Daily Archives: March 4, 2015

Excerpt from ‘Doubting Thomas?: The Religious Life and Legacy of Thomas Jefferson’

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Editor’s note: This book excerpt is the first in a series that will focus on the religious legacy of the United States’ third president, Thomas Jefferson. “Doubting Thomas?: The Religious Life and Legacy of Thomas Jefferson” (Morgan James Publishing, Nov. 4, 2014) is co-authored by Mark A. Beliles, Ph.D. and Jerry Newcombe, D.Min.

Thomas Jefferson was a complicated man, especially when it comes to religion.

TRINITARIAN CHURCH MEMBERSHIP AND WORSHIP ALL HIS LIFE

Despite Jefferson’s late unorthodoxy, he maintained his support and attendance with orthodox Trinitarian churches (when available) his entire life. (He once describedThomas Small himself as a lifelong Episcopalian; but for two periods that type of church was unavailable to him—when he was in France (1784-1789) and after he retired back to Charlottesville (1809-1819).

The evidence in this book from his own writings and actions shows Thomas Jefferson to be much more involved in Christian activity than most people realize. Documents prove about 70 times that Jefferson worshiped or attended services, and over 400 incidents of him supporting religion or religious persons in one way or another. And it was proven that Jefferson worshiped other times, which he mentions in letters, but which simply do not show up in any documents.

Some may argue that just showing Jefferson financially supporting his local church does not mean he attended its services, but the overwhelming testimony of so many diverse observers clearly testify that he did so. For instance, Margaret B. Smith describes his eight years in Washington by saying: “Jefferson during his whole administration was a most regular attendant [at church in the Capitol].”[1] His political opponent Manasseh Cutler confirmed the same during those years—and even use the phrase “ardent zeal” in reference to Jefferson attending Christian services there. And Jefferson’s overseer at Monticello said of Jefferson’s retirement years that he never missed a chance to hear any preacher that came along. (This was even during the period before the Episcopal Church started back up in Charlottesville.) His family members and neighbors confirmed the same for his retirement years. And never once did any of his local pastors nor any other person in Williamsburg, Richmond, Philadelphia or Washington mention that Jefferson refrained from attending church or taking communion and participating in the weekly recitation of the Apostles’ Creed. On the positive side are many comments from the same, noting his attendance. In short, Thomas Jefferson was a committed, life long churchman.

Let’s review some of the other highlights of his personal pro-faith religious life:

  • He received his education at the hands of Christians, and he paid for his children and grandchildren to receive such an education. He also was a financial supporter of many Christian schools and colleges.
  • He was a member in good standing at Episcopalian Trinitarian congregations and a frequent worshiper at services organized by many other denominations that were predominantly orthodox.
  • On occasion, he even recommended a preacher to the Congressional chaplains, whose responsibility it was to fill that pulpit.
  • He was a very active giver to Christian causes. This was a pattern throughout his life, even in the last phase, which was the least orthodox of his earthly sojourn. Per capita, Jefferson probably gave more than today’s average Christian. He kept meticulous record of his expenditures, and it shows repeated donations to Christian churches and causes.
  • As a young man, Jefferson served as a vestryman (like an elder and a deacon rolled into one) for the Anglican Church. Also, around this same time, in 1777, he wrote up the charter for the Calvinistical Reformed Church in his town with an evangelical preacher, the Rev. Charles Clay—with whom he had a lifelong friendship. Jefferson was the biggest single contributor to this fledgling congregation.
  • Between 1821 and 1826 dozens of letters between Jefferson and Rev. Hatch, along with donations, show a renewed orthopraxic faith. At that last stage he was publicly a Christian member of a Trinitarian Episcopal church and he was accepted as a member by his pastor, while privately holding to Unitarian views.

Yet there was also evidence of doubts beginning with the 1788 letter, where he declined being a godparent because he did not understand the Trinity. But there was no subsequent evidence of a separation or withdrawal from Trinitarian churches. Despite the influence of Rev. Joseph Priestley and Unitarian friends, Jefferson claimed he did not turn away from the Christian faith. On April 21, 1803, to Rush he said unapologetically: “…I am a Christian…”

But after ten years more, in private—never public—he began to clearly express more unorthodoxy in his views. From about 1813 onward, Jefferson’s own words show a desire to promote a “restored” Christianity (that jettisoned the doctrine of the Trinity). In these later years there are several letters clearly identifying himself as an Episcopalian and a Christian (but in a non-creedal way). He said he could never be an atheist, and never once called himself a Deist. In his last year he called himself a Unitarian for the first time. Like many of the Restorationist believers in his area and like Unitarian Rev. Joseph Priestley, he believed the Scriptures had been corrupted over time, but his long-time pastors thought it was intellectual playfulness in the closet. Their perspective hopefully has been introduced through this book as a legitimate way of interpreting Jefferson’s personal faith.

[1] Margaret Bayard Smith, First Forty Years of Washington Society (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1906), 13.

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