No doubt Jefferson late in life had some serious doubts about key Christian doctrines. But much earlier in his life, for a few decades, he enjoyed good fellowship with an evangelical minister, named Charles Clay. I am so pleased that our book, Doubting Thomas, includes in print for the first time ever a couple of the sermons of Charles Clay. Jefferson personally and financially helped support Rev. Clay’s ministry. Here are some thoughts on this important man in Jefferson’s life.
Rev. Charles Clay, who had been Jefferson’s earlier pastor both in St. Anne’s Parish and in the independent Calvinistical Reformed Church that Jefferson helped found, had ended up settling in Bedford County while Jefferson was in France. He apparently resumed a relationship with the Episcopal Church in Virginia to serve as a priest both formally and later informally.13 This minister was also very active in politics and in 1788 was elected by his area to be a delegate to the Virginia Constitutional Convention. There he came down on the side of opposition to the proposed U.S. Constitution because it lacked a Bill of Rights to secure “the great principles of civil and religious liberty.” After it passed and the new U.S. government was being formed, Rev. Clay then stood for election as a congressman to represent his district.
Jefferson hears of this and writes Rev. Clay on January 27, 1790: “I understand you are a candidate for…Congress;…I am sure I shall be contented with such a representative as you will make;…Wishing you every prosperity in this…undertaking;…your friend & servant.” Jefferson certainly did not have any qualms with this clergyman running for federal office, even though the Virginia constitution still prohibited state offices from being held by ministers. This general endorsement did not help Clay win the election, however, and when Clay sought even more direct help two years later Jefferson declined saying it was “due to …considerations respecting myself only, and not you to whom I am happy in every occasion of testifying my esteem.” Indeed Jefferson continued to correspond and dine with Clay frequently over the next 25 more years.
Jefferson made religious references and spoke of his belief in prayer in a public letter to the Citizens of Albemarle on February 12: “In the holy cause of freedom…heaven has rewarded us…that it may flow through all times…is my fervent prayer to heaven.” In April he sent a letter back to France to some of his close Catholic friends there – Abbes Arnoux and Chalut. He closed it saying: “That heaven may bless you with long years of life and health, is the fervent prayer of him [i.e., Jefferson].”