In our book, DOUBTING THOMAS, it was the goal of Mark Beliles and me to examine Thomas Jefferson as he truly was in reference to his religious views. It would be fair to say that earlier in his life, he seemed to be an outwardly committed Christian, but later developed some key doubts about key doctrines. But it is inaccurate to brand him as a lifelong skeptic. Nor did he believe that all references to God and Christianity should be censored in the public square.
In our book we point out that probably one of the most misquoted letters of Jefferson was written in 1787. On August 10, Jefferson wrote to his 18-year-old nephew, Peter Carr. Carr and other children of Jefferson’s wife’s sister looked to him for guidance in life and education after their father, Dabney Carr, died young. Since Peter was now an adult enrolled at the College of William and Mary, Jefferson writes to him about religion and starts by asserting that a Creator “made us” and that we were “endowed with a sense of right and wrong…or conscience” to ponder spiritual matters. Then Jefferson confidently asserted that: “If you find reason to believe there is a God…[and] that Jesus was also a God, you will be comforted by a belief of his aid and love;…Reason is…given you by heaven.” With this obvious presupposition that a Creator exists and that heaven gives each one a conscience and reason, Jefferson then tells Carr that to honestly consider religion he should: “…divest yourself of all bias;…Question with boldness even the existence of a God;…Read the bible;…It is said that the writer of that book was inspired. Examine therefore candidly what evidence there is of his having been inspired. The pretension is entitled to your inquiry, because millions believe it;…Read the new testament. It is the history of a person called Jesus.”
Jefferson then presented to Carr comparative statements of both faith and skepticism. He said: “Keep in your eye the opposite pretensions [i.e., claims] of those who say: 1. He was begotten by God, born of a virgin, suspended and reversed the laws of nature at will, and ascended bodily into heaven, and 2. He was a man of illegitimate birth, of a benevolent heart, enthusiastic mind, who set out without pretensions [i.e., claims] to divinity, ended in believing them…judge their pretensions by your own reason, and not by the reason of those ecclesiastics.”
Note that Jefferson had already indicated his belief in a creator, so we know He was not favoring atheism. But often today apologists for Jefferson being a skeptic will lift the quotes from only one side of the list and suggest that it most represents Jefferson’s views. But there is really no basis whatsoever for this claim. Jefferson makes virtually no comment to favor either side. The gist of the letter to Peter Carr is to think for yourself, do your own research, and draw your own conclusions. Since Jefferson up to this time had been constantly attending churches and voluntarily supporting his local clergyman and Reformed or Episcopal Church, if there is anything up to this moment that would be more plausible that he believed, it would appear to be the side of the list that mentions Jesus being “…begotten by God, born of a virgin, suspended and reversed the laws of nature at will, and ascended bodily into heaven…”95 Those were the statements of the creeds in the churches he voluntarily attended and funded. Up to this moment, after looking over the first 21 years of Jefferson’s adult life (1767-1787), a single definitive sign of unbelief or of disagreement with an orthodox article of faith cannot be found.”