Rev. William Pryce, of the Protestant Episcopal Church in Wilmington, Delaware, wrote to Jefferson asking for his subscription for his very orthodox book about the life of Jesus, and Jefferson replied from Washington on October 15, 1803: “Your favor of the 10 is duly recieved, and I subscribe with great pleasure to the work you propose.” Monticello historians note that “Jefferson was one of the original subscribers to this work, and his name heads the list ([found in] vol. II, page 435).” A few days after Jefferson began his second term in 1805, he acknowledged the receipt of Pryce’s book and added no objection or comment on Pryce’s decision to publish Jefferson name as a subscriber. To be listed as a subscriber was a way of giving public support for it.
As shown in our DOUBTING THOMAS book, Jefferson had started giving time to comparing moral teachings of philosophers This was not something common to most sitting presidents so itself is remarkable. It arose perhaps from his relationship with Joseph Priestley while living in Philadelphia and continued to this time. With this comparison of philosophy Jefferson also began thinking of a digest of the moral teachings of Jesus in conjunction with it. This digest is mentioned for the first time in a letter to Priestley on January 29, 1804. It was raised due to the confluence of interests not only with Priestley on philosophy but with various missions organizations that were seeking to serve Native Americans. The issue came to a head at that moment due to the Louisiana Purchase, America’s largest single property acquisition that brought thousands of new tribal groups under American oversight. Henry Randall’s biography of Jefferson, one of the earliest, written when his family and friends were still alive, states about his digest that he “conferred with friends on the expediency of having it published in the different Indian dialects as the most appropriate book for the Indians to be instructed to read in.” These are the seeds of what is called today “the Jefferson Bible.” We have more to say on that in a future blog.