In Thomas Jefferson: Roots of Religious Freedom, John Harding Peach claims that Thomas Jefferson was a Protestant Christian whose vision of religious liberty was grounded in his passionate desire to protect religion. Peach can perhaps defend this misleading portrayal of Jefferson under the guise that it is “a biographical novel,” but given that he also insists that “all historical events and places were provided as they factually occurred” (xii) this excuse is not credible. He may wish Jefferson was the person that he presents in his “novel” but he cannot honestly claim that Jefferson was that person. Unfortunately, his followers, who, no doubt, also want to believe that Jefferson was the Christian in Peach’s narrative, will uncritically accept his version of events. These distortions of history are not innocent ventures; they are part of a larger movement intent on re-writing history to support their claim that the United States is a Christian nation.
The wannabe historian David Barton has been at the forefront of this movement. His book (The Jefferson Lies) is the latest in a series of books dedicated to the goal of making this a Christian nation. But Jefferson’s well-known “infidelism” doesn’t fit this narrative, so rather than ignore the writer of the Declaration of Independence Barton and others have decided to remake Jefferson into a devout Christian. This is not an easy task and the only way to achieve it is through deception, dishonesty, and willful ignorance. In fact, Barton’s book is so egregiously dishonest that it was discontinued by his publisher after a group of conservative historians exposed it as misleading and “unsupportable.”1 Unlike Barton, Peach may not have gone as far as Barton, but it is still a dishonest and misleading portrayal of Jefferson. In his desire to see Jefferson as an upstanding Christian, Peach has cherry-picked, distorted, and misinterpreted the evidence.
Peach’s “novel” begins with Jefferson’s education with his childhood teacher the Rev. James Maury, who Peach claims “lit his fire,” (1) and ends with Jefferson’s death in 1826. The book highlights events in Jefferson’s life, large and small, which serve to present Jefferson as “practice[ing] his core conviction of basic Protestantism.” (xiii) This book review will challenge Peach’s portrayal of Jefferson. This post will be dedicated to Jefferson’s religious beliefs in general before turning to the Declaration of Independence and Jefferson’s views on religious liberty in future posts.
Was Jefferson a Christian?
Claim: Jefferson was a Christian because he said he was. (xvi)
Peach correctly points out that Jefferson declared himself a Christian in a letter to Benjamin Rush, but he conveniently ignores what Jefferson meant by this. In the letter Jefferson explains: “to the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. 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.”2 But by excluding what Jefferson meant by “the corruptions” and Jesus’s doctrines, Peach leaves his readers to interpret the passage in a way compatible with their own Christian beliefs not Jefferson’s.
By “corruptions of Christianity” Jefferson meant all metaphysical speculations and propositions contrary to reason, such as “the immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity, original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of Hierarchy, &c.”3 By “the genuine precepts of Jesus” Jefferson meant his moral principles. To Jefferson adhering to the moral principles of Jesus was true Christianity. But to most Christians, now and then, this simple proposition is not enough to make someone a Christian. They would probably at least require the belief in Jesus’s divinity, but determining the fundamental principles of Christianity is irrelevant. The point is that when Jefferson called himself a Christian, he meant something very different than what Peach or his followers mean. By not pointing this out, Peach has disingenuously mislead his readers into thinking that Jefferson was a professing Christian as they understand it. Peach cannot profess ignorance regarding Jefferson’s religious beliefs since he wrote extensively on the subject. A brief review of Jefferson’s writings shows that Jefferson’s religion was grounded in reason, focused on morality, and devoid of the metaphysical speculations that the majority of Christians see as central to their faith.
While Jefferson’s views evolved as he matured, there was no time during his adult life that his religious beliefs can be described as conventional Christianity. His deviations from the Christianity of his childhood probably began when he was studying at the college of William and Mary. At that time he had been exposed to the ideas of the Enlightenment and began copying the works of many Deists into his copybooks.4 By the time Jefferson appeared on the national stage in 1776 as the writer of the Declaration of Independence, he had rejected most of the faith he had been born into. This was the result of his decision to rely on reason rather than dogma as the source of his religious beliefs. Jefferson was so confident in the power of reason that he believed that it should be the definite guide for all individuals in the formation of their own religious opinions. This proposition is diametrically opposite to the reliance on dogma and faith of traditional Christianity.
Reason is the Judge of Religious Truth
Like other Enlightenment thinkers, Jefferson was confident in the power of reason and rejected the long history of imposed uniformity in religion which had only resulted in “[m]illions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, hav[ing] been burnt, tortured, fined, [and] imprisoned.”5 The solution, according to Jefferson, was “Reason and persuasion.” For this reason he recommended that school children not be presented with “the Bible and Testament…at an age when their judgements [sic] are not sufficiently matured for religious inquires.”6
For the same reason, Jefferson waited until his cousin, Peter Carr, was “mature enough to examine this object” before advising him on the subject of religion. He told him to “divest” himself “of all bias in favor of novelty & singularity of opinion,” and to “shake off all the fears & servile prejudices under which weak minds are servilely crouched.” Then, Jefferson advised him, “[f]ix 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 approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.”7
It is significant that Jefferson advised his cousin to question and evaluate the bible with the same scrutiny that he would other important works such as “Livy & Tacitus.” In doing so, Jefferson took religion outside the realm of sacredness and put it in the realm of reason, where it could be questioned and evaluated. Nothing was off limits, including the existence of God. Such advice would have been unthinkable for the majority of Christians. But Jefferson believed that all religious propositions, must be questioned, and accepted only if they pass the test of reason. This approach is not that of conventional Christianity, which emphasizes revelation, dogma, and faith rather than reason. While some Christians use reason as a tool to justify their own religious dogmas, they do not use it to question those very same dogmas. In contrast, Jefferson used reason to seriously evaluate religious dogmas, and was willing to throw them out if they failed to pass the test of reason. As he wrote to Miles King, “For, dispute as long as we will on religious tenets, our reason at last must ultimately decide, as it is the only oracle which god has given us to determine between what really comes from him, and the phantasms of a disordered or deluded imagination.”8
The result was that Jefferson rejected the basic dogmas of Christianity. If he rejected these dogmas, was there anything left of Christianity? In the late eighteenth century, Jefferson began thinking more about what he did believe rather than what he didn’t believe.
Christianity as the Moral Teachings of Jesus
After reading Joseph Priestley’s An History of the Corruptions of Christianity (1793) Jefferson began to see the incomprehensible dogmas of Christianity as corruptions. Jefferson was so enamored with Priestley’s book that he re-read it “over and over again.”9 If these dogmas were corruptions of Christianity, what then was true Christianity? What remained after these corruptions were removed was essentially the moral teachings of Jesus and it was this that Jefferson came to believe represented true Christianity.
In a response to another of Priestley’s books (Socrates and Jesus Compared) in 1803, Jefferson expressed interest in further comparisons of Jesus with other ancient philosophers. Most of all he wanted to show the need for a “reformation” of the “degraded state” of Jewish morality and then
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.
He wanted to return to what he saw as the core principles of Jesus, uncorrupted by the “unlettered” men who wrote down his teachings and especially “his special disciples, and who have disfigured and sophisticated his action & precepts.”10 These contemplations would eventually lead him to create his own version of the New Testament devoid of everything he considered corruptions. By 1820 he had completed his project, which he called “The Life and Morals of Jesus.”
In undertaking this project Jefferson claimed that his aim was
“to justify the character of Jesus against the fictions of his pseudo-followers, which have exposed him to the inference of being an imposter. 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 theorisations 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.”11
Jefferson is not the first to note the contrast between Jesus the human being and the religion that bears his name, but he was the first to take scissors to the Bible in order to solve this problem.
Jefferson reduced the teachings of Jesus to three principles:
“1. That there is one only God, and he all-perfect.
2. That there is a future state of rewards and punishments.
3. That to love God with all thy heart and thy neighbor as thyself.”12
He declared these “the sum of all religion.” To Jefferson true Christians were those who believed these simple principles of Jesus. All others were “usurpers of the Christian name, teaching a Counter-religion made up of the deliria of crazy imaginations, as foreign from Christianity as is that of Mahomet.”13 So when Jefferson declared himself a Christian he meant that he believed in the moral principles of Jesus.
Although Jefferson praised Jesus’s principles as he saw them, he also made clear that “it is not to be understood that I am with him in all His doctrines.” In a letter to William Short, Jefferson clarified his position: “I am a Materialist; he takes the side of spiritualism: he preaches the efficacy of repentance towards forgiveness of sin; I require a counter poise of good works to redeem it &c. &c.”14
If Jefferson’s writing show that he was not a Christian as understood by most people, how can Peach claim that he was a “basic” Protestant? Peach ignored the bulk of Jefferson’s writings on religion, and relied instead on Jefferson’s actions to convince his readers that Jefferson was indeed a standard Protestant Christian.
Do Jefferson’s Actions Prove That He was a “basic” Protestant?
Peach argues that Jefferson “practiced his core conviction of basic Protestantism.” (xiii) What are these practices? And do they prove that Jefferson was a Protestant?
Claim: Jefferson was baptized in the Church of England, and then became a vestryman for that church. (xiii)
The issue of Jefferson’s baptism is irrelevant given that this reflects the beliefs of his parents not his own. The fact that Jefferson was a vestryman is relevant, but in the given context it says nothing about his religious beliefs. Vestrymen were lay members of the Anglican Church who played an important role in governing the parishes. As Susan Kern notes, it “was a public role, rather than one having to do with religious conviction.”15 Becoming a vestryman was expected for all gentlemen of Jefferson’s stature. It was a matter of tradition and status, not religion.
Claim: “When he was 14, he chose to be tutored by Rev. James Maury, his ardent Huguenot pastor who passionately taught him the Scriptures. Prior to that, for the past five years he had been taught by Rev. William Douglas, another of his pastors. If Thomas Jefferson was adamant against Christianity, why did he personally choose to be tutored by his pastor?” (xiv)
In eighteenth-century Virginia there was no public education system, and it was traditionally the clergy who instructed the children of the wealthy plantation owners because they had the education and resources to do so. It was not a matter of choosing between a secular or religious educator; it was simply a matter of which member of the clergy would be chosen.
But even if Jefferson had purposely selected a religious tutor, his religious inclinations at such a young age cannot be used as evidence of his religious beliefs as an adult. More importantly, Jefferson’s own reflections on his time with Maury undermines Peach’s claim. In his Autobiography, Jefferson referred to Maury as “a correct classical scholar, with whom I continued two years.”16 He made no mention of the religious instruction he received from him. In terms of his education the person that Jefferson singled out for praise was the only non-clerical scholar at the college of William and Mary, Dr. William of Small, a proponent of the Scottish Enlightenment. Jefferson praised Small as “a man profound in most of the useful branches of science, with a happy talent of communication, correct and gentlemanly manners, and an enlarged and liberal mind…..from his conversation I got my first views of the expansion of science, and of the system of things in which we are placed.”17 Jefferson’s reflections on his education indicate that it was science, not religion, that he found the most valuable. Peach’s description of his relationship with Maury is misleading, if not an outright fabrication.
Claim: Peach argues that since Jefferson’s family Bible, and his Book of Common Prayer survived the fire at his home at Shadwell in 1770, Jefferson must have had the books with him in Williamsburg. Based on this assumption Peach concludes that “[t]he Bible must have been used for study and referencing while his prayer book was needed for worship when he went to church.” Then he rhetorically asks, “Does this sound like someone who was an infidel or an atheist, as he was labeled by his enemies?”18 (xiv)
This claim is easily refuted. Jefferson did not receive the family Bible until after his mother’s death in 1776, six years after the fire.19 He probably did have his Prayer Book with him, but this still says nothing about his beliefs. Jefferson used the book to record family events, just as his mother did with the family Bible, and Jefferson would do after her death.20 These objects were valuable family heirlooms, and the fact that Jefferson would have had them with him says nothing about how he used these objects, or what he believed. Peach’s inference that Jefferson’s possession of these objects indicates his religious inclinations is completely without merit.
Claim: “When he was 31, he proposed a Resolution for a Day of Fasting, Humiliation & Prayer in Virginia. This, his first public document, was presented to the Virginia House of Burgesses on May 24, 1774 and was quickly passed with unanimous consent. If Thomas Jefferson was not a Christian, then why would he see the necessity to call on all citizens to fast and pray to God for his intervention in their affairs? To amplify his belief that prayer and fasting was vital to call on God’s favor, he took his resolution back to his own Albemarle County and proposed another day of fasting for his local parish.” (xiv-xv)
Peach claims to have relied heavily on Jefferson’s Autobiography (xi), yet once again he ignores inconvenient evidence from it that runs contrary to his desired outcome. In it, Jefferson explained what he was up to when he proposed the day of prayer and fasting. He and some friends wanted to “take an unequivocal stand in the line with Massachusetts” in its quarrel with Great Britain. To do this they needed to rouse Virginians “from the lethargy into which they had fallen.” So Jefferson and his co-conspirators “thought that the appointment of a day of general fasting and prayer would be most likely to call up and alarm their attention.” Therefore, they “cooked up a resolution…for a day of fasting, humiliation, and prayer.” In addition, they gave the resolution to the pious Robert Carter Nicholas, “to increase the chances of its passage since his “grave and religious character was more in unison with the tone of our resolution.”21 Apparently, Jefferson’s own “religious character” was not “in unison” with the resolution.
What about Peach’s claim that he took the resolution to his local parish in order to “amplify his belief that prayer and fasting was vital to call on God’s favor” (12-13)? Once again, Peach’s interpretation is disingenuous. Nowhere does Jefferson indicate that he believed that the “prayer and fasting was vital to call on God’s favor.” Contrary to Peach’s claim, Jefferson did not propose this Day of Fasting, Humiliation & Prayer because he believed that it was necessary “to call on all citizens to fast and pray to God for his intervention in their affairs.” (xiv) The purpose of the prayer was to mobilize Virginians in support of Massachusetts.
Claim: Peach claims that Jefferson’s church attendance is evidence of his faith. (25)
It is true that Jefferson frequently went to various church services and even financially supported some of them, but it does not follow that Jefferson held conventional Protestant beliefs. As David L. Holmes explains, “That Jefferson attended and supported other churches does not make him a Baptist, Presbyterian, or evangelical Episcopalian, any more than his regular reading of the Bible makes him an orthodox Christian.”22 For whatever reason Jefferson attended and supported these churches it was not because he believed their dogmas, and as a public figure it would have been unwise for him to completely forgo church attendance.
Throughout his book, Peach makes similar claims by distorting and ignoring evidence. But neither Jefferson’s writings nor his actions support the claim that Jefferson was a Protestant, or any type of conventional Christianity. If Jefferson was not a Christian in the conventional sense, then what was he?
Was Jefferson a Deist?
Jefferson claimed to be a religion unto himself, and in some ways he was, but he was not as unique in his beliefs as he professed. Jefferson was a product of the Enlightenment, and his approach to the subject of religion reflects this influence. Because Jefferson sometimes spoke as if he believed in providence and an afterlife, many have claimed that he could not have been a Deist (the belief that God created the world but then left his creation to run by natural immutable laws). But adherence to this principle does not distinguish Jefferson from other Deists. Many prominent Deists, including Benjamin Franklin, believed in providence and an afterlife. In fact, Franklin’s description of his own creed is very similar to Jefferson’s. In a letter to Ezra Stiles, Franklin summarized his creed:
“I believe in one God, the creator of the universe. That he governs it by his Providence. That he ought to be worshipped. That the most acceptable service we render to him is doing good to his other children. That the soul of man is immortal, and will be treated with justice in another life respecting its conduct in this.”23
In terms of basic principles there is very little that distinguishes Jefferson’s creed from Franklin’s, and it is important to keep in mind that the Providence of Jefferson and the Deists was not the personal Providence of Christianity, it was the impersonal unfolding of the laws of nature.
And as far as an afterlife, Franklin seems more committed to its existence than Jefferson, who confessed ignorance on the subject, but “thought it better” to prepare for an afterlife “and to trust for the future to him who has been so good for the past.”24 The main motivation for Jefferson retaining this belief that runs contrary to his own principle to believe only that which was “beyond the comprehension of the human mind,”25 seems to be driven by his conviction that a future state of rewards and punishments was necessary as an incentive to do good.
They both praised the moral principles of Jesus, and distinguished them from the corruptions of Christianity. Sounding like Jefferson, Franklin declared that the system of morals of Jesus were “the best the world ever saw or is like to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupting changes.”26 The fact that Jefferson more heartily embraced Jesus’ moral principles does not merit his exclusion from the Deist camp.
Jefferson differed from Franklin in his hostility towards conventional religion and the clergy. Jefferson’s anticlericalism is well known; he frequently contrasted the principles of Jesus with those of the clergy:
“I abuse the priests indeed, who have so much abused the pure the holy doctrines of their master, and who have laid me under no obligations of reticence as to the tricks of their trade. The genuine system of Jesus, and the artificial structures they have erected, to make them the instruments of wealth, power, and preeminence to themselves, are as distinct things in my view as light and darkness: and while I have classed them with soothsayers and necromancers, I place him among the greatest of the reformers of morals, and scourges of priest-craft that have ever existed.”27
Franklin was much more accommodating towards the clergy and orthodox religion, and for that reason Kerry Walters has dubbed him the “Ambivalent Deist.”28 On the other hand, Kerry calls Jefferson a “deistic Christian,” because Jefferson attempted “to purify Christianity with an infusion of deistic rationalism.”29 This label is misleading; it places the emphasis on Christianity rather than Deism, which gives the false impression that Jefferson retained much of the Christian religion. It would be more accurate to call him a providential Deist. But whatever we call him, he was not a Christian as most understand the term.
Peach may have deceived his followers by distorting the evidence, but his attempt to turn Jefferson into a conventional Christian is not credible. I have exposed only some of Peach’s false claims, but a point by point debunking of all his claims is not necessary. He uses the same tactics throughout his book to deceive his readers. Instead, I want to focus on two important subjects related to Jefferson’s religious beliefs, and his view of religious liberty. In the Part II of this series, I will focus on Peach’s interpretation of the Declaration of Independence before turning to Jefferson’s views on church-state relationships in a final post on this subject.
1. Thomas Kidd, “The David Barton Controversy: Christian critics Challenge WallBuilders President on America’s Founders,” The World Magazine (August 7, 2012). (see http://www.worldmag.com/2012/08/the_david_barton_controversy)
2. Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Rush (April 21, 1803) in The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson: Including the Autobiography, the Declaration of Independence & His Public and Private Letters, edited by Adrienne Koch and William Peden (New York: The Modern Library, 2004), 519.
3. Jefferson to William Short (October 31, 1819) in The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, n 1, 634.
4. David L. Holmes, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 80.
5. Jefferson, “Notes on Virginia” (1781-2) in The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 255.
6. Ibid., 244.
7. Jefferson to Peter Carr (August 10, 1787) in The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 399.
8. Jefferson to Miles King (September 26, 1814) in Jefferson & Madison on Separation of Church and State: Writings on Religion and Secularism edited by Lenni Brenner (Fort Lee, New Jersey: Barricade Books, 2004), 231.
9. Jefferson to John Adams (August 22, 1813) in Jefferson & Madison, 210.
10. Jefferson to Dr. Joseph Priestley (April 9, 1803) in Jefferson & Madison, 166 and 167.
11. Jefferson to William Short (August 4, 1820) in Jefferson & Madison, 338.
12. Jefferson to Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse (June 26, 1822) in Jefferson & Madison, 360.
13. Ibid., 361.
14. Jefferson to William Short (April 13, 1820) in Jefferson & Madison, 335.
15. Susan Kern, The Jeffersons at Shadwell (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 164.
16. Jefferson, “Autobiography,” in The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 8.
18. At the time it was common to denounce anyone who held unconventional religious views as an infidel or atheist without any concern for their actual meanings.
19. Kern, The Jeffersons, 230.
20. Ibid., 233 and 236.
21. Jefferson, “Autobiography,” in The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 12.
22. David L. Holmes, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 85.
23. Benjamin Franklin to Ezra Stiles (March 9, 1790) in The Works of Franklin Containing Several Political and Historical Tracts Not Included in Any Former Edition and Many Letters and Private Not Hitherto Published with Notes and a Life of the Author by Benjamin Franklin & Jared Sparks, vol. 10 (Benjamin Franklin Stevens, 1840), 423.
24. Jefferson to Rev. Isaac Story (December 5, 1801) in Jefferson & Madison, 163.
25. Jefferson to Achibald Carey (1816) in Jefferson & Madison, 238.
26. Franklin to Ezra Stiles (March 9, 1790) in The Works of Franklin, 424.
27. Jefferson to Charles Clay (January 29, 1815) in Jefferson & Madison, 233-4.
28. Kerry Walters, Revolutionary Deists: Early America’s Rational Infidels (New York: Prometheus Books, 2011).
29. Ibid., 171.