Jefferson harbored doubts late in life on some core Christian doctrines. Nonetheless, he was an active church-goer, an avid Bible reader (in particular the sayings of Jesus), and a generous supporter of churches. He also was supportive of Christianity in its various forms, even in the public arena. Here are some snippets from our book, DOUBTING THOMAS, showing a sampling of some of that support.
An orthodox Calvinist pastor from New England wrote Jefferson a lengthy commendation on his inauguration day. Rev. Thomas Allen of the Pittsfield, Massachusetts Congregational Church was one of the rare leaders of that denomination who supported Jefferson and the Republicans [what Jefferson’s political party was known at the time]. He disagreed with the attacks of some of his Congregationalist brethren of New England and was hopeful that with Jefferson’s re-election it was finally going to end. Rev. Allen also said that in fact Deism was the basis of the Federalist’s views, not Jefferson’s party. Jefferson replied a week later to thank Rev. Allen for the friendly letter and then said: “… with us character must be offered on the altar of public good. ….[and] after so much misrepresentation, to see my countrymen coming over daily to a sense of the injustice of a certain party towards me, is peculiarly gratifying & will sweeten the latest hours of retirement & life.”
On March 9, 1805 Albemarle [Virginia] Baptist preacher William Woods visited Washington and wrote Jefferson saying: “I must take the liberty to congratulate you on your reelection to that solemn and important [_____] as the Chief of so great a nation, and I hope Sir, that that God whose Dominion is over all may be your Guide, Counselor, and kind Preserver. Though I believe you have some enemies yet sure I am that many there are that implore the Divine hand to help you.” It is known that he is yet another of the numerous ministers who personally met with Jefferson.
Besides being a member of Christ Episcopal Church in Washington, Jefferson on May 15, 1805 also “Subscribed towards building an Episcopal church in Washington 100 Dollars [about $2400 in today’s dollars] payable in 3 Monthly installments beginning June 1.” When this building opened in 1807, pew No. 42 was reserved for Jefferson. This church is still standing at present at 622 G. Street, S. E. in Washington, D.C. Jefferson also “Drew on bank U.S. in favor [of ] Revd. A. McCormic for 50 Dollars [for] one year’s subscription.” But, as usual, Jefferson also supported other churches. On April 19, 1805, his account book says he “Gave…charity to…Methodist church in Alexandria [Virginia].”
The idea that Jefferson was some sort of lifelong skeptic of Christianity is false. He was not an implacable foe of the faith. He supported it in many different ways, and that includes Christian education.
Later on November 15, the account book says he “Paid Michael Nourse 50 Dollars towards building a church.” This was Rev. Laurie’s F Street Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C.
And on May 1, 1805, it says he “Subscribed 200 Dollars [i.e., $4800 today] to an academy at this place.” The editors of the account book say, “The movement to establish public elementary schools in Washington began in 1805 with the formation of the Permanent Institution for the Education of Youth; TJ was named president of its board of trustees. Although Jefferson replied that he would do what he could with limited time, in reality Robert Brent led the board. Two schools, the western academy near the President’s House and the eastern academy near the Capitol, opened in 1806…” For several years Jefferson did give help as the chief author of the first plan adopted for the city. The board hired two clergymen as its first teachers and began using the Bible and Isaac Watt’s hymnals for teaching reading.
Let this sink in. Jefferson, often portrayed today as hostile to all forms of Christianity, allowed for the Bible and Watt’s hymnal to be used in teaching the children in the public schools of Washington, D.C.—under the direction of two Christian ministers.
And on December 11, Jefferson “Inclosed to the Revd. Mr. [George Addison] Baxter 50 Dollars [for] my subscription to Washington academy….in Rockbridge.” This Presbyterian religious school later became known as Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. At the time, it was distinctively Christian. So Jefferson’s support of Christian education is clear.