More on the so-called “Jefferson Bible”

Missionaries urged the distribution of whole Bibles to the multitudes of new Indian tribal groups, but a later letter on January 20, 1816, to Peter Wilson (who apparently had urged Jefferson’s support of Bible translations in languages of Indians) explained Jefferson’s reasoning the best:

“. . . I think, therefore, the pious missionaries who shall go to the several tribes to instruct them in the Christian religion will have to learn a language for every tribe they go to; nay, more, that they will have to create a new language for every one, that is to say, to add to theirs new words for the new ideas they will have to communicate. Law, medicine, chemistry, mathematics, every science has a language of its own, and divinity not less than others. Their barren vocabularies cannot be vehicles for ideas of the fall of man, his redemption, the triune composition of the Godhead, and other mystical doctrines considered by most Christians of the present date as essential elements of faith. The enterprise is therefore arduous, but the more inviting perhaps to missionary zeal.”[1]

Much has been said about “the Jefferson Bible.” I even read once that supposedly his goal in compiling it that it was to remove the fairy tales from the Bible. Not quite. Basically, there are two versions of “the Jefferson Bible”—a phrase he never used. They both consist of many of the sayings of Jesus. The first one he compiled—while president—one or two nights in the Spring of 1804, and he gave it this title: The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted From the Account of His Life and Doctrines as Given by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; Being an Abridgement of the New Testament for the Use of the Indians Unembarrassed with Matters of Fact or Faith Beyond the Level of Their Comprehensions.[2] This title is written in Jefferson’s own hand.

The only early comment on the 1804 abridgement was made by his early biographer Henry Randall, who wrote in 1858 that it was “. . . Mr. Jefferson’s ‘Collection for the Indians.’[3] That is strong evidence that corroborates the title Jefferson gave to it in his own hand because Randall’s biography of Jefferson, written when his family and friends were still alive, states confidently that he “conferred with friends on the expediency of having it published in the different Indian dialects as the most appropriate book for the Indians to be instructed to read in.”[4] Despite this confirmation some modern commentators pursue alternative explanations based on very flimsy evidence.[5]

This abridgement was not to be a biography of Jesus per se, and as such it left out most material found in the Gospels that did not fit the goal of compiling a “philosophy.” This 1804 work was not based on a motive to delete all of the miracles or evidences of Jesus’ divinity. For instance, it included:

“Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils: freely ye have received, freely give” (Matthew 10:8).

“And they held their peace. And he took him, and healed him, and let him go” (Luke 14:4).

But as touching the resurrection of the dead, have ye not read that which was spoken unto you by God. . .” (Matthew 22:31).

“When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory” (Matthew 25:31).

The entire abridgement of 1804 can be found in Mark Beliles’ companion volume to Doubting Thomas: The Selected Religious Letters and Papers of Thomas Jefferson.


[1] Letter to Peter Wilson, January 20, 1816. Papers, Retirement Series, vol. 9, 372.

[2] The Philosophy of Jesus, Abridgement of the Words of Jesus of Nazareth . . . for the Use of the Indians, 1804, See appendix.

[3] Henry S. Randall, The Life of Thomas Jefferson, 3 vols. (New York: Derby and Jackson, 1858), 3:654-658.

[4] Randall, The Life of Thomas Jefferson, 3:654-658.

[5] Some commentators claim Jefferson’s Second Inaugural Address in 1805 was proof that he really wasn’t interested in missions because he made a comment elsewhere that his reference in the speech to the “prejudice” of the Indians “admits by inference a more general extension.” That prejudice existed in more than the Indians is obvious, but to leap from that to say that Jefferson’s title for his digest was therefore not intended for the Indians but only for his bigoted political critics, is wholly lacking in scholarly foundation. See Dickinson Adams, Jefferson’s Extracts From the Gospels, (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1983), 28. Adam’s claim of Jefferson using Indians as a codeword was rejected by other scholars such as Dumas Malone. See Dumas Malone, Jefferson the President – First Term 1801-1805 (Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown and Co., 1970), 205.

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