[Jerry Newcombe at the Jefferson Memorial.] Contrary to the notion that Thomas Jefferson was a lifelong skeptic of Christianity, he claimed to be a Christian. However, not all professors of Christianity are possessors of true faith. Only God is the judge. Meanwhile, Jefferson claimed to be a Christian, but in the same letter in which he says it, he seems to be of the understanding that there had been corruptions early on in the process of the writings surrounding early Christianity. Thankfully, we have much conservative textual scholarship on the New Testament today, providing ample evidence for the reliability of the Gospels.
Meanwhile, here is some of what we wrote about Jefferson and his faith claims in our book, DOUBTING THOMAS. Edward Dowse of Massachusetts was someone from New England who was interested in Indian missions. He had corresponded with Jefferson at least six times previously, beginning in the 1790s. Now on April 5, 1803, Dowse sent President Jefferson a copy of a sermon by Rev William Bennet of Scotland, “The Excellence of Christian Morality,” and spoke about the importance of promoting the “extension of civilization and Christian knowledge among the Aborigines of North America.” Dowse said that “it seemed to me to have a claim to your attention: at any rate, the idea, hath struck me that you will find it of use; and, perhaps, may see fit, to cause some copies of it to be reprinted, at your own charge, to distribute among our Indian Missionaries.” Mr. Dowse apparently understood Jefferson’s interest in Christian missions to the Native Americans in a way that many modern scholars have dismissed as irrelevant. Jefferson, the lifelong skeptic, interested in Christian missions to the Indians?
Jefferson replied to Dowse on April 19, 1803, saying: “…I now return the sermon you were so kind as to enclose me, having have perused it with attention;…the morality of Jesus, as taught by himself, and freed from the corruptions of latter times, is far superior;…In a pamphlet lately published in Philadelphia by Dr. Priestley, he has treated, with more justice and skill than Mr. Bennet, a small portion of this subject…” Joseph Priestley was a Unitarian. This is among the first times Jefferson perhaps alluded to alleged corruptions and the connection in this correspondence between Indian mission work and distilling a simple expression of the morality of Jesus that could be printed “to distribute among our Indian Missionaries” is important to note here.
It soon leads to Jefferson’s abridgement of the moral teachings of Jesus. And like the previous letter to John Bacon, Jefferson’s letter to Dowse also leads to comments on of religious freedom. In that same month, Jefferson replied to Unitarian Rev. Joseph Priestley: “…I received from you a copy of your comparative view of Socrates & Jesus;…In consequence of some conversation with Dr. Rush, in the year 1798-99, I had promised some day to write him a letter giving him my view of the Christian system. I have reflected often on it since, & even sketched the outlines in my own mind…” Jefferson enclosed to him his “Syllabus of an Estimate of the Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus Compared with Those of Others” that deliberately avoided addressing the debate over Jesus’ divinity. In fact, Jefferson said “the question of his being a member of the Godhead…is foreign to the present view, which is merely an estimate of the intrinsic merits of his doctrines.”1 Jefferson said that what he was trying to accomplish in the syllabus was simply to compare the philosophy of Jesus with other classical systems. But in the letter to Priestley, Jefferson also asserted that scripture texts had been corrupted over time and needed correction. Then for the first time in a letter to the Presbyterian layman Benjamin Rush on April 21, 1803, Jefferson seems to imply his belief that Jesus was not divine in the syllabus that he enclosed with it: “…In some of the delightful conversations with you, in the evenings of 1798-99…the Christian religion was sometimes our topic…; My views of it…are the result of a life in inquiry & reflection, and very different from that Anti-Christian system imputed to me by those who know nothing of my opinions. To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; & believing he never claimed any other…” This was the first time Jefferson clearly gives himself a religious identity. He says he is a Christian and that only his enemies describe him as “anti-Christian.”