Jefferson certainly had a lot of doubts about key Christian doctrines later in life. But he was not a lifelong skeptic. Nor did he believe that faith had no place in the public square. The following are excerpted from the book by Mark Beliles and Jerry Newcombe, Doubting Thomas, and they deal with a later phase—a more skeptical phase—of the third president, who by the this time in his life was retired from the presidency.
John Adams sent a letter to Jefferson in early March 1814 that said some Bible texts and basic doctrines of Christianity could not be true, and asserted that they were corruptions by early European church leaders. Jefferson replied on July 5, 1814 saying: “…The [early European] Christian priesthood, finding the doctrines of Christ levelled to every understanding, and too plain to need explanation, saw in the mysticism of Plato, materials with which they might build up an artificial system, which might, from its indistinctness, admit everlasting controversy, give employment for their order, and introduce it to profit, power and pre-eminence…”
The context of his criticism shows again it to be narrowly focused on early European priests. It’s interesting also that while making strong critiques of Scripture, nonetheless Jefferson uses the term “Christ” (i.e., Messiah) for Jesus in this letter. This signifies perhaps that Jefferson held to a view of Jesus that was more than mere human but difficult to label. Meanwhile, he blames the rise of Plato’s mysticism for the doctrine of the Trinity. He sees Trinitarian priests as intentionally creating a complicated scheme for their own power and profit—as opposed to sincere people discerning that the Trinity is something revealed in the Bible.
Similarly on December 6, 1813 Jefferson wrote to Alexander von Humboldt, Prussian geographer (who traveled to Latin America), saying the “…History [of Europe with state-established churches], I believe, furnishes no example of a priestridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes.” Many Protestants at that time in America would agree with this observation.
A New York political and business leader Horatio G. Spafford had previously corresponded with Jefferson and informed him that “…to destroy Thomas Jefferson, is the summum bonum of the ecclesiastic junta of New-England…” So Spafford asked Jefferson to tell him his beliefs about Christ and the Bible so that he could defend Jefferson properly. So now on March 17, 1814, Jefferson wrote: “…In every country and in every age, 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. It is easier to acquire wealth and power by this combination than by deserving them, and to effect this, they have perverted the purest religion ever preached to man into mystery and jargon…”
Once again it is clear that by saying “every country and in every age” Jefferson is referring mainly to Europe’s history of Catholic priests having political power. But, of course it is also true that abuse by Protestant priests against dissident Christians was also experienced often in post-Reformation Europe.