Jefferson’s Friendly Relationships with the Clergy

In a recent blogpost, we noted that Jefferson did not hate the clergy, as some commonly think today. Now we want to explore this further.

Contrary to the modern idea of Jefferson as a sort of minister-hater, there were about 322 ministers or ministries that Jefferson is proven to have interacted with over his 65 adult years. Of these about half do not provide valuable information on his religious life and others provide so little they do not receive much mention in this study. Of the 100 or so that offer some religious information about Jefferson, we find important religious correspondence or meetings with Jefferson, or we find they received Jefferson’s support via donations or attendance, endorsements, purchase of their works, etc. Of these key 100, about 80% were Protestant Trinitarians, 8% Catholic Trinitarians, 8% Unitarian/Universalist, 3% other, and 1% Jewish. Yet sadly almost all commentators of Jefferson today seem to focus primarily on the small percent of his correspondence with unorthodox associates, while ignoring the vast majority of letters exchanged with orthodox ministers or ministries. Not to mention Jefferson’s simultaneous orthopraxy for nearly his entire adult life.

In our study we found documentation of about 70 times that Jefferson worshiped or attended services—again, mostly in Trinitarian churches—and about 130 times that he donated money or his time and assistance to religious purposes. About 50 recipients of his donations were in his Account Book but which never appear in his letters. We also saw that he endorsed with his attendance or letters or donations a total of about 85 different religious leaders or groups, plus he had private meetings with about 65 of them. So in all we have documented about 400 incidents of Jefferson supporting religion or religious persons in one way or another—again, the vast majority of which supported the historic Christian faith (e.g., the redeeming death and resurrection of Jesus, the Son of God, the Trinity, etc.). In the book, we provide a complete table of all clergymen who interacted with Jefferson is found.

Of the 100 significant clergymen or groups, they are identified as: 23 Presbyterians, 18 Anglicans-Episcopalians, 18 Baptists, 8 Catholics, 8 Unitarian-Universalists, 4 Methodists, 4 Congregationalists, and 17 other. One thing that is noteworthy is that all of the main groups above received financial support or other aid except for Methodists, Congregationalists and Unitarians. Of the 17 in the “other” category, there was one or two Lutherans, missionaries, a Bible Society, a few unorthodox groups (Swedenborgians, Quakers, Sandemanians, Univeralist), and one Jewish leader. If all of the 322 persons or groups are included then the percentage for the main Protestant groups (Presbyterians, Anglicans-Episcopalians, Baptists, Methodists, and Congregationalists) goes up to about 75 percent, while the representation of Catholics doubles to about 15 percent and Unitarians decrease in half to about 5 percent.

Jefferson’s interaction with the Unitarians, both clergy and lay persons, was a much higher percentage in the last 15 or so years of Jefferson’s life (only four of the Unitarians were before 1813). And unfortunately about half of all of Jefferson’s surviving letters are from that final period when he was the most unorthodox. This means that more unorthodox quotes are there for biographers to draw from. But to let that small portion of his life dominate the picture of his entire religious life creates an impression that is false. When he contributed the most to his country, e.g., as chief author of the Declaration of Independence, as the author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, as the first Governor of Virginia, and as the third president of the United States, he was mostly active in orthodox Trinitarian churches. Biographers should balance the information and make sure to present the other 90 percent of Trinitarians that he interacted with and balance the presentation over the entire 65 years that he was an adult with an active religious life. His most significant contribution during his time of greatest unorthodoxy was in the founding of the University of Virginia, and even there, a fair examination of the evidence shows that he was promoting a non-denominational school, not a secular one.


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