Jefferson Chose a Church Wedding for his Daughter

As is commonly done, even among people today—whether they believe in Jesus or not—, Thomas Jefferson, a professing Christian chose a Christian wedding for his daughter. Our book, Doubting Thomas, makes the point that Thomas Jefferson went through various religions phases of his life….including as a professing Christian for the bulk of his life. Later, in the 1810s and beyond, he began to entertain serious doubts of core Christian doctrines, at least on a private basis.

Jefferson was back home in 1797 for the last half of the year and obtained Rev. Maury to conduct the Episcopal wedding for his daughter Mary [called Polly] and John Wayles Eppes in October. The account book on December 5, says: “pay my subscription to end of this year…for Mr. Maury.” It does the same in 1799. These voluntary gifts continued to show his commitment to the Episcopal Church.

He returned to Philadelphia and there met Rev. Joseph Priestley, a Unitarian clergyman who had emigrated from England in 1794 to Northumberland, Pennsylvania and was a guest preacher in the area. Jefferson heard some of Priestley’s sermons at that time. Much later in 1822, Jefferson said: “there was a respectable congregation of that sect, with a meeting-house and regular service which I attended, and in which Doctor [Joseph] Priestley officiated to numerous audiences.” If Jefferson’s comment a quarter of a century later is true, then it is the second time where Jefferson attended an unorthodox church service. The first was in England as a guest of John Adams but now he does so as a personal choice. Jefferson also around this time purchased Priestley’s History of the Corruptions of Christianity. There is no contemporary reference to Jefferson attending Priestley’s church in any of his letters or account book entries, yet he later claims he attended his church at that time. So for us to accept this statement at face value requires us to also assume he likely attended churches in other times of his life, since he later said he was a lifelong member of the Episcopal Church and is proven to have donated to it consistently and generously. Jefferson’s mention of worshiping with Priestley requires the scholar to assume church attendance throughout his life, unless proven otherwise. (The main exception to this may well be when he is in France from 1784-1789, and Protestant worship was not available to him.)

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