Contrary to the myth of Thomas Jefferson, the lifelong skeptic or the believer in separation of God and state, the real Thomas Jefferson is much more nuanced in his views. Our book, DOUBTING THOMAS, co-written by Dr. Mark Beliles (a long time pastor in Jefferson’s hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia) and me, shows that Jefferson was not some sort of lifelong atheist. Actually, he was a churchman virtually all his life—when it was available to him. And he did not believe in banishing God or the Christian faith from the public square. Here are some thoughts from our book on how Jefferson continued positive relationships with the clergy, even after he retired from the presidency.
BACK TO PRIVATE LIFE IN ALBERMARLE COUNTY
Now that Jefferson was back home, his local connections became more of a focus in his letters. On March 19, 1809, the main local Baptist church with which Jefferson had been friendly for decades sent him a congratulatory welcome home letter. This was now the tenth letter to Jefferson from a friendly group of Baptists. But this one was different. Albemarle Baptist Church began in 1773 in what is now Charlottesville, but in 1801 it moved to the Buckmountain area of the county. The pastor for most of those years was Rev. William Woods who had stepped out of the pulpit while serving in the legislature. The church’s letter expressed to Jefferson their pleasure with his public service and prayed: “….May your Days be many and Comfortable, in a word (may we say) we wish you health, wealth, and prosperity through life, and in the world to come life everlasting.”
Jefferson replied on April 13 to the members of the Baptist Church of Buck Mountain in Albemarle as follows: “…I thank you, my friends and neighbors, for your kind congratulations on my return to my native home, and on the opportunities it will give me of enjoying, amidst your affections, the comforts of retirement and rest. Your approbation of my conduct is the more valued as you have best known me, and is an ample reward for any services I may have rendered. We have acted together from the origin to the end of a memorable Revolution, and we have contributed, each in the line allotted us, our endeavors to render its issue a permanent blessing to our country…”
This response by Jefferson to these evangelicals in his home area says that they had worked together and that they “have best known me.” Indeed it appears that most of the public today do not understand Jefferson the way Christians in his time knew him – especially those south of New York.