Sometimes, one is left with the impression that Thomas Jefferson had declared virtual war against any man of the cloth. He’s certainly on record for opposing a state-established church. That often became the engine for persecution against religious dissidents. Jefferson opposed that very clearly. But many of his friends were Christian ministers. He had a long-time relationship with Rev. Charles Clay, who was very patriotic. Clay was an evangelical, and our book reproduces for the first time in print two of Clay’s sermons. These sermons reflect the kind of ministry Jefferson supported—at least at this time in his life, in the late 1770s, when Jefferson was in his 30’s. Keep in mind this was after he wrote the first main draft of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson had many friends who were men of the cloth. Here are a few examples.
Rev. Samuel Stanhope Smith’s protégé was Rev. John Todd of Louisa County, who continued Smith’s effort when he moved away. Jefferson had probably met Todd in October 1776 and now communicated again. He sent a letter to Todd at this time, and although what Jefferson expressed in it cannot be known, because this letter is also missing, still it shows another example of Jefferson reaching out to work together with Presbyterians. Then on August 16, 1779, Rev. Todd replied to Jefferson, which implies much of what Jefferson had said: “I thank you for the favour you have done me in inclosing me the bill for establishing religious freedom. I had not seen it before—….Now I have a peculiar pleasure, sir, in finding that we are blessed with men, some men at and near the helm with clear heads and honest hearts, zealous to bring to light and secure to all good men their rights without partiality. I guess at the author of the bill [i.e., Jefferson] and I love and esteem the man.”
These opening sentences show the enthusiastic support of Presbyterians, like the Baptists, for Jefferson at this point in his life. They certainly show their appreciation of his efforts to disestablish the state-church in Virginia, so that all denominations would be on an equal footing. Rev. Todd continues: “…the experience of all the Churches Since Constantine, shew the absurdity of Establishments. Virtue and pure religion do better without earthly emoluments than with…Wishing Success to the bill, and the certain Security of our Rights on so large and righteous a foundation, and that you may, Sir, long live to fill up the most important places in the State, and be blessed with every kind of happiness…”
Todd says that history proves the linkage of church and state beginning in fourth century Europe was a mistake. He even is willing to give Roman Catholics religious freedom, even though this was a radical measure at that time. Christian dissenters drove the tolerance and freedom movement in Virginia.
Jefferson’s account book also shows that he paid “for the year” to the sexton of Bruton Parish in Williamsburg on September 30, 1779, which indicates a relationship with the church while he was now serving and residing as governor in that city. Also Jefferson served on the board of the College of William and Mary, led at that time by its president, Rev. James Madison (not to be confused with the fourth president of the country, who was also a friend of Jefferson’s). Jefferson’s correspondence multiplied from this point onward with Rev. James Madison, with a minimal degree of religious content in over 40 letters over subsequent decades. Rev. Madison would also later come and stay a week at a time with Jefferson at Monticello.
The notion of Jefferson as a lifelong skeptic who was at war with the clergy is a fiction. But there should be no doubt that, like many of the Christians, he too opposed an established church.