Thomas Jefferson's Views on Religion

by Michael B. Smith

 

"Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports . . . . And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. . . . reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle."

--George Washington's Farewell Address published on September 19, 1796.

 

In April 1801 the President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson sent an American warship to France to rescue old acquaintance and Revolutionary War writer Thomas Paine. Paine, escaping the revolutionary and Bonapartist leadership in Paris two steps ahead of the guillotine, was hoping to return to the United States after failing in his attempt to convince French authorities that their revolution should follow the same guidelines as the American Revolution of 1776. Jefferson originally said that the differences between the American and French Revolutions were insignificant and Paine agreed. When he left the United States in 1783. Paine was not a popular figure, and when he arrived back in Baltimore, Paine learned that Americans have long memories. John Adams, in writing to Benjamin West in 1805 said that Paine was "a mongrel between Pig and Puppy, begotten by a Wild Boar on a Bitch Wolf", as Paine was an unrepentant alcoholic and in public he had the manners of a derelict. To the American people, though, Paine's chief offense was his authorship of The Age of Reason, which they felt was an attack on their Christianity. In it Paine wrote, "Every national church or religion has established itself by pretending some special mission from God, communicated to certain individuals. The Jews have their Moses; the Christians have their Jesus Christ, and the Turks their Mahomet, as if the way to God was not open to every man alike. Each of those churches share certain books, which they call revelation, or their Word of God. The Jews say that God gave their Word of God to Moses face to face. The Christians say that their Word of God came by divine inspiration, and the Turks say their Word of God (the Koran) was brought by an angel from heaven. Each of these churches accuses the others of unbelief, and, for my own part, I disbelieve them all." To Jefferson, however, Paine remained a hero of the Revolution of 1776, both in thought and action.

In endorsing Paine and thanking him for his continuing work towards revolutionary goals and ideals, Jefferson again drew the scorn and condemnation of the Federalist press which labeled him an "arch infidel, a defiler of Christian virtue and a companion of the most vile, corrupt, obnoxious sinner of the century." They characterized Jefferson and Paine discussing the best way to promote atheism of their past successes in "despoiling Christian virgins." In particular, New England clergymen, who never let a chance pass by to attack Jefferson, had a field day. Jefferson, always hurt by the charges of atheism, wrote to Dr. Benjamin Rush that, "My views . . . are a result of a life of inquiry and reflection, and very different from that anti-Christian system imputed to me by those who know nothing of my opinions", but publicly he let the outrageous remarks pass without comment.

One of Jefferson's basic beliefs about religion held that religious faith was a personal experience between a man and God. It was certainly not to be discussed and confessed before other men, nor could it be dictated. It was a man's most personal decision to come to his own views about God through thought and experience. Jefferson never talked about his own religious experience, even to those closest to him.

Jefferson believed that men had natural moral instincts and therefore all religions had something in common; only the traditions and dogmas were different. Religion was just another branch of morality and Jefferson considered Jesus as the greatest moralist in history. "A system of morals is presented to us which, if filled up in the style and spirit of the rich fragments he left us, would be the most perfect and sublime that has ever been taught by man." In Jefferson's mind, the essence of pure Christianity was how each man fulfilled his duties to other men. Jefferson was fascinated by the noble behavior of man in past civilizations and he believed in man's natural goodness and in the unity of God in the minds of men. Certainly, Jefferson's opinion is very different from what many more pragmatic people held about human nature in the eighteenth century. As Alexander Hamilton said, "Take mankind in general, they are vicious." Jefferson however acknowledged a Supreme Being directing the world. He considered himself a "true Christian", but said that the Trinity was incompatible with reason, and rejected much of the teaching of orthodox Christian Churches.

The first serious attacks on Jefferson's character came from the religious Northeast. In the original seat of Puritanical power in North America, one Boston Federalist newspaper, the New England Palladium, recognizing the influence of the French Revolution, proclaimed during the election of 1800 that if "that infidel Jefferson should be elected the seal of death is set on our holy religion and some infamous prostitute under the title of the Goddess of Reason will preside in the sanctuaries now devoted to the worship of the Most High." With the clergy fanning the flames of unjustifiable fear, some citizens in New England even went so far as to hide their family Bible, thinking the President would confiscate them as soon as he was inaugurated.

As an amateur scientist, Jefferson believed in the freedom of inquiry about God, and thought that it was a blasphemy to believe that religion could not stand the test of reason. He feared that when political power and the Church allied, freedom of free inquiry suffered. Historically, Jefferson also believed that in the era of the Reformation, judges in England had corrupted Christianity by passing unfair laws, which intellectually and spiritually enslaved the population. This mental oppression continued in America with a Calvinist clergy, who thought that Jefferson was at best an agnostic, or at worst, an atheist. Not surprisingly, Jefferson argued, "…. history I believe furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government." He continued, "such a society marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes." So Jefferson believed that it was the religious teachers who were at fault, not the religious teaching. Jefferson reassured Charles Thomson, declaring in a letter, "I am a real Christian," denouncing those, "who call me infidel and themselves Christians and preachers of the gospel, while they draw all their characteristic dogmas from what its author never said or saw."

In his own mind, Jefferson was a Christian, although an unorthodox one. Near the end of his life, he did finally reveal some of his private beliefs. In a letter to Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse on June 26, 1822, Jefferson outlined his creed.

There is only God, and he is perfect

There is a future state of rewards and punishments.

That to love God with all your heart and thy neighbor as thyself is the sum or religion.

Jefferson then asked Dr. Waterhouse to compare these with the "demoralizing doctrines of Calvin." Calvin believed, Jefferson maintained, that:

There are three Gods.

Good works, or the love of neighbor are nothing.

Faith is everything, and the more incomprehensible the proposition, the more merit in its faith.

Reason in religion is of unlawful use.

Moreover, Jefferson denounced the fundamental concept of election or predestination. He did not believe, as Calvinists did that God from the beginning elected certain individuals to be saved, and certain others to be damned; and that no crimes of the former can damn them; no virtues can save.

Closely tied to his religious views were other strongly held concepts. Jefferson believed for example that any form of governmental censorship was unacceptable. Because most American colleges were allied to some religious denomination at this time, Jefferson prohibited the teaching of theology at the University of Virginia. In addition, Jefferson was aware that in many colleges, members of the clergy chose what books the students could read. Jefferson rejected this infringement upon personal liberty.

Jefferson's idea about the unity of God and what the real truth about religion was based upon led him to embrace Unitarian beliefs. Unitarianism is a religious movement that imposes no specific creed on its members. Each person is helped and encouraged to discover his or her own truth and meaning in life, and to practice tolerance towards the views of others. Unitarians stress that Jesus was a man whose teaching is to be followed, but he was not necessarily a God to be worshipped. Jefferson was aware that he did not possess a monopoly on truth, although he believed he possessed a larger share than most people.