[Note: this photo of a generic religious painting is file only.] Our book, DOUBTING THOMAS by Mark Beliles and Jerry Newcombe, makes two key points: 1) Jefferson, though not an orthodox Christian (especially later in life), was by no means an atheist or agnostic. 2) Jefferson did not believe that God should be separated from the state, as do many of today’s atheist-activists, like the ACLU, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, the American Humanists Association, etc. In Jefferson’s name (ironically), they try to scrub away any references to America’s vast and rich Judeo-Christian tradition. If you listened to such pundits, you would have no idea about the fact that on many occasions Thomas Jefferson worshiped Jesus, along with the other worshipers who attended Christian services on Sunday mornings in the U.S. Capitol building.
Here’s a portion of our book, dealing with the Christian art adorning the walls of Jefferson’s home, Monticello in Charlottesville, Virginia. When Jefferson was alive, a visitor to Monticello would have found forty percent of the artwork in his home dealing with the Bible in some way. He had at least 28 paintings pertaining to Christian or biblical characters in the hall, parlor and dining room. That means that virtually on a daily basis, he surrounded himself with biblical themes. Unfortunately, the artwork that has been recovered and on display today are not as religious, but are of Enlightenment figures and the like in such distorted proportion as to create an impression that is different than what a person visiting Monticello would have formed in Jefferson’s time.
And similarly the local religious history of Jefferson’s Central Virginia Piedmont is now largely left out of most studies and discussions of Jefferson. This local religious history, uncovered through little noticed and just recently-published letters and papers of Jefferson, have served as clues for us—as many “holes in the floor” that have led us to go down beneath the surface of conventional biographies and discover new things about the religious life of Thomas Jefferson. Many positive relationships and activities with orthodox churches were revealed in this process.
The reality is that Jefferson was a hero to many evangelicals in his day. And in fact, when Jefferson died, Congress requested Rev. William Staughton, the Senate Chaplain and Baptist clergyman who had corresponded with Jefferson in 1806 (and president of what is now George Washington University), to preach a sermon to a joint session of the Senate and House. Jefferson was defended in this eulogy as a believer by an orthodox evangelical, not by a Unitarian, Deist or some heterodox or secular representative. This Christian image was the prevailing perspective of Jefferson at his death because of his public orthopraxy and strictly private heterodoxy.
Orthopraxy means that from all outward appearances, Jefferson practiced orthodox Christianity. Heterodoxy on a private basis means that Jefferson voiced some private doubts on core Christian doctrines.