Thomas Jefferson may well be one of the most misunderstood of our founding fathers. He is the one from whom we get the phrase “separation of church and state.” But, contrary to the popular modern myths, he was not a lifelong, closet atheist. Nor did he believe in banishing God from the public arena. For instance, as president, he approved the use of the Capitol building for weekly Christian worship services—services that continued until the 1880s, when enough church buildings had been built in D. C. Furthermore, as president, Jefferson attended those services on a regular basis. That’s enough to give the ACLU apoplexy.
For instance, Jefferson attended a sermon by the non-denominational/Quaker Rev. Dorothy Ripley in early 1806 and his worship in the Capitol was also referenced by Catherine Mitchill in an April 1806 letter because of her embarrassment for stepping on the president’s toes in the crowded room of worshipers (apparently a few months earlier).
The idea of foreign missions was still new to most Americans when an appeal was made to Jefferson on February 24 by Reverend Doctor William Rogers and Rev. William Staughton on behalf of other clergymen in Philadelphia for his support of William Carey’s mission in India. Rogers was a Baptist minister serving at that time as professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and Staughton was pastor of
First Baptist Church of Philadelphia. Their appeal included a flier that described the mission more in-depth, and it asked for money to translate the Bible into seven languages. The letter was also signed by eleven other clergymen of Philadelphia:
Ashbel Green, 2d Presbyterian Church
J. Henry C. Helmuth, German Lutheran Church
John Hey, Independent Church
Joseph Pilmore, Episcopal Church of St. Paul’s
James Gray, Scotch Presbyterian Church
George Potts, 4th Presbyterian Church
William White, 2d Baptist Church
Joseph Shaw, Associate Congregation
Samuel Helfenstein, German Reformed Church
Jacob J. Janeway, 2d Presbyterian Church [co-pastor]
William Colbert, Methodist Episcopal Church of St. George
It is important to see that this Who’s Who of clergy from many denominations in Philadelphia had no reason to think their appeal to Jefferson would be useless. On the contrary, these Gospel ministers asserted that “the name of Jefferson will be long and with pleasure repeated” in regards to his benevolence for such things. But the idea of foreign missions for Protestants was still very new. So on March 2, 1806, Jefferson replied with a letter in which he declined to donate because, as he explained to these clergymen, he preferred to support charitable programs closer to home with which he was familiar, were more accountable, and believed to be more likely to be successful. This was something he had already expressed a couple times to previous requests for aid outside of Washington or his home state.
For the most part, those Christians that knew Jefferson felt they saw a man who overall favored Christianity. Of course, later in life he developed some serious, private doubts about core Christian doctrines. But such doubts did not prevent him from regularly attending church, including those weekly Christian services at the U. S. Capitol.