Contrary to the myth that Thomas Jefferson was a lifelong skeptic of the Christian faith, our third president was more like this: a lifelong professing Christian, who early in life apparently believed. In 1777, a year after he wrote the first draft of the Declaration of Independence and the same year he wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, he helped create an independent church that called an evangelical minister (Rev. Charles Clay) as the pastor. All these things are documented in detail in our book, Doubting Thomas. Much later in life, Jefferson began to question some core Christian doctrines. Another point the book makes is that regardless of his own personal views, Jefferson did not have some sort of belief that there should be a strict separation of God and state. As president, Jefferson interacted with chaplains (paid Christian ministers of the state). The “secular wasteland” that groups like the ACLU are trying to turn America into is not the vision Jefferson or other founders had for our land. Here are a few interactions Jefferson had with ministers…these examples from our book come after his service as president for two terms.
Rev. Robert Elliott, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Washington and House chaplain when Jefferson was president, had also been hired to teach school there. His church used the school building close to the President’s House as a place of worship when not using the Capitol building itself. He now writes to Jefferson on March 6, 1811, offering his “prayers for your Happiness both here and hereafter” and asking for his subscription to a proposed volume of Elliott’s sermons: “I take the liberty of sending the enclosed for your signature—If not presumptuous, (with permission) would wish to dedicate them to you—as these now selected for publication with many others were preached in your presence & during your administration.”
Clearly most orthodox clergy who knew Jefferson still knew him only to be a supporter of Christianity and were proud to be associated with him. Jefferson replied affirmatively to the subscription on March 17, saying: “…I shall be glad to see in print discourses which I heard delivered with much satisfaction [in the church services in the Capitol]…; my particular thanks are due to you…To those of your society [i.e., Presbyterians] we owe an acknowlegement of the zeal they have generally manifested for the republican principles of our government;…[but there are some] professors of religion who admit none to be Christians who are not so in their way…[and] those in whose religious code no chapter is to be found on the duties of a citizen to his country…”
A local Presbyterian minister was called upon by Jefferson at this point to perform the funeral of his sister, Martha Jefferson Carr, in the Monticello graveyard. Rev. Charles Wingfield seems to have been an Anglican minister earlier in life, but was ordained a Presbyterian in 1808, and he also served in local government as a magistrate and sheriff. Three other letters were exchanged between them that month. Occasional gifts to other unidentified clergy also appear in the account books in 1811: “Gave the Revd. Mr. Osgood in charity 10 Dollars.” This was one of Jefferson’s smallest donation amounts, yet is the equivalent of about $250 today. It along with all the other donations seen over the years to dozens and dozens of clergy and churches, reveals a generous supporter of Christianity that should not be overlooked.