Jefferson in France Begins to Entertain Unitarian Notions

When it comes to analyzing Thomas Jefferson’s religious views, it’s a complicated subject. But it is clear that he was not a lifelong skeptic. Some people seem to treat him as such, and that does not fit the facts. Our book, Doubting Thomas, shows that our third president went through different stages when it comes to identifying his religious sentiments—including the first 40 or so years of his life as a professing Christian. During that phase, he even helped start as a layman a church which called a patriot evangelical Anglican pastor as the minister, Rev. Charles Clay. Our book is the first time that sermons by the Rev. Clay have even been printed. We have two sermons. Meanwhile, the commentary below deals with Jefferson in the 1780s, when he was in France as America’s ambassador. During this time is when he first seems to begin to entertain Unitarian notions.

The Unitarian clergyman in London, Rev. Richard Price, wrote several times to Jefferson at this time. His letter on October 26, 1788, spoke of the problems with “Popery…Mahometans …Pagans…and of many Protestants…[and asked] Would not Society be better without Such religions? Is Atheism less pernicious than Demonism?…Plutarch, it is well known, has observd very justly that it is better not to believe in a God than to believe him to be a capricious and malevolent being.”

Jefferson replied to Price on January 8, 1789: “…Atheism and demonism:…[I] see nothing but the latter in the being worshipped by many who think themselves Christians…” It is important to read this comment on demonism in context. Jefferson was specifically talking about French Catholicism in specific response to that focus in Price’s letter. And even while doing so, he still commended some Catholic clergy, retreated at a Catholic monastery, and kept his children enrolled in the Catholic school there.

As Jefferson began commenting on the political instability in France, he frequently mentioned in various letters in late 1788 and 1789 about the “…priests and nobles combining together against the people …” and that “The clergy and nobility, as clergy and nobility eternally will, are opposed to giving… representation [to the people] as may dismount them from their back.” Almost every reference to “clergy” in this period is in regard to the Catholic French clergy, and it would be incorrect to apply them as general comments on all clergy in Christianity.

Protestant clergymen made the same judgments about the French and medieval clergy and sometimes even more harshly than did Jefferson. The first clear evidence of Jefferson’s thoughts opening to unorthodox religious opinions is seen at this point when he again wrote to Rev. Richard Price in London on July 12, 1789, asking: “…Is there any good thing on the subject of the Socinian doctrine?…I would thank you to recommend such a work to me.” Socinianism was a kind of Unitarianism. Price replied to Jefferson on August 3 and included two pamphlets: “Sermons on the Christian Doctrine,” and “Two Schemes of a Trinity considered.” Now Jefferson was doing more than confessing incomprehension of the Trinity; he was studying heterodox opinions on it.

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