Contrary to the modern notion of Thomas Jefferson, a key founding father, as a lifelong skeptic, the fact is that he attended churches (orthodox ones) regularly, when available to him. Furthermore, he was an avid Bible reader. All that said, near the end of his life, he did harbor (privately) some doubts about core Christian doctrines. Our book, DOUBTING THOMAS, documents all these things.
Here are some examples of Jefferson’s religious life near the end of his presidency. As this year of 1807 closed, Jefferson’s account book on December 21 shows that he “Inclosed…for subscription to bible.” His signature is seen on the subscription document that survives. And his name is on the list printed with other subscribers in the Bible itself. This was called Scott’s Bible because it included commentary by the evangelical Anglican Rev. Thomas Scott. Also in this time period, Jefferson’s personal overseer at Monticello, Edmund Bacon, who lived there for twenty years and began working in late 1806, spoke of often seeing Jefferson with his Bible. He wrote: “[There was] a large Bible which nearly always lay at the head of his sofa. Many and many a time I have gone into his room and found him reading that Bible.”
At the same time, further hints as to Jefferson’s emerging doctrinal unorthodoxy occur in a November 18, 1807 reply to Universalist minister Rev. Ralph Eddowes of Philadelphia. Eddowes, who had been mentored earlier by Unitarian Rev. Joseph Priestley, had written to Jefferson and enclosed some Unitarian literature. Jefferson replied to Eddowes and gave his “…thanks for the two pamphlets he has been so kind as to send him. He has read them with so much satisfaction that he has desired mr. Dobson to forward him the successive discourses as they shall come out, and also the new translation of the New Testament announced in page 22. This latter work is particularly interesting as he has always been persuaded that the different translations of that book have been warped in particular passages to the tenets of the church of which the translator has been a member…” On February 6, 1809, his account book shows he paid for these “Unitarian pamphlets and a new Unitarian version [by Thomas Belsham] of William Newcome’s translation of the New Testament.”
These titles and Jefferson’s response are among the earliest examples of his own emerging interest in unorthodox doctrines while still being orthodox in practice. He also ordered an essay by William Austin about “the human nature of Jesus Christ” in July 1808. Jefferson’s passion for study of Scripture continued to be evident in his letters to Bible translator Charles Thomson, a fellow patriot leader who served as the official Secretary of the Continental Congress. (Thomson was orthodox.)
Jefferson writes him in early 1808 saying: “I see by the newspapers your translation of the Septuagint is now to be printed, and I write this to pray to be admitted as a subscriber… God bless you and give you years and health…” The Septuagint was the pre-Christian translation of the Hebrew Bible (the Old Testament) into Greek. Would that more professing Christians of today be as diligent as to study the Bible, as did Jefferson, in the original languages.