It’s a common modern myth that Thomas Jefferson lived and acted like an atheist all his life. He was a regular church-goer for most of his life. The times he did not attend were during those periods when the local branch of the Episcopal Church, of which he was a lifelong member, did not have services available. For example, the last five years of his life, Christ Episcopal Church opened in Charlottesville, and he began to attend regularly.
Some of the early suspicions as to whether he was genuinely Christian could easily be understood as political opposition to his involvement as president. Many Christians from New England, including Congressman Manasseh Cutler, were not sure as to how Christian our third president truly was. However, there is a political tinge to the accusations.
In his diary, Jefferson-critic Manasseh Cutler recorded that “…Mrs. Eppes [i.e., Jefferson’s daughter Mary] and her sister [Martha], as well as the President, have constantly attended worship at the Capitol during this session.” On New Year’s Day 1803, Rev. Cutler reported visiting Jefferson and seeing the year-old Mammoth Cheese at the President’s house, and again seeing the person who brought the cheese the year before, Baptist Rev. John Leland. Leland again preached in Congress on January 3, 1803, and Jefferson, his daughter, and Meriwether Lewis attended.157 Note how a political opponent of Jefferson refers to his “ardent zeal” to attend Christian worship, despite inclement weather. Even Jefferson’s political opponent, Cutler, testified to Jefferson’s Christian involvement.
Cutler’s New England region and fellow-Congregational clergy strongly held suspicions of Jefferson’s religious infidelity, yet here he ends up documenting a religious life of President Jefferson that few today believe is true. Cutler also did not believe Jefferson a religious man when he first arrived; but Jefferson, the supposed skeptic, was proving to be quite faithful as a churchman. By the end of this second phase of Jefferson’s religious life, there has only been one statement saying he did not comprehend the Trinity and declining therefore to be a godfather, but yet an overwhelming amount of evidence that shows him to be regular in attendance and financial support of not only his own church, but many other Trinitarian congregations. Yes, he had also visited Priestley’s church some times while in Philadelphia and had studied some Unitarian literature, but as of the end of 1802, he still remained orthopraxic, if not also orthodox, in belief.