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Friday, April 14, 2017

Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Benjamin Rush (September 23, 1800)

From The Founders, Religion and Government

"I promised you a letter on Christianity, which I have not forgotten. On the contrary, it is because I have reflected on it, that I find much more time necessary for it than I can at present dispose of. I have a view of the subject which ought to displease neither the rational Christian nor Deist, and would reconcile many to a character they have too hastily rejected. I do not know that it would reconcile the genus imtabile vatum who are all in arms against me. Their hostility is on too interesting ground to be softened. The delusion into which the X. Y. Z. plot shewed it possible to push the people; the successful experiment made under the prevalence of that delusion on the clause of the constitution, which, while it secured the freedom of the press, covered also the freedom of religion, had given to the clergy a very favorite hope of obtaining an establishment of a particular form of Christianity through the United States; and as every sect believes its own form the true one, every one perhaps hoped for his own, but especially the Episcopalians and Congregationalists. The returning good sense of our country threatens abortion to their hopes, and they believe that any portion of power confided to me, will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly: for I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. But this is all they have to fear from me: and enough too in their opinion. And this is the cause of their printing lying pamphlets against me, forging conversations for me with Mazzei, Bishop Madison, &tc. which are absolute falsehoods without a circumstance of truth to rest on ; falsehoods, too, of which I acquit Mazzei and Bishop Madison, for they are men of truth."
~ Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Benjamin Rush (September 23, 1800)

Given the title of this page, we thought we would begin with quotes from Jefferson on the topic of religion.

The religious views of Thomas Jefferson have been much debated. Some have called him an atheist. This can be rejected outright since Jefferson wrote repeatedly of his belief in God.

Some have called Jefferson a deist. To this there may be some truth. Jefferson and others living in colonial America were influenced by the ideas of English deism. It should be noted that English deism is very different from the deism of today which is more akin to the deism practiced in France during the French Revolution.

Classical English Deism has five tenets:
1. belief in the existence of a single supreme God
2. humanity's duty to revere God
3. linkage of worship with practical morality
4. God will forgive us if we repent and abandon our sins
5. good works will be rewarded (and punishment for evil) both in life and after death.

However, Jefferson called himself a Christian. It is absurd to think that people studying him today would know his mind better than Jefferson himself did. Barring evidence to the contrary we must accept Jefferson's word for his beliefs.

So, is there evidence to contrary? Is there evidence to support the idea that Jefferson was not a Christian? Jefferson was not conventional in his religious beliefs. He stated that "I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know." But while he was not conventional, his actions supported Christianity. In 1774, while he was a member of the House of Burgesses, he introduced a resolution calling for a day of fasting and prayer. As governor of Virginia from 1779 to 1781, he called for a day of "Public and solemn thanksgiving and prayer to the Almighty God." Later as president, he authorized the use of federal funds to build a church and pay the salary of a priest for the Kaskaskia Indians. He attended church services held in the Capitol Building in Washington D.C., even after he penned his famous letter to the Danbury Baptist Association. The famous Jefferson Bible, which is actually called "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth," was created as a tool to evangelize the Indians. Jefferson was a lifelong member of the Episcopalian Church, though he spoke of his admiration for the Unitarians, not to be confused with the Unitarian Universalists.

However, Jefferson was critical of certain church beliefs. He did not like those of the Calvinist Church, the Catholic Church, and even some of his own Anglican Church. Like many others of his day, he felt that too much church dogma had been added to Christianity corrupting it.

Jefferson will ever be a subject of controversy. Hopefully we can understand his views on religion a bit better by reading what he had to say on religion. We will begin with Jefferson's personal views on his faith before looking at the relationship of religion and public life. 

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