Jefferson Generously Supported Christian Causes

Our book “Doubting Thomas” shows that it’s a myth that Thomas Jefferson was a lifelong skeptic. In fact, he was very generous virtually all his life to many causes, including many Christian clauses. One man he supported a lot through the years—financially and in other ways—was an evangelical preacher, ordained in the Anglican church (making him a rarity in that matter)—Rev. Charles Clay.

In the early 1990s, the descendants of Charles Clay donated handwritten sermon notes from Rev. Clay. To our knowledge, the first time any sermon of Rev. Charles Clay—a man whose ministry was supported by Jefferson—was printed up was in our book. You can find two of his Gospel-promoting, Christ-centered, Bible-believing sermons in the Appendix of “Doubting Thomas.”

The 50 handwritten sermons by Clay that survive in the Virginia Historical Society collection bear Clay’s notations indicating 76 delivery dates before 1777 and 47 delivery dates during the six years (1777-1782) of this new congregation. Plus there are 17 undated sermons. From 1777 onward, after Clay resigned from St. Anne’s and the parish was defunct, all sermons from 1777 and 1782 cannot be indications of his ministry in that parish.43 St. Anne’s Parish remained without a resident priest from then onward for over 40 years.

On March 9, 1778, an account book entry says, “Paid Mr. Clay for Rand[olph] Jefferson…for P[hillip] Mazzei…[and] for myself.” The editors of the Papers of Thomas Jefferson note that “these payments are in accordance with the subscription of Feb. 1777 by TJ and other Albemarle County citizens to provide an annual contribution to the Rev. Charles Clay.” Since St. Anne’s Parish was not operational, this payment was clearly for the Calvinistical Reformed Church, whose founding document of February 1777 is correctly cited by these editors (i.e., James A. Bear, Jr. and Lucia C. Stanton). Jefferson would help other friends pay for Clay at times, such as when in 1778 he “Paid Mr. Clay for T[homas] Garth.” Jefferson was determined to ensure Rev. Clay had the financial means to continue his ministry.

Subscription is often only thought of today as something for magazines or other services that already exist, so it is worth some comment here. Jefferson’s account book mentions him subscribing to churches and publishing books and other projects many times throughout his life. Especially at this point, since churches in Virginia were no longer tax-supported, the use of subscriptions emerged. It was a way for members to declare in advance how much they planned to tithe or donate and thus give a church an idea of a budget for the year. Some churches would have families pay for use of a pew ahead of time that served the same purpose. Private schools operated by subscription as did large publishing projects for Bibles and other literature. As will be seen Jefferson subscribed to all of these things and thus invested the capital for various ministries to develop their projects.

The account book also shows Jefferson donating “to the Timber ridge academy” in November 1777. This donation was to what normally was known as Liberty Hall Academy located near Timber Ridge in present Rockbridge County. What is significant with this entry is that it was a Presbyterian founded and controlled institution that Jefferson was supporting. Its head was Rev. William Graham from Princeton. It shows for the first time no qualms on Jefferson’s part about personally investing in the efforts of dissenters, particularly Presbyterian educators.

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