Jefferson in France—Underscoring the Myth of Jefferson the Atheist

Many today view Jefferson as a lifelong skeptic. But that is not in accordance with the facts. See, for example, our book, “DOUBTING THOMAS? The Religious Life and Legacy of Thomas Jefferson” by Mark Beliles and Jerry Newcombe (Morgan James, 2014). Here is a small portion of that book…dealing with a slice of our third president’s life.

In 1786, after returning to Paris from England, where he saw John Adams and where he reportedly went to a Unitarian Church for the first time, Jefferson wrote in a May 4, 1786 letter to his old college friend John Page, who now was a member of the Virginia legislature, “I…seek my religion out of the dictates of my own reason, and feelings of my own heart.” And to Jean Nicholas de’ Meunier on June 26, he spoke of “an overruling providence…; a God of justice will…manifest his attention to the things of this world…; by diffusing light and  liberality; …[there is no] blind fatality.” Jefferson’s idea of Enlightenment here was in the light diffused by God, not by unaided reason. And Jefferson still believed in a God who intervened in issues of justice, not an aloof deistic God.

He corresponded with various French priests, but most of his interaction was not religious in nature. In a much later letter (1816) from Jefferson to Baptist minister James Fishback, an important comment on this time period occurred. Jefferson pointed out that Fishback had published an account that “…mr Jefferson, it is said, declared that when he was in Paris, atheism was the common table-talk of the French bishops.” Jefferson corrected this saying: “I protest to you, Sir, that I never made such a declaration; and that as far as my knowledge of that order of clergy enabled me to judge, it would have been entirely untrue…The importance of religion to society has too many founded supports to need aid from imputations so entirely unfounded. I am persuaded of the innocence with which you have introduced this matter of report: but being myself quoted by name, and in print too, as the author of such a calumny on a respectable order of prelates, I owe to them, as well as to myself, to declare that no such declaration, or expression, was ever uttered by me.”

In public Jefferson was always conscientious to be respectful of religious beliefs of others, including all clergy. This was very important to him. However in private, especially later in life, he expressed to a few individuals more critical views. This was true on many topics, not just religion.

In 1787, his account book said that he “Paid at Mont Calvaire” on July 2. This Catholic monastery, now known as Mont Valerien in Paris, became what he called his “hermitage,” where he often stayed in the autumns of 1787 and 1788. A few months later, he wrote to Abigail Adams of the: “The Hermits of Mont Calvaire with whom I go and stay sometimes, and am favoured by them.” Silence was required except for mealtimes. Although it was possible that he simply lodged there, it is plausible that he also attended services and used it for spiritual contemplation and prayer as well since that is the reason most people went there. His payment was for his lodging of course but also indirectly supported the religious work of the Catholic monastery.

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