Thomas Jefferson was not an orthodox Christian, but nor was he a lifelong skeptic. When he was most valuable to his country—especially in writing the first draft of the Declaration of Independence and in writing the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom (written 1777 and passed 1786)—from all outward appearances, he was a believer in Jesus Christ and an active member of an orthodox church. Furthermore, Jefferson helped found an evangelical church in 1777, as a layman. He donated more money to that church than anyone else. It was the Calvinistical Reformed Church of Charlottesville. Ironically, later in life, Jefferson had many negative things to say about the doctrines of John Calvin. But that would come later.
Here’s a small portion of our book, DOUBTING THOMAS (by Mark Beliles and Jerry Newcombe, MorganJames), dealing with the third president’s religious life. This portion of his life is well after he left the White House.
More significant letters were written to Unitarian Rev. John Brazer of Salem, Massachusetts when Jefferson affirmed his belief in: “…the doctrines of the earliest fathers;…To these original sources he must now, therefore, return, to recover the virgin purity of his religion.” Then about three months later he wrote again in response to Brazer’s request to publish Jefferson’s letter: “Letters too which are written when in the carelessness and confidence of private correspondence, may have blots to be hit, which could have been filled up if meant to meet public criticism [_____] and to these considerations I am therefore in a period in the life of man when he should cease to trust himself on paper. The precise moment indeed may not be distinctly marked but when the body is sensibly decayed, we may well suspect that the mind is in some sympathies with it, when the coat is wellworn we ought to expect that the lining also is becoming thread bare. We are the last too ourselves in perceiving this wane of the understanding…Pardon me then, good Sir, if I wish the letter to remain as a private testimonial only of my respect.”
This appeal is important for the modern reader for it encourages us not to scrutinize Jefferson’s private letters too much. He did not intend for them to meet public criticism which, if he did, he would have worked on them more. He also asks additional grace for any of his letters at this elderly stage of his life when his mental faculties were not at their best. Brazer apparently visited Jefferson later in the fall of 1825.
In light of Jefferson’s appeal to Brazer, a letter at that time to his former secretary and diplomat William Short should be read. On October 31, 1819, Jefferson said: “… But the greatest of all the reformers of the depraved religion of His own country, was Jesus of Nazareth. Abstracting what is really His from the rubbish in which it is buried, easily distinguished by its lustre from the dross of His biographers, and as separable from that as the diamond from the dunghill, we have the outlines of a system of the most sublime morality which has ever fallen from the lips of man;…the rescuing it from the imputation of imposture, which has resulted from artificial systems, invented by ultra-Christian sects, unauthorized by a single word ever uttered by Him, is a most desirable object, and one to which Priestley has successfully devoted his labors and learning…”
This letter to Short also has an unsent version that is discussed fully in the chapter later on Jefferson and orthodoxy.