Thomas Jefferson was not a lifelong skeptic. Early in his life, from outward appearances, he seemed to be a Christian in the Anglican tradition. He even helped start an evangelical church with an evangelical minister who had been ordained in the Anglican tradition—Rev. Charles Clay. Jefferson did not believe in the separation of God and government.
Jefferson seemed to be fascinated by theology. As he grew older, he moved away from Christian orthodoxy. However, the last 6 years of his life, when an Anglican church in the Charlottesville area opened up, he attended there regularly.
Here is a portion of our book, DOUBTING THOMAS on his faith—or the lack thereof. In this portion, we see that Jefferson was abandoning the gospel of grace (that Jesus died for our sins) in favor of moralism.
To John Adams on January 11, 1817, Thomas Jefferson said: “The result of your fifty or sixty years of religious reading in the four words: ‘Be just and good,’ is that in which all our enquiries must end…; What all agree upon is probably right; what no two agree in most probably is wrong. One of our fan-coloring biographers, who paints small men as very great, inquired of me lately…My answer was ‘say nothing of my religion. It is known to my God and myself alone. Its evidence before the world is to be sought in my life. If that has been honest and dutiful to society, the religion which has regulated it cannot be a bad one.”
In Charlottesville, various clergy held public office at this time. Baptist Rev. John Goss was elected magistrate in 1816, and on May 5, 1817, Goss records in his diary of being with “…Jefferson and Madison, the former Presidents, and Monroe, the present President, together.” In this time period Rev. Goss and Baptist Rev. Benjamin Ficklin were reelected as magistrates, and Presbyterian Rev. Charles Wingfield was elected as sheriff. Jefferson never makes any criticism of these local evangelical clergymen being politically active and elected as leaders in government.
In fact, these magistrates began enforcing the Sabbath laws more consistently than before in the years that followed, and yet there is no document of Jefferson that criticized this. (Remember—back in the 1770s, he had a part in writing those very laws.) On that same day that Rev. Goss met with Jefferson, the latter wrote to John Adams with contrasting criticism of the behavior of clergy in New England that was finally changing: “…I join you therefore in sincere congratulations that this den of the priesthood [i.e., an official state Congregational church in Connecticut] is at length broken up, and that a protestant popedom is no longer to disgrace the American history and character. If by religion we are to understand sectarian dogmas, in which no two of them agree, then your exclamation on that hypothesis is just, ‘that this would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it.’ But if the moral precepts, innate in man, and made a part of his physical constitution, as necessary for a social being, if the sublime doctrines of philanthropism [i.e., love of man] and deism [i.e., one God] taught us by Jesus of Nazareth, in which all agree, constitute true religion, then, without it, this would be, as you again say, ‘something not fit to be named even, indeed, a hell.’”
Regardless of their theological views by the end of their lives, Jefferson (who said the morality of Jesus is the best man has ever and will ever know) and John Adams (who said “Our Constitution was made for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other”) believed that our government profits best by people living out genuine faith. And, of course, government has no place to enforce whatever that faith may be.