Jefferson Was More Friendly to Clergy Than We’re Led to Believe

Our book, DOUBTING THOMAS, shows that Thomas Jefferson had a much more nuanced view on Christianity than is often thought. He was not a lifelong atheist or closet skeptic. Earlier in life, he was a professing Christian. Later in life, he quietly questioned some core Christian doctrines. Then, in the last five years of his life or so, when the Episcopal Church re-opened in Charlottesville, he became a regular attendee, until he died.

The following deals with Jefferson in the early stage of his presidency. He handled the clergy essentially as a friend—unless they were the kind that tried to use religion for political oppression against others.

Jefferson did not just give lip service to clergymen and religion. He went further by also financially supporting clergy—most of whom were Trinitarian. His account book entry of June 9, 1801, records a “payment of $20 to the bearers, two foreign ecclesiastics,” and then a specific reference to “Lora reverend mr.” Ten days later he noted a gift for two “mendicant friars.” Jefferson as president used his influence also to help Roman Catholics residing in the new capital. The bishop of Baltimore, Rev. John Carroll, wrote to Jefferson on August 13, 1801, regarding a plan for a Catholic Church to be erected in Washington to which Jefferson replied on September 3 saying he had gladly recommended it to the District Commissioners.

Jefferson also corresponded with several Presbyterians at this time. On September 26, 1801, Jefferson wrote to General Samuel Smith of Baltimore recommending: “…Mr. [John] Glendy a Presbyterian clergyman from Ireland, who settled two or three years ago at Staunton about 40 miles from this place,…[is] the most eloquent preacher of the living clergy whom I have heard. In this he is really great, and without disparaging any other, I may safely say he is unrivalled. …he wishes to go to Baltimore…being desirous that I should say to you what I can with justice, I do it with great satisfaction persuaded you will be uncommonly pleased with such an acquisition to your city.”

Jefferson followed up a few days later, saying of Rev. Glendy that “…a man rarely sees as eloquent a preacher twice in his life.” It is hard to square today’s common view of Jefferson the skeptic with the man who often recommended quality preaching, even from orthodox Trinitarian preachers. Then on December 5, Rev. John Glendy himself wrote to Jefferson, to express gratitude and say he was praying for him. Besides the previous letters, Jefferson later told Delaware statesman Thomas McKean on March 3, 1805, that Glendy was “without exception the best preacher I ever heard.”

Jefferson said that he had previously heard Glendy preach and this would have occurred sometime within the three years prior to 1801 although there is no record of it. And in fact, just a month before this recommendation letter for Glendy, Jefferson’s secretary Meriwether Lewis (later famous for the Lewis and Clark expedition) wrote to Jefferson from Staunton, Virginia, saying: “I was a few minutes since with Mr. Glendy: on Saturday last…he laments much that his indisposition [being sick] prevents his keeping the appointment he had made to preach in Charlottesville on Thursday next: he requested me to give you this information as early as possible.”

By the way, this Rev. Glendy is the Presbyterian minister whom Jefferson wanted to (and managed to get) to preach in one of the weekly Sunday morning Christian worship services that took place at the U. S. Capitol building. Jefferson was a regular attendee of those services.

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