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].”
Jefferson was not interested in Clay’s religious views, which were seldom expressed after the Revolution. I don’t think he ever got a pulpit after that. For many years, until his death in 1820, he was Jefferson’s friend and neighbor near Poplar Forest in Bedford County. Jefferson freely told him how much he hated the revivalist Dutch Reformed and Presbyterian clergy who abused him and opposed his ideal of complete religious freedom, calling them “cannibal priests.” The only time Clay wrote him about religion was to warn him not to publish a pamphlet extolling deism. Jefferson said he was too smart to do that and enter the “bedlamite” field of religious conflict as an old man.
Note from 6/15/22 from Jerry Newcombe, co-author of DOUBTING THOMAS. I asked Dr. Mark Beliles, co-author of DOUBTING THOMAS his response to the above comments. I asked him, “Is it true?” Here is his response:
MB-No. It distorts the facts.
A quick response without citing much documentary evidence is below. I copy the person’s comment with my response as follows, addressing the issues in this post, one point at a time. MB refers to Mark’s rebuttals.
Jefferson was not interested in Clay’s religious views, which were seldom expressed after the Revolution.
MB-There is no evidence for that statement. In fact, Jefferson wrote Clay on Jan 29, 1815 saying: “I have probably said more to you [on religion] than to any other person, because we have had more hours of conversation in duetto in our meetings at the Forest.” If Jefferson said he had hours of conversation in uetto with Clay, it certainly was not one-sided. He gave hours listening to Clay’s religious views as well.
The only time Clay wrote him about religion was to warn him not to publish a pamphlet extolling deism.
MB-Although true that the only one surviving letter on religion by Clay to Jefferson was regarding Jefferson publishing something on religion, it is not true that it was regarding a pamphlet extolling deism. Clay [on Dec 20, 1814] clearly referenced Jefferson’s abridgement of the words of Jesus, nothing about deism. And when Clay mentioned his concern to Jefferson he said it was because “they might not sufficiently appreciate your good intentions, but ascribe it to views as inimical to the Christian religion…which I am persuaded you can have no intention of doing.” In fact, in a follow-up letter [Feb 8] Clay said that Jefferson had the “right to amuse himself sometimes…[and be] playful in the closet” on religious topics, but Clay well knew that Jefferson’s reasons for the abridgement were devotional [not sceptical] in nature, whereas others would not have the conversation and context that Clay had for understanding that.
Jefferson said he was too smart to do that and enter the “bedlamite” field of religious conflict as an old man.
MB-Rev. Clay himself, and orthodox clergyman, who told Jefferson that “your numerous enemies on the northern and eastern parts of the U.S.” would “seize the occasion and raise the hue and cry after you…”
Jefferson freely told him how much he hated the revivalist Dutch Reformed and Presbyterian clergy who abused him and opposed his ideal of complete religious freedom, calling them “cannibal priests.”
Jefferson did not speak of those clergy in his letter to Clay. He did in correspondence to others such as the 1813 letter to John Adams that mentioned “cannibal priests.” As we document in our book, careful study shows that Jefferson was only criticised by the Federalist clergy of the northeast states. No clergyman south of New York ever openly attacked Jefferson’s religion. The idea of most Reformed and Presbyterian clergy opposing Jefferson is false. And the first criticism Jefferson ever made of a Presbyterian was in a private letter very late in his life . In fact, many Reformed and Presbyterian clergy were Jefferson’s supporters [with public commendation letters] and personal friends, and Jefferson’s favorite preacher who arranged to preach in the Capitol and in the Charlottesville courthouse was Presbyterian Rev. John Glendy. Jefferson corresponded or donated to about 30 different Presbyterian or Reformed clergy or churches.or colleges/seminaries. Some of these Presbyterian clergy supported Jefferson’s idea of religious freedom. Our book documents all this.
Dr. Mark Beliles
Director of International Networks, Global Council of Nations
Was it Rev. Clay who transported the huge chunk of cheese to the White House when Jefferson was president…?
JN: It was Rev. John Leland of Massachusetts
I am a direct descendant of C. Clay. My brother has a silver communion chalice inscribed from Jefferson from I believe 1787. Our home place shared a border with Monticello.