We have been given the impression that Thomas Jefferson was a lifelong skeptic and not someone involved with church. That impression is not accurate. Our book, DOUBTING THOMAS, shows that Jefferson was quite actively involved in the church—basically all his life, when it was available to him.
As president, Jefferson attended Christian services on a regular basis in the U. S. Capitol building. He approved those services and supported them by his attendance. It did not violate his view of the “establishment clause”—the First Amendment begins: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” The founders did not want America to have an established state-church on the national level…a church “by law established.” That does not mean they wanted God banished from the public arena. So using the Capitol building for Christian worship was not viewed as a violation of any kind. Not only did Jefferson attend, he sometimes suggested on occasion a preacher to speak. One of Jefferson’s favorite preachers was the Presbyterian minister, Rev. John Glendy.
After his sermon in the Capitol at the end of 1804, Jefferson received a letter from Glendy on February 28, 1805 to ask Jefferson’s assistance (particularly a recommendation to Governor Thomas McKean) for a potential post as the pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. (Governor McKean, who had been a signer of the Declaration along with Jefferson, was a member of that church.) Such a request indicates that Presbyterian leaders there would respect Jefferson’s request, which would not make sense if they thought Jefferson a Deist or enemy of the Christian faith. Indeed no church leaders in Philadelphia (like those in Virginia) where Jefferson resided for many years ever questioned or attacked Jefferson’s faith.
Jefferson replied a few days later saying: “I have this day written to Governor McKean, on the subject of it, so as to produce any dispositions & measures on his part which my indisposition can produce.’ On that same day his letter to McKean said that Glendy was “without exception the best preacher I ever heard.” Jefferson’s account book also says on January 15, 1805: “Promised to give 50 Dollars [i.e., $1200 today] towards building a Presbyterian church on F. street.”
This was the congregation led by Rev. James Laurie which met in the Capitol regularly at this point. Its own building was completed in 1807 on the site of what is now 1414 F. Street, N.W., just a block or so away from the White House. Laurie’s Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church began after a split from First Presbyterian Church in 1802.