News of Jefferson’s Unorthodoxy Reached his Longtime Pastor

It is not well known that early in life Thomas Jefferson, as a layman, helped found an evangelical church. This was a year after he wrote the Declaration of Independence, and it was the same year, 1777, that he wrote the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. As a layman, in 1777, Jefferson wrote up the agreement for the Calvinistical Reformed Church of Charlottesville. Jefferson said that he and some other laymen were “desirous of gospel knowledge,” and that is why they were starting the church. They called as pastor, the patriotic, evangelical minister, Rev. Charles Clay, who knew Jefferson for decades. Clay thought of Thomas Jefferson as a Christian. But later, in the 1810s, reports reached Clay’s ears about some potential doubts Jefferson had about some aspects of Christianity. Here’s a portion of our book, DOUBTING THOMAS, on this issue.

Jefferson continued in his own private study of religion. In August 1814 Jefferson wrote to Mr. Dufief asking: “…of him to procure and send him a copy of [Edward] Evanson’s Dissonance of the four Evangelists.” Evanson, a Unitarian minister, rejected most of the books of the New Testament as forgeries, and of the four Gospels he accepted only the Gospel of LukeA Methodist layman in Virginia named Miles King (and later a minister) wrote Thomas Jefferson about his religion on August 20, 1814, and Jefferson replied on September 26: “…our reason…is the only oracle which God has given us to determine between what really comes from him…; Our particular principles of religion are a subject of accountability to our God alone. I enquire after no man’s and trouble none with mine; nor is it given to us in this life to know whether yours or mine, our friend’s or our foe’s, are exactly the right.…that you and I may there [in heaven] meet and embrace is my earnest prayer…”

This letter’s affirmation of reason is well known but often overlooked is that it is based on the premise that reason is an endowment from God. It was at this time that Jefferson’s earlier private letter to William Canby (subscribing to universalism) was published (slightly modified) without Jefferson’s permission in a Delaware newspaper on November 1, 1814. It was then picked up and reprinted in newspapers in Virginia and New York. This began to raise questions about Jefferson’s faith among more than just his political opponents.

Despite the Canby letter in the news, attacks on his faith still never happened by any clergymen in Virginia or anywhere south of New York in Jefferson’s entire lifetime. But one of the most important inquiries came on December 20, 1814 from his former pastor, the evangelical Rev. Charles Clay. He said: “Reflecting on an expression of yours relative to an Idea Sometimes entertained by you of Compressing the Moral doctrines taught by Jesus of Nazareth in the Gospels, divested of all other Matters into a small and regular system of the purest morality ever taught to Mankind…however laudable may be your Views and meritorious your intentions in such a nice and critical (delicate) undertaking, I cannot help entertaining doubts and fears for the final issue, how it may effect your future character and reputation on the page of history as a Patriot, legislator and sound Philosopher. …I feel sensibly for the final event, should you be induced to permit yourself to send forth such a piece to the public, lest they might not Sufficiently appreciate your good intentions, but ascribe it to views as inimical to the Christian religion in particular, and eventually to all religion from divine Authority, which I am persuaded you Can have no intention of doing. …My fears are, that should your performance not exactly meet the approbation of the public, (both now and hereafter), that your Name will be degraded from the Venerable council of true, genuine, Useful Philosophy; & Condemned to be Ranked with the wild Sophisters of Jacobinsm [i.e., French underground secretive revolutionaries]…Masonry…Illuminism, etc; which…future Historians will most assuredly denominate by some opprobrious epithet, as the Maniacs of Philosophy &c. And it certainly may be expected that the whole of your numerous Enemies on the Northern and eastern parts of the U.S…should the performance not exactly Coincide with their Ideas and meet their entire approbation, even in the Minutiae of diction (which it is highly probable it would not) they would greedily seize the Occasion, and raise the hue and Cry after you…”

Jefferson’s letter in the papers may have become known to Rev. Clay, for in this letter to Jefferson he warned against publishing anything because people would misjudge “your good intentions” and “ascribe it to Views as inimical to the christian Religion in particular,& eventually to all Religion from divine Authority,—which I am persuaded you Can have no intention of doing.” To paraphrase: Jefferson, I know you as a Christian, active in the church, but the masses out there might not think so, if you publish some of these things.

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