Was Thomas Jefferson a Christian?

Category: Culture Wars/Popular Culture 299 6

Americans have, just like every other citizen of every nation, a great sense of pride about their country’s history and traditions. This is natural and normal (as long as it doesn’t make that nation boastful and make the traditions they follow an idol). One of the most popular periods for Americans in their history is the Revolutionary War. It was during this time that the Colonists fought against the British in order to win their freedom (farmers with pitchforks against the most powerful army in the world at that time). Some people who fought in the war did so because they wanted religious freedom. In fact, this is why most of the American Colonists (pilgrims, for example) even came to America in the first place. Some fought in the war for economic freedom, while others for political (many people fought for a little bit of all of these). And one of the names that is most associated with religious freedom is none other than Thomas Jefferson.

Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) is considered a hero in the United States. He authored the Declaration of Independence, served with both Benjamin Franklin and John Adams as ambassadors to Europe, was the second vice president and the third president of the United States, and was a champion for religious freedom. One of the things that he was most famous for was that he believed that all people had been endowed by God with certain rights.[1]

One of the most common beliefs among many American Christians is that Thomas Jefferson and most of the Founding Fathers were Christian. This is true to an extent. Some of the founders believed that salvation only came to those who accepted the deity of Christ, and that he was raised from the dead for our sins. However, not all of them did. Next to Christianity, deism was probably the most common religious belief throughout the western world. Deism is the belief that there is a god, but after this god created the world he left it to run its course. Deists believe that there are no miracles and that God has never revealed himself to mankind, whether through Jesus or someone else.

The Religious Views of Thomas Jefferson

What about Jefferson? Did he fall within the definition of Christianity, or was he a deist? Let’s start at the beginning. Jefferson had a very traditional Anglican (Church of England) upbringing. Peter Jefferson, his father, was an Anglican vestryman, and Thomas was educated by Anglican ministers at the College of William and Mary. He married his wife in the Anglican Church and even his children were baptized as Anglicans.[2] In his youth, he was trained in the classics. However, through his education he would absorb the ideas of the Enlightenment.[3]

The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement during the eighteenth century. It was primarily a movement among the upper class, and many followers of the Enlightenment became deists. This age brought with it the idea that revelation (like the Bible being the Word of God) was not true and that only human reason can explain the world.

Jefferson was a product of the Enlightenment. Therefore, reason was a very important part of how Jefferson viewed the world. Since God created each human being with the ability to reason, then reason was the only way to discover religious truth. Reason, believed Jefferson, was the greatest gift that God gave mankind.[4]

This doesn’t mean that Jefferson had no religious faith. In fact, throughout his entire life Jefferson held a fascination with religion. He has even been called “the most self-consciously theological president in American history.”[5] He had a very “vibrant personal faith”[6] and he even claimed to be a follower of the teachings of Jesus. To Jefferson, it was the moral teachings of Jesus that represented the essence of Christianity, not faith in who Jesus was or what Jesus did.[7]

Jefferson was very convinced that his commitment to the moral system of Jesus of Nazareth made him a Christian. He wrote in 1816 that “I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.” He believed that only “true” Christians, like himself, would get to enter the kingdom of God.[8]

However, was Jefferson a true Christian by the definition given to us in the Bible? John Fea, author of the book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation, says, “But if you measure Jefferson’s beliefs against the history of Orthodox Christian teaching, he falls well short…Indeed, he was probably the most skeptical of all the founders.”[9] So we have Jefferson saying that he was a true Christian, whereas one scholar says that he may have been one of the most skeptical of the founders. That is quite a difference.

It is clear that Jefferson was not an atheist. He actually wrote that it was “impossible for the human mind not to perceive and feel a conviction of design, consummate skill, and indefinite power in every atom of its composition.” Scholar Robert Fuller says that Jefferson was a deist.[10] If Jefferson was a deist, he wasn’t like any other deist. Unlike most deists, he did not believe that God had completely removed himself from the world. The god that Jefferson believed in was very active in sustaining the world and governed human affairs by his providence. “He called this Creator and Sustainer of the universe ‘Nature’s God’ – a God who he believed was best portrayed in Psalm 148…”[11] This phrase “Nature’s God” appears in the Declaration of Independence.

Although this sounds like the God of the Bible, it isn’t. Jefferson’s god did not reveal himself in the person of Jesus Christ. He did not believe that Jesus was sent by God to die and rise again for our sins. “Jefferson treated the teachings of Jesus as he would the teachings of any other ancient philosopher, but he did believe that Jesus’ ‘system of morals’ was ‘the most perfect and sublime that has ever been taught by man.’”[12]

What Jefferson thought about the Bible

Thomas Jefferson rejected the miracles in the Gospels, so he created his own Bible that excluded the miracles.
Thomas Jefferson rejected the miracles in the Gospels, so he created his own Bible that excluded anything supernatural.

Jefferson did not believe at all that the Bible was the inspired Word of God.[13] He said concerning the book of Revelation that the book was “the ravings of a Maniac, no more worthy, nor capable of explanation than the incoherences of our own nightly dreams.”[14] He did not have any respect for Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John either. He accused them of not passing down Jesus’ teachings accurately and disfiguring the true teachings of Jesus with mysticism.[15] Jefferson said:

“Among the sayings and discourses imputed to him [Jesus] by his biographers, I find many passages of fine imagination, correct morality, and of the most lovely benevolence: and others again of so much ignorance, so much absurdity, so much untruth, charlatanism, and imposture, as to pronounce it impossible that such contradictions should have proceeded from the same being. I separate therefore the gold from the dross: restore to him the former, and leave the latter to the stupidity of some and the roguery of others of the disciples. Of this band of dupes and imposters, Paul was the…first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus.” [16]

He wrote to John Adams about the virgin birth, “The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.”[17] He referred to the Trinity sarcastically as a form of mysticism.[18] Not only did he deny the virgin birth and the Trinity, but he predicted that Christianity would one day disappear. This is interesting since he actually predicted that Unitarianism, the form of “Christianity” that rejected that Christ was God in the flesh, would go on to be the prominent religion of the United States.[19]

Jefferson rejected any religious teachings and doctrines that could not be explained by reason. Thus he redefined what Christianity was. He would reject not only the Virgin Birth and the Trinity, but also the incarnation, the deity of Christ, the atonement, and the bodily resurrection of Jesus. And because the Bible had been corrupted, Jefferson set out to correct the problem. He created his own Bible. He left out anything that was supernatural and included only things that could be explained with reason. He wanted to be able to distinguish between the diamonds in a dunghill, the dunghill being things like miracles.[20] Fea notes:

“The phrases and stories that Jefferson left out of his Bible are revealing. His account of Jesus’ birth, for example, makes no reference to angels or prophecies. The words of Jesus that correlate with traditional Christian doctrines, such as the reference to him preaching ‘the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins,’ were omitted. All references to healings and other miracles, such as the turning of the water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana, were cut. The last verse of the Jefferson Bible reads: ‘There laid Jesus, and they rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulcher, and departed.’ There is no mention of the resurrection. In the end, the Jefferson Bible is perhaps our best guide to the rational religion of this follower of Jesus.”[21]

And it didn’t stop with the New Testament. Jefferson also attacked the Old Testament. When he was discussing the Ten Commandments he wrote the following about the Books of Moses (the first five books of the Bible where the Ten Commandments are found. Jefferson said, “But the whole history of these books is so defective and doubtful, that it seems vain to attempt minute inquiry into it…and such tricks have been played with their text, and with the texts of other books relating to them, that we have a right from that cause to entertain much doubt what parts of them are genuine.”[22]

We can summarize Jefferson’s religious beliefs by what he saw in Jesus’ teachings. These are the three main principles of a rationalistic religion: 1) there is only one God, and that he is perfect; 2) that heaven and hell exist; and 3) the sum of all religion is to love God and your neighbor.[23] This is hardly Biblical Christianity. Jefferson was a follower of a “rational” religion and rejected all the basic tenants of Christianity.

Conclusion

I know that many American Christians may not have liked what they read in this article. But the evidence is clear – Thomas Jefferson was not a true Christian, even though he thought he was. It is sad to think about how one of the America’s most loved heroes was not saved. What do you think? What did you believe about Jefferson before reading this article? Did it change your mind? Leave a comment below and visit us on Facebook.


[1] John Fea. Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? Louisville: Westminster John Know Press, 2011. Pg. 210. Robert C. Fuller. Religious Revolutionaries. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004. Pg. 46.
[2] Fea, 203.
[3] Fuller, 47.
[4] Fuller, 48. Fea, 204.
[5] Fuller, 55.
[6] Fea, 203.
[7] Chris Pinto. The Hidden Faiths of the Founding Fathers. 40:30. Fea, 203-204.
[8] Fea, 206. Jefferson to Charles Thomson, January 9, 1816; Jefferson to Salma Hale, July 26, 1818; Jefferson, “Syllabus of an Estimate of the Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus, Compared with Those of Others,” April 23, 1803. Jefferson to Benjamin Waterhouse, June 26, 1822; Jefferson to Waterhouse, October 15, 1822.
[9] Fea, 204.
[10] Fuller, 48-49.
[11] Fea, 204-205. See also Fuller, 49, 50.
[12] Fea, 205. Jefferson, “Syllabus of an Estimate of the Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus, Compared with Those of Others,” April 23, 1803.
[13] Fea, 206. Fuller, 50.
[14] Fea, 206. Jefferson to Peter Carr, August 10, 1787; Jefferson to Alexander Smyth, January 17, 1825.
[15] Fea, 206.
[16] Fea, 207. See also Fuller, 51. Jefferson to William Short, April 13, 1820.
[17] Fuller, 51. Jefferson to John Adams, April 11, 1823.
[18] Fuller, 52. Jefferson to Justin Pierre Plumard Derieux, July 25, 1788.
[19] Fea, 204. Jefferson to John Adams, August 22, 1813; Jefferson to Benjamin Waterhouse, June 26, 1822.
[20] Fea, 207-208. Jefferson to John Adams, October 12, 1813.
[21] Fea, 208.
[22] Jefferson to John Adams, January 24, 1814. In Pinto. Around the 45:30 mark in the documentary.
[23] Fuller, 51.
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6 thoughts on “Was Thomas Jefferson a Christian?

  1. David

    It Interests me excluding two uses of Chris Pinto’s Documentary You only have two sources, Fuller and Fea. If I wrote a Paper like this in college it would be ripped to pieces simply due to the fact that it lacks even a mild amount of research, and only uses secondary sources.

  2. mmcclellan2

    I find it interesting that you decided to ignore Pinto’s documentary and the primary sources that I used. Although I did begin my research with Fea and Fuller, I did go back and read the relevant primary sources. My article was not an in-depth research paper that was supposed to be 10-20 pages or more (it is only 4 pages on Microsoft Word). The amount and kinds of sources one uses depends on the topic and goals of the writer. I wanted to concentrate on what Jefferson said about his own beliefs. When we look at his words it is clear he was not a Christian in the biblical sense.

    Instead of concentrating on my sources how about you deal with the topic at hand. Correct me if I’m wrong, but by the tone of your writing it seems that you disagree with my belief that Jefferson was not a Christian. How about we discuss Jefferson’s own words? No matter how many secondary sources I use the conclusion is the same – Jefferson was not a Christian.

  3. Tom B

    This is an honest and fair article. I recommend you do a little research, and perhaps an article, on your statement concerning the first settlers wanting religious freedom. You state:
    “Some people who fought in the war did so because they wanted religious freedom. In fact, this is why most of the American Colonists (pilgrims, for example) even came to America in the first place.”

    This can be misleading because historical records indicate most of the earliest settlers, pilgrims included, wanted religious freedom for themselves but were very intolerant of other religious views. Their charters state that heir goal was to establish governments based on the particular teaching of their Christian sect. Many of the early colonial charters and later state constitutions did not guarantee religious freedom. Cases of heresy were often brought before government officials, who were often also the church officials. This continued for years in the early settlements and some of the colonies.

    The issue of religious freedom was not settled until the First Amendment was adopted. There were those in every state who opposed it. Jefferson had to fight for its inclusion it in his home state of Virginia and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

    Here is an interesting quote by Jefferson from that time:
    Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned: yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth. Let us reflect that it is inhabited by a thousand millions of people. That these profess probably a thousand different systems of religion. That ours is but one of that thousand. That if there be but one right, and ours that one, we should wish to see the 999 wandering sects gathered into the fold of truth. But against such a majority we cannot effect this by force. Reason and persuasion are the only practicable instruments. To make way for these, free inquiry must be indulged; and how can we wish others to indulge it while we refuse it ourselves. But every state, says an inquisitor, has established some religion. “No two, say I, have established the same.” Is this a proof of the infallibility of establishments? Our sister states of Pennsylvania and New York, however, have long subsisted without any establishment at all.
    o Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Virginia, 1782. Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 4, p. 80.

  4. mmcclellan2

    Tom thanks for your comment. I agree with you that some who came to America for religious freedom were intolerant themselves.

  5. Jim Eckland

    Jefferson didn’t write his own version but about” The Morals of Jesus of Nazareth”.The Smithsonian I believe or publisher of Jefferson’s book named it the Jefferson Bible!
    Jim E

  6. Patricia

    Thank you for the needed info. It is always good to be reminded that “the heart is deceitful and desperately wicked above all things”-especially in those we think so wise, but prove to be fools.

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