More Interactions with Jefferson and Religious Leaders

Our third president was very generous in the support of church activities. Thomas Jefferson was not a lifelong skeptic, as some try to make him out to be. Our book, DOUBTING THOMAS, documents this point. It also shows that Jefferson was friendly toward church and religious leaders.

In his account book on June 25, 1801, Jefferson said he “Gave…25.Dollars towards fitting up a chapel for Mr. Austin.” This became known as “‘Lady Washington’s’ chapel” at Eighth and E streets, N.W. Rev. Austin took this donation as a sign of support that led to three other letters to Jefferson within the week that included a request for a job. Indeed on July 4th Rev. Austin preached in the House of Representatives with Jefferson present and the sermon later appeared July 24th in a newspaper. Jefferson then wrote to Austin on July 14, 1801 and communicated his approval of a marriage among two of his servants and asked Austin to perform the wedding. On July 17, Austin suggested that appointing a clergyman such as him to Jefferson’s cabinet (in the Navy Department) would counter those who attacked the president on religious grounds. Austin said they “would never, more say, the President was not a friend to Zion, so long as he had a Chaplain in his counsels.”

A handful of other letters followed, and then on November 5, 1801, Jefferson’s account book reveals that he “Gave Mr. Austin (charity)…$25.” After the turn of the year on January 4, 1802, Austin told Jefferson that he had taken “the place” of the pastor of the Presbyterian Church of Alexandria, Virginia. Several more letters followed that still included appeals for Jefferson to appoint him to his government and claimed that it was God’s will. So Jefferson finally responds with another letter to Rev. Austin on January 21, 1802, saying: “…Your talents as a divine I hold in due respect, but of their employment in a political line I must be allowed to judge for myself…Of the special communications to you of his will by the supreme being, I can have no evidence, and therefore must ascribe them to the false perceptions of your mind.” Seemingly unaffected by this, Austin sent Jefferson two copies of his collected sermons generally titled The National Barley Cake, and Jefferson’s account book then shows on January 29, 1802, that he “Paid David Austin for 2. Pamphlets.” And the account book entry for May 1, 1802 said: “Gave Revd. D. Austin in charity…$20.”

Also in public messages at that time, Jefferson included religious expressions. In his First Annual Message to Congress on December 8, Jefferson said: “…While we devoutly return thanks to the beneficent Being who has been pleased to breathe into them the spirit of conciliation and forgiveness, we are bound with peculiar gratitude to be thankful to him…”

This continued in later annual messages to Congress: In 1802 “. . . circumstances which mark the goodness of that Being from whose favor they flow and the large measure of thankfulness we owe for His bounty. Another year has come around, and finds us still blessed with peace and friendship abroad; law, order, and religion at home . . . ; under the smiles of Providence. . . .” In 1803, Jefferson said: “. . . let us bow with gratitude to that kind Providence which, inspiring with wisdom and moderation our late legislative councils, . . . guarded us. . . .” In 1805, he said: “. . . the fatal fever which in latter times has occasionally visited our shores. Providence in His goodness gave it an early termination on this occasion and lessened the number of victims which have usually fallen before it.” On November 8, 1808: “I carry with me the consolation of a firm persuasion that Heaven has in store for our beloved country long ages to come of prosperity and happiness.”

And in his reply to an address from the state of Vermont, Jefferson said: “I join in addressing Him whose Kingdom ruleth over all, to direct the administration of their affairs.” In these statements, again, Jefferson shows a belief in a God who is active in influencing human affairs, and to whom Jefferson prays. In similar manner Jefferson made various addresses to Native American groups while president and always made reference to God in them. For example, on January 7, 1801, he told the Brothers and Friends of the Miamis, Powtewatamies, and Weeauks: “…I thank the Great Spirit who has conducted you to us…; [we are] Made by the same Great Spirit, and living in the same land with our brothers, the red men…” On February 10, 1802, Jefferson said to the Brothers of the Delewar and Shawanee nations: “…I thank the Great Spirit that he has conducted you hither…; We are all created by the same Great Spirit…” And later in November, he said to Brother Handsome Lake: “…you have been so far favored by the Divine Spirit…” Jefferson also used religious language when writing to Mawlay Sulayman, Sultan of Morocco: “I pray God to have you, very great & good friend in his holy keeping.” Sulayman was the Muslim religious leader, as well as head of state of that country.

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