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Saturday, March 21, 2009

Thomas Jefferson: Christian Restorationist

Researching the individual religious beliefs of our various Founding Fathers has become a favorite pastime of mine. Whether it is trying to understand the mystery of George Washington, the complexity of Benjamin Franklin, or the "heretical" views of Thomas Paine, the topic of our founding fathers and their religion has captivated the attention of the public. Yet despite this attraction to the founders and their religion, I am amazed at the fact that so many historians, theologians, and common history buffs still push for a singular religious label when it comes to our founders. For example, we have all heard it said that Benjamin Franklin was a Deist, and that George Washington was a Theist, U(u)nitarian, devout Christian, etc. While these labels carry with them a certain degree of truth, it would be foolish to suggest that they contain all we need to know. After all, Franklin referred to himself as a "thorough deist" and a "devout Christian" at different points in his life. From the evidence available Washington's personal faith contained components of Christianity and deism. Simply put, it would be foolish of us to assume that a singular label -- i.e. Christianity, Deism, etc. -- is sufficient in explaining the religious views of our founding fathers.

With that said, I want to focus on one founder that has fallen victim to this "single religious label" phenomenon that I have mentioned above. We have all heard it said that Thomas Jefferson was clearly a deist. After all, the man rejected the divinity of Jesus, changed the Bible to fit his personal creed, and openly criticized organized religion on a number of occasions. While I cannot refute the validity of these facts, I do not believe that they can be used to conclusively label Jefferson as a Deist and nothing more. As Tom Van Dyke has pointed out at the American Creation blog in one of his posts on Jefferson:

Thomas Jefferson was no "deist." His God was no cosmic watchmaker; he was active in the affairs of men ... I also noted that the Jefferson Bible left in The Lord's Prayer, which is probative, because when your watch breaks, you don't pray to Timex."
Mr. Van Dyke is absolutely right. Jefferson's God was an intervening force that helped to shape the course of mankind. As Mr. Van Dyke effectively points out, Jefferson never subscribed to the idea of an absent god/cosmic clockmaker.

With that said, I am in no way suggesting that deism played NO role in the religious views of Thomas Jefferson. I am simply saying -- and I believe Mr. Van Dyke is as well -- that deism only tells part of the story. When it comes to Jefferson and deism, perhaps Dr. Larry Cebula put it best when he wrote:

"I think you (and many others) make a mistake by applying a dictionary definition of Deism as if it were a set of principles equivalent to a religious test. Surely 18th century Deism was much more loose than that, more a set of inclinations and ideas than a set of fixed principles. It is hard to define precisely but I know it when I see it. If Deism was a big tent, Jefferson was at least a frequent visitor, and often made his home there."
(see comments section at this link).

It is not my intention to engage in a debate over Jefferson's deism. I believe that it is both reasonable and appropriate to embrace what both Tom Van Dyke and Larry Cebula point to. Deism played a role in Jefferson's faith to be sure, but it does not tell the entire story. With that said, I now want to turn to the main point of my post, which I hope will provide an additional interpretation of Jefferson's faith.

In my opinion, Thomas Jefferson's personal religion can be better understood when we recognize a few of the religious constants that he accepted throughout the course of his life:

1.) Jefferson loved Jesus but not Christianity.

2.) Jefferson loved scripture but despised its current interpretation.

3.) Jefferson believed in reason and not faith.

4.) Jefferson embraced the internal benefits of religious devotion but detested the outward demonstrations of Christian zealots.


In summation, I believe that in addition to his Christian and deist leanings, Jefferson was deeply influenced by his belief in Christian RESTORATIONISM, which caused Jefferson to accept what he believed were the true doctrines of Christ and to reject the distorted orthodoxy of his day.

Point #1: Jefferson loved Jesus, but not Christianity:
For Jefferson, the religion of Jesus Christ was simple. As he stated in an 1818 letter to Wells and Lilly of the Classical Press:

"I make you my acknowledgement for the sermon on the Unity of God, and am glad to see our countrymen looking that question in the face. it must end in a return to primitive Christianity" [my emphasis].

Jefferson's desire to return to the roots of "primitive Christianity" were the result of his conviction that the Christian religion had strayed from the true doctrine of Jesus Christ. As Jefferson stated on another occasion:

"The religion-builders have so distorted and deformed the doctrines of Jesus, so muffled them in mysticisms, fancies and falsehoods, have caricatured them into forms so monstrous and inconceivable, as to shock reasonable thinkers...Happy in the prospect of a restoration of primitive Christianity, I must leave to younger athletes to encounter and lop off the false branches which have been engrafted into it by the mythologists of the middle and modern ages." [my emphasis]. (Thomas Jefferson, The writings of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 7, H.A. Washington, ed., pp210, 257).
Later in his life, in a letter to Francis van der Kemp, Jefferson stated:

"I trust with you that the genuine and simple religion of Jesus will one day be restored: such as it was preached and practised by himself. very soon after his death it became muffled up in mysteries, and has been ever since kept in concealment from the vulgar eye" [my emphasis].
For Jefferson, true Christianity was not to be had in the ceremonial rituals of communion or the Calvinist doctrine of grace. Instead good works and moral behavior were the TRUE doctrine of a Christian:

"My fundamental principle would be the reverse of Calvin's, that we are to be saved by our good works which are within our power, and not by our faith which is not within our power."
(Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Parker, May 15, 1819).
As evidenced above, Jefferson's love for Jesus came not from a pious devotion to orthodoxy, but from a sincere appreciation of his doctrine. Jefferson sincerely believed that Christ's doctrines were to be admired and emulated. With regards to the morals of Jesus, Jefferson stated:

"It is the innocence of his character, the purity and sublimity of his moral precepts, the eloquences of his inculcations, the beauty of the apologues in which he conveys them, that I so much admire."
It was in his admiration of the example and doctrine of Jesus, not his devotion to pious orthodoxy, that Jefferson developed a love for Jesus. Perhaps Steven Waldman, author of the book, Founding Faith, points to Jefferson's love of Jesus best when he writes:

"Jefferson was driven to edit the Bible the way a parent whose child has been kidnapped is driven to find the culprit. Jefferson loved Jesus and was attempting to rescue him" (Founding Faith, 73).

Point #2: Jefferson loved scripture but despised its current interpretation:

In my opinion, there can be little doubt that Thomas Jefferson was a supporter of scripture. The simple fact that Jefferson spent so many years tediously dissecting the Bible to fit his personal beliefs is evidence of this fact. While there is no doubt that Jefferson's "tinkering" with the Bible has caused Christians to take an antagonistic stance against Jefferson, it is still worth analyzing the motives behind Jefferson's Bible editing.

As Steven Waldman stated in the quotation noted above, Jefferson's intentions behind altering the Bible were based on his belief that Christianity had strayed from the religion of Christ. As Jefferson stated in a letter to Samuel Kercheval in 1810:

"But a short time elapsed after the death of the great reformer of the Jewish religion, before his principles were departed from by those who professed to be his special servants, and perverted into an engine for enslaving mankind, and aggrandizing their oppressors in Church and State: that the purest system of morals ever before preached to man has been adulterated and sophisticated by artificial constructions, into a mere contrivance to filch wealth and power to themselves: that rational men, not being able to swallow their impious heresies, in order to force them down their throats, they raise the hue and cry of infidelity, while themselves are the greatest obstacles to the advancement of the real doctrines of Jesus, and do, in fact, constitute the real Anti-Christ."
And to John Adams in 1813, Jefferson wrote:

"It is too late in the day for men of sincerity to pretend they believe in the Platonic mysticisms that three are one, and one is three; and yet that the one is not three, and the three are not one . . . But this constitutes the craft, the power and the profit of the priests. Sweep away their gossamer fabrics of factitious religion, and they would catch no more flies. We should all then, like the Quakers, live without an order of priests, moralize for ourselves, follow the oracle of conscience, and say nothing about what no man can understand, nor therefore believe."
It is clear that the reasons behind Jefferson's desire to "edit" the Bible were motivated out of his distrust for pious Christian leaders and from his sincere belief that Christianity had fallen from its true course.

When it comes to the Jefferson Bible, it is interesting to note just what kind of changes he chose to make. Clearly Jefferson did not intend to write his own version of the Bible, but instead hoped to recover some of the "missing" or "altered" truths that had been lost over time. Again, Jefferson hoped to RESTORE the true nature of Christ's religion as it was once contained in the Bible of old. A good example of Jefferson's passion to "correct" the Bible can be found in his 1823 letter to John Adams, in which he states:

"[A]nd his doctrine of the Cosmogony of the world is very clearly laid down in the 3 first verses of the 1st. chapter of John, in these words, `{en arche en o logos, kai o logos en pros ton Theon kai Theos en o logos. `otos en en arche pros ton Theon. Panta de ayto egeneto, kai choris ayto egeneto ode en, o gegonen}. Which truly translated means `in the beginning God existed, and reason (or mind) was with God, and that mind was God. This was in the beginning with God. All things were created by it, and without it was made not one thing which was made'. Yet this text, so plainly declaring the doctrine of Jesus that the world was created by the supreme, intelligent being, has been perverted by modern Christians to build up a second person of their tritheism by a mistranslation of the word {logos}. One of it's legitimate meanings indeed is `a word.' But, in that sense, it makes an unmeaning jargon: while the other meaning `reason', equally legitimate, explains rationally the eternal preexistence of God, and his creation of the world. Knowing how incomprehensible it was that `a word,' the mere action or articulation of the voice and organs of speech could create a world, they undertake to make of this articulation a second preexisting being, and ascribe to him, and not to God, the creation of the universe."
In addition to pointing out where he believed the original translation of the Bible had gone wrong, Jefferson often took the liberty of changing certain parts of the Bible's text in an effort to make it sound more "Christ-like." For example, instead of keeping the biblical verse found in Matthew 5: 48, which states, "Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect," Jefferson removed the verse completely and then added what was a twist of Luke 6: 36 when he wrote "Be ye therefore merciful, as your Father also is merciful." Clearly Jefferson felt that a number of biblical texts had been changed to pollute or subjugate the minds of mankind.

When it comes to the Jefferson Bible, it is also important to note the fact that all miracles -- i.e. raising Lazarus from the dead, turning water into wine, walking on water, etc. -- were removed from Jefferson's final draft. This helps to clearly illustrate the fact that Jefferson, despite his devotion to the example and doctrine of Christ, never acknowledged him as divine or as the savior of mankind. In fact, Jefferson even stated to his friend, John Adams, that:

“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.” (Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, April 11, 1823).
For all of his praise and devotion to Jesus, Jefferson never publicly recognized him as the Son of God.

Point #3: Jefferson believed in reason and not faith:

As one of the quintessential Enlightenment thinkers of early America, it should come as no surprise that Thomas Jefferson favored reason to faith. As mentioned above, Jefferson's removal of all miracles from his draft of the Bible suggests that he put little to no stock in faith-based stories, which he undoubtedly considered to be fables. In addition, Jefferson admonished his family and friends to put their trust in reason, not faith. As he wrote to Peter Carr in 1787:

"Your reason is now mature enough to examine this object. In the first place divest yourself of all bias in favour of novelty & singularity of opinion. Indulge them in any other subject rather than that of religion. It is too important, & the consequences of error may be too serious. On the other hand shake off all the fears & servile prejudices under which weak minds are servilely crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear...Read the bible then, as you would read Livy or Tacitus. The facts which are within the ordinary course of nature you will believe on the authority of the writer, as you do those of the same kind in Livy & Tacitus. The testimony of the writer weighs in their favor in one scale, and their not being against the laws of nature does not weigh against them. But those facts in the bible which contradict the laws of nature, must be examined with more care, and under a variety of faces. Here you must recur to the pretensions of the writer to inspiration from god." [My emphasis].

Point #4: Jefferson embraced the internal benefits of religious devotion but detested the outward demonstrations of Christian zealots:

This final point was perhaps the biggest pet-peeve of all for Thomas Jefferson. For a man that fought for religious freedom and equality, Jefferson could also not help but notice how pious expressions of religion had caused the world a great deal of harm. As he states in his Notes on the State of Virginia:

“Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burned, tortured, fined, and imprisoned, yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half of the world fools and the other half hypocrites.”
For Jefferson, religion best served mankind when it was left to the individual and not the clergy:

"Say nothing of my religion. It is known to God and myself alone. Its evidence before the world is to be sought in my life" (Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, January 11, 1817).
In Jefferson's mind, this was the only true way to be a Christian. As Jesus himself had admonished to, "Take heed that ye do not your alms before men" (Matthew 6:1). With this in mind, it is understandable why Thomas Jefferson would refer to himself as a "true Christian." As he stated in a letter to Benjamin Rush:

"I am a Christian, in the only sense he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; & believing he never claimed any other."
In conclusion, Thomas Jefferson's religion was anything but simple. Defining him exclusively as a deist or any other label is both counterproductive and incomplete. Clearly Jefferson was influenced to a degree by deism, Christianity, U(u)nitarianism, etc. With that said, it is essential that we recognize the passionate devotion to RESTORATIONISM that literally guided Jefferson's walk through his personal labyrinth of religious devotion. Jefferson's love and admiration for the doctrines of Jesus, along with his appreciation of scripture, devotion to reason, and his appeal to private communion with God, all helped to shape Jefferson's religious perspective. By advocating a return to the original doctrines of Christ, Jefferson's Christian RESTORATIONISM is as important to his overall religious DNA as were deism and Christianity.

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