Thomas Jefferson—founding father, creator of The United States’ Declaration of independence, first Secretary of State for the United States, third President of the United States and founder of the University of Virginia. Modern-day scholars have dedicated entire careers into researching this man and his accomplishments, and yet, no other area in Thomas Jefferson’s psyche is more startling than his religious philosophy. This has led many scholars to ponder the question, was Jefferson a Christian? Christianity was the most popular religion amongst European citizens in colonial America, and it was not uncommon for men on the same social level as Jefferson to believe in high, Christian morals. However, this was not the case for Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson was, in fact, not a Christian.
Proving this radical claim about Jefferson and his religious philosophy is no easy task though. Through primary source evidence such as some of Jefferson’s own writings, secondary sources such as writings from prominent Jefferson Historians, and a detailed Historiographical analysis refuting historians that believe Jefferson was a Christian. Since he was a man of privacy, Jefferson’s writings contain a lot of information that can be useful when proving that he was not a Christian. Voices from Scholars that have dedicated their entire careers studying this man must be taken into account when examining this claim. Finally, unpopular perspectives on Jefferson’s religious philosophy must be examined to achieve a well-rounded argument in defense of the claim that Jefferson was not a Christian.
At a time when government is contemplating its involvement in the institution of religion, at a time when religious standards are a key issue when selecting which politician to vote for, and at a time when religious institutions contemplate their role in government, no other opinion could be so important as one from the framer of our Declaration of Independence. Though some people may doubt and reject the claim that Jefferson was not a Christian, it is essential to discuss this claim in hope that it will shine a brighter light when it comes to modern day issues facing religion in American government.
The first piece of primary source evidence that shall be discussed and analyzed is Thomas Jefferson’s book titled, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. One of Jefferson’s interests in his life was philosophy and religion; however, his beliefs were “sufficiently out of the mainstream.” Jefferson showed these unorthodox beliefs through this book because he literally cut out pages that he deemed “worthy enough” from his four volumes of the bible (each volume in either Latin, Greek, French or English) and copied them to separate pages which would eventually be bound in red leather and become The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. Jefferson began this meticulous endeavor in 1804 while he was serving in the presidency and finished in 1820 when he was retired and just six years away from his death.
As was stated early, Jefferson only cut and pasted the passages that he deemed “worthy”, and his is because Jefferson was a product of the enlightenment. This was a time in history when people sought out science, art, philosophy, and a whole other plethora of hobbies to explain the world around them versus the classic theologian explanation that was sought centuries before. Begin a product of the enlightenment, Jefferson began to distrust the gospels of the King James Bible that he had been taught for years. Along with his distrust in the Old Testament, because it contained various scientific inaccuracies, Jefferson specifically distrusted the gospels of the New Testament as is apparent from his writings calling the apostles, who wrote these gospels, “corrupt” and “untrustworthy.”Jefferson felt he had to set the record straight on the man he admired more than anyone, Jesus of Nazareth. Hence, when one reads The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, one finds that there is no Old Testament material, there is no mention of the supposed miracles Jesus performed, and there is no material explaining the resurrection of Jesus.
Even though it is evident that Thomas Jefferson admired the teachings of Jesus Christ, he had a deep distrust for everything else surrounding the story of Christianity. This brings the reader to a question, why would a man who is perceived to be a devout Christian renounce key components to the faith and create his own bible based on only a few factors of the entire faith? It doesn’t make sense and it is not logical. The only answer that makes sense is that while Jefferson admired Jesus and his teachings, he disapproved of Christianity as it had become. The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth is just one strong element in favor of the argument that Thomas Jefferson was not a Christian. It is important to note so uneducated statements proclaiming that Jefferson was a Christian do not mislead anyone, especially those with enough power to affect the lives of everyday citizens.
Without further a due, it is time to analyze and examine the second critical piece of primary source evidence, which is formally known as Thomas Jefferson’s Letter to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut. Jefferson wrote the letter to the Baptists of Danbury Connecticut on January 1, 1802 (two years before he started his work on The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth). The Baptists had written a letter to him congratulating him on his newly won presidential election and they also asked for clarification on what they’re First Amendment rights entailed in the United States Constitution that was created 15 years earlier. In the second paragraph of the letter, Jefferson says this, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.” The last part of the previous sentence, “wall of separation between Church and State”, has become a critical factor in our government, without Jefferson even knowing it would.
Even if this “wall of separation between Church and State” wasn’t a prevalent now in today’s government, Jefferson still conveyed his opinions on religion in government through this letter. One can now ask, why would a man who is supposedly a devout Christian declare government and religion two separate institutions? Under the assumption that Jefferson was a devout Christian, wouldn’t he want religious principles in the newly found American government? Again, the notion that Thomas Jefferson was a Christian does not fit logically with this piece of primary source evidence. With all the primary source evidence examined and analyzed in the paragraphs above, it is essential to now move into the realm of secondary source evidence to get a fresh perspective of Thomas Jefferson’s religious philosophy from prominent historians.
The fist secondary source that shall be looked upon is a Podcast titled, The Thomas Jefferson Hour, which was created by the humanities scholar, Clay Jenkinson. Jenkinson creates one show a week for the podcast and in every episode he will have a friend or colleague be the host for that episode, and the host will ask Jenkinson questions about various aspects of Thomas Jefferson’s life. Jenkinson in return will literally play the character of Thomas Jefferson throughout the episode and answer the host’s questions as if he is Jefferson. In one podcast that was titled “Show 622-Religion” and was created and aired on June 18, 2006, the host for this particular episode, David Swenson, asks Mr. Jefferson (portrayed by Jenkinson) about his religious philosophy.
In the very beginning of the episode, Swenson asks Mr. Jefferson (Jenkinson) what made his religious views so unorthodox for the time he lived in. Mr. Jefferson (Jenkinson) responds by saying that “I (Jefferson portrayed by Jenkinson), don’t believe humans are depraved from birth, that god in his infinite wisdom sent a savior in the form of his son, that this son being Jesus of Nazareth could suspend the laws of gravitation and walk on water, that he could take three fish and two loaves of bread and turn them into a bountiful feast, that he could raise the dead, heal the sick, turn water into wine, and that after Jesus was killed he was resurrected 3 days later and ascended into heaven. If that is a fair assessment of Christianity, and I believe it is, then I am not a Christian.” Mr. Jefferson (Jenkinson) goes on to say that, “while I was part of the Anglican church my entire life, to be a member didn’t take much exertion meaning that it was more social then religious based, but if you asked me if I can accept the creeds, the answer is no.” Finally, Mr. Jefferson (Jenkinson) concludes by saying, “I am a Jesusite (a term I coined, because the term Jesuit was already taken). This means I am an advocate of Jesus and I think the moral code of Jesus is all we need, love god with all your heart, love thy neighbor, do onto others, as you would have them do unto you. Frankly, I believe the priesthood, beginning with Paul, has distorted the biology and the simple ethics of Jesus and created tradition that has nothing to do with Jesus.”
With all the evidence from The Thomas Jefferson Hour being stated, one can clearly see that Thomas Jefferson was not a Christian. While Jenkinson points out, in his portrayal of Jefferson, that Jefferson was a lover of the ethics of Jesus; he could not accept Christianity as a whole. Jenkinson has not conveyed any bias either. In the hundreds of episodes Jenkinson has made, he discusses a huge range of topics in Jefferson’s life including Jefferson’s presidency, Jefferson’s education, and even Jefferson’s infamous love of wine. With that being said, Jenkinson clearly has no intention on distorting the true religious beliefs Jefferson had. He is simply a devout scholar that forms his career out of reading an unimaginable number of biographies on Jefferson and portraying Jefferson in his podcast episodes. In short, Jenkinson is simply a devout scholar dedicated to telling the truth about Jefferson.
The second piece of secondary source evidence that must be examined is the book titled, The Faiths of Our Fathers: What America’s Founders ‘Really’ Believed by Alf J. Mapp Jr.. Mapp is a “Eminent Scholar Emeritus” at Old Dominion University in Norfolk Virginia and an author of various books on Thomas Jefferson. In this book however, Mapp dedicates one chapter for every founding father and discusses the religious philosophy of every founder in their particular chapter. In his chapter on Thomas Jefferson, Mapp emphasizes the impact that the enlightenment had on Jefferson. Mapp states, “At the College of William and Mary, (which Jefferson attended when he was sixteen) he was strongly impressed with the intelligence of some of his professors, especially George Wythe, an William Small.” Mapp specifically makes notes of William Small’s impact on Jefferson because Jefferson would later write that Small, “probably fixed the destinies of my life.” Further into his chapter on Jefferson, Mapp points out that Small was the professor who guided Jefferson through the enlightenment era. Mapp says Small taught him about “individual rights, the rule of reason, and the human capacity for self-improvement and self-government.” Mapp continues by saying that these lessons created “skepticism” in Jefferson. Mapp concludes that because Jefferson was exposed to such elite, enlightenment thinking, Jefferson was “considered himself a Deist” which means he believed in a creator that created the universe but that that creator did not interfere in our every day lives.
Like Jenkinson, Mapp is a distinguished historian seeking to tell the truth about Jefferson, and Jefferson’s colleagues, religious philosophies. His interpretations take all the evidence surrounding Jefferson and his code of ethics into account and he agrees with Jenkinson in saying that Jefferson was not a Christian though he admired Jesus’ teachings greatly. Overall, the two secondary source analyses above give fresh interpretations of Jefferson’s religious philosophy. With that being said, it is time to move onto a concise historiographical argument regarding the thesis that Thomas Jefferson was not a Christian.
While most modern-day Jefferson scholars agree with each other regarding their interpretations on Jefferson and his religious philosophy, it is necessary to examine other interpretations as well to identify their credibility. First, interpretations about Jefferson’s role as a Christian, that are generally not accepted, will be examined. Second, flawed scholarly opinions about Jefferson’s thoughts on separation of Church and State will be evaluated. Third, imperfect interpretations of Jefferson’s views on modern-day issues surrounding religion will be inspected. While these views may be unpopular, it is important to explain why they are, or are not credible, to achieve a level of academic understanding and appreciation.
An uncommon opinion on Jefferson’s role as a Christian is a fit place to start. Daniel Dreisbach, a prominent Jefferson historian, believes that Jefferson expressed religious zeal when Jefferson, and a few of his colleagues, created a resolution to be carried out on June 1, 1774, that would call for a “day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer.” The idea of fasting would immediately cause the rational historian to think of Christian doctrine and sacrifice, but Dreisbach forgets to take into account Jefferson’s opinion on the resolution. According to Arthur Scheer, another Jefferson historian, Jefferson wrote in his letters, “Under the conviction of the necessity of arousing our people from the lethargy into which they had fallen, we cooked up a resolution.” In quoting from Jefferson’s own writing Scheer argues that Jefferson’s use of language, particularly the phrases, “under the conviction”, and “we cooked up a resolution”, Jefferson and his colleagues created this resolution to be a strictly political one. Scheer also says that the political ambition behind this resolution makes sense considering it was issued the day that British Forces closed and blockaded Boston Harbor. Considering all the evidence, it appears that Scheer’s argument seems more appropriate and credible regarding Thomas Jefferson as a Christian.
Next, it is important to analyze one unfamiliar opinion in accordance to Thomas Jefferson’s views on separation of Church and State. In 1998, the Library of Congress opened up a vast array of material from the founding father’s considering religious material. Manuscript Division Chief Justice James Hutson uncovered what several blacked out lines said in Jefferson’s famous letter to the Baptists of Danbury Connecticut in which he proclaimed his infamous phrase of a “wall of separation” between church and state. In this particular article where Hutson is discussed, it does not say what the blacked out lines say, but Hutson insures that they determined that Jefferson’s “wall of separation between church and state” phrase was purely political and did not give Jefferson’s real attitudes towards the constitutionality of religion and government.
Regardless of the fact that this particular article does not say what those blacked out lines said or if Jefferson blacked them out himself, Hutson’s theory does have some flaws. First of all, Hutson never takes into account Jefferson’s law that was passed in 1779 called The Virginia Statues of Religious Liberty. The law stated that no citizen of the United States had to pay taxes to a church they did not attend, nor should any state government recognize any specific church as its own. The Virginia Statues of Religious liberty completely contradict Hutson’s theory that the “wall of separation between church and state” phrase was a purely political one because the law illuminates Jefferson’s infamous phrase and shows it in its practicality. Once again, Hutson’s theory does have some backbone to it because it does not explain if Jefferson blacked out the lines in the original draft, or if another with a selfish political agenda conducted it. However, it still does not explain the contradiction with Jefferson writing the “wall of separation” phrase as a purely political tool, and Jefferson practicing this phrase in his own law, The Virginia Statues of Religious Liberty. With that said, it is necessary to examine Hutson’s theory, but considering the evidence, it is not valid.
Finally, an opinion on Jefferson’s views on modern-day issues surrounding religion must be discussed. In an article published in Time magazine on July 5th, 2014, Walter Kirn and Andrea Dorfman discuss various aspects of Thomas Jefferson’s life. They state at one point that, “As the Author of the Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom, which prohibited government interference in people’s religious beliefs, Jefferson took a hard line in this regard, and it isn’t difficult to imagine where he would stand on current debates about prayer in public schools, say, or faith-based funding for social projects.” In short, both authors are saying that Jefferson would have supported prayer in public schools and faith-based funding for social projects. While this claim seems believable at first, there are many flaws surrounding it. First of all, both authors are expressing the flaw of presentism. They are assuming Thomas Jefferson would agree with prayer in public schools and faith-based funding for social projects, but neither author is Jefferson, and the issues circulating the country, in regard to religion, in 2004, were incomparable to the issues, regarding religion, in Jefferson’s time. With that said, the year this article was published says a lot as well. In 2004, we were in the midst of war with Terrorism in the Middle East. During this period there was immeasurable amounts of patriotism and Christian doctrine being exercised all throughout the country. Is it illogical to think that the same religious and nationalistic sentiments that were expressed in American society at this time didn’t affect either author’s opinions when writing this article? The final and most obvious flaw is that the authors never use any evidence to support their claim. In the end, while it is important to inspect this article because it came from such a high profile magazine, but its claims have many flaws which makes it invalid.
In conclusion, while two out of the three historical interpretations staged above are clearly invalid, it is important to analyze such interpretations to pay a fair and equal amount of attention to all the evidence regarding Thomas Jefferson’s religious philosophy. Dreisbach had good reasons and evidence to support his claim that Jefferson was a devout Christian, but Scheer’s reason’s and claims were stronger. Hutson seemed to have good evidence and reasoning in his interpretation of Jefferson’s “wall of separation” phrase, but recent scholarship has dictated his interpretation to be invalid. Finally, The presentism that exists in the Time magazine article written by Walter Kirn and Andrea Dorfman classifies the articles reasoning and evidence as invalid. Overall, while the previous interpretations may have their flaws, they are important to examine because they provide scholars with a fair and equal amount of interpretations.
Overall, with all the evidence from primary source examination, secondary source analysis and a concise historiographical refute of unorthodox opinions of Thomas Jefferson’s religious philosophy, there is a strong thesis supporting the idea the Thomas Jefferson was not a Christian. In his book, the Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, Jefferson set the record straight for what he thought was a corrupted system by writing his own bible based off of parts he deemed “worthy” from various volumes other bibles. His “wall of separation between church and state” phrase is now a pivotal factor in America’s current government and based off the context he wrote it in, it conveyed his ideas of the combination between the institutions of religion and government. Clay Jenkinson portraying Thomas Jefferson in his Podcast called, The Thomas Jefferson Hour, believes that through his years of dedication and scholarship on Thomas Jefferson that Jefferson admired Jesus and his teachings, but rejected everything else surrounding Christianity. Alf J. Mapp Jr., expands of Jenkinson’s thesis but concluding that Jefferson was in fact a Deist and that his Deist ideology was born through his participation in the enlightenment. Finally, while the unorthodox opinions on Thomas Jefferson’s religious philosophy stated in the historiography section above may not have much evidence in favor of them, they are crucial pieces to inspect to develop a full, well-rounded argument in favor of the proposition that Thomas Jefferson was not a Christian. In conclusion, while many people do not often think about the relationship between church and government on a day to day basis, the argument surrounding the relationship is a fierce one and it affects all of us. Hopefully our third president, the created of our Declaration of Independence, and the creator of the University of Virginia can shed light on this debate and give an old, but wise opinion so we may hope to achieve the promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
- Owen Edwards, “How Thomas Jefferson Created His Own Bible.” 2014. Smithsonian. Accessed October 5. http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/how-thomas-jefferson-created-his-own-bible-5659505/.
- Clay Jenkinson and David Swenson, The Thomas Jefferson Hour-Show 622-Relgion, Podcast Audio, The New Enlightenment Radio Network, Access November 25, 2014, http://www.jeffersonhour.com
- Thomas Jefferson, The Jefferson Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (Radford, Virginia, A&R Publishing, 2007), 1-97
- Thomas Jefferson, Letter to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut. January 1, 1802.
- Alf J. Mapp Jr., The Faiths of Our Fathers: What America’s Founders ‘Really’ Believed, (New York, New York): Fall River Press, 2006), 4-6
- SCHERR, ARTHUR. 2014. “Thomas Jefferson Versus the Historians: Christianity, Atheistic Morality, and the Afterlife.” Church History 83 (1): 60–109. https://libproxy.uww.edu:9443/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,uid&db=a9h&AN=95108006&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
- Bartrum, Ian. 2009. “Of Historiography and Constitutional Principle: Jefferson’s Reply to the Danbury Baptists.” Journal of Church & State 51 (1): 102–25. https://libproxy.uww.edu:9443/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,uid&db=a9h&AN=47431953&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
- Kirn, Walter, and Andrea Dorfman. 2004. “LIFE, LIBERTY AND THE PURSUIT OF Th. Jefferson.. (Cover Story).” Time 164 (1): 46. https://libproxy.uww.edu:9443/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,uid&db=khh&AN=13587825&site=ehost-live&scope=site.
 Owen Edwards, “How Thomas Jefferson Created His Own Bible”, Smithsonian, January 2012, accessed November 25, 2014, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/how-thomas-jefferson-created-his-own-bible-5659505/
 Clay Jenkinson and David Swenson, The Thomas Jefferson Hour-Show 622-Relgion, Podcast Audio, The New Enlightenment Radio Network, Access November 25, 2014, http://www.jeffersonhour.com
 Edwards, Owen, “How Thomas Jefferson Created His Own Bible”, Smithsonian, January 2012, accessed November 25, 2014, http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/how-thomas-jefferson-created-his-own-bible-5659505/
 Thomas Jefferson, The Jefferson Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (Radford, Virginia, A&R Publishing, 2007), 1-97
 Thomas Jefferson, Letter to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut. January 1, 1802.
 Jenkinson, Clay and Swenson, David.The Thomas Jefferson Hour-Show 622-Relgion. Podcast Audio,.The New Enlightenment Radio Network. Access November 25, 2014, http://www.jeffersonhour.com
 Alf J. Mapp Jr., The Faiths of Our Fathers: What America’s Founders ‘Really’ Believed, (New York, New York): Fall River Press, 2006), 4
Mapp Jr., Alf J., The Faiths of Our Fathers: What America’s Founders ‘Really’ Believed. New York, New York: Fall River Press. 2006. 4-5
 Mapp Jr., Alf J., The Faiths of Our Fathers: What America’s Founders ‘Really’ Believed. New York, New York: Fall River Press. 2006. 5
 Mapp Jr., Alf J., The Faiths of Our Fathers: What America’s Founders ‘Really’ Believed. New York, New York: Fall River Press. 2006. 6
 Arthur Scheer, “Thomas Jefferson Versus the Historians: Christianity, Atheistic Morality, and the Afterlife, American Society of Church History 83, No. 1 (March 2014): 63
 Ian Bartrum, “Of Historiography and Constitutional Principle: Jefferson’s Reply to the Danbury Baptists”, Journal of Church and State 51, No. 1 (May 28, 2009): 102
 Bartrum, Ian. “Of Historiography and Constitutional Principle: Jefferson’s Reply to the Danbury Baptists”. Journal of Church and State 51, No. 1 (May 28, 2009): 102-103
 Bartrum, Ian. “Of Historiography and Constitutional Principle: Jefferson’s Reply to the Danbury Baptists”. Journal of Church and State 51, No. 1 (May 28, 2009): 103
 Jenkinson, Clay and Swenson, David.The Thomas Jefferson Hour-Show 622-Relgion. Podcast Audio,.The New Enlightenment Radio Network. Access November 25, 2014, http://www.jeffersonhour.com
 Walter Kirn, Andrea Dorfman, “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Thomas Jefferson”, Time, July 5, 2004, Page 46