Jefferson And Campmeeting Evangelists

The idea that Thomas Jefferson was a lifelong skeptic is not accurate. Later in life, he privately harbored some serious doubts of core Christian doctrines. Meanwhile, while he was president, he did support morally, financially, and often with his presence, various Christian meetings and Christian leaders.

Here is what we note in our book, DOUBTING THOMAS. The president went home on April 2, 1804 and entered another period of grieving as his twenty-five year old daughter, Mary (Polly), died on April 17, due to complications arising from giving birth to a child two months before. Jefferson turned to his home pastor Rev. Matthew Maury to conduct the funeral. His other daughter Martha said she “found him with the Bible in his hands [seeking]…consolation in the Sacred Volume.” And in a letter to his boyhood friend and devout Christian, John Page, Jefferson quoted the Apostle Paul’s argument that because of a belief in resurrection and eternal life, “We sorrow not then as others who have no hope.” This not only shows his use of the Bible, but notably his use of more than just the words of Jesus. Even more notably, he claims the assurance of faith in dealing with death—one of the great comforts of the believer.

Meanwhile, Jefferson’s county, Albemarle County was the Virginia epicenter of the camp meeting revivals of the Second Great Awakening. The most prolific of these camp meeting preachers was a man named Rev. Lorenzo Dow, the most famous of all evangelists in the early 19th century. Lorenzo Dow was like the Billy Graham of his day. He traveled throughout the nation and spoke to more people than any other preacher at that time. He came that spring of 1804 to a gathering in the town of Milton, near Monticello (Jefferson’s home, where Dow had preached in 1802 also). Dow wrote in his journal that in “…Charlottesville near the President’s seat in Albemarle County; I spoke to about four thousand people, and one of the President’s daughters who was present, died a few days after.” This crowd was over ten times the size of Charlottesville and attracted every level of society together. Jefferson’s daughter Mary, wife of Congressman John Wayles Eppes, and some of the Monticello enslaved community came to these meetings that lasted a week there at the base of Jefferson’s mountain, but there is no evidence that the President attended (perhaps it ended just before he arrived from Washington). Dow’s wild unorthodox style of preaching gave him the title of “Crazy Dow,” but he was also an avid supporter of the president and his Democratic-Republican Party.

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