June he was confined wholly to his bed. About the first of July he seemed ree from disease, and his friends had hopes of his recovery; but it was his own conviction that he should die, and he gave directions accordingly. On the third, he inquired the day of the month. On being told, he expressed an ardent desire to live until the next day, to breathe the air of the fiftieth anniversary of his country's independence. His wish was granted: and on the morning of the fourth, after having expressed his gratitude to his friends and servants for their care, he said with a distinct voice, "I resign myself to my God, and my child to my country." [His child was his daughter, Mrs. Randolph, to whom he gave instructions about what he wanted his epitaph and tomb to be like.] These were his last words, and about noon on that glorious day he expired. It was a most remarkable coincidence that two of the committee (Mr. [John] Adams and Mr. Jefferson) who drew up the Declaration of Independence; who signed it; who successively held the office of Chief Magistrate, should have died at exactly the same hour on the fiftieth anniversary of that solemn act.
He was a little over eighty-three years of age at the time of his death. Mr. Jefferson's manner was simple but dignified, and his conversational powers were of the rarest value. He was exceedingly kind and benevolent, an indulgent master to his servants, liberal and friendly to his neighbors. He possessed remarkable equanimity of temper, and it said he was never seen in a passion. His friendship was lasting and ardent; and he was confiding and never distrustful.
In religion he was a freethinker; in morals, pure and unspotted; in politics, patriotic, honest, ardent and benevolent. Respecting his poltical character, there was (and still is) a great diversity of opinion, and we ar not yet far nough removed from the theatre of his acts to judge them dispassioinately and justly. His life was devoted to his country; the result of his acts whatever it may be, is a legacy to mankind.
He was identified as a Deist by the 1995 Information Please Almanac. (Source: Ian Dorion, "Table of the Religious Affiliations of American Founders", 1997).
From: Robert G. Ferris (editor), Signers of the Declaration: Historic Places Commemorating the Signing of the Declaration of Independence, published by the United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service: Washington, D.C. (revised edition 1975), page 90:
Jefferson died only a few hours before John Adams at the age of 83 on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. For his tombstone at Monticello, ignoring his many high offices and multitudes of other achievements, he chose three accomplishments that he wanted to be remembered for: authorship of the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom and the founding of the University fo Virginia.
From: R.P. Nettelhorst, "Notes on the Founding Fathers and the Separation of Church and State", posted on Quartz Hill School of Theology website (http://www.theology.edu/journal/volume2/ushistor.htm; viewed 30 November 2005):
Thomas Jefferson created his own version of the gospels; he was uncomfortable with any reference to miracles, so with two copies of the New Testament, he cut and pasted them together, excising all references to miracles, from turning water to wine, to the resurrection.
There has certainly never been a shortage of boldness in the history of biblical scholarship during the past two centuries, but for sheer audacity Thomas Jefferson's two redactions of the Gospels stand out even in that company. It is still a bit overwhelming to contemplate the sangfroid exhibited by the third president of the United States as, razor in hand, he sat editing the Gospels during February 1804, on (as he himself says) "2. or 3. nights only at Washington, after getting thro' the evening task of reading the letters and papers of the day." He was apparently quite sure that he could tell what was genuine and what was not in the transmitted text of the New Testament... (Thomas Jefferson. The Jefferson Bible; Jefferson and his Contemporaries, an afterward by Jaroslav Pelikan, Boston: Beacon Press, 1989, p. 149.).
In his Notes on Virginia, Jefferson wrote:
The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury to my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. (Dumas Malon, Jefferson The President: First Term 1801-1805. Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1970, p. 191)
Portrait: from Robert G. Ferris (editor), Signers of the Declaration: Historic Places Commemorating the Signing of the Declaration of Independence, published by the United States Department of the Interior, National Park Service: Washington, D.C. (revised edition 1975).
Webpage created 12 July 2005. Last modified 30 November 2005.
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