Jefferson and Church Involvement

In our book, DOUBTING THOMAS on the faith and life of Thomas Jefferson, we show that our third president was actively a church member—yet it wasn’t always easy to continue in church because of some of the congregations disbanding, such as is the case of the one described below (Calvinistical Reformed Church of Charlottesville, which Jefferson helped establish as a layman).

Much of Jefferson’s correspondence with various Christian ministers and notes in his account books (showing his generous donations to Christian causes) show a comfortable relationship between Jefferson and Anglican, Presbyterian and Baptist clergy at this point. In April 1780, the capital of Virginia was moved from Williamsburg to Richmond for security reasons, and while Jefferson was there he almost certainly worshiped in St. John’s Church led by Rev. Miles Selden.

Jefferson finished his term as governor in June 1781 and then wrote his only book Notes on Virginia. It condemned coercion in religion and said: “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg…; And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my  country when I reflect that God is just.”

Jefferson’s belief in a God who acts in human history to punish injustice is certainly far from a perceived Deist way of thinking. In 1782, it becomes apparent that a change occurs in Jefferson’s home church. On June 29, Jefferson records in his account book that he subscribed to a new minister: “M[atthew] Maury annually to preach at Charlottesvlle.” This seems to indicate that Rev. Clay had ceased (or was intending soon to cease) his ministry as pastor of the Calvinistical Reformed Church. Indeed by the next year, Clay clearly had departed from the area. Without a minister, the Calvinistical Reformed Church ceased to exist at this point, so Jefferson makes a commitment to a new minister and a new church.

Since the Episcopal St. Anne’s Parish still was inactive, which Jefferson had previously been a member of before starting the Calvinistical church, Jefferson renewed his involvement in the neighboring   Fredericksville Episcopal parish, where he had been a member prior to 1769. Charlottesville was the closest location where the neighboring parish held services, using the courthouse.

Jefferson continued to support and correspond with Rev. Matthew Maury for he next 25 years or so. Jefferson financially supported either Clay or Maury for over 30 years.

The independent Calvinistical Reformed Church apparently disbanded as the war wound down because of financial hardships and the absence of major financial supporters. (Members such as Fillippo Mazzei and John Harvie both moved away permanently around 1780, and Jefferson went to France in 1784 for about six years). The loss of financial support led to the close of the church, which perhaps has led many biographers to overlook its significance.

The birth of another child and then death of both that child and Jefferson’s wife in 1782, due to complications of child birth, were the most significant disappointments of Jefferson’s life. Jefferson’s account book on September 6, 1782, shows that he obtained Rev. Maury’s services for the funeral.70 His daughter Mary said this loss produced in her father a fragile state of mind, and others in Jefferson’s family wrote of their concern for his emotional wellbeing at this time.

And shortly after this loss and in the midst of the grieving period in his life, he went to France in 1784 and was separated from his religious roots back in Virginia. It perhaps would explain religious questions that began to emerge in his correspondence about six years later.

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