Hide Your Bible from President Jefferson?

Lies were told about Jefferson and his religion. Most of these were regional, as we will see. They said things to the effect that if he becomes president of the US, you better hide your Bible. Let’s explore that from our book, “Doubting Thomas.”

Author James Parton wrote about the election contest between Jefferson and John Adams. Parton points out that some in New England feared terrible consequences for Christians in the Jefferson years to come: “Tradition reports, that when the news of his election reached New England, some old ladies, in wild consternation, hung their Bibles down the well in the butter-cooler.”[1]

Parton then continues, giving his own opinion on religion, and then explains the “Jefferson Bible,” which, if nothing else, shows that the third president appreciated the teachings and morals, if nothing else, of Jesus Christ:

“But, in truth, the creed of Jefferson is, and long has been, the real creed of the people of the United States. They know, in their hearts, whatever form of words they may habitually use, that Christianity is a life, not a belief; a principle of conduct, not a theory of the universe. ‘I am a Christian,’ wrote Jefferson, ‘in the only sense in which Jesus wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines in preference to all others.’ One evening, in Washington, having, for a wonder, a little leisure, he took two cheap copies of the New Testament, procured for the purpose, and cut from them the words of Jesus, and such other passages of the evangelists as are in closest accord with them. These he pasted in a little book, and entitled it, The Philosophy of Jesus extracted from the Text of the Evangelists. Two evenings were employed in this interesting work; and when it was done he contemplated it with rapturous satisfaction. The words of Jesus, he thought, were ‘as distinguishable from the matter in which they are embedded as diamonds in dunghills. A more precious morsel of ethics was never seen.’”[2]

We address the so-called Jefferson Bible in detail in a separate chapter. This was the first time it was mentioned other than in Randall’s 1858 biography of Jefferson, but the title Parton used left out a reference to it being done for the use of the Indians. The irony of some of the exaggerated claims from the pulpit against Jefferson’s faith is that up to the election of 1800 most of his beliefs appear to be in line with orthodox Christianity. It would be 1813 before Jefferson would explicitly state something to the contrary.[3] His heterodox views on the Trinity are fully analyzed in our chapter on orthodoxy.

Parton’s article in the 1870s shows us an opinion that the criticism of Jefferson in the election was unfair, first because Adams was even more heterodox than Jefferson, but also because the charges against Jefferson were flimsy and based mostly on fears of French Revolutionary trends coming to America (or of Virginia church disestablishment coming to New England).

[1] James Parton, “The Presidential Election of 1800,” Atlantic Magazine, July 1873. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1873/07/the-presidential-election-of-1800/307019/?single_page=true.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Examples: Letter to John Adams, August 22, 1813, Letter to William Canby, September 18, 1813, and again to John Adams, October 12, 1813. www.founders.archives.gov.

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