Jefferson Was a Good Statesman, But a Lousy Theologian

Our book, DOUBTING THOMAS by Mark Beliles and me, documents that Thomas Jefferson was not a lifelong skeptic. When he was most useful to the country, he was by all outward appearances a professing Christian. In fact, in 1777, on his own time, as a layman, he helped found and donated generously to the creation of a church—the Calvinistical Reformed Church of Charlottesville, which called a patriotic, evangelical minister (ordained as an Anglican), Rev. Charles Clay, to serve as pastor. Jefferson wrote that he and other laymen created this church because they were desirous of “gospel knowledge.” Our book has 2 sermons by Rev. Clay. They are very evangelical. And this is the man whose ministry Jefferson supported.

Later in life, Jefferson harbored some doubts about core Christian doctrines, including the Trinity. We believe he was wrong in those doubts. The following are excerpted from DOUBTING THOMAS:

One of Jefferson’s Quaker friends from Delaware named William Canby wrote to Jefferson on August 27, 1813. They had corresponded in 1802, 1803, and 1808 on religion, and Canby had come earlier with the non-denominational/Quaker-allied Rev. Dorothy Ripley to a meeting with the President. But here Canby especially urges Jefferson to pursue a deeper relationship with God. Jefferson, confident in Canby’s Quaker rejection of creeds and even professional clergy, replied on September 18, saying: “…An eloquent preacher of your religious society, Richard Motte, in a discourse of much emotion and pathos, is said to have exclaimed aloud to his congregation, that he did not believe there was a Quaker, Presbyterian, Methodist or Baptist in heaven, having paused to give his hearers time to stare and to wonder. He added, that in heaven, God knew no distinctions, but considered all good men as his children, and as brethren of the same family. I believe, with the Quaker preacher, that he who steadily observes those moral precepts in which all religions concur, will never be questioned at the gates of heaven, as to the dogmas in which they all differ. That on entering there, all these are left behind us, and the Aristides and Catos, the Penns and Tillotsons, Presbyterians and Baptists, will find themselves united in all principles which are in concert with the reason of the supreme mind. …Of all the systems of morality, ancient or modern, which have come under my observation, none appear to me so pure as that of Jesus.…[Some,] usurping the judgment seat of God, denounce as his enemies all who cannot perceive the Geometrical logic of Euclid in the demonstrations of St. Athanasius, that three are one, and one is three; and yet that the one is not three nor the three one. In all essential points you and I are of the same religion; and I am too old to go into inquiries and changes as to the unessential.”

Note: Aristides (530-468 BC) was a Greek statesman. Cato the Younger (95-46 BC) was a Roman. William Penn was the 17th century Quaker leader, who founded Pennsylvania—a haven for nonconformists. Tillotson was the Archbiship of Canterbury who lived 1630-1694. Thus, here is a mixture of ancient pagans (Greek and Roman) and relatively recent Christians. St. Athanasius was the fourth century church father who led the effort against heresies regarding the nature of Christ, and for whom an historic creed is named. When Jefferson includes pagans with Christians as going to heaven, he strays into the error of Universalism similar to Elias Smith and a few Restorationists who rejected the need of Christ’s atoning death for men to be restored to fellowship with God. This private letter to Canby would eventually be published in American newspapers and cause Jefferson concern.

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