Jefferson’s Region Was a Hotbed of Christian Revivalism

The picture is of Harvard, because of the reference below to Dr. Alan Heimert of Harvard.


In the book, Doubting Thomas, we show that Jefferson had a lot more Christian influence than people realize. He lived in a hotbed of revivalism.

After the Second Great Awakening, religious communities in the Piedmont were greatly influenced by a revolt against tradition known as the Restoration Movement. A great degree of anti-creedal and anti-clerical feeling and general theological confusion dominated the area between 1809 and 1817. Traditional Protestant beliefs eventually came back into prominence in the Piedmont and largely controlled culture and politics for the remainder of the 19th century.

Interestingly, the personal religious beliefs of Jefferson and Madison throughout their lives for the most part reflected the dominant religious trends in the region. Instead of considering Jefferson to be unique and of standing outside of his religious culture, it would be more accurate to identify him as a fair representation of it. In 1777, Jefferson wrote up we call the 1777 Subscription document. This was for the purpose of establishing the Calvinistical Reformed Church, Charlottesville. Thomas Jefferson (and other important area leaders) had an undeniable voluntary attachment to what they called “our church,” and to the unique person and Evangelical preaching of Charles Clay. Even if the Calvinistical Reformed Church never actually got fully off the ground, the implications of the document remain the same: In the time period that Jefferson wrote his most famous public documents such as the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and the Declaration of Independence, he publicly identified with and voluntarily financed Evangelical and Calvinistic preaching and ministry. Although this does not prove Jefferson to personally be an evangelical Calvinist or have had a religious experience of some sort like his neighbor Henry Fry, it nonetheless requires some modification of the common assumptions about him made by scholars today.

Clergymen in the Piedmont who directly ministered to Jefferson included James Maury, Charles Clay, Matthew Maury, Andrew Tribble, William Woods, Frederick Hatch and William Y. Hiter (and probably Daniel Davis, Jr., and William Armstrong because they preached in the Union services that Jefferson attended). Those who directly ministered to Madison were James Marye, Thomas Martin, Samuel Stanhope Smith, James Waddell, and Alexander Balmaine. Other Piedmont men who preached to them while they were in the White House were James O’Kelly, John Leland, and Lorenzo Dow (the Billy Graham of his day). Jefferson interacted with more than 100 orthodox clergymen in his lifetime, yet the primary ones cited by most modern scholars are the handful after 1812 that were more Unitarian and unorthodox in belief.

The historical and theological findings listed above concerning the Central Virginia Piedmont have never been presented in any other research to our knowledge. Most modern biographers and historians are either unaware or willfully ignoring this history and thus the modern image of Jefferson and Madison is shaped without the context of their religious community.[1] The result is that historians have often mislabeled or misidentified the primary sources of the movement towards religious freedom and republicanism in Virginia. Unfortunately, many modern scholars cite Jefferson and Madison as leaders of a “secular” Enlightenment tradition in a coalition with religious groups.[2] By doing this they maintain what Nathan Hatch describes as “a sharply defined intellectual cleavage between rationalists and evangelicals;…between forces of the revival and those of the Enlightenment.” Most modern historians who believe in a secular coalition then argue that “after flirting briefly with the rationalism of the Enlightenment, Americans embraced revivalism with a vengeance…[and thus brought an end to] the American Enlightenment.”[3]

The discoverable facts of this study suggest that this view is wrong. Jefferson and Madison were not leaders of a secular group distinct from their religious culture; rather, they were part and parcel of it. The late Harvard Professer Alan Heimert has said that the evidence of Mark Beliles’ 1999 doctoral thesis—the content of which forms the basis for this new book— provides “truly new and original insight into the religious atmosphere of pre-Revolutionary Virginia, adding immeasurably to…Thomas Jefferson’s own intellectual biography.”[4]          Jefferson’s consistent involvement of time, money and words supportive of his Anglican parish, of his Evangelical neighbors, and of his own independent church and its evangelical clergyman (Rev. Charles Clay) provide a context that is essential when also analyzing his private beliefs. But even more important is the fact that the religious community and ideas that Jefferson overtly identified with at the time that he wrote public documents such as the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and the Declaration of Independence, were of an Evangelical Calvinistic dissenting nature.


[1]  Gilbert Chinard, Thomas Jefferson: The Apostle of Americanism (Mich.: University of Michigan Press, 1964), 103-105. Chinard is the only biographer to quote Jefferson’s Subscription document to support Rev. Clay, but then he misses its significance.

[2]   James Hutson acknowledged in his recent book that at least one “recent scholar has made the provocative claim that they [i.e. Jefferson and Madison] actually shared the agenda of their evangelical allies, hoping that by freeing… churches from the corrupting embrace of the state they ‘would ignite a religious revival favorable to the cause of republican government.’ Whether this thesis is credible,” says Hutson, “depends on an estimate of the religious views of Madison and Jefferson.” Hutson, 70.

[3]  Hatch, 35. For example, Merrill D. Peterson argues that the coalition for religious freedom in Virginia had two parts: “one secular in the Enlightenment mold, one theological in the Evangelical Protestant mold.”  He then argues that “…philosophes like Jefferson and Madison” were leaders of a “secular religion of the left…in the Enlightenment mold.” See Richard A. Rutyna, ed., Conceived in Conscience (Norfolk, Va.: Donning Co. Publishers, 1983), 34-42.  Peterson creates an artificial cleavage between Jefferson and Madison and their religious communites in the piedmont. Such separation of the forces behind this statute is common, yet is artificial and groundless. Another example is Merrill D. Peterson: “The achievement was made possible by an unusual alliance: on the one side, liberals and rationalists like Jefferson, his young colleague James Madison, George Mason, and others; on the other side, the various dissenting sects, led by the evangelical Baptists. They shared the same goal, though for different reasons. And so by the unique logic of American history, the seekers after enlightenment and the seekers after salvation were allies in liberty.” Peterson and Vaughan, viii.

[4]  Letter to Mark Beliles, April 8, 1996 after the symposium on Religious Culture in Jefferson’s Virginia.

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