Ambassador Jefferson Leaves for France

The idea of Thomas Jefferson as a lifelong skeptic and critic of Christianity is a myth. Here are some points we bring out in our book, DOUBTING THOMAS.

On the last day of 1783, Jefferson wrote a letter that told of his recent meeting with Presbyterian Rev. John Witherspoon of Princeton to ask his help in finding a tutor for Charlottesville. This indicates a relative comfort with Presbyterian religious approaches to education at this point. He later wrote four other letters to Rev. Witherspoon along these lines in 1792.

Jefferson traveled to New England in mid-1784 and records in his account book that he “…paid a visit to the president of Yale College, Ezra Stiles.”76 Stiles was a clergyman at the head of this Congregationalist college. A couple days later on June 10, Jefferson followed up with a letter to Rev. Stiles saying: “…I had the pleasure of seeing you in New Haven…After repeating to you assurances of the pleasure with which I shall render any services in my power to the institution over which you so worthily preside, as well as to yourself personally, I have the honor to subscribe myself with the most perfect esteem & respect.” Stiles sent a friendly reply on June 21 and again on July 7, asking for Jefferson’s extra help in fundraising for the college but Jefferson replied that it would not be possible while he was in France. Jefferson was clearly friendly with Baptist, Presbyterian, and now Congregationalist clergymen (and they with him) in this period of his life.

In a Letter to Wilson Cary Nicholas, December 31, 1783, Jefferson said: “Just before I left Albemarle a proposition was started for establishing there a grammar school….on my part I was to enquire for a tutor. To this I have not been inattentive. I enquired at Princetown of Dr. Witherspoon. But he informed me that…no such person could of course be had there.”

Jefferson in France, 1784-1787

On July 5, 1784, Jefferson had sailed for France to serve as our government’s representative there. On August 26, Jefferson enrolled his daughter Martha in a Bernadine Catholic convent school called Abbey Royale de Panthemont, led by Abbess Marie-Catherine Bethisy de Mezieres. This school required attendance at daily chapel and doctrinal classes but did not require personal belief of its students.80 So Jefferson had comfort with Catholic religious education at this point and even gave extra in “charity,” but his Protestant family and friends back home would later criticize him for it.

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