After the 1800 Election, Part 1

Jefferson was unfairly criticized as being a skeptic in the withering election of 1800.So what were Jefferson’s relations with the clergy in America from that election to the end of his life? First it should be noted that Jefferson corresponded with and worked in alliance with just as many new clergy after this point in his life as before. And they were about 90% orthodox clergy and very friendly. So there did not seem to be any significant change in that regard. But the most noticeable difference is that prior to that election Jefferson’s criticism of clergy in America had been almost non-existent. Most references had been aimed at European clergy connected to state churches. But now in the post 1800 election era Jefferson began making more comments, although always private, about the attacks from the northern clergy.

Let us look at these comments in his private correspondence. A careful reading of the context of each letter shows that most of his focus is on the Federalist clergy in New York and the New England states. Sometimes Jefferson himself used the term “eastern” or “northern”, but when neither is used we inserted “northeastern” in brackets. The reader can check this context for himself by reading the full letter and what Jefferson is responding to in a letter he received from the correspondent.

To his evangelical friend Benjamin Rush on September 23, 1800, he said:

“. . . I promised you a letter on Christianity . . . ; I do not know that it would reconcile . . . the irritable tribe of [northeastern] priests who are all in arms against me. Their hostility is on too interested ground to be softened; . . . the clause of the constitution, which . . . covered . . . the freedom of religion, had given to the [northeastern] clergy a very favorite hope of obtaining an establishment of a particular form of Christianity thro’ the U.S.; . . . especially the Episcopalians & Congregationalists. The returning good sense of our country threatens abortion to their hopes, & they believe that any portion of power confided to me, will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly; for I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”[1]

Jefferson replied to Vermont Governor Moses Robinson on March 23, 1801: “. . . The eastern States will be the last to come over, on account of the dominion of the clergy, who had got a smell of union between Church and State. . . .[2]

He said in a letter to William Short on March 17, 1801, “. . . in this transition the New England states are slowest because under the dominion of their priests who had begun to hope they could toll us on to an established church to be in union with the state. even there however they are getting to rights. . . .”[3]

A few days later (March 1801) he said to Unitarian Rev. Priestley: “. . . What an effort, my dear sir, of bigotry in politics and religion have we gone through! The barbarians [i.e., northeastern opponents in the recent campaign] really flattered themselves they should be able to bring back the times . . . , when ignorance put everything into the hands of power and priestcraft. . . .”[4]

And a few days later (March 1801) he said to Elbridge Gerry:

“. . . (In) Your part of the Union [New England] . . . the temples of religion and justice, have all been prostituted there to toll us back to the times when we burnt witches . . .; the mild and simple principles of the Christian philosophy . . . (the) priesthood . . . twist it’s texts till they cover the divine morality of it’s author with mysteries, and require a priesthood to explain them. The Quakers . . . have no priests . . . ; they judge of the text by the dictates of common sense & common morality.”[5]

Later on July 21, 1801, he told Pierrepont Edwards that: “. . . [If] the nature of . . . government [were] a subordination of the civil to the ecclesiastical power, I [would] consider it as desperate for long years to come . . . ; And there [the northeastern] clergy will always keep them if they can.”[6]

Jefferson wrote to Attorney General Levi Lincoln on August 26, 1801: “. . . From the [northeastern] clergy I expect no mercy. They crucified their Savior who preached that their kingdom was not of this world, and all who practice on that precept must expect the extreme of their wrath. The laws of the present day withhold their hands from blood. But lies and slander still remain to them.” [7]

Jefferson informed his Attorney General Levi Lincoln on January 1, 1802, that “. . . I have long wished to find [an occasion] of saying why I do not proclaim fastings and thanksgivings, as my predecessors did; . . . I know it will give great offense to the New England clergy; but the advocate of religious freedom is to expect neither peace nor forgiveness from them.”[8] Again, we should point out that he had no problem proclaiming days of fasting and thanksgiving as Governor of Virginia. What he felt was unconstitutional was doing that on the federal level.

A Baptist man, Daniel D’Oylety, wrote Jefferson on July 24, 1802. Jefferson replied on August 15 saying: “. . . the everlasting hostility of such of the clergy as have a hankering after the union of church & state. . . .”[9]

On April 26, 1803, Jefferson told Attorney General Levi Lincoln regarding his syllabus of the moral teachings of Jesus: “. . . (Do not) let it be copied lest it should get into print; . . . every [northeastern] priest would undertake to write on every tenet it expresses.”[10]

Rev. Henry Fry, the chief Methodist organizer of camp meeting revivals in the Piedmont during the Second Great Awakening, maintained a close friendship with Jefferson at this very time. In 1804, Jefferson expressed his “affectionate salutations and respect” in a couple of letters to this preacher-politician that have been preserved. Jefferson was told by Fry that he “deservedly [gets] the credit (also reproach)” for severing the connections “in church and state which deterred investigation and freedom.” Jefferson responded to this with a letter saying that the doctrines of Jesus had been corrupted “by priestcraft and established by kingcraft constituting a conspiracy of church and state against the civil and religious liberties of mankind.”[11] Since he was writing to a minister who was a political ally, Jefferson obviously did not mean all clergymen, but mainly the Federalist clergy of the northeastern states.[12] This is an important distinction that is almost always left out by modern biographers.

About a decade later such comments continued. On August 22, 1813, Jefferson wrote to John Adams: “. . . Priestley . . . would have been eaten alive by his intolerant brethren, the [northeastern] Cannibal priests. . . .”[13]

In a similar alarming manner Jefferson wrote to Philadelphia bookseller Nicholas G. Dufief about a problem up north on April 19, 1814, saying: “. . . Is a priest to be our inquisitor, or shall a layman, simple as ourselves, set up his reason as the rule for what we are to read, and what we must believe? . . .”[14]

On January 29, 1815, Jefferson replies to Rev. Charles Clay: “. . . I abuse the [northeastern] priests, indeed, who have so much abused the pure and holy doctrines of their Master . . . scourges of priest-craft.”[15] In the next blog, we’ll see further fall out.

[1] “From Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Rush, September 23, 1800,” .

[2] “From Thomas Jefferson to Moses Robinson, March 23, 1801,” .

[3] “From Thomas Jefferson to William Short, March 17, 1801,” .

[4] “From Thomas Jefferson to Joseph Priestley, March 21, 1801,” .

[5] “From Thomas Jefferson to Elbridge Gerry, March 29, 1801,” .

[6] “From Thomas Jefferson to Pierpont Edwards, July 21, 1801,” .

[7] “From Thomas Jefferson to Levi Lincoln, August 26, 1801,” .

[8] III. To Levi Lincoln, 1 January 1802,”

[9] Letter to Daniel D’Oylety, August 15, 1802, {Note: Papers spells name “Doyley”]

[10] Letter to Levi Lincoln, April 26, 1803. Paul Leicester Ford, ed., The Works of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. IX (in 12 Volumes): 1799-1803 (New York: Cosimo, 2009, originally published in 1905), 459.

[11] Letter to Rev. Henry Fry, May 21, 1804, and June 17, 1804. Also Fry to Jefferson, June 9, 1804. See Appendix for previously unpublished letters in the Thomas Jefferson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

[12] Many modern scholars quote Jefferson’s condemnations of clergy and make two incorrect conclusions: (1) They suppose that he was against all clergy and organized religion. This letter is often quoted without noticing that it was written to a local Methodist preacher and friend. (2) They assume the Federalist clergy were the equivalent of modern evangelicals. But Jefferson’s anti-clerical comments almost always targeted non-evangelical leaders of the Established Church in New England or New York. The Unitarians and “rational Christians,” along with the Congregationalist of New England, were virtually all Federalists and opposed Jefferson for President.

[13] “Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, August 22, 1813,” .

[14] “Thomas Jefferson to Nicolas G. Dufief, April 19, 1814,” .

[15] Letter to Rev. Charles Clay, January 29, 1815. Dickinson Adams, 363. Also see Papers, Retirement Series, vol. 8, 211.

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