Jefferson’s Early Years (Regarding Religion), 1767-1770

Thomas Jefferson returned to Albemarle County from Williamsburg and began practicing law in 1767. He also joined the vestry of Fredericksville Parish, which made him part of the lay-leadership of the church that was still served at that time by Rev. James Maury, whose school Jefferson had attended before college. The Anglican Church required that any vestryman enter the office by taking an oath to “conform to the doctrine and discipline of the Church of England.” The Fredericksville Parish Vestry Book has Jefferson’s name listed under those words in that year. Thus, at this stage in his life he took an oath claiming belief in all the basics of the historic Christian faith, i.e., belief in the Trinity, the Deity of Jesus, that He died for sinners, that He rose again from the dead, that the Bible is God’s Word, etc.

Some might think that Jefferson joining the vestry was simply building his resume, but where is the evidence for that? Certainly church attendance and donations were still legally required, but time serving on the vestry and even additional time as warden and doing various projects for the Church were voluntary choices of Jefferson. From these extra commitments isn’t it more likely that these indicate that Jefferson did so sincerely in service to God? The Vestry Book shows that he attended at least two vestry meetings every year and six in 1768 alone. In 1769 it shows him also serving as warden and helping to choose the land for a new church building. The parish tax was not voluntary, but Jefferson’s investment of time as vestryman and warden was above the common duty of a typical Anglican member, attending many meetings and giving time for various needs of the vestry.

As an Anglican Churchman, Jefferson also made efforts to help other clergymen than just his own pastor. In a letter of August 18, 1768, Jefferson appealed to a Presbyterian elder from adjacent Augusta county named William Preston for his “…suffrage [i.e., vote] in favor of…the Revd James [Maury] Fontaine who  offers himself as a candidate for the place of Chaplain to the House of Burgesses.” Meanwhile, Fredericksville Parish minister James Maury died and the vestry, including Jefferson, began looking for replacements to recommend to the bishop. Jefferson wrote several letters at this time in this regard. A man known to Jefferson was Rev. James Ogilvie, who visited the area and met Jefferson sometime prior to March 1770.6 Jefferson tried to get him the position in a nearby parish.

Jefferson himself was elected to the House of Burgesses and then went to Williamsburg frequently over the next several years. While there he worshiped at the Bruton Parish until the capital was moved to Richmond in 1779. The significance of all this is that, at this point in his life, Thomas Jefferson was an active churchman, even an active lay-leader within the Church—and, was an earnest friend of orthodox Trinitarian ministers.

Note: I was with a large TV-crew of Coral Ridge Ministries (now D. James Kennedy Ministries) in 2005, where we brought our then-host, Dr. D. James Kennedy to Bruton Parish Church, where he recorded some “stand-ups.” The photo with this blog post is inside Bruton Parish Church in Colonial Williamsburg, where Jefferson had his own church pew, as did George Washington and Patrick Henry.

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