Jefferson’s Doubts in the Christian Faith Begin to Emerge

[Pictured: founding father Benjamin Rush, mentioned in this blogpost.] Earlier in his life, when he was of great use to his country, Thomas Jefferson was by all outward appearances a believing Christian. Later, he came to harbor doubts about core Christian doctrines. But our book, Doubting Thomas, documents that he was not a lifelong skeptic. It also documents that, regardless of what he personally believed about Jesus, he did not believe—like modern atheists today—that God should be banished from the public square.

Founding father Benjamin Rush was a Christian, who helped reconcile former enemies and former presidents, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, to reconcile. Rush died on April 19, 1813, and Jefferson then asks his son for his April 1803 letters to be returned. This letter seemed to question some Christian doctrines. The reason Jefferson asks is that other letters had just been published in England in 1812 in Lindsey’s Memoirs without Jefferson’s permission (Rev. Theophilus Lindsey was a Unitarian in England). Richard Rush returned the letters to Jefferson as asked, and Jefferson’s follow-up to Richard Rush explained that: “These will probably soon find their way into the newspapers, and the whole kennel of priests will open upon me. My letter to Dr Rush, written more in detail than that to Dr Priestley would much enlarge the field of their declamations…”

Jefferson received four letters from John Adams that summer on religious topics. Adams’ letters specifically rejected the Trinity and much of orthodoxy, and Jefferson finally responds in agreement. Now on August 22, 1813, Jefferson wrote plainly to John Adams, but yet still wishes it to remain private. Jefferson wrote: “…It is too late in the day for men of sincerity to pretend they believe in the Platonic mysticism that three are one and one is three, and yet, that the one is not three, and the three not one.” This is the very first time Jefferson overtly said this. Plato’s name is used negatively by Jefferson as a rejection of the historic Christian doctrine of the Trinity. As will be seen, Jefferson bought into the Joseph Priestley myth that the Trinity was not revealed in early Christianity, but was rather a later corruption.

Jefferson continues his letter to Adams: “But this constitutes the craft, the power, and profits of the priests. …We should all then, like the quakers, live without an order of priests, moralise for ourselves, follow the oracle of conscience, and say nothing about what no man can understand, not therefore believe; for I suppose belief to be the assent of the mind to an intelligible proposition… I have read his [i.e., Priestley’s] Corruptions of Christianity, and Early Opinions of Jesus, over and over again; and I rest on them, and on Middleton’s writings, especially his Letters from Rome, and To Waterland, as the basis of my own faith…”



Note: as the authors of Doubting Thomas point out in Appendix 6, there are strong Christian answers to Jefferson’s doubts of such doctrines as the Trinity.

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