“Shake off all the fears of servile prejudices, under which weak minds are servilely crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call on her tribunal for every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear.” ~ Thomas Jefferson, 1787
The Oxford English Dictionary defines deism as the distinctive doctrine or belief of a deist; usually, belief in the existence of a Supreme Being as the source of finite existence with rejection of revelation and the supernatural doctrines of Christianity.
Not long ago author Robert Orlando wrote an insightful article titled “Was Jefferson for Jesus? Our Founding Father’s Religious Resume” which appeared in an issue of The Huffington Post. In the article, he mentioned the book “Thomas Jefferson, Author of America” written by the late Christopher Hitchens. In his book, Hitchens defined Jefferson as a secular deist who clearly came down on the side of a secular nation. Orlando then went on to quote a series of anti-Christian comments penned by Jefferson.
I would concur with the definition of Jefferson as a secular deist, but I further suggest that in the interest of historical fidelity and context, we attempt to understand Jefferson’s intent and the deist definition.
The real story of religion in America’s past is often an awkward, frequently embarrassing and bloody tale that most high-school texts and civics books fail to portray.
In a little overlooked history, the initial encounter between Europeans in the future United States came with the establishment of a Huguenot (French Protestant) colony in 1564 at Fort Caroline (near modern Jacksonville, Fl.). More than half a century before the Mayflower set sail, French pilgrims had come to America in search of religious freedom.
Then the Spanish arrived. In 1565, they established an operating base at St. Augustine and proceeded to wipe out the Fort Caroline colony. The Spanish commander wrote to the Spanish King Philip II that he had “hanged all those we had found in Fort Caroline because ”they were scattering the odious Lutheran doctrine in these Provinces.”
Later, when hundreds of survivors of a shipwrecked French fleet washed up on the beaches of Florida, they were also put to the sword, beside a river the Spanish called Matanzas (“slaughters”). In other words, the first encounter between European Christians in America ended in a blood bath.
The arrival of the Pilgrims and Puritans in New England in the early 1600s was indeed a response to religious persecution experienced in England. But the Puritan fathers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony did not themselves tolerate opposing religious views. The persecuted now became the persecutors. Their “city upon a hill” tolerated no dissent, religious or political. The most famous dissidents within the Puritan community were of course, Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson, both banished following disagreements over theology and policy. Catholics (Papists) were anathema and were banned from the colonies, along with other non-Puritans. Four Quakers were hanged in Boston between 1659 and 1661 for standing up for their beliefs.
In newly independent America, there was a crazy quilt of state laws regarding religion. In Massachusetts, only Christians were allowed to hold public office, and Catholics were allowed to do so only after renouncing papal authority. In 1777, New York State’s constitution banned Catholics from public office. In Maryland, Catholics had full civil rights, but Jews did not. Delaware required an oath affirming belief in the Trinity. Several States, including Massachusetts and South Carolina, had official, state-supported churches. It was not a tidy image of religious freedom and tolerance. Yet this was the state of religious reality in America that Thomas Jefferson and other founding fathers found themselves facing.
In 1779, as Virginia’s governor, Jefferson drafted a bill that guaranteed legal equality for citizens of all religions, including those of no religion, in the state. It was around then that Jefferson famously wrote, “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg,” this quote being one of the ones mentioned in Orlando’s article.
Interestingly, Jefferson’s plan did not advance until Patrick Henry, a staunch Christian, introduced a bill in 1784 calling for state support for “teachers of the Christian religion.”
After long debate, Patrick Henry’s bill was defeated, with the opposition outnumbering supporters 12 to 1. Instead, the Virginia legislature took up Jefferson’s plan for the separation of church and state. In 1786, the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom became law. After the bill was passed, Jefferson proudly wrote that the law “meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection; the Jew, the Gentile, the Christian and the Muhammadan, the Hindu, and infidel of every denomination.”
James Madison wanted Jefferson’s view to become the law of the land and took it to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787. The rest as they say, is history.
As writer Ken Davis once stated, “The men who fought the Revolution may have thanked Providence and attended church regularly or not, but they also fought a war against a country in which the head of State was the head of the Church”. Knowing well the history of religious warfare that led to America’s settlement, they clearly understood both the dangers of that system and of sectarian conflict. It was the recognition of that divisive past by the founders, notably Washington, Jefferson, Adams and Madison, which secured America as a secular republic.
Now let’s return to Orlando’s question “Was Jefferson for Jesus?”
Jefferson was raised as an Anglican, but was influenced by English deists such as Bolingbroke and Shaftesbury. He eventually arrived at some positive assertions of his own private faith. His ideas are nowhere better expressed than in his compilations of extracts from the New Testament “The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth” (1804) and “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth” (1819), commonly referred to today as the “Jefferson Bible.” Jefferson believed in the existence of a Supreme Being who was the creator and sustainer of the universe and the ultimate ground of being, but this was not the triune deity of orthodox Christianity. He also rejected the idea of the divinity of Christ, but as he expressed to William Short in a letter dated October 31, 1819, he was convinced that the fragmentary teachings of Jesus in its true context constituted the “outlines of a system of the most sublime morality which has ever fallen from the lips of man.”
Thomas Jefferson was seventy-seven years old when he constructed his book known today as “The Jefferson Bible.” He shared it with a number of friends, but he never allowed it to be published during his lifetime. The book was later published by an act of the United States Congress and beginning in 1904 and continuing every other year until the 1950s, new members of Congress were given a copy of the Jefferson Bible.
Ralph Buntyn is executive vice president and associate editor of United Israel World Union and author of “The Book of David: David Horowitz: Dean of United Nations Press Corps and Founder: United Israel World Union.”