Defending Jefferson’s Religion In The Election Of 1800

Not a single clergyman from the south joined in this attack on Jefferson’s faith at this time nor for that matter at any time throughout Jefferson’s lifetime. There was an Episcopal minister in Philadelphia, Rev. James Abercrombie, who on August 24, 1800, was reported in the Philadelphia Aurora newspaper to have preached: “Beware—Men, Brethren, and fellow Christians—Beware of ever placing at the Head of Civil Society a man who is not an avowed Christian and an exemplary believer in our Holy Religion. . . .”[1] He did not directly mention Jefferson, and his words could be applied to any election about any candidate. Although he gave no specific evidence about Jefferson, people knew who was implied. Furthermore this minister earlier said a similar thing about George Washington. Abercrombie’s superior, Bishop William White, did not support this view and so this implied charge against Jefferson had little impact.

Not a single minister attacked Jefferson from Virginia and none from his home county. This refusal to agree with these northern accusations was because those who knew Jefferson viewed these as baseless and partisan charges. Meanwhile, evidence abounds of support and affection for Jefferson (and Madison) from the evangelicals of Virginia, because of the great contributions of these two men to religious freedom there. Although evangelicals were smaller in number and influence in the north, they strongly  defended Jefferson during that contentious 1800 election. Hamburger writes of one notable defender in New York: “Tunis Wortman, pointed out that Jefferson’s ‘only object’ in discussing religion was ‘to discountenance political establishments in theology.’”[2]


Meanwhile, the Presbyterian Rev. Samuel Knox, Principal of Baltimore College, and an advocate of public education, wrote “A Vindication of the Religion of Mr. Jefferson” in 1800, and worked for the Republican cause in Maryland.[3] Over a decade later on the National Day of Humiliation and Prayer proclaimed by President James Madison in 1812, Rev. Knox gave a sermon in which he asserted that “Our national cause is a religious cause.”[4]

Certainly there were a few clergy who publicly opposed Jefferson on religious grounds but just as many defended him. And certainly there were many clergy in the north who privately opposed Jefferson and his party, but the same could be said of many in the south who privately supported him. Overall, it would seem that the perception of most clergy opposing Jefferson during that election is an exaggeration by modern historians.

[1] Richard Rosenfeld, American Aurora, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), 840.

[2] Hamburger, Separation of Church and State, 118.

[3] Samuel Knox, “A Vindication of the Religion of Thomas Jefferson,” 1800 (Baltimore, Md.: W. Pechin).

[4] Steven Watts, The Republic Reborn: War and the Making of Liberal America, 1790-1820 (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 156.

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