Jefferson and Private Doubts

To make Thomas Jefferson into a born again Christian is a misrepresentation. But it’s also wrong to present our third president as a lifelong skeptic. From all outward appearances, he was a Christian early in life, who later came to privately doubt some core Christian documents. In either event, he certainly welcomed religious influence in public life. He may have believed in the separation of church and state (certainly not as viewed today), but he did not believe in the separation of God and state.

In 1788 Thomas Jefferson had stated that he did not comprehend the Trinity and therefore declined being a godfather. But he had not stated that he had made any definitive conclusions, and he never did anything to distance himself from traditional church life. Now Jefferson is more assertive privately about his theology, yet doing so as a self-identified Christian who attended and financially aided Trinitarian churches and ministries. But Jefferson appreciated that Benjamin Rush was trustworthy to not let it become public where others would misrepresent it.

The full Syllabus that Jefferson sent to Rush is in a chapter in our book, DOUBTING THOMAS, on Jefferson and Orthodoxy. In the Syllabus Jefferson says Jesus’ moral teachings were superior to all others in the world and he simply does not address theological controversies surrounding His professed divinity. Jefferson also expressed his views in private letters to his daughters, in which he similarly says he is a Christian. And to Secretary of War Henry Dearborn, Attorney General Levi Lincoln, and other trusted advisers. Jefferson then sent another letter to Unitarian minister Joseph Priestley on April 24, 1803, saying they likely differed on some points. Priestley replied to question Jefferson’s view that Jesus did not have a divine mission. He wrote: “…It is an opinion that I do not remember ever to have heard before…” Rush also replied in a letter expressing some disagreement, saying: “I have read your Creed with great attention, and was much pleased to find you are by no means so heterodox as you have been supposed to be by your enemies. I do not think with you in your account of the character and mission of the author of our Religion…In the mean while we will agree, to disagree…”

Jefferson’s friends, one orthodox and one unorthodox, were certainly willing to challenge Jefferson’s views yet remaining very respectful and keeping it completely private. Jefferson’s former pastor Charles Clay later described Jefferson as being theologically “playful in the closet” but not as a person who intended to spread his private questions and assertions publicly. This seems to be how Priestley and Rush viewed Jefferson’s intellectual religious discussions.

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