Death of His Wife and Child

[File photo by Jerry Newcombe] Thomas Jefferson’s beautiful and godly wife tragically died while in the process of giving birth to another daughter. Both mother and daughter died. This may well have been a personal tragedy from which Jefferson never recovered.

After Christmas 1782, Jefferson traveled to Philadelphia to serve in Congress, and despite his loss and grieving, at that time he continued to attend church, as was his custom. His account book says he “…paid at church” on March 31, 1783. This most likely was in the Episcopal Christ Church led now by Rev. William White.

Sometime in May or June of 1783, Jefferson composed a draft of a Constitution for Virginia that included a reference to the “Sovereign Disposer of all Human Events” and also some clauses protecting religious freedom. In his draft, he wrote: “…The General assembly shall not have the power to…abridge the civil rights of any person on account of his religious belief; to restrain him from professing and supporting that belief, or to compel him to contributions, other than those he shall himself have stipulated…

Jefferson also discussed faith in a private letter to his daughter Martha on December 11, 1783, writing from Annapolis where Congress had moved. He said: “I hope you will have good sense enough to disregard those foolish predictions that the world is to be an end soon. The almighty has never made known to any body at what time he created it, nor will he tell any body when he means to put an end to it, if ever he means to do it. As to preparations for that event, the best way is for you to be always prepared for it…If ever you are about to…do anything wrong…You will feel something within you which will tell you it is wrong…: this is your conscience, and be sure to obey it. Our maker has given us all, this faithful internal Monitor, and if you always obey it, you will always be prepared for the end of the world: or for a much more certain event which is death…”

Dr. Mark Beliles, co-author with me of Doubting Thomas, told me that part of Jefferson’s problem with the death of his wife was that apparently she had him pledge to never marry again. This was a tragic and from our perspective unreasonable commitment that she had asked of him, and he did fulfil it. Jefferson never married again. Her death in childbirth, which also resulted in the death of the baby, was a great blow to Jefferson. It may have been part of the reason for his later religious doubt.

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