Jefferson Had Many Positive Interactions with Various Churches and Ministers

The idea of Thomas Jefferson as a card-carrying member of the ACLU is absurd. Of course, it’s absurd in light of the fact that the ACLU did not incorporate until 1920. But what is really absurd is the idea that our third president wanted to ban God from the public arena. Jefferson was a lifelong church-goer—when it was available to him. Yes, he did privately harbor some serious doubts about core Christian doctrines later in life. He certainly did not want our society to be God-free. This is the best way to think of it, and we can use the example of the University of Virginia, which he founded. The school by design was non-sectarian (not dominated by anyone denomination), but that does not mean it was secular by design. Therein lay the difference. Jefferson the rabid secularist as often portrayed today is a myth.

When President Jefferson visited his home (in Charlottesville), he most likely would attend church in the courthouse in services led by Episcopal/Independent Rev. Matthew Maury. Or he might possibly attend a Restoration gathering led by Rev. Cavender or some other independent preacher.

How about Jefferson’s relations with clergy in the capital, Washington, D. C.? President Jefferson corresponded with various Baptist groups at this time as well. On June 26, 1801, he received an “Address of the Delaware Baptist Association,” which represented five churches in the area. Their Moderator, Rev. Joseph Flood, and Clerk, Rev. John Boggs, sent their congratulations.

Jefferson replied to this Baptist group on July 2 in a letter that was printed later in the Wilmington, Delaware newspapers: “…I join you, fellow-citizens, in rendering the tribute of thankfulness to the Almighty ruler, who, in the order of his providence, hath willed that the human mind shall be free in this portion of the globe: that society shall here know that the limit of its rightful power is the enforcement of social conduct; while the right to question the religious principles producing that conduct is beyond their cognizance…I thank you, fellow-citizens, for your congratulations on my appointment to the chief magistracy, and for your affectionate supplications on my behalf, to that being, whose counsels are the best guide, & his favor the best protection under all our difficulties, and in whose holy keeping may our country ever remain.”

One of the most unusual of Presbyterian clergymen whom Jefferson came to know at this time as president was Rev. David Austin. He first wrote Jefferson on March 9 and then many more times in 1801. Austin informed Jefferson on June 17 that he hoped “to bring the different denominations of professing Christians, in the City, to a more united concurrence in the general principles of Christian unity, & eventually to cause a general assemblage at the City Hotel…” On June 18, Austin asked Jefferson to arrange for him to preach a “discourse…[to] be delivered in the Capitol.” Austin replied to a note from Jefferson on June 22, saying: “Mr. Austin …has the happiness to find that …The doors of the Capitol are cheerfully opened for the purposes of the 4th of July” and hoped that “the President should judge proper to move for a general display of the Civil & military powers, under his control on that day…”

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