It might surprise the average American today that Thomas Jefferson had many positive dealings with clergymen all his life. Most of these were believers in Jesus. There were a few Unitarians, but they were not the majority. Although Jefferson later in life expressed some doubts about some core Christian doctrines, earlier in life—when he was most useful to the country—from all that can be seen, he would appear to be a Christian. Whatever his private views, he certainly did not share views like those found today with the ACLU or People for the American Way or Americans United for Separation of Church and State or Freedom From Religion Foundation. Our book, DOUBTING THOMAS, shows the nuances of Jefferson’s views on religion. Another point is that Jefferson not only attended church when it was available to him, he also contributed a lot of money to church causes.
Here’s a sample in Jefferson’s life, post-the White House. Here is a story reported in 1818 by Monticello overseer Edmund Bacon: “There was a Mr. Hiter, a Baptist preacher, that used to preach occasionally at the Charlottesville Courthouse…Mr. Jefferson nearly always went to hear him when he came around. I remember his being there one day in particular. His servant came with him and brought a seat—a kind of campstool—upon which he sat…After the sermon there was a proposition to pass around the hat and raise money to buy the preacher a horse. Mr. Jefferson did not wait for the hat. I saw him…take out a handful of silver. I don’t know how much. He then walked across the Courthouse to Mr. Hiter and gave it into his hand.”
Rev. William Y. Hiter, who preached over 4,000 sermons in thirteen years as a traveling evangelist, occasionally preached in Charlottesville, and later became pastor of Goldmine Baptist Church in Louisa (John Leland’s old church). It is also worth noting that Hiter preached at the Albemarle Buck Mountain Baptist Church as early as 1810 after Rev. Woods left for Kentucky. It is also interesting that Bacon mentioned Jefferson having a “campstool” because this was something that those who participated in “camp meetings” used. This anecdote also helps us to realize that although attendance at church and financial gifts may not appear in Jefferson’s account books at this time, it occurred nonetheless through itinerating preachers.
But worship being erratic in Charlottesville at the time, due to a lack of resident denominational pastors, precluded the typical way of Jefferson recording it. Previously it was noted that there were no settled pastors locally at this time in Charlottesville where Jefferson could attend church (not Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, or Baptist). But here is evidence that Jefferson not only attended various religious meetings he heard about, he also actively arranged for some itinerants to preach in services in the courthouse. Even though the weather hindered that particular meeting with Glendy (to Jefferson’s great disappointment), it furnishes the image of Jefferson as an active Christian sponsoring the preaching of orthodox clergymen. This aspect of Jefferson’s life is never mentioned in any modern biography. The picture of Thomas Jefferson on October 8, 1815 waiting longingly at the Charlottesville courthouse for a Presbyterian preacher to arrive is simply nonexistent in the modern public consciousness. Virtually all that is ever reported today is the letters to Unitarians in this phase of Jefferson’s life. The absence of such facts (and the earlier Calvinistical Reformed Church—which Jefferson helped found in 1777) in modern biographies of Jefferson creates a false impression that needs correcting in Jeffersonian scholarship.