Jefferson and Christianity

In recent days the space not taken up by discussions of, say, the Cincinnati gorilla, has been taken up online by  a vibrant discussion about Thomas Jefferson and Christianity. Jefferson claimed to be a Christian, even as his beliefs in “Christianity” diverged strongly from orthodox Christianity. How should we evaluate this?

The conversation was kicked off by a presentation by Peter Onuf and Annette Gordon-Reed on C-Span. It played out on twitter. Recent posts by John Fea and Ben Park have also addressed this.

Rather than rehash the issues raised, in my brief time I want to raise one other historical point. We could also ask: how did Jefferson’s contemporaries view his faith?

It’s worth noting that some of Jefferson’s contemporaries were quite suspicious. Due to his writings in places like Notes on the State of Virginia and various correspondence, many of Jefferson’s opponents questioned his faith.

I see this most clearly in a political editorial in 1800 that asked its readers if they wanted to vote for “God and a Religious President” [i.e., John Adams] or “Jefferson…and NO GOD.”

A more sustained statement of this idea came from two New York ministers, John Mitchell Mason and William Linn. After parsing Jefferson’s public utterances, they asserted that Jefferson was an infidel (one who maliciously rejected Christian truth) and so not to be trusted.

Or, as they claimed in a second pamphlet:

Christians! Lay these things together: compare them; examine them separately, and collectively: ponder; pause; lay your hands upon your hearts; lift up your hearts to heaven, and pronounce on Mr. Jefferson’s Christianity. You cannot stifle the emotions; nor forebear uttering your indignant sentence–infidel!!

(“The Voice of Warning to Christians,” 1800)

Now, Linn and Mason didn’t speak for everyone, and you could suggest that their claims were at least partially politically motivated. Still, as ministers, they claimed their duties forced them to point out Jefferson’s heterodoxy. To some believers of his day, Jefferson’s beliefs seemed suspicious.

Politics, you say? Would there be a book out there that talked about religious and political conflicts in the early republic? Maybe one involving the Federalists? Oh, that’s right: this one.





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5 responses to “Jefferson and Christianity

  1. “Never did a man achieve more fame for what he did not do.”–abolitionist Moncure Conway

  2. Two points:

    1) Jefferson advocated for civil religion, i.e., a public faith that reinforced moral behavior, As stated in his first inaugural address:
    “enlightened by a benign religion, professed indeed and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude and the love of man, acknowledging and adoring an overruling providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here, and his greater happiness hereafter; with all these blessings, what more is necessary to make us a happy and a prosperous people?”

    2) Unlike his presidential predecessors, Jefferson never declared any national prayer days

    Jefferson wrote in a letter to Reverend Samuel Miller on January 23, 1808, “I consider the government of the United States as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises…Certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the general government. …But it is only proposed that I should recommend, not prescribe a day of fasting and prayer. That is, that I should indirectly assume to the United States an authority over religious exercises, which the Constitution has directly precluded them from…civil powers alone have been given to the President of the United States and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.”

  3. jdenhartog

    Tom, thanks for sharing. The Federalists agreed. They portrayed Jefferson as a speculative philosopher rather than as a practical statesman. You’re right to challenge Jefferson’s inconsistencies.

    • Thx, JDH. Why does Jefferson get most of the historiographical ink of the past 100 years? With his copious catalogue of “speculative philosophy,” hostility to mainstream Christianity and thus congeniality to modern secular sensibilities, well, it’s like looking for your keys under the streetlamp because the lights better over there.

      RESOLVED: Jefferson’s contemporary [historiographical?] popularity outstrips his actual historical significance.

      Now THAT would be fun.
      To Mr. Shaw’s point, we should note that as governor of Virginia, Jefferson did easily accede to a state-level Thanksgiving proc [1779]

      but like Andrew Jackson, failed to find constitutional warrant for the US government

      Certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the general government

      to do so. A technical issue more than a theo-philosophical one, and one on which presidents GWash, JAdams and even Madison caved.

      As we know, Jefferson noted elsewhere, under the Constitution, religion was left to the states.

  4. jdenhartog

    Jon, Thanks for those quotes. I wouldn’t disagree with the points that you make with the documents, and they do well to describe parts of Jefferson’s opinions.

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