Jefferson Was Active and Generous in his Church Life

Contrary to the myth of Jefferson the lifelong skeptic was the real Thomas Jefferson. He was a professing Christian who later in life came to doubt key Christian doctrines. Nonetheless, he was friendly to many Christians throughout his life. As president, he was a hero to many of the evangelicals of his day. Why? For one, because he opposed the state-church of Virginia, “by law established.” Why did he oppose that because he was anti-church? No. He wanted other churches, not just the Anglican (later, Episcopal) Church of which he was a lifelong member, to be able to flourish. An established church, requiring attendance and requiring taxes, only forced non-believers in that particular denomination to become hypocrites. Furthermore, it punished religious dissenters. Opposition to the state-church (that is, the establishment of religion) should not be interpreted as meaning that Jefferson opposed church per se. He was an active church-goer and church donor. Our book, DOUBTING THOMAS, documents all this. Here’s a little slice of Jefferson’s religious activities around the time of his presidency.

Around 1804,  a Committee of Missions of the Presbyterian Church in the United States sent an appeal for help of their missionary among the Indians by the name of Gideon Blackburn. This committee was led by Rev. Ashbel Green who had served as congressional chaplain and therefore was known to Jefferson already (Green was among the Philadelphia list of clergyman in the previous appeal also). As noted previously, Jefferson had begun aiding Blackburn in 1804. Although no reply from Jefferson to this committee survives, Blackburn came to Monticello a year later to give a report and thank him for his support of his schools. Finding Jefferson not there on September 11, 1807, Rev. Gideon Blackburn left a written report and a request for more aid since indeed he had already received support from Jefferson’s administration. It is not clear if Jefferson had the government provide more aid, but clearly he had already been cooperating with Presbyterian missionaries.

An appeal from Wyandot Indians was sent to Jefferson via John George Jackson in late 1805 asking for land near Sandusky, Ohio be granted to them in part for “some missionaries.” that served them. Another appeal was made by the Western Missionary Society of the Presbyterian denomination apparently for the same purpose. Jefferson replied to Jackson on February 22, 1806 saying that Congress should deal with the request since it “…alone being competent to determine on the merits” of it. Jefferson also noted that since Ohio was now a state and not a federal territory the all important principle of federalism must be applied, saying that “…the incorporation of religious societies in the states being out of the constitutional notice of the general [i.e., national] government.”

Jefferson was asked for a donation to a church in Wickford, Rhode Island at that time but declined saying he could not afford to give beyond his area of residence, which he often did.86 His account book entry for April 18, 1806 says: “Subscribed 50 Dollars towards Methodist church in Georgetown.” This church was in Georgetown, led by Rev. William Walters. Then on June 28, the account book said he paid: “…my subscription to the…Methodist meeting House.” A half year later on January 6, 1807, Jefferson “Subscribed to church Episcopal near Navy yard 50 Dollars.” And on October 6, Henry Ingle then informs Jefferson that pew #42 was reserved for him in the church. (In those days, the parishioners would pay to rent their pews, which would then be designated to them. For example, you can visit several churches to this day and find George Washington’s pew, e.g., at Christ Church in Alexandria, Virginia or Pohick Church in Lorton, Virginia.) But a month later on November 4, 1807, Jefferson sends a letter to his Washington pastor, Rev. McCormick, notifying him of a change: “I take this occasion of testifying the…satisfaction with which I have continued a member of your congregation [Christ Episcopal Church] from my first residence here till the removal of the church to its present distance. This circumstance solely occasioning my discontinuance of attendance….”

Although Jefferson had been a faithful supporter and attendee when the Episcopal services were in a government building near the President’s mansion, he felt the new distance was just too far. Plus McCormick had just been elected to be the Senate chaplain again and would serve for the next and final year of Jefferson’s term as President. Jefferson could enjoy his pastor’s sermons during the last year in the Capitol without having to travel a further distance to the new Episcopal Church building. And on the same day Jefferson writes another to Ingle mentioning that..“..the distance of the new building…obliging me to decline.”

But still Jefferson gave “…[for Rev.] McCormac…100 [dollars].” Yet despite this evidence, most modern commentators make the untenable claim that Jefferson was not part of any church.

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