Sunday, July 7, 2013

Faith of our Founding Fathers: Thomas Jefferson

Many years ago, I stood behind a church pew and argued with a college student who was the son of a Reformed Presbyterian minister. My family had just attended the Sunday evening service at his father's Pennsylvania church. Decades earlier, the building had belonged to a Christian & Missionary Alliance congregation. It was where my parents had been baptized as adults, where they were invited to sing cantatas with the choir, and where I was dedicated to the Christian God by a Pastor Raymond Dibble. We were in town to revisit those memories, but I was more fascinated by this Presbyterian church's songbook: a psalter that contained nothing but metrical psalms put to hymn tunes or chants.

I was also surprised to meet a young man close to my own age who had no aversion to conversation with a female. We stumbled onto the subject of American history, a favorite of mine. My fascination with the guy probably made me over-assertive. His studies had convinced him that Thomas Jefferson was not a Christian. At least not in the sense that his preacher-father would ever use that word. My home-education reading had led me to believe the opposite, and I was as stubborn as a bulldog. Not often did I have the opportunity to verbally wrestle with a handsome, intelligent young man! The intellectual contact made me as giddy as his wavy hair and Scottish last name did.

When my parents loaded us all back into the car to return to our hotel that night, my belief in our Christian founding fathers was still unswayed, though I did wonder how such such a cute Christian young man could defend such error so sincerely! I may even have been slightly jealous that he got to study such subjects in college.

My information had come largely from David Barton and ATI Wisdom Booklets. It was many more years before I realized the difference between real historians and David Barton. My definition of "Christian" has also undergone multiple revisions since that time. And now I understand what that pastor's kid was trying to explain to my much younger, naive but inquisitive and ever-searching self.

Thomas Jefferson
(Source: Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia at

Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear. (Letter to Peter Carr, 1787)

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 in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other. (Letter to Benjamin Rush, 1803)

In extracting the pure principles which he [Jesus] taught, we should have to strip off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests, who have travestied them into various forms, as instruments of riches and power to them. . . . We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus, paring off the Amphibologisms into which they have been led by forgetting often, or not understanding, what had fallen from him, by giving their own misconceptions as his dicta, and expressing unintelligibly for others what they had not understood themselves. There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man. I have performed this operation for my own use, by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and arranging, the matter which is evidently his, and which is as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill. (Letter to John Adams, 1813)

I must ever believe that religion substantially good which produces an honest life, and we have been authorized by One whom you and I equally respect, to judge of the tree by its fruit. (Letter to Miles King, 1814)

But the greatest of all the reformers of the depraved religion of his own country, was Jesus of Nazareth. Abstracting what is really his from the rubbish in which it is buried, easily distinguished by its luster from the dross of his biographers, and as separable from that as the diamond from the dunghill, we have the outlines of a system of the most sublime morality which has ever fallen from the lips of man; outlines which it is lamentable he did not live to fill up. Epictetus and Epicurus give laws for governing ourselves, Jesus a supplement of the duties and charities we owe to others. The establishment of the innocent and genuine character of this benevolent moralist, and the rescuing it from the imputation of imposture, which has resulted from artificial systems,* invented by ultra-Christian sects, unauthorized by a single word ever uttered by him, is a most desirable object, and one to which Priestley has successfully devoted his labors and learning. It would in time, it is to be hoped, effect a quiet euthanasia of the heresies of bigotry and fanaticism which have so long triumphed over human reason, and so generally and deeply afflicted mankind; but this work is to be begun by winnowing the grain from the chaff of the historians of his life.
* e. g. The immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity; original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of Hierarchy, &c.
(Letter to William Short, 1819)

No one sees with greater pleasure than myself the progress of reason in its advances towards rational Christianity. When we shall have done away the incomprehensible jargon of the Trinitarian arithmetic, that three are one, and one is three; when we shall have knocked down the artificial scaffolding, reared to mask from view the simple structure of Jesus, when, in short, we shall have unlearned every thing which has been taught since his day, and got back to the pure and simple doctrines he inculcated, we shall then be truly and worthily his disciples: and my opinion is that if nothing had ever been added to what flowed purely from his lips, the whole world would at this day have been Christian. I know that the case you cite, of Dr Drake, has been a common one. 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, to revolt them against the whole, and drive them rashly to pronounce its founder an impostor. (Letter to Timothy Pickering, 1821)

The truth is that the greatest enemies to the doctrines of Jesus are those calling themselves the expositors of them, who have perverted them for the structure of a system of fancy absolutely incomprehensible, and without any foundation in his genuine words. And 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. But we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away all this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this the most venerated reformer of human errors. (Letter to John Adams, 1823)

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