Jefferson and Some of the Local Clergy

Jefferson’s friend Bishop James Madison, the first bishop of the Virginia Episcopal Church, which became independent of Anglicans in 1790, was far from being an opponent of Jefferson. In fact, the bishop had managed to lead some of the Episcopal Church in Virginia into the same political party as their enemies, the evangelicals. Though not an evangelical, Bishop Madison, was a supporter of Jefferson and “coadjutor in . . . the development of the Democratic-Republican Party.” Some of his fellow clergy even criticized him, saying that he “immersed himself in Republican politics to the exclusion of his pastoral duties.”[1] He visited Jefferson at Monticello, and over forty letters have survived between them. A letter from the bishop to Jefferson in 1800 criticized the Federalist clergy in New England and said: “I do most firmly believe that the Christian religion rightly understood, and carried into full effect, would establish a pure Democracy over the world. . . .The true Christian must be a good Democrat.”[2]

By this time, back in the Virginia Piedmont around Charlottesville, the religious leaders who had a good relationship with Jefferson—Baptist William Woods, Episcopal-Presbyterian Charles Wingfield, and Methodist Tandy Key—continued to dominate local politics and all held public office. These were joined by John Goss, who became pastor of Blue Run and Preddy’s Creek Baptist churches around 1800, and served them for about forty years. He was elected Sheriff of Madison County from 1800 to 1803.[3]

When Jefferson expressed opposition to clergy in politics it was mainly focused on Catholics of medieval Europe or in France at that time. For example, Jefferson, in a 1786 letter to Virginia statesman George Wythe, said: “Our act for freedom of religion is extremely applauded; . . . People (in France) are yet loaded with misery by kings, nobles and priests.” As Jefferson began commenting on the political instability in France he frequently mentioned in various letters in late 1788 and 1789 the “. . . priests and nobles [in France] combin[in]g together against the people . . .” and that “. . . The [Catholic French] clergy and nobility, as clergy and nobility eternally will, are opposed to giving . . . representation [to the people] as may dismount them from their back.” Certainly his criticism would apply as well to Protestant clergy in Europe or to early colonial clergy in America (America had little history of nobles and kings).

Jefferson wrote fellow statesman James Madison on June 18, 1789: “The [Catholic French] bishops and archbishops have been very successful by bribes and intrigues.” In 1794 Jefferson mentioned in a letter to T. Coxe that “. . . priests . . . have been so long deluging with human blood. . . .” The context of this is mainly European church-state clergy (Roman Catholic for most of European history but also some Protestants in recent centuries).

Later Jefferson continued with such commentary on Europe. He wrote to Prussian geographer Alexander von Humboldt on April 14, 1811, stating: “. . . I imagine they [Europeans] will . . . bow their ne[cks] to their priests, and persevere in intolerantism.” Two days later he wrote General Thaddeus Kosciuszko and wondered “. . . If the obstacles of bigotry and priest-craft [in Europe] can be surmounted. . . .”

On December 6, 1813, Jefferson wrote again to von Humboldt “. . . on the subject of New Spain [i.e. Catholic Latin America] . . . History [of Catholic Europe], I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government.” On March 17, 1814, Jefferson wrote to a political and business leader in New York named Horatio G. Spafford: “. . . In every country and in every age [referring mainly to Europe’s history], the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.”

He replied on May 29, 1823, to Michael Megear, a Delaware Quaker merchant: “. . . Were the Pope, or his holy allies, to send in mission to us some thousands of Jesuit priests to convert us to their orthodoxy, I suspect that we should deem and treat it as a national aggression on our peace and faith.” On June 5, 1824, Jefferson wrote to Major John Cartwright, saying: “. . . the Anglo-Saxon priests interpolated into the text of Alfred’s laws, . . . chapters of Exodus, and the . . . Acts of the Apostles. . . . What a conspiracy this, between Church and State! . . .”

Jefferson opposed state-churches, churches by law established. That does not mean he did not hate church per se or ministers per se either. Some of his best friends….

[1] Thomas Thompson, The Failure of Jeffersonian Reform: Religious Groups and the Politics of Morality in Early National Virginia (Unpublished dissertation, University of California, Riverside, 1990), 346. See also David Holmes, Up from Independence: The Episcopal Church in Virginia (Interdiocesan Bicentennial Committee of the Virginias, Orange, VA, 1976), 6. See Morton H. Smith, Studies in Southern Presbyterian Theology (Phillipsburg, N.J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1962), 424.

[2] “To Thomas Jefferson from Bishop James Madison, February 11, 1800,” . Also see Gaustad, Edwin, Sworn On the Altar of God: A Religious Biography of Thomas Jefferson (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans Publishers, 1996), 204.

[3] Preddy’s Creek’s oral tradition claims that Jefferson had also occasionally visited and worshipped at their church. See Gayle Marshall, Preddy’s Creek Baptist Church, 1781-1981 (Albemarle County, Va.: Published by the church, 1981).


Note: Photo by Jerry Newcombe is a statue of Thomas Jefferson at the University of Virginia, for which he was the prime founder.

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