Jefferson’s Jesus

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In my previous post I may have given the impression that I was simply doing what I accused David Barton of doing, namely, cherrypicking quotes from Thomas Jefferson in order to paint him how I wished. So here are a few more selections from the Jefferson oeuvre that should put to rest any notions that Jefferson was in any way an orthodox Christian.

In a letter to Joseph Priestley, written in April 1803, Jefferson outlines how he would treat of religion:

I should then take a view of the deism and ethics of the Jews, and show in what a degraded state they were, and the necessity they presented of a reformation. I should proceed to a view of the life, character, & doctrines of Jesus, who sensible of incorrectness of their ideas of the Deity, and of morality, endeavored to bring them to the principles of a pure deism, and juster notions of the attributes of God, to reform their moral doctrines to the standard of reason, justice & philanthropy, and to inculcate the belief of a future state, This view would purposely omit the question of his divinity, & even his inspiration. To do him justice, it would be necessary to remark the disadvantages his doctrines have to encounter, not having been committed to writing by himself, but by the most unlettered of men, by memory, long after they had heard them from him; when much was forgotten, much misunderstood,& presented in very paradoxical shapes. Yet such are the fragments remaining as to show a master workman, and that his system of morality was the most benevolent & sublime probably that has been ever taught, and consequently more perfect than those of any of the antient philosophers. His character & doctrines have received still greater injury from those who pretend to be his special disciples, and who have disfigured and sophisticated his actions & precepts, from views of personal interest, so as to induce the unthinking part of mankind to throw off the whole system in disgust, and to pass sentence as an impostor on the most innocent, the most benevolent, the most eloquent and sublime character that ever has been exhibited to man.

Note this was written 23 years before his death. Barton alleged that Jefferson’s turn towards heterodoxy occurred relatively late in life. But here Jefferson firmly laid down his opinion that the real Jesus had been distorted.

Two weeks later, in a letter to Benjamin Rush, Jefferson asserted “I am a Christian, in the only sense he wished anyone to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; & believing he never claimed any other.” He then added that Jesus died at a young age after only about three years of preaching. “Hence the doctrines which he delivered were defective as a whole, and fragments only of what he did deliver have come to us mutilated, misstated, & often unintelligible.” His teachings were further mutilated by his followers, “who have found an interest in sophisticating & perverting the simple doctrines he taught by engrafting them into subtleties, & obscuring them with jargon, until they have caused good men to reject the whole in disgust, & to view Jesus himself as an imposter.”

Okay, perhaps he thought Jesus’s message had been distorted by his followers, so what? After all, don’t all Protestants believe that to some degree? One can think that Christians have distorted Christ’s teachings without necessarily thinking that Jesus Himself was not the son of God. Well, this is what he wrote to William Short in August 1820:

My aim in that was, to justify the character of Jesus against the fictions of his pseudo-followers, which have exposed him to the inference of being an impostor. For if we could believe that he really countenanced the follies, the falsehoods and the charlatanisms which his biographers father on him, and admit the misconstructions, interpolations and theorizations of the fathers of the early, and fanatics of the latter ages, the conclusion would be irresistible by every sound mind, that he was an impostor. I give no credit to their falsifications of his actions and doctrines, and to rescue his character, the postulate in my letter asked only what is granted in reading every other historian.

So if we take the Gospels at their word, then Jesus was an imposter. Meaning, that if Jesus is all that the Gospels maintained that he claimed to be, we couldn’t take Jesus seriously.

Luckily for us all, Thomas Jefferson was gifted with the ability to divine (no pun intended) the real from the fake within the Gospels.

We find in the writings of his biographers matter of two distinct descriptions. First, a groundwork of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticisms and fabrications. Intermixed with these, again, are sublime ideas of the Supreme Being, aphorisms and precepts of the purest morality and benevolence, sanctioned by a life of humility, innocence and simplicity of manners, neglect of riches, absence of worldly ambition and honors, with an eloquence and persuasiveness which have not been surpassed. These could not be inventions of the groveling authors who relate them. They are far beyond the powers of their feeble minds. They shew that there was a character, the subject of their history, whose splendid conceptions were above all suspicion of being interpolations from their hands. Can we be at a loss in separating such materials, and ascribing each to its genuine author? The difference is obvious to the eye and to the understanding, and we may read as we run to each his part; and I will venture to affirm, that he who, as I have done, will undertake to winnow this grain from its chaff, will find it not to require a moment’s consideration. The parts fall asunder of themselves, as would those of an image of metal and clay. There are, I acknowledge, passages not free from objection, which we may, with probability, ascribe to Jesus himself; but claiming indulgence from the circumstances under which he acted.

That’s mighty nice of Jefferson to forgive Christ his transgressions.

Now just in case you weren’t convinced that Jefferson held an unconventional view of Christ, he also added this passage:

That Jesus did not mean to impose himself on mankind as the son of God, physically speaking, I have been convinced by the writings of men more learned than myself in that lore. But that he might conscientiously believe himself inspired from above, is very possible. The whole religion of the Jews, inculcated on him from his infancy, was founded in the belief of divine inspiration. The fumes of the most disordered imaginations were recorded in their religious code, as special communications of the Deity; and as it could not but happen that, in the course of ages, events would now and then turn up to which some of these vague rhapsodies might be accommodated by the aid of allegories, figures, types, and other tricks upon words, they have not only preserved their credit with the Jews of all subsequent times, but are the foundation of much of the religions of those who have schismatised from them. Elevated by the enthusiasm of a warm and pure heart, conscious of the high strains of an eloquence which had not been taught him, he might readily mistake the coruscations of his own fine genius for inspirations of an higher order. This belief carried, therefore, no more personal imputation, than the belief of Socrates, that himself was under the care and admonitions of a guardian Dæmon. And how many of our wisest men still believe in the reality of these inspirations, while perfectly sane on all other subjects. Excusing, therefore, on these considerations, those passages in the gospels which seem to bear marks of weakness in Jesus, ascribing to him what alone is consistent with the great and pure character of which the same writings furnish proofs, and to their proper authors their own trivialities and imbecilities, I think myself authorised to conclude the purity and distinction of his character, in opposition to the impostures which those authors would fix upon him; and that the postulate of my former letter is no more than is granted in all other historical works.

Dang Jews – not only did the crucify Christ for passing himself off as the son of God, it turns out they’re the ones who implanted that idea in his head in the first place.

I don’t mean to belabor the point. I just reemphasize that it is essential that we understand our historical figures for who they really are, and not for who we want to pretend they were.

More to explorer

Dear Crazy Leader

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  1. Poor Jesus. If only He had the benefit of Jefferson’s wise counsel while He dwelt among us! Or perhaps Jefferson could have benefited in having CS Lewis to give him counsel:

    (In the first place they all tend to direct men’s devotion to something which does not exist, for each “historical Jesus” is unhistorical. The documents say what they say and cannot be added to; each new “historical Jesus” therefore has to be got out of them by suppression at one point and exaggeration at another, and by that sort of guessing (brilliant is the adjective we teach humans to apply to it) on which no one would risk ten shillings in ordinary life, but which is enough to produce a crop of new Napoleons, new Shakespeares, and new Swifts, in every publisher’s autumn list. In the second place, all such constructions place the importance of their Historical Jesus in some peculiar theory He is supposed to have promulgated. He has to be a “great man” in the modern sense of the word – one standing at the terminus of some centrifugal and unbalanced line of thought – a crank vending a panacea. We thus distract men’s minds from Who He is, and what He did. We first make Him solely a teacher, and then conceal the very substantial agreement between His teachings and those of all other great moral teachers. For humans must not be allowed to notice that all great moralists are sent by the Enemy not to inform men but to remind them, to restate the primeval moral platitudes against our continual concealment of them. We make the Sophists: He raises up a Socrates to answer them. Our third aim is, by these constructions, to destroy the devotional life. For the real presence of the Enemy, otherwise experienced by men in prayer and sacrament, we substitute a merely probable, remote, shadowy, and uncouth figure, one who spoke a strange language and died a long time ago. Such an object cannot in fact be worshipped. Instead of the Creator adored by its creature, you soon have merely a leader acclaimed by a partisan, and finally a distinguished character approved by a judicious historian. And fourthly, besides being unhistorical in the Jesus it depicts, religion of this kind is false to history in another sense.

    No nation, and few individuals, are really brought into the Enemy’s camp by the historical study of the biography of Jesus, simply as biography. Indeed materials for a full biography have been withheld from men. The earliest converts were converted by a single historical fact (the Resurrection) and a single theological doctrine (the Redemption) operating on a sense of sin which they already had – and sin, not against some new fancy-dress law produced as a novelty by a “great man”, but against the old, platitudinous, universal moral law which they had been taught by their nurses and mothers. The “Gospels” come later and were written not to make Christians but to edify Christians already made.)

  2. A week from now, everyone will be celebrating the Declaration of Independence, written by Jefferson, amid whoops and hollers. Ol’ Tom was hardly the only deist among the Founders; in fact, most were Deists and not Christians.

  3. I don’t mean to belabor the point. I just reemphasize that it is essential that we understand our historical figures for who they really are, and not for who we want to pretend they were.

    Let us hope the same applies to Lincoln and Hamilton : )

    BTW, Don, I accept your wager. As I look at a five-dollar bill, I already am having positive thoughts about ol’ Abe.

  4. Let us hope the same applies to Lincoln and Hamilton : )

    Of course! I’m for disseminating all the facts, just not caricatures based on cherrypicked evidence.

  5. Paul, in a wider context, Jefferson, along with Madison, co-authoried the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom. Without it America would have gone on as it was — with Jews banned from holding office in some states, Catholics in others, and Protestants in Maryland. So while Jefferson had doubts about the divinity of Jesus, he nonetheless embraced Intelligent Design. By the way, if one studies Mother Teresa’s life, she had many doubts, too.

  6. Researching, I came across this list. I cannot affirm its accuracy but if it is then I suppose most were “Christian,” although not quite conventional:

    Here is a list of our Founding Fathers religion.
    Signers Name

    Religious Affiliation
    Adams, John Congregationalist/ Unitarian
    Adams, Samuel Congregationalist
    Bartlett, Josiah Congregationalist
    Braxton, Carter Episcopal

    Clark, Abraham Presbyterian
    Chase, Samuel Episcopal
    Carroll of Carrollton, Charles Roman Catholic

    Clymer, George Quaker/ Episcopal
    Ellery, William Congregationalist
    Floyd, William Presbyterian

    Hall, Lyman Congregationalist
    Gwinnett, Button Episcopal/ Congregationalist
    Gerry, Elbridge Episcopal
    Franklin, Benjamin Episcopal/ Deist

    Hancock, John Congregationalist
    Harrisson, Benjamin Episcopal
    Hart, John Presbyterian
    Hewes, Joseph Quaker/ Episcopal
    Heyward Jr., Thomas Episcopal

    New Hampshire
    Hopkinson, Francis Episcopal
    Hopkins, Stephen Episcopal
    Hooper, William Episcopal

    New Jersey
    Huntington, Samuel Congregationalist
    Jefferson, Thomas Episcopal/ Deist
    Lee, Francis Lightfoot Episcopal
    Lee, Richard Henry Episcopal
    Lewis, Francis Episcopal

    New York
    Middleton, Arthur Episcopal
    McKean, Thomas Presbyterian
    Lynch Jr., Thomas Episcopal
    Livingston, Philip Presbyterian

    North Carolina
    Morris, Lewis Episcopal
    Morris, Robert Episcopal
    Morton, John Episcopal

    Rutledge, Edward Episcopal
    Rush, Benjamin Presbyterian
    Ross, George Episcopal
    Rodney, Caesar Episcopal
    Read, George Episcopal
    Penn, John Episcopal
    Paine, Robert Treat Congregationalist/ Unitarian
    Paca, William Episcopal
    Nelson Jr., Thomas Episcopal

    Rhode Island
    Sherman, Roger Congregationalist
    Smith, James Presbyterian

    South Carolina
    Thornton, Matthew Presbyterian
    Taylor, George Presbyterian
    Stone, Thomas Episcopal
    Stockton, Richard Presbyterian

    Walton, George Episcopal
    Whipple, William Congregationalist
    Williams, William Congregationalist
    Wilson, James Episcopal/ Presbyterian
    Witherspoon, John Presbyterian
    Wolcott, Oliver Congregationalist
    Wythe, George Episcopal

  7. Franklin, listed as “episcopal/deist,” was more the latter and may have, like some of the others, filled in the religion box for the sake of political correctness. He famously speaks for himself here:

    “God governs in the affairs of man. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid? We have been assured in the Sacred Writings that except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it. I firmly believe this. I also believe that, without His concurring aid, we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel” -Ben Franklin–(Constitutional Convention of 1787)

  8. Without it America would have gone on as it was — with Jews banned from holding office in some states, Catholics in others, and Protestants in Maryland.

    I’m not trying to pile on, but in a bitter irony, *Catholics* had been disenfranchised in Maryland by the Revolution. They were only 8 percent of the population of that colony at that point, and the Protestants were determined to keep them chained. The example of Charles Carroll (of Carrollton) radically changed the views of the Protestant majority, and this injustice was remedied.

    I strongly recommend Bradley Birzer’s biography of Carroll, “American Cicero.” It gives a nice background on the status of Catholics in the colony.

    Birzer also advances the argument that the Quebec Act was the real final straw for a lot of the American colonists.

  9. Your list is wrong about Carroll’s colony–Carroll was a native of Maryland, and arguably the richest man in America by the time of the Revolution.

  10. There’s something wrong with that list. The names of the signers are in roughly alphabetical order. I’d guess that there was an embedded column in the cut-and-paste that distorted it.

  11. It’s also worth noting that the founders were representitives of colonies, each made up of a large number of denominational emcampments. They weren’t looking to encode their own beliefs into the founding documents; they were trying to protect their populations. So this wasn’t a Deist document, or a Presbyterian/Episcopalean document. It was intended to protect the rights of every goofy New England utopian town of 200 souls, and everyone else. That’s the danger of emphasizing the founders’ individual beliefs over those beliefs that they wanted to prevent government from restricting.

  12. When Jefferson was in charge of the University of Virginia, he actively urged all the local religious groups to use the university buildings and grounds for events. Which was shrewd for gaining community support and goodwill, but also showed that his instinct was to be generous and impartial. It’s the American way to share.

    No, Jefferson’s beliefs were weirder than a barrel of komodo dragons, but that didn’t mean he didn’t believe in other people following their own religions.

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