Dr. Mark Beliles (co-founder of the Providence Foundation) and I wrote a book on the faith of Thomas Jefferson, called DOUBTING THOMAS? In the book, we document that Jefferson was not a lifelong skeptic, although he had some serious questions about core Christian doctrines later in life. Nor was Jefferson a believer that God had no place in our government.
Here are some of our remarks on a potential change in Jefferson’s understanding of Christianity that we can find in a letter he wrote in 1788. Nonetheless, we have to be careful not to read too much into the book.
The first significant evidence of a change in beliefs was revealed in a reply Jefferson made to Justin P. P. Derieux on July 25, 1788. Derieux, a neighbor of Jefferson’s in Albemarle, had asked Jefferson to be a sponsor for his child in baptism—i.e., a godfather. Jefferson declined, saying: “…The person who becomes sponsor for a child, according to the ritual of the church in which I was educated, makes a solemn profession, before God and the world, of faith in articles, which I had never sense enough to comprehend, and it has always appeared to me that comprehension must precede assent. The difficulty of reconciling the ideas of Unity and Trinity, have, from a very early part of my life, excluded me from the office of sponsorship…; the church requires—faith. Accept therefore Sir this conscientious excuse…”
This letter has been used by biographers without careful analysis. They have said therefore that Jefferson never assented to church beliefs as an adult. But it was already seen that in the first 21 years of Jefferson’s adult life, he had been an active member and vestryman of the Anglican Church requiring assent to its doctrines, including the Trinity. His name was listed in the Vestry Book under the oath of assent to its doctrines for all to see. And virtually every biographer says that he baptized his children in the Church, which required similar affirmations. And in addition to that he led the effort to start the Calvinistical Reformed Church and voluntarily funded its pastor and his uncommon evangelical preaching.
So when Jefferson now says that “from a very early part of my life,” he never had sense enough to comprehend and reconcile the ideas of Unity and Trinity, and therefore never had faith in the church’s articles, it creates a dilemma. It can indicate one of two possibilities: (1) This long-held inward dissonance was true but never strong enough that he tangibly acted upon it; or (2) He has developed dissonance recently but perhaps exaggerated its length in an effort to excuse himself to Derieux.
It’s also possible that he was just plain inconsistent. One thing is certain: a new era of questioning his beliefs was real now. Although he would privately but clearly reject some articles of faith by 1813, Jefferson was only willing to say at this point that he was unsure of his beliefs. He was now pondering these things sincerely and did not want to be a hypocrite. As will be seen, his questions eventually led him to think incorrectly that the Trinity was not a part of the original Christian revelation but rather a later corruption.