Jefferson Defends His Abridgement of the Sayings of Jesus

Thomas Jefferson was not a lifelong skeptic, and he did not believe in the separation of God and state. All these are documented in our book, DOUBTING THOMAS, which Jerry Newcombe wrote in conjunction with Charlottesville pastor, Dr. Mark Beliles. Later in life, Thomas Jefferson came to harbor some private doubts.

Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to the devout Christian man, Charles Thomson, who had served as the Secretary for the Continental Congress that approved the Declaration of Independence in 1776. In this 1816 letter that Jefferson wrote to Thomson, he mentions two documents that our third president had written that proves that he was reportedly a “Christian.” He refers to the 1804 abridgement he had compiled (of many of the teachings of Jesus for the Indians) and of a list of Christian doctrines (called a Syllabus) that he believed—compiled in a letter Jefferson wrote to Benjamin Rush. Jefferson views many core Christian doctrines, like the Trinity, as being the work of “the Platonists.” He also uses the word “deism” to describe the religion of the Jews. Furthermore, he gives us the first inklings of a later version of his extracts—one that includes not just verses from the King James Bible, but side by side verses in these other languages (including the original Greek).

On January 20, 1816, Jefferson wrote to Peter Wilson (who apparently had urged support of Bible translations in languages of Indians), saying: “…I think, therefore, the pious missionaries who shall go to the several tribes to instruct them in the Christian religion will have to learn a language for every tribe they go to; nay, more, that they will have to create a new language for every one, that is to say, to add to theirs new words for the new ideas they will have to communicate. Law, medicine, chemistry, mathematics, every science has a language of its own, and divinity not less than others. Their barren vocabularies cannot be vehicles for ideas of the fall of man, his redemption, the triune composition of the Godhead, and other mystical doctrines considered by most Christians of the present date as essential elements of faith. The enterprise is therefore arduous, but the more inviting perhaps to missionary zeal…”

This comment on the difficulty of communicating all of the doctrines of the Christian faith, was in line with his reason over a decade earlier for compiling his Philosophy of Jesus…an Abridgement of the New Testament for the Use of the Indians. His reason for the 1804 compilation was in its subtitle saying it was “for the Use of the Indians.” Now this letter to Wilson repeats the reasoning of that purpose that was not stated as clearly, anywhere else. And worth noting is his list of orthodox “mystical” doctrines in a non-critical way.

For a further explanation of this abridgement of the teachings of Jesus, which is often called “the Jefferson Bible,” please see here.

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  1. Pingback: Reaffirmation of Jefferson’s “Christian” Identity (Although Noncreedal) – Doubting Thomas Book

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