Thomas Jefferson professed to be a Christian—although later in life he seriously questioned some core Christian beliefs. But he was not the lifelong skeptic he is often made out to be today. Nor did he believe that the government should be godless.
In our book, DOUBTING THOMAS, Mark Beliles and I talk about Jefferson’s long-time friend, Rev. Charles Clay—an evangelical pastor, ordained in the Church of England. In 1777, when Jefferson as a layman helped establish the Calvinistical Reformed Church of Charlottesville, they called the Rev. Clay as the pastor.
Through the years, Jefferson and Clay exchanged nice letters. For example, on August 25, 1815, Jefferson invited Clay to come over for a visit at his home at Poplar Forest. Little religious content is in the letters since they discussed those things in person.
It is unfortunate that Clay and Jefferson’s religious discussions were almost all verbal and not written. A letter to Clay on April 25, 1816, said: “I return the 10 first volumes and will be glad of the next 10.” The editors of Jefferson’s Papers cannot identify what literature this referred to that Jefferson borrowed from Rev. Clay but coming subsequent to the previous letter, it seems that Clay may have recommended some of his religious books for Jefferson’s further study. Jefferson wrote to Clay on November 18 that “tomorrow, weather permitting, will pay you a morning visit.”
That year Jefferson purchases and has bound various books, including “the Book of Common Prayer,… the power of religion on the mind by Lindlay Murray; [Lawrence] Sterne’s sermons” and later “Religious Pamphlets, Sermons 22, Pamphlets: Ethics 9, Unitarian 3.” So here he obtains both orthodox and unorthodox literature but Unitarian literature is no more than ten percent of the total. Joseph Milligan replied on May 6 to Jefferson and confirmed that Jefferson bought “Thompsons Four Gospels” which was the newly published book by Charles Thomson: “A Synopsis of the Four Evangelists: or, a Regular History of the Conception, Birth, Doctrine, Miracles, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension of Jesus Christ, in the Words of the Evangelists.”
Jefferson’s familiarity with the liturgy of the Episcopal Church is evident in a letter to Albert Gallatin on October 16, 1815. This was a paraphrase of “The order for Evening Prayer” in The Book of Common Prayer, which Jefferson had just recently purchased a new copy. Jefferson’s family Bible and prayer book is deposited in the University of Virginia library today.