For most of his life our third president, Thomas Jefferson, was a professing Christian. In 1777, a year after he wrote the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Jefferson wrote up an agreement for the establishment of a Christian church, which called an evangelical minister to be the pastor. Rev. Charles Clay was called by the church that Jefferson helped create. Rev. Clay preached many sermons, and two of them—for the first time in history—are now in print, as Appendices in our book, DOUBTING THOMAS…a book by Mark Beliles and Jerry Newcombe. As a layman, Jefferson not only helped create that Christian church—the Calvinistical Reformed Church of Charlottesville—but he also donated more money than any other contributor. The death of his wife in 1782 was a blow to Jefferson’s faith. Later, exposure to Unitarian falsehoods about the Person of Christ and the Trinity caused Jefferson to privately question orthodox Christian theology. Nonetheless, he still attended Christian services when available—including the last years of his life, when Christ Episcopal Church opened c. 1820 in Charlottesville. Meanwhile, for most of his life, there is an abundance of evidence of Jefferson as a regular church-goer and correspondent with Christians, and a generous donor to various Christian causes.
Baptist Rev. Jeremiah Moore wrote Jefferson on October 17, 1808, from Georgetown and stated that he “had the pleasure of Seeing you on Saturday Last” (October 10) and apparently gave Jefferson the previous letter from “the Katocton association.” Rev. Charles P. Polk had already arranged to have a meeting that same week with President Jefferson along with a committee of Baltimore Baptists. Rev. Obadiah Brown presented the letter from the Baltimore Baptist Association. Rev. Brown was chaplain in the House of Representatives from October 1807 to May 1809, and thus, along with Senate chaplain Episcopalian Andrew McCormick, they were the main clergymen whom Jefferson heard preach in the Capitol services during the President’s last year or so in Washington. Jefferson replied with similar language. This was now the eighth such Baptist group he addressed.
About a week after this letter, Jefferson received a letter from another group of Baptists in Virginia, this time from Chesterfield County. On November 21, 1808, Jefferson sent his reply to Rev. Robert Semple and the Six Baptist Associations of Chesterfield, Virginia, as follows: “…we have experienced the quiet as well as the comfort which results from leaving everyone to profess freely and openly those principles of religion which are the inductions of his own reason, and the serious convictions of his own inquiries…” Jefferson sent another letter to Rev. Semple about six weeks later with “…real concern that my answer” did not get to them. He hoped they did not think he was “wanting in respect to…the Baptist associations of Chesterﬁeld” and asked Rev. Semple to “do me the favor to deliver this my apology.” This letter indicates that these replies of the president were not just form letters done for political purposes. Jefferson really seems to care about his relationship with these Baptists, even though he was about to depart from political life.
But Jefferson’s correspondence wasn’t limited to Baptist groups. A Methodist congregation from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania wrote him with appreciation. Jefferson replied on December 9, 1808 to Rev. Robert McElhenny, John Wrenshall, Thomas Cooper, and the Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church at Pittsburgh that “… Our excellent Constitution…has not placed our religious rights under the power of any public functionary…” Then on January 19, 1809, Rev. Richard Douglas, Isaiah Bolles, and the Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church at New London, Connecticut wrote to the President. Jefferson replied to the church on February 4, saying: “…No provision in our Constitution ought to be dearer to man than that which protects the rights of conscience against the enterprises of the civil authority. It has not left the religion of its citizens under the power of its public functionaries …To me no information could be more welcome than that the minutes of the several religious societies should prove, of late, larger additions than have been usual to their several associations…”
Reports of Jefferson’s alleged lifelong atheism are greatly exaggerated.