Jefferson’s Skepticism Comes Through in Some Letters

Although he was a brilliant man, Thomas Jefferson was a flawed theologian. Nonetheless, he was not the lifelong skeptic that he is often made out to be. Nor did he believe in keeping Christian influence out of the government or the public square. The book I cowrote with Mark Beliles, DOUBTING THOMAS, documents those things. Here is a portion of that book. This portion picks up many years after Jefferson had served as our third president. This portion shows the kind of regular interaction he often had with clergymen, including Trinitarians.

A Congregational clergyman who was a missionary for the Bible Society of Massachusetts and also a teacher in Maine was Rev. Amos Jones Cook. He wrote Jefferson in December 1815; and Jefferson sent a reply on January 21, 1816, in which he quoted extensively from Ecclesiastes 2:3-13. Jefferson obviously still read the Bible (including the Old Testament) and quoted it approvingly. Another example of Jefferson using the Old Testament was in his letter to Mary Briggs on April 17, 1816. It is noteworthy also that in it, Jefferson calls a passage from the Old Testament “inspired.” He encouraged her from Psalm 37:25 saying: “Be strong in the assurance given by an inspired pen, ‘I have been young, and now I am old; and yet never saw I the righteous forsaken, or his seed begging their bread’: and if the prayers of an old man can be of any avail, you shall ever have mine most ardently.”

With this in mind, it is interesting to see the content of his correspondence at this time with Francis Van der Kemp, another northerner. This Mennonite immigrant, being oriented now more in the unorthodox camp, wrote Jefferson on March 24 and reported a conversation with his friend John Adams: “…He had then lately received from you a Syllabus, exhibiting your view on a most momentus subject.…” He asked Jefferson if he could therefore have a copy of the Syllabus and to share it with friends in England.

The Syllabus was Jefferson’s view on ethics, and it showed that Jesus was the greatest moral teacher of all times. But, of course, Jesus was more than just a moral teacher. Because we can’t live up to God’s standards, He sent Jesus, who lived a perfect life, to die for us, so that through faith in Him and His atoning work, we can be saved.

On April 25, 1816, Jefferson replied to Van der Kemp with the permission and told him of his other work in 1804, saying, “…after writing the Syllabus, I made, for my own satisfaction, an Extract from the Evangelists of the texts of his morals, selecting those only whose style and spirit proved them genuine, and his own: and they are as distinguishable from the matter in which they are imbedded as diamonds in dunghills. A more precious morsel of ethics was never seen. It was too hastily done however, being the work of one or two evenings only, while I lived at Washington, overwhelmed with other business: and it is my intention to go over it again at more leisure.” Jefferson continues to Van der Kemp about his plan to upgrade his digest of Jesus’ moral teachings, This shall be the work of the ensuing winter. I gave it [the 1804 version] the title of “The Philosophy of Jesus extracted from the texts of the Evangelists;”…the world, I say, will at length see the immortal merit of this first of human Sages…I ask one only condition, that no possibility shall be admitted of my name being even intimated with the publication.

Although the “ensuing winter” was his plan, it was at least 1819 before the “Extract” was done but it was never sent to anyone. (For the sake of identification, we assign 1820 as the date for the second version.) On July 30, Jefferson wrote back to him again saying: “…I rarely waste time in reading on theological subjects, as mangled by our Pseudo-Christians…; no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks [i.e., charlatans] calling themselves the priests of Jesus.”

Clearly, Jefferson is misinformed about Jesus Christ and the Gospels. Here he is claiming that the Gospels contain diamonds—but you have to sift through dung to find the diamonds. Implied is this notion is that the Gospels were corrupt, as to the manuscripts. In Appendix 6 of DOUBTING THOMAS, we provide “Christian Answers to Jefferson’s Objections to the New Testament.”

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