Jefferson Responds to a Calvinist

From what is said about Thomas Jefferson today, one could easily assume that he was atheist, a lifelong skeptic, and he believed in the strict separation of church and state (as in separating God and government). But our book, DOUBTING THOMAS shows that the historical evidence contradicts those assertions. Here is more from our book, during a later period in Jefferson’s life, after he had left the presidency.

In Baltimore in 1819, Rev. William Ellery Channing gave a sermon on Unitarian Christianity, which was obtained by Jefferson. This sermon caused a reaction of condemnation by the Hanover Presbytery in Virginia. Meanwhile a prominent Presbyterian minister in Philadelphia named Rev. Ezra Stiles Ely wrote to Jefferson on June 14. He became national moderator of the Presbyterians some years afterward. In light of the emerging conflict with Presbyterians, it is included in part below: “Permit a young Philosopher, to present a veteran with a copy of his ‘Conversations on the Science of the Human Mind.’….I am, dear Sir, a Presbyterian, a Calvinist, and a man of common sense: I can, therefore, respect and esteem a literary man, of distinguished talents, & usefulness to his country, however I may differ from him, even in important theological opinions.”

Jefferson replied on June 25, saying: “On looking over the summary of the contents of your book, it does not seem likely to bring into collision any of those sectarian differences which you suppose may exist between us…We probably differ on the dogmas of theology, the foundation of all sectarianism, and on which no two sects dream alike; for if they did they would then be of the same. You say you are a Calvinist. I am not. I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know… [Jesus] has told us only that God is good and perfect, but has not defined Him. I am, therefore, of His theology, believing that we have neither words nor ideas adequate to that definition. And if we could all, after his example, leave the subject as undefinable, we should all be of one sect, doers of good, and eschewers of evil. No doctrines of His lead to schism.”

Jefferson condemns ministers in the letter but it is obvious that Jefferson is not making a blanket statement, for Rev. Ely got his respect as did many others. One of the more notable statements in the letter was when Jefferson said that he is of “a sect by myself.” This is often repeated by modern commentators whose paradigm for understanding Jefferson is separate from any organized church. But Jefferson is speaking at a time immediately before Rev. Frederick Hatch came to town to restart a permanent Episcopal congregation and in 1820 Jefferson resumed his lifelong membership in that orthodox Trinitarian church. It soon was an obsolete characterization of himself, but modern biographers fail to mention this fact.

Actually the previous year, his account book showed on November 22, 1818, that he “Gave…20 Dollars my subscription to the Revd. [_____] for one year.” The account book editors say that the 1818 donation to an unnamed clergyman “was probably” Rev. John P. Bausman, but since the name in the entry was blank, it is possible that it was to support another minister, such as Baptist Rev. Hiter or rotating ministers in the Union meetinghouse. But by 1820, if not earlier, a permanent Episcopal pastor finally was in place. Regardless of how Unitarian some of his views may have been in this last phase of his life, Jefferson’s account books then shows him recommitting to the support of orthodox churches regularly from then until his death in 1826.

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