Jefferson Looked to the God that Led Ancient Israel

DOUBTING THOMAS, the book I co-wrote with Charlottesville pastor, Mark Beliles, seeks to shed light on two questions: Was Jefferson some sort of closet atheist? Did he believe in what is called today “the naked public square”—which means the expelling of any kind of godly influence in government? The answer to both questions is, No. But certainly he came to privately question some key Christians near the end of his life…all the while reading the Bible regularly and attending church (Trinitarian, at that) regularly (when it was available to him).

Jefferson was very generous in his given to Christian causes, and he meticulous kept records in his “account book.” In the account book for February 20, 1805, it says Jefferson: “Gave Alexander Smith…for a Baptist church in Alexandria.” Smith was a member of First Baptist Church of Alexandria, Virginia, whose pastor was Rev. Jeremiah Moore, who had previously corresponded with Jefferson. Also in early 1805 Jefferson wrote to Matthew Carey to request some Greek and English New Testaments and a copy of the Benjamin Johnson-Robert Carr Bible. He also noted that he had received a French New Testament from Mr. Reibelt of Baltimore. Jefferson at that time also “…subscribes with pleasure for a copy of Brown’s dictionary of the bible which he proposes to print…”

When inaugurated president for his second term on March 4, 1805, Jefferson again took the oath with his hand on a Bible, and offered the voluntary appeal for God’s help which, like the presidential prayer proclamations, he certainly could have dropped this custom if he wished. Then in his Second Inaugural Address, he said: “…In matters of religion, I have considered that its free exercise is placed by the Constitution independent of the powers of the general [i.e., national] government. I have therefore undertaken on no occasion to prescribe the religious exercises suited to it; but have left them as the Constitution found them, under the direction and discipline of State or Church authorities acknowledged by the several religious societies.” Here he affirmed again his view that oversight of religion is a state power or a church power, not a national one. He continued by mentioning that a “Creator made them” and spoke of “religious liberty unassailed.” Then Jefferson again refers to guidance and enlightenment not as coming from reason alone, but from God: “I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our forefathers, as Israel of old, from their native land, and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life; who has covered our infancy with his providence, and our riper years with his wisdom and power; and to whose goodness I ask you to join with me in supplication that He [God] will enlighten the minds of your servants, guide their councils, and prosper their measures.” Not bad for a supposed atheist or skeptic, as we so often hear these days.

Jefferson biographer Alf J. Mapp says that with these words, Jefferson certainly “refuted the contention that his philosophy held enlightenment and religion to be irreconcilable enemies.”

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