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The Jefferson Bible

by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

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  • Description:
    Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and third President of the United States, was characterized by some of his contemporaries as "the arch-apostle of the cause of irreligion and freethought." Fr. Hardon presents historical evidence which indicates that Thomas Jefferson believed in God and in some sort of future life where the good are rewarded and the wicked punished. He says, 'There is no need to point out how important is a just estimate of Jefferson in this matter, since much of the present-day controversy in America over the relations of Church and State revolves around the pivotal question of what our Founding Fathers intended to legislate on the subject of religion; and their intention, it is safe to say, was an expression of their own religious convictions.'
  • Larger Work:
    The American Ecclesiastical Review
  • Publisher & Date:
    The American Ecclesiastical Review, June 1954

Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and third President of the United States, was characterized by some of his contemporaries as "the arch-apostle of the cause of irreligion and freethought."1 Even impartial historians are forced to conclude that he had "deistic leanings,"2 and that his friendship

with notorious infidels like Thomas Paine did "much to propagate deistic views" in the early years of the American Republic.3 However, there is another side to Jefferson's character which is not so well known as the negative one of his antipathy to organized religion. Whatever else may be said in his favor, it must be admitted that he had a reverence and respect for the person and teachings of Jesus Christ which according to his limited vision he tried to put into practice. The purpose of this study will not be to prove that Jefferson was a Christian, or that he was not a deist. It will only be to present a piece of historical evidence which should indicate that the full Jefferson portrait has not yet been painted, at least on the side of his religious beliefs. There is no need to point out how important is a just estimate of Jefferson in this matter, since much of the present-day controversy in America over the relations of Church and State revolves around the pivotal question of what our Founding Fathers intended to legislate on the subject of religion; and their intention, it is safe to say, was an expression of their own religious convictions.

History of the Jefferson Bible

The so-called Jefferson Bible, or more accurately, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, is now the property of the United States National Museum at Washington, having been obtained by purchase in 1895. It is a small folio booklet, some 8 by 4 inches in area and one inch thick. There are 83 leaves to the book, which is bound in red leather, and on the title page, in Jefferson's handwriting, is the caption, "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, Extracted Textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French and English." Except for two maps of Palestine and Asia Minor, which are inserted among the leaves, the whole volume is a compilation of four parallel columns of Gospel texts, two to a page, in the four languages mentioned in the title. The texts are not written but were cut out of printed copies of Greek, Latin, French and English Testaments and pasted in this book of blank pages.

It is not certain exactly when Jefferson composed this collection of the sayings of Jesus. The closest estimate is the winter of 1816-17, or about nine years before his death. From his correspondence, however, we know that he had been thinking about the project as early as 1803. In a letter which he wrote to the chemist, Joseph Priestley, he congratulated the latter for his comparative review of Socrates and Jesus, adding that in his opinion the Gospels contained much extraneous matter. By careful pruning, he thought a selection could be made of those sayings which were absolutely the words of Jesus Himself.4 A week later he wrote a friend that he considered "the moral precepts of Jesus as more pure, correct and sublime than those of the ancient philosophers."5 On April 21, 1803, he wrote to Dr. Rush, a physician and sincere Christian, sending him the syllabus of an evaluation of the doctrines of Christ compared with those of other great teachers. Secretive by nature, Jefferson explained that he was sending this for his own eye and indicated its confidential character:

In confiding it to you, I know it will not be exposed to the malignant perversions of those who make every word from me a text for new misrepresentations and calumnies. I am, moreover, averse to the communication of my religious tenets to the public, because it would countenance the presumption of those who have endeavoured to draw them before that tribunal, and to seduce public opinion to erect itself into that inquest over the rights of conscience, which the laws have so justly proscribed. It behooves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself to resist invasions of it in the case of others, or their case may, by change of circumstances, become his own.6

Late in January of the following year, Jefferson wrote to Priestly from Washington, how pleased he was to hear he had undertaken to make a detailed study of the doctrines of Jesus compared with those of the ancient philosophers:

I think you cannot avoid giving, as preliminary to the comparison, a digest of his moral doctrines, extracted in his own words from the Evangelists, and leaving out everything relative to his personal history and character. It would be short and precious. With a view to do this for my own satisfaction, I had sent to Philadelphia to get two testaments (Greek) of the same edition, and two English, with a design to cut out the morsels of morality, and paste them on the leaves of a book in the manner you describe as having been pursued in forming your Harmony. But I shall now get the thing done by better hands.7

This is the first clear statement of Jefferson that he planned to prepare such a book, which he decided at the time not to do himself but to have Priestley compose. But Priestley died in the same year (1804), and so the project was not carried into effect. Finally in 1813, John Quincy Adams prevailed upon Jefferson to compose the work which he had handed over to Priestley, and sent to the ax-President all of Priestley's unfinished drafts, saying that he did so because "I wish it may stimulate you."8

Writing to Adams from Monticello, Oct. 12, 1813, Jefferson gives a description of the proposed volume as follows:

We must reduce our volume to the simple Evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus, paring off the amphiboligisms 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 distinguished as diamonds in a dunghill. The result is an octavo of forty-six pages.9

From this it would seem that Jefferson made two such books, one a volume of 46 pages, and the other an enlargement which has come down to us as the Jefferson Bible.

Under date of Jan. 29, 1815, he confided in a letter to Charles Clay that he had finished making the extracts from the four Gospels: "Probably you have heard me say I had taken the four Evangelists, had cut out from them every text they had recorded of the moral precepts of Jesus, and arranged them in a certain order, and although they appeared but as fragments, yet fragments of the most sublime edifice of morality which had ever been exhibited to man."10

Consistent with his previous intention, in this letter Jefferson declares he does not wish to publish the compilation, saying: "I not only write nothing on religion, but rarely permit myself to speak on it."11

More revealing still is Jefferson's letter to Charles Thompson, in commenting on Thompson's interest in the moral teachings of Jesus Christ:

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 document in proof that I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.12

Towards the end of the letter, Jefferson makes a statement which suggests that he is not describing the volume now in the National Museum, but the preliminary one of 46 pages, for he says: "If I had time I would add to my little book the Greek, Latin and French texts, in columns side by side."13

Later in the same year, in a letter to a certain Vanderkemp, Jefferson gives further details as to how he made this preliminary volume. After explaining how careful he was that the syllabus should not get out in connection with his name, being unwilling to draw on himself "a swarm of insects, whose buzzing is more disquieting than their bite," he continued:

I made, for my own satisfaction, an extract from the Evangelists of the text of His morals, selecting those only whose style and spirit proved them genuine, and his own.... It was too hastily done, however, being the work of one or two evenings only, while I lived at Washington, overwhelmed with other business, and it is my intention to go over it again at more leisure. This shall be the work of the ensuing winter.14

Vanderkemp was himself publishing a book in the near future, and inquired of Jefferson if he might incorporate into it the latter's syllabus from the Gospels. Jefferson agreed with the following proviso: "I ask only one condition, that no possibility shall be admitted of my name being even intimated with the publication."15

Three years later, Jefferson was still planning to expand his Gospel collection into something more substantial. This is the last reference in his published and manuscript writings to the "Morals of Jesus." He wrote from Monticello to William Short: "The last I attempted too hastily some 12 or 15 years ago. It was the work of 2 or 3 nights only, at Washington, after getting through the evening task of reading the letters and papers of the day."16

As previously stated, the larger syllabus of 83 leaves was composed some time in 1816 or 1817. The earlier compilation of parallel texts in English only is last known to have been in the possession of his grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph. A remarkable fact is the secrecy in which Jefferson managed to keep both collections of the sayings of Jesus. Neither syllabus was known to his grandchildren until after Jefferson's death when they inherited his papers. It was then also for the first time they learned that he was in the habit of reading from these extracts every night before going to bed.

The subsequent history of the larger collection is briefly told. The National Government had purchased Jefferson's papers and had published an edition of his writings. Public interest was expressed particularly in the "Bible of Thomas Jefferson" after it came into the possession of the United States National Museum, and it was in consequence of this interest that the Fifty-seventh Congress in its first session passed the following resolution:

That there be printed and bound, by photo-lithographic process, with an introduction of not to exceed twenty-five pages, to be prepared by Dr. Cyrus Adler, Librarian of the Smithsonian Institution, for the use of Congress, 9,000 copies of Thomas Jefferson's Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, as the same appears in the National Museum; 3,000 copies for the use of the Senate and 6,000 copies for the use of the House.17

Contents of the Jefferson Bible

The photo-lithographic copy of the Jefferson Bible as printed by Congress has two main sections, following a 19-page introduction. The first is a Table of Contents, written long-hand in ink by Jefferson himself, followed by the inserted clippings from the four New Testaments as described above. Before evaluating the selections themselves, it will be worthwhile to transcribe the entire Table of Contents, thus allowing the reader to get a bird's eye view, as it were, of Jefferson's "profession of faith." The transcription here given will cover all the details of the original, including spelling, abbreviations, numeration and corrections:18


A Table of the Texts of this Extract employed in this Narrative from the Evangelists and of the order of their arrangement

Page 1. Luke 2. 1-7. Joseph & Mary go to Bethlehem where Jesus is born. 21, 39. he is circumcised & named & they return to Nazareth. 40, 42-48, 51, 52. at 12 years of age he accompanies his parents to Jerusalem and returns.

Page 2. L. 3. 1-2. Mk. 1. 4. Mt. 3. 4, 5, 6. John baptizes in Jordan. Mt. 3. 13. Jesus is baptized. L. 3. 23. at 30 years of age.

Page 3. J. 2. 12-16. drives the traders out of the temple. J. 3. 22. Mt. 4. 12. Mk. 6. 17-28. he baptizes but returns into Galilee on the death of John.

Page 4. Mk. 1. 21-22. he teaches in the Synagogues.

Page 5. Mt. 12. 1-5, 9-12. Mk. 2. 27. Mt. 12. 14-15. explains the Sabbath. L. 6. 12-17. call of his disciples.

Pages 6 to 15. Mt. 5. 1-12. L. 6. 24-26. Mt. 5. 13-47. L. 6. 34-36. Mt. 6. 1-34. Mt. 7. 1-2. L. 6. 30. Mt. 7. 3-20. 12. 35-37. 7. 24-29. The Sermon in the Mount. Mt. 8. 1. Mk. 6. 6. Mt. 11. 28-30. exhorts.

Page 16. L. 7. 36-36. a woman anointeth him.

Page 17. Mk. 3. 31-35. L. 12. 1-7, 13-15. precepts.

Page 18. L. 12. 16-21. parable of the rich man. 22-48. 54, 59. L. 13. 1-5. precepts.

Page 21. L. 13. 6-9. parable of the fig tree.

Page 22. L. 11. 37-46, 52-54. precepts.

Page 23. Mt. 13. 1-9. Mk. 4. 10. Mt. 13. 18-23. parable of the Sower.

Pages 24.25 Mk. 4. 21-23. precepts. Mt. 13. 24-30, 36-52. parable of the tares.

Pages 26.27 Mk. 4. 26-34. L. 9. 57-62. L. 5. 27-29. Mk. 2. 15-17. precepts. L. 5. 36-38. parable of new wine in old bottles.

Page 28. Mt. 13. 53-57. a prophet hath no honor in his own country.

Page 29. Mt. 9. 36. Mk. 6. 7. Mt. 10. 5-6, 9-18, 23, 26-31. Mk. 6. 12, 30. mission, instruction, return of Apostles.

Pages 30.31 J. 7. 1. Mk. 7. 1-15, 14-24. Mt. 18. 1-4, 7-9, 12-17, 21-22. precepts.

Pages 32.33. Mt. 18. 23-35. parable of the wicked servant.

Page 34. L. 10. 1-8, 10-12. mission of the LXX.

Page 35. J. 7. 2-16, 19-26, 32, 43-53. the feast of the tabernacles.

Page 36. J. 8. 1-11. the woman taken in adultery.

Page 37. J. 9. 1-3. to be born blind no proof of sin. J. 10. 1-5, 11-14, 16. the good shepherd.

Page 38. L. 10. 25-37. love god and thy neighbor. parable of the Samaritan.

Page 39. L. 11. 1-13. form of prayer.

Page 40. L. 14. 1-6. the Sabbath.

Page 41. 7-24. the bidden to a feast.

Page 42. 28-32. precepts.

Pages 43.44. L. 15. 1-32. parables of the lost sheep and Prodigal son.

Page 45. L. 16. 1-15. parable of the unjust steward.

Page 46. 18-31. parable of Lazarus.

Page 48. L. 17. 1-4, 7-10, 20, 26-36. precepts to be always ready.

Page 49. L. 18. 1-14. parables of the widow and judge, the Pharisee & Publican.

Pages 50.51. L. 10. 38-42. Mt. 19. 1-26. precepts.

Page 52. Mt. 20. 1-16. parable of the laborers in the vineyard.

Page 54. L. 19. 1-28. Zaccheus, & the parable of the talents.

Page 56. Mt. 21. 1-3, 6-8, 10. J. 12. 19-24. Mt. 21. 17. goes to Jerusalem & Bethany Mk. 11. 12, 15-19. the traders cast out from the temple. Mk. 11. 27. Mt. 21. 27-31. parable of the two sons.

Page 57. Mt. 21. 33. Mk. 12. 1-9. Mt. 21. 45-46. parable of the vineyard & husbandman.

Page 58. Mt. 22. 1-14. parable of the king and wedding.

Page 59. 15-33. tribute, marriage, resurrection.

Page 60. Mk. 12. 18-31. Mt. 22. 40. Mk. 12. 32-33. the two commandments.

Pages 61.62. Mt. 23. 1-33. precepts, pride, hypocrisy, swearing.

Page 63. Mk. 12. 41-44. the widow's mite.

Page 64. Mt. 24. 1-2, 16-21, 32-33, 36-39, 4044. Jerusalem & the day of judgment. 45-51. the faithful and wise servant.

Page 65. Mt. 25. 1-13. parable of the ten virgins.

Page 66. 14-30. parable of the talents.

Pages 67.68. L. 21. 34-36. Mt. 25. 31-46. the day of judgment.

Page 69. Mk. 14. 1-8. a woman anointeth him. Mt. 26. 14-16. Judas undertakes to point out Jesus.

Pages 70.71. 17-20. L. 22. 24-27. J. 13. 2, 4-17, 21-26, 31, 34-45, Mt. 26. 31-33. washes their feet.

Page 72. L. 22. 33-34. Mt. 26. 35-45. precepts to his disciples, washes their feet, trouble of mind and prayer.

Page 73. J. 18. 1-3. Mt. 26. 48-50. Judas conducts the officers to Jesus.

Page 74. J. 18. 4-8. Mt. 26. 50-52, 55-56. Mk. 14. 51-52. Mt. 26. 57. J. 18. 15-16, 17.

Page 75. J. 18. 25-27. Mt. 26. 75. J. 18. 19-23. Mk. 14. 55-61. L. 22. 67-68, 70. Mk. 14. 63-65. he is arrested & carried before Caiphas the Highpriest & is condemned.

Page 76. J. 18. 28-31, 33-38. L. 23. 5. Mt. 27. 13. is then carried to Pilate.

Page 77. L. 23. 6-12. who sends him to Herod.

Page 78. L. 23. 13-16. Mt. 27. 15-23, 26. receives him back, scourges and delivers him to execution.

Pages 79.80. Mt. 27. 27, 29-31, 3-8. L. 23. 26-32. J. 19. 17-24. Mt. 27. 39-43.

Page 81. L. 23. 39-41, 34. J. 19. 25-27. Mt. 27. 46-50, 55-56. his crucifixion, death and burial.

Page 82. J. 19. 31-34, 38-42. Mt. 27. 60. his burial.

Following this Table of Contents are a number of blank pages, seven to be exact; these in turn followed by a full page title, in long hand, which reads: "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted Textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French and English."

Next come the two folded maps previously referred to, cut out of a book, with the printed numbers "1" and "414" on each, respectively. Then begin the inserted extracts, roughly ten to fourteen verses per column, down page, with two columns to a page. The first three columns are in small print, the fourth in English is large type. Marked along the right hand margin are the chapters, Mt. 8, L. 19, etc., from which the corresponding verses were drawn. Occasional errors of placement are the only blemish in an otherwise scrupulously neat-looking compilation. All told there are exactly 990 verses extracted and collected in the brochure. Most of them are from the Gospels of St. Matthew and St., Luke; very few from St. John, although the Joannine selections are noteworthy. For example: Jesus driving the traffickers out of the temple, the Parable of the Good Shepherd, Judas' betrayal of Christ, Trial of Christ before the Highpriest, and Peter's denial of Christ.

In accordance with his plan to give extracts from the life and morals of Jesus, Jefferson simply eliminated everything in the Gospels which involves what are technically called strict mysteries, as well as all comments of the Evangelists on the doctrines of Christ. Thus every reference to the Divinity of Christ, Baptism, the Eucharist, and the Primacy is omitted. For this reason also the fourth Gospel is practically ignored. Not a single miracle of Christ is listed; so much so that where a moral precept occurs in a miraculous context, the precept will be cut out of its setting, verses skipped if necessary, in order to avoid quoting a miraculous event. To illustrate this prejudice against miracles, we may examine what Jefferson does when he quotes the long instruction of Christ regarding divorce, recorded in the first Gospel. Verses 1 to 3 of chapter 19 in Matthew, which begin the instruction, read as follows in the full text:

And it came to pass that when Jesus had finished these sayings, he departed from Galilee, and came into the coasts of Judea beyond Jordan.

And great multitudes followed him, and he cured them there.

The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him: Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?19

Jefferson quotes these verses in sequence, and beyond them to verse 26 inclusive. Yet out of all these twenty-six verses, he cut out of the printed English text just five words, italicized above in verse 2, namely, ". . . and he cured them there."20 In the Greek, the words excised with a knife and a blank left are . . . Kai etherapemsen autos ekei, with corresponding blanks also in the Latin and French versions.

The same sort of excision is found throughout the collection, not only with regard to the miracles of Christ but in every case where reference is made to the supernatural life or to supernatural means of sanctification. To take only one example each from the other three Gospels, St. Mark in the first chapter, verse 4, relates that: "John did baptize in the wilderness and preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins." Jefferson carefully cut out the italicized portion.21 St. Luke in the second chapter describes the return of Jesus from Jerusalem to Nazareth at the age of twelve, saying, "And he went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject unto them; and his mother kept all these things carefully in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature and grace before God and men." Again the italicized phrases are deleted.22 In the Gospel according to St. John, the Evangelist begins the narrative of the Last Supper with the words: "And supper being ended, the devil having already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon, to betray him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come forth from God and was going to God, he riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel and girded himself." The whole center portion of the narrative is excised.23

Significance of the Jefferson Bible

In order to appreciate the importance of the Jefferson Bible certain items should be called to mind. The weight of historical evidence "is abundant to prove Jefferson a deist who shared the views and attitudes in matters of religion that were common to the English deists" of his day.24 Unfortunately the term "deist" has been used so indiscriminately by secular historians that it is hard to know just what it means in a particular context, and here as applied to Jefferson. On the one hand epithets like "infidel," "atheist," and "materialist" leveled at him by the colonial clergy are suspect because they were used by his personal enemies.25 On the other hand there are so many incriminating statements in Jefferson's writings, especially his letters, that an unbiased reader is led to conclude that if the Sage of Monticello was not an infidel, he was only a shade removed from infidelity. For instance, the following communication to John Adams seems to bear out Jefferson's own confession that, "I am a materialist."26 He writes:

I feel bodies which are not myself: there are other existences then. I call them matter. I feel them changing place. This gives me motion. Where there is an absence of matter, I call it void, or nothing, or immaterial space. On the basis of sensation, of matter and motion, we may erect the fabric of all the certainties we can have or need.

When once we quit the basis of sensation, all is in the wind. To talk of immaterial existences, is to talk of nothing. To say that the human soul, angels, God, are immaterial, is to say, they are nothings, or to say that there is no God, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise: but I believe I am supported in my creed of materialism by the Lockes, the Tracys and the Stewarts.27

The question is, how are these damaging confessions to be understood? Was Jefferson an atheist not only nominally but really? And if only nominally, what proof do we have that in real life he admitted the existence of a personal God in spite of the bizarre speculations he put on paper when trying to philosophize on his religious beliefs? It is the writer's opinion that the Morals of Jesus or the Jefferson Bible give us the key to the problem, proving that its author was not an infidel but a deist, in the sense of one who rejects the need of divine revelation and consequently repudiates any form of established religion, beyond the limits of independent human reason and will.

That Jefferson believed in God is evident first from his ready acceptance of the teachings of Christ on the subject, the Lord's Prayer, the Eight Beatitudes, the Parables of the Unjust Steward and the Ten Talents, the Sermon on the Mount—all of which presuppose a belief in the existence of God, the Creator of heaven and earth. Correlative with this goes the belief in prayer and some kind of Providence, and to that extent, at least, an acceptance of some kind of grace, requested for example in the petition, "Deliver us from evil," in the Pater Noster.28

Also the Morals of Jesus allows us to conclude that Jefferson believed in some sort of future life, where the good are rewarded and the wicked punished. Besides the Parables of Lazarus and Dives, of the Pharisee and Publican, and the Wedding Feast, Jefferson accepted and extracted the whole discourse of Christ about the Day of Judgment, in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew, not excluding the classic verse 46, in which Christ foretells: "These will go into everlasting punishment, but the just into everlasting life."

The need for the practice of virtue and the duty to avoid sin are equally subscribed to by Jefferson on almost every page of the Extracts. Apart from the very title, The Life and Morals of Jesus, it is noteworthy that practically every selection in the anthology has to do directly with the observance of the commandments of God. The Sermon on the Mount is typical. Moreover, the single word "precepts" occurs ten times in the short Table of Contents; and the

following sins are mentioned by name in the same index: adultery, injustice, avarice, pride, hypocrisy and swearing. On the side of virtue, the double precept of the love of God and the neighbor is referred to twice, apparently the only case of duplication in the syllabus; it is also the only case in which Jefferson quoted parallel passages from all three Synoptics, bearing on a single precept of Christ.

A complete analysis of the Morals of Jesus would extend to a volume. And the analysis should be made. For our purpose it is enough to have seen at some length the contents of this unusual collection of New Testament extracts, and briefly reviewed its history and theological importance. However, one question still remains to be answered. What are we to make of Jefferson's apparent profession of materialism, quoted above, and referred to elsewhere in his writings? The answer lies in a closer examination of the context in which these claims to believe in matter only were made. Writers on colonial history have not always examined this context, with consequent injustice done to the author of such statements. For example, in his letter to Adams, it is true that Jefferson speaks of "my creed of materialism." But what does he mean? He can only mean the "materialism" professed by John Locke and the other writers mentioned. Yet we know that Locke was not a materialist, though he did say that reason alone is scarcely able to decide for or against the materiality of the soul.29 He denied, however, any intention to undermine belief in the spirituality of the soul. In other words, while he held on faith that the soul was not material, he did not see his way clear to proving its immateriality.30

In the same context, Jefferson naively appeals to the Fathers of the Church as witnesses to the materiality of God: "Jesus told us, 'God is Spirit,' but He has not defined what a spirit is, nor said that it is not matter. And the ancient fathers generally, of the first three centuries, held it to be matter light and thin indeed, an etherial gas; but still matter."31 Jefferson was certainty wrong in supposing that the Fathers attributed any materiality to God. But he was right in saying that many of them held spirit "to be matter, light and thin." Not a few, for example, Ambrose, Chrysostom, Jerome, Hilary and Origen believed that finite spirits required a body as a principle of individuation and limitation. Even in Scholastic times, the degree of immateriality that belongs to finite spirits was disputed. Jefferson's error, therefore, lay in using a speculative opinion regarding finite spirits to explain the constitution of all reality, created and divine.

A correct estimate of Jefferson's attitude toward religion would be a valuable contribution to the history of Church and State relations in America. To do him justice, however, we should interpret his religious convictions not on the sole basis of his scattered statements where he is trying, and fails, to express himself properly on matters beyond his capacity, but in the light of the principles by which he guided his interior life and directed his personal relations with God. Among the extant writings of Thomas Jefferson, the Morals of Jesus is the best single source in which these principles are recorded.


1 E. Stiles, Literary Diary, edited by F. B. Dexter (New York, 1901), III, 125.

2 Herbert M. Morais, Deism in Eighteenth Century America (New York, 1934), p. 117.

3 John Orr, English Deism: Its Roots and its Fruits (Grand Rapids, 1934), p. 216.

4 Quoted by Cyrus Adler in the Introduction to The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (Washington, 1904), p. 12 (Letter dated April 9, 1803).

5 Ibid. Letter to Edward Dowse, April 19, 1803.

6 Adrienne Koch and William Peden, The Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson (New York, 1944), pp. 567-68. This letter with the enclosed syllabus on the Life of Christ is the most detailed exposition extant on Jefferson's religious beliefs. In separate sections he analyzes the doctrines of Christ, first negatively for their defects and then positively for their merits. On the debit side, he finds five "disadvantages":

(1) Like Socrates, Christ wrote nothing himself. (2) The biographers of Jesus were unlettered men. (3) Jesus preached for only three years. (4) His doctrines are mostly fragmentary. (5) Followers of Christ have disfigured his doctrines.

On the credit side, he lists these good qualities:

(1) Jesus corrected and purified the monotheism of the Jews. (2) His moral doctrine is purer than anything in paganism. (3) His philosophy penetrated to the heart and will of man (4) He taught a future life as an incentive to moral conduct.

7 The Life and Morals of Jesus, p. 13 (Letter dated Jan. 29, 1804).

8 Ibid., p. 14.

9 Koch and Peden, op. cit., p. 632. In this letter we have a good sample of Jefferson's vague knowledge of early Christianity. His plan is to find for himself the "pure and unsophisticated doctrines"

of the "unlettered Apostles, the Apostolic Fathers and the Christians of the first century." Those who came after them, he calls "their Platonizing successors" who, "in order to legitimate

the corruptions which they had incorporated into the doctrines of Jesus, found it necessary to disavow the primitive Christians" whom they excommunicated "as heretics, branding them with the opprobrious name of Ebionites or Beggars" (ibid.).

10 The Life and Morals of Jesus, p. 15.

11 Ibid.

12 Ibid., p. 16.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid., pp. 16-17.

15 Ibid.

16 Koch and Peden, op. cit., p. 695. Before coming to describe his syllabus, Jefferson rapidly characterizes all the great thinkers of antiquity in a passage which is worth quoting:

"Epictetus has given us what was good of the Stoics; all beyond, of their dogmas, being hypocrisy and grimace.... Cicero was diffuse, vapid, rhetorical, but enchanting. His prototype, Plato, eloquent as himself, dealing out mysticisms incomprehensible to the human mind, has been deified by certain sects usurping the name of Christians.... Of Socrates we have nothing genuine but in the Memorabilia of Xenophon.... Seneca is indeed a fine moralist, disfiguring his work at times with some Stoicisms. . . . 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 . . . we have the outlines of a system of the most sublime morality which has ever fallen from the lips of man. 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 . . . would effect a quiet euthanasia of the heresies of bigotry and fanaticism which have so long triumphed over human reason" (ibid., p. 694).

17 The Life and Morals of Jesus, p. 19.

18 Jefferson's script is fairly large, easily legible and clearly reproduced in the photographic copy. In the heading immediately below. the words in brackets are crossed out in Jefferson's original copy.

19 The Life and Morals of Jesus, leaf 50. Whatever else may be said about Jefferson's religious ideas, there is no doubt that he repudiated anything that was formally supernatural. In the letter to William Short quoted above, in referring to the "artificial systems"

which have been built upon the doctrines of Christ, Jefferson adds a footnote illustrating what this "artificiality" consists in. He says: "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, etc." (Koch and Pedan, op. cit., p.


20 In this and the other examples cited, the parts of the text retained by Jefferson are taken from his own version of the Gospels; the missing texts which are supplied are from the Confraternity translation of the New Testament.

21 The Life and Morals of Jesus, leaf 2.

22 Ibid.

23 Ibid., leaf 70.

24 Orr, op. cit., pp. 211-12.

25 Ibid.

26 Quoted in Gilbert Chinard, Thomas Jefferson, The Apostle of Americanism (Boston, 1948), who says: ". . . one might easily be misled by some declarations of Jefferson to his more intimate friends. 'I am a materialist-I am an Epicurian,' he wrote on several instances to John Adams, Thomas Cooper and Short, with whom he felt that he could discuss religious questions more freely than with any others" (p. 521).

27 Koch and Peden, op. cit., pp. 700-701. Letter is dated Aug. 15, 1820, and has the following footnote, with reference to the "heresy of immaterialism" brought into the teachings of Jesus by the Christian Church: "That of Athanasius and the Council of Nicea, anno 324" (p. 701).

28 Some of Jefferson's strictures on the Deity may be explained by his violent reaction to the Calvinism of his early days. Shortly before his death he wrote to John Adams:

"I can never join Calvin in addressing his God. He was indeed an atheist, which I can never be; or rather his religion was daemonism. If ever man worshiped a false God, he did. The being described in his five points, is not the God whom you and I acknowledge and adore, the Creator and benevolent Governor of the world; but a daemon of malignant spirit. It would be more pardonable to believe in no God at all, than to blaspheme Him by the atrocious attributes of Calvin. Indeed, I think that every Christian sect gives a great handle to atheism by their general dogma, that, without a revelation, there would not be sufficient proof of the being of a God" (Koch and Peden, op. cit., pp. 705-706 Letter dated April 11. 1823).

29 Essay Concerning Human Understanding, London, (no date), Bk. IV, Chap. III, no. 6, where Locke says: "He who will give himself leave to consider freely, and look into the dark and intricate part of each hypothesis, will scarce find his reason able to determine him fixedly for or against the soul's materiality" (p. 442).

30 Ibid.

31 Koch and Peden, op. cit., p, 701.

This article was taken from the June 1954 issue of "The American Ecclesiastical Review."

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