Was Thomas Jefferson a Deist?
The propaganda that has been spouted incessantly since the 1960s is that the Founders of the American Republic were deists. Deism is currently defined as: “The belief, based solely on reason, in a God who created the universe and then abandoned it, assuming no control over life, exerting no influence on natural phenomena, and giving no supernatural revelation” (American Heritage…, 2000, p. 479). This assessment of the Founders’ beliefs is so thoroughly embedded in societal consensus that the one who questions it is immediately discounted as an ignorant fool.
Thomas Jefferson is one of the Founders typically singled out as a deist. Apart from the fact that only a very small handful of the Founders might be legitimately styled “deists”—with the overwhelming majority of the Founders being believers in the God of the Bible and the validity of the Christian religion—it is interesting that Jefferson never actually claimed to be a deist. In fact, quite the opposite is the case. He explicitly claimed to be a Christian. Granted, his writings indicate that he doubted the deity of Christ; nevertheless, he identified himself very clearly with the precepts of Jesus.
Several proofs of this fact are available to the objective appraiser of history. For example, in a letter written from Washington, to prominent Founder Dr. Benjamin Rush, on April 21, 1803, Jefferson explained:
Dear Sir, In some of the delightful conversations with you, in the evenings of 1798-99, and which served as an anodyne to the afflictions of the crisis through which our country was then laboring, the Christian religion was sometimes our topic; and I then promised you, that one day or other, I would give you my views of it. They are the result of a life of inquiry & reflection, and very different from that anti-Christian system imputed to me by those who know nothing of my opinions. 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 (1803, emp. added).
Observe that Jefferson insisted that those who accused him of being anti-Christian simply did not know his actual views. In a letter to a longtime friend, Charles Thomson, on January 9, 1816, Jefferson affirmed:
I, too, have made a wee-little book from the same materials, which I call the Philosophy of Jesus; it is a paradigma of his doctrines, made by cutting the texts out of the book, and arranging them on the pages of a blank book, in a certain order of time or subject. A more beautiful or precious morsel of ethics I have never seen; it is a document in proof that I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus, very different from the Platonists, 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 nor saw (1816, emp. added).
Based on these two quotations, it is evident that some, perhaps most, of Jefferson’s negativity toward Christianity was, in fact, simply revulsion for the perversions and corruptions of true Christianity. Another proof of this point is seen in Jefferson’s letter to Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse on June 26, 1822:
The doctrines of Jesus are simple, and tend all to the happiness of man. 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 they neighbor as thyself is the sum of religion. These are the great points on which he endeavored to reform the religion of the Jews. But compare with these the demoralizing dogmas of Calvin: 1. That there are three Gods; 2. That good works, or the love of our neighbor are nothing; 3. That faith is everything, and the more incomprehensible the proposition, the more merit in its faith; 4. That reason in religion is of unlawful use; 5. 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, and no virtues of the latter save. Now which of these is the true and charitable Christian? He, who believes and acts on the simple doctrines of Jesus? or the impious dogmatists of Athanasius and Calvin? Verily I say that these are the false shepherds foretold as to enter not by the door into the sheepfold but to climb up some other way. They are mere 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. Their blasphemies have driven thinking men into infidelity who have too hastily rejected the supposed Author himself with the horrors so falsely imputed to him. Had the doctrines of Jesus been preached always as purely as they came from his lips, the whole civilized world would now have been Christian (1822, emp. added).
Regardless of how one feels about Jefferson’s ardent repudiation of Calvinism and the concept of the Trinity, it is nevertheless evident that Jefferson portrayed himself as one who praised Jesus and embraced the basic doctrines of Christianity.
The fact is that, like most of the Founders, Jefferson believed that Christianity was the best system of morality on which to situate the Republic. In a chapter titled, “The Influence of Judaism and Christianity on the American Founding,” Michael Novak relates an account by Ethan Allen who reported a conversation that took place during Jefferson’s presidency. While on his way to church one Sunday morning, he met a friend who questioned his religious convictions. Jefferson retorted: “No nation has ever yet existed or been governed without religion. Nor can be. The Christian religion is the best religion that has ever been given to man and I as chief Magistrate of this nation am bound to give it the sanction of my example” (2000, p. 159). Novak observed that Jefferson believed that Christianity “is crucial to the American Republic…and gave biblical Christianity public support. His letters show that he also believed in a divine Judge and, provisionally, in eternal life” (p. 179; cf. Gaustad, 1996). This same attitude is further manifested in a letter Jefferson wrote to James Fishback on September 27, 1809:
The practice of morality being necessary for the well being of society, He [the Creator] has taken care to impress its precepts so indelibly on our hearts that they shall not be effaced by the subtleties of our brain. We all agree in the obligation of the moral principles of Jesus and nowhere will they be found delivered in greater purity than in His discourses (1809, emp. added).
Thomas Jefferson was certainly one of the least religious of the Founders of the American Republic. Yet, these few allusions demonstrate that even he regarded Christianity and the doctrines of Jesus Christ to be indispensable to the founding and perpetuation of the nation. That is the salient point. Those who throw up “deist” and other aspersions in an attempt to denigrate the role Christianity played in the founding of America, deserve the same epithet that Jefferson directed toward those of his detractors who misrepresented his views, which, he insisted, were “very different from that anti-Christian system imputed to me by those who know nothing of my opinions.”
American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (2000), (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin), fourth edition.
Gaustad, Edwin (1996), Sworn on the Altar of God: A Religious Biography of Thomas Jefferson (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).
Jefferson, Thomas (1803), “Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Rush, April 21, 1803, with Syllabus of an Estimate of the Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus, with Copies,” The Thomas Jefferson Papers Series 1. General Correspondence. 1651-1827, Library of Congress, [On-line], URL: http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=mtj1&fileName=mtj1page028.db&recNum=190&itemLink=%2Fammem%2Fcollections%2Fjefferson_papers%2Fmtjser1.html&linkText=6. Also: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/religion/vc006656.jpg.
Jefferson, Thomas (1809), “Thomas Jefferson James Fishback, September 27, 1809,” The Thomas Jefferson Papers Series 1. General Correspondence. 1651-1827, Library of Congress, [On-line], URL: http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=mtj1&fileName=mtj1page044.db&recNum=269&itemLink=/ammem/ collections/jefferson_papers/ mtjser1.html&linkText=7& tempFile=./temp/~ammem_8A8E&filecode=mtj&prev_filecode=mtj&itemnum=2& ndocs=2.
Jefferson, Thomas (1816), “Thomas Jefferson to Charles Thomson, January 9, 1816,” The Thomas Jefferson Papers Series 1. General Correspondence. 1651-1827, Library of Congress, [On-line], URL: http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/P?mtj:36:./temp/~ammem_KbiS::.
Jefferson, Thomas (1822), “Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Waterhouse, June 26, 1822,” The Thomas Jefferson Papers Series 1. General Correspondence. 1651-1827, Library of Congress, [On-line], URL: http://memory.loc.gov/ cgi-bin/ampage?collId=mtj1&fileName=mtj1page053. db&recNum=252&itemLink=/ammem/collections/ jefferson_papers/mtjser1.html&linkText= 7&tempFile=./temp/~ammem_Wd8k&filecode= mtj&next_filecode=mtj&prev_filecode=mtj&itemnum=14&ndocs=59.
Novak, Michael (2000), “The Influence of Judaism and Christianity on the American Founding,” in Religion and the New Republic: Faith in the Founding of America, ed. James H. Hutson (Rowman & Littlefield), [On-line], URL: http://books.google.com/books? hl=en& id=YwW_g8qr68MC&dq= james+hutson+religion+founding& printsec=frontcover&source= web&ots=5Jcv1w_HPg& sig=LTl2mt1beTOrfAboUcU2igSnTHg& sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum= 1&ct=result#PPA159,M1.