Jefferson Corresponds with Some Unitarian Ministers

Thomas Jefferson was not a lifelong skeptic, but primarily through the influence of some Unitarians, he ended up later in life questioning some core Christian beliefs. Nonetheless, he did not believe in banishing God from the public arena, as happens far too often in his name these days. The book I cowrote with Mark Beliles, DOUBTING THOMAS, documents all these things. What follows are some portions of that book. Note: Jefferson at one point late in life predicted that Unitarianism would spread throughout the country, becoming the majority. Thankfully, that did not happen…instead people got saved through salvation by faith in Jesus Christ.

In 1815, Jefferson received a letter from a northern Unitarian Rev. Benjamin Waterhouse, a pastor of First Parish Church in Portland, Maine. On October 13, Jefferson replied to Rev. Benjamin Waterhouse with discussion of New England clergy: “…I have read with pleasure the orations of Mr. [John] Holmes & Mr. [Benjamin] Austin [i.e., Unitarians in New England, who were opponents of ];…the reverenced leaders of the Hartford nation [i.e., Connecticut]; the religious and political tyranny of those in power;… this Sodom and Gomorrah of parsons [include: David] Osgood, [Elijah] Parish & [John] Gardiner [of Massachusetts].”

Jefferson wrote in late 1815 to Thomas Ritchie, a journalist in Richmond, Virginia. Jefferson’s letter referenced a pamphlet by northern minister Lyman Beecher that Unitarian Rev. Benjamin Waterhouse had sent him regarding a plan to train more ministers for places in the south such as Virginia. Jefferson was not opposed to more religions per se, but was concerned with an invasion “…of New England religion and politics” i.e. more law-religion instead of the transdenominational religious culture that Jefferson admired.

With this letter Jefferson included the following message that he felt would be best if Ritchie would perhaps publish it, but not with Jefferson’s name on it. The message follows: “…You judge truly that I am not afraid of the [northern Federalist] priests. They have tried upon me all their various batteries, of pious whining, hypocritical canting, lying & slandering, without being able to give me one moment of pain…”

Jefferson was not troubled by the attacks against him from those New England clergy, whom he dismissed as religious hypocrites. And yet he was friendly to many northern clergy. Again, his anti-clericalism was nuanced and specific for certain clergy.

Another Unitarian, Rev. Noah Worcester, of Massachusetts wrote him and enclosed pamphlets against war on October 18, 1815.50 Jefferson replied with comments regarding war on January 29, 1816.

To John Adams he wrote on April 8 of “…Atheism…It was a numerous school in the Catholic countries, while the infidelity of the Protestant took generally the form of theism.” An earlier letter by Jefferson used the word “deism” in place of theism, so it’s apparently interchangeable in Jefferson’s thinking.

After Joseph Milligan sent Jefferson a copy of Charles Thomson’s Synopsis of the Four Evangelists, Thomson sent another copy himself so Jefferson replied to Thomson on January 9, 1816 saying, “…I, too, have made a wee-little book from the same materials, which I call the Philosophy of Jesus [1804 version]; it is a paradigma of his doctrines, made by cutting the texts out of the book, and arranging them on the pages of a blank book, in a certain order of time or subject. A more beautiful or precious morsel of ethics I have never seen. It is a document in proof that I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus, very different from the Platonists, who call me infidel and themselves Christians and preachers of the gospel, while they draw all their characteristic dogmas from what its author never said nor saw. They have compounded from the heathen mysteries a system beyond the comprehension of man, of which the great reformer [i.e., Jesus] of the vicious ethics and deism of the Jews, were he to return on earth, would not recognize one feature…If I had time I would add to my little book the Greek, Latin and French texts, in columns side by side…”


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