Jefferson’s Early Years, Regarding Religion, Early 1770s

Thomas Jefferson moved south across the Rivanna River into the first completed section of his home, Monticello, on November 26, 1770. This move put him in the jurisdiction of a new parish and Jefferson, according to biographer Edwin Gaustad, “was also elected vestryman.”9 Bishop William Meade also confirms his place on the vestry, and Jefferson appears in the St. Anne’s vestry minutes serving the parish.

Rev. Charles Clay was its minister, who was unusual, being an evangelical Anglican. Evangelicals emphasize the authority of the Bible and the necessity of a personal conversion known as the “new birth.” Only between three and eight percent of the Anglican clergy in Virginia was evangelical, but in the Anglican parishes of the Central Virginia Piedmont region, it was the norm (especially in St. Anne’s in Albemarle and in St. Thomas in nearby Orange county).

Historian Harry S. Stout of Yale, author of The New England Soul, is a man I had the privilege to interview once for Christian TV on the Christian roots of Yale University. Stout observes that the “most accurate guide we…have to what people actually heard are the handwritten sermon notes that ministers carried with them into the pulpit.”10 Significantly, fifty handwritten sermons by Clay from this period have been preserved. These were donated to the Virginia Historical Society in 1992 by Clay’s descendants. Since having not been published and thus unavailable for two centuries, they have been overlooked in virtually all studies on Virginia’s religious culture and Clay’s famous parishioner, Thomas Jefferson.

Clay’s messages are especially enlightening because, as Bishop William Meade said in his early history of the Episcopal Church in Virginia, they were “sound, energetic and evangelical beyond the character of the times.” For the first time ever, we have published two of those sermons. (They appear in the Appendix of our book, Doubting Thomas. They present the Gospel powerfully.)

Rev. Clay and Jefferson became lifelong friends and neighbors for over 50 years and exchanged dozens of letters until 1819 when Clay died. No one outside of Jefferson’s family corresponded with Jefferson longer than they did. Jefferson’s letter to Clay in 1815 said he had spoken with Clay about religion more “than to any other person.” So any biography of Jefferson’s religion must have Clay as a prominent feature of it. Yet sadly, very few modern treatments do so. A couple letters from Clay late in Jefferson’s life will offer a new way of interpreting Jefferson’s late unorthodoxy that has never been presented in any other biography.

A sense of Jefferson’s personal religious life at this time also begins to be seen through some of his private actions and letters. Jefferson purchased a classic religious book in 1770, called Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan. This bestselling 17th century allegory promotes spiritual discipline and is the source of common phrases, such as “Vanity Fair” or “Slough of Despond.” Eventually Jefferson’s library included a collection of many subjects including religious literature by various non-Christian faiths, atheists, and more. Some of the heterodox additions to his collection are discussed later in this study, but his purchases at this time seem consistent with letters Jefferson wrote to Robert Skipwith. In a August 3, 1771 letter, Jefferson urged his friend to “…exercise…the moral feelings” and cultivate “…a habit of thinking and acting virtuously…” In other letters Jefferson also asked his friend to “offer prayers for me” and claims “I pay [sic] continual devotions.” These actions and letters suggest a sincere of faith—at least at this stage of his life.

Note: Fifty of Clay’s sermons are found in the Clay Family Papers (Mss 1c5795a), Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, Virginia. Mark Beliles catalogued and analyzed these and assigned a numbering system and titles based on the first line of text or other data, for easy recognition. There are nine folders of sermons in the Clay Family Papers collection, plus Clay’s “Account Book,” which covers the years 1773-1818, and a subscription list that includes the name of “Thomas Jefferson.” For more on Clay, see Gundersen, The Anglican Ministry in Virginia, 163.


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