Jefferson Writes Back His Long-time Pastor Friend, the Evangelical Charles Clay

The book DOUBTING THOMAS by Mark Beliles and Jerry Newcombe documents 2 overall points: 1) Jefferson was not a lifelong skeptic, and 2) he did not believe in a secular state—that there is to be a separation of God and government. For decades, our third president had a friendship with an evangelical pastor, Rev. Charles Clay (ordained initially into the Church of England). When Jefferson helped create an evangelical church in 1777, he wrote up the agreement for that church (the Calvinistical Reformed Church of Charlottesville), and they called the Rev. Charles Clay as the pastor. He was patriotic to the American cause. This friendship continued through the decades. Then about 30 years after they established that church, Rev. Clay wrote to Jefferson with concerns about some of the reports he had heard about him allegedly expressing doubts in some key Christian doctrines. (My last blog reproduces the contents of that letter.) In particular, Jefferson explains the so-called “Jefferson Bible.”

On January 29, 1815, Jefferson replies to the warning of his evangelical friend Rev. Clay: “Of publishing a book on religion, my dear Sir, I never had an idea. …Probably you have heard me say I had taken the four Evangelists, had cut out from them every text they had recorded of the moral precepts of Jesus, and arranged them in a certain order….and the idea of its publication may have suggested itself as an inference of your own mind. I not only write nothing on religion, but rarely permit myself to speak on it, and never but in a reasonable society. 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 [i.e., Jefferson’s retreat in Bedford where Clay was a neighbor]. I abuse the [northeastern Federalist] priests, indeed, who have so much abused the pure and holy doctrines of their Master…and [replaced it with] artificial structures…”

In this important letter, Jefferson identified Clay as his confidant on religious subjects “more than to any other person.” This orthodox evangelical minister knew Jefferson to be a faithful supporter and communicant of the Church, and this context led him to believe Jefferson’s intentions for his private speculations as nothing of serious concern. But Clay warned that “future Historians will most assuredly…[create]…Some opprobrious epithet” for Jefferson if his private thoughts were published. It turns out in history that Clay’s fears came true. He’s now almost universally described as a Deist, skeptic, atheist or other terms, even though Jefferson never used those terms to describe himself. Jefferson’s one time pastor and long time friend also never thought of Jefferson as anything other than a sincere believer.

But Rev. Clay no longer had concerns after hearing that Jefferson was not planning to publish anything. His reply to Jefferson on February 8 said: “I am pleased to find you viewed my letter in the light it was intended, A Real Concern for your present peace & future Reputation alone dictated it, & Strongly impressed my mind to draw your attention to the probable Consequences Should your ultimate Views have been publication in the brokn form of fragments [in Jefferson’s abridgment for the use of the Indians] & which must have been connected perhaps by some observations, or explanations, to preserve a concatenation of Ideas. In these lay the difficulties & dangers I was apprehensive of; & although everyone may, & everyone has an undoubted Right to amuse himself sometimes, & even be playful in his Closet on any Subject, yet an Idea Suggested itself, most possibly it might not be for yourself only the time was Spent, & from hence the inference of probable publication naturally occurred. I sincerely will your name may Remain in the Annals of America as [highly respected]…& if anything has escaped from me that would imply the Contrary, my Dear Sir Correct it, & make it Speak better things.”

It is clear to Rev. Clay that Jefferson’s abridgment (again, popularly known today as “the Jefferson Bible”) and other private letters were nothing more than him being “playful in his Closet” and affirmed that anyone has the “Right to amuse himself sometimes” with speculations on religious topics. Of course, church members today may do this in private with friends, or perhaps express questionable views while learning about it during a theology course, but evangelical clergy would not excoriate them for it. They realize that they are in a learning process, which is how Rev. Clay interpreted his former parishioner.

This interpretation of Jefferson’s good intentions by his pastor, the man who Jefferson said he spoke with more than anyone else on religion, is one of the most important to consider. It provides a viewpoint missing today in modern Jefferson historiography. Unfortunately, today Jefferson is not treated fairly for his private speculations. Even modern clergy have embraced the uninformed view of the northerners and reject Jefferson because they fail to understand him as did his pastor Rev. Clay. More critical views seem to become more justified if Jefferson’s private unsent views (revealed a century or more later) are taken into account, but the question remains if that is indeed fair to do. (A purposefully unsent draft does not have the same standing as a letter that is sent.)

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