First Criticism of Calvinism—by Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson was not a lifelong skeptic. A year he wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776, he helped as a layman to found the Calvinistical Reformed Church of Charlottesville, which called an evangelical minister as its pastor. Jump ahead about 40 years later, and the former president articulates his first criticism of Calvinism. Here is a portion of our book on Jefferson’s faith, including his unbelief later in life, DOUBTING THOMAS. Despite whatever doubts he may have held, he did feel that Christian teaching should always be proclaimed…even in the public arena. He worshiped regularly as president in the US Capitol virtually every Sunday.

First Criticism of Calvinism

To Samuel Wells and Gabriel Lilly, Jefferson wrote a letter in 1818 that used the term “primitive” in conjunction with Christianity, which was used almost interchangeably with Restorationist theology and Unitarianism. To Wells and Lilly he said: “…I make you my acknowledgement for the sermon on the Unity of God, and am glad to see our countrymen looking that question in the face. It must end in a return to primitive Christianity, and the disbandment of the unintelligible Athanasian jargon of 3 being 1 and 1 being 3. This sermon

is one of the strongest pieces against it. I observe you are about printing a work of [Thomas] Belsham’s on the same subject, for which I wish to be a subscriber…”

Here was a strong denunciation of the doctrine of the Trinity.

On March 9, 1818, Jefferson’s account book said he “Paid for a book.” The editors say it was a book by George Bethune English entitled The Grounds of Christianity Examined by Comparing the New Testament with the Old. It was not an orthodox work and earlier had led to the excommunication of Mr. English in Britain.

At that same time, another friend from New Hampshire, Republican congressman Salma Hale, sent Jefferson some Unitarian literature that was strongly anti-Calvinist. In reply, Jefferson makes his first statement that was critical of Calvinism, while also acknowledging Calvin along with Luther as reformers. This short complete letter is below: “…The truth is that Calvinism has introduced into the Christian religion more new absurdities than it’s leader had purged it of old ones. Our Saviour did not come into the world to save metaphysicians only. His doctrines are leveled to the simplest understandings and it is only by banishing Hierophantic [i.e., priestly] mysteries and Scholastic subtleties, which they have nick-named Christianity, and getting back to the plain and unsophisticated precepts of Christ, that we become real Christians. The half reformation of Luther and Calvin did something towards a restoration of his genuine doctrines; the present contest will, I hope, compleat what they began, and place us where the evangelists left us.”

He believes that the Reformation didn’t go far enough in its return to basic Christianity, as he sees it. He hopes a more complete restoration is soon to come.

This letter is interesting also because it again includes the usage of “our Saviour” and “Christ” to refer to Jesus. These terms implied that perhaps Jefferson believed Jesus to be more than just a moral teacher. The references are too slight to make any conclusions, but should not be ignored either.

In a letter to Matthew Carey, he said: “In a letter of Oct. 6 I requested the favor of you to send me Griesbach’s Greek Testament, …and the New Testament in an improved version on the basis of Newcome’s* translation…” Johan Griesbach’s New Testament was notable for its synthesis of Matthew, Mark and Luke into one synoptic gospel account and elimination of verses having no repetition in one of the other gospels. The “improved version” of Newcome’s New Testament was published by Unitarians and noted for leaving out most of 1 John 5:7 for its Trinitarian text.

This is notable because Jefferson apparently was revising his original abridgement of the Gospels at that time.

On May 15, 1819, Jefferson replied to northern Unitarian clergyman Thomas B. Parker. Rev. Parker had sent a letter in April saying: “I have just published a small work against the doctrines of [John] Calvin and [Samuel] Hopkins and have taken the liberty to forward you a copy of it presuming you to be a friend to the great cause of truth.” Jefferson replied saying: “…I thank you, Sir, for the pamphlet you have been so kind as to send me on the reveries, not to say insanities of Calvin and Hopkins…Were I to be the founder of a new sect, I would call them Apiarians [i.e. beekeepers], and, after the example of the bee, advise them to extract the honey of every sect. My fundamental principle would be the reverse of Calvin’s, that we are to be saved by our good works which are within our power, and not by our faith which is not within our power.”

Jefferson, being more and more influenced by the Restorationist anti-creedal inter-denominational orientation, preferred to be connected to many varieties of Christianity, like a bee landing on many flowers, getting the best of the variety.

Later in August, Jefferson replied to Parker who wished to publish Jefferson’s letter. But Jefferson refused saying: “Nothing gives me more pain than to have letters, written in the carelessness & confidence of private correspondence, exposed to the public…At my time of life, tranquility is it’s summa bonum. To preserve this, I wish to offend no man’s opinion. Much less to take the maniac post of a religious controversialist.”


*No relation to Jerry Newcombe


Note: Much of the whole world wants to be like Switzerland? Why because of the incredibly positive influence of John Calvin.

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