Jefferson’s Creeping Unbelief

[Pictured: photo by Jerry Newcombe of the Charlottesville courthouse, historic site of the evangelical church that Jefferson helped organize as a layman in the late 1770’s] Jefferson was not a lifelong skeptic. Nor did he believe that God should be banished from the public square. By today’s standards, he might be viewed by some as a card-carrying member of the Christian Coalition. From all outward appearances, early in life, he seemed to be a Christian. Later in life he allowed Unitarianism to distort his understanding (or the lack thereof) of the Trinity. Here is a portion of our book, DOUBTING THOMAS.

Jefferson wrote to a northern Unitarian layman, Thomas Law, on June 13, 1814, saying: “… I have observed, indeed, generally, that while in Protestant countries the defections from the Platonic Christianity of the priests is to Deism, in Catholic countries they are to Atheism…” This is one of only three references to Deism Jefferson made and is something he is critical of and the destination of the apostate “Platonic” (i.e., Trinitarian) Christians he strongly criticized, and not likely to identify with himself. We explain this in a chapter on orthodoxy.

One of Jefferson’s Catholic clergy friends who certainly was not an atheist was a Portuguese diplomat who began to come and frequently stay with Jefferson at Monticello. Rev. José Francisco Correa da Serra (1750-1823) was ordained as a Catholic priest in 1775 but became more famous as a botanist, geologist, and natural scientist, and was the founder of the Academy of Science in Lisbon.

He came to the U.S. in 1812 and resided in Washington, 1816-1820, as Portugal’s ambassador. Correa was “a staunch defender of his [Catholic] faith…(and) an active liturgist, having performed baptism on the children of Thomas Cooper.” Correa made eight lengthy visits at Monticello up until 1820, and one room at Monticello came to be known as “Abbe Correa’s room.”

Unfortunately, as with Rev. Clay, little on religion is found in their letters because they could discuss that topic better in person. Rev. Charles Clay is the evangelical minister that was friend of Jefferson for decades. Clay ministered in the evangelical church that Jefferson, as a layman, helped found (in 1777) and donated more money to than anyone else. It was the Calvinistical Reformed Church of Charlottesville. They worshiped Sunday mornings in the Charlottesville courthouse.

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