One of Jefferson’s Earliest Criticisms of Clergy

Here comes one of the earliest criticisms we can find from Thomas Jefferson of the clergy. It comes in 1801—when he was almost 60 years old. This criticism was as related to POLITICS as much as it was to religion. The idea that our third president was a lifelong skeptic is false, and that’s one of our main conclusions of Doubting Thomas.

Jefferson also bought a new Bible at that time. In a letter to Henry Remsen on December 31, 1800, he said: “I see advertised…Scatcherd’s pocket bible, bound in Marocco, it is an edition which I have long been wishing to get, to make part of a portable library which the course of my life has rendered convenient. Will you be so good as to get a copy for me and forward by post.”

Another clergyman wrote him in early January 1801 named Rev. Joseph Moss White. Rev. White was of the Sandemanian sect in Danbury, Connecticut, who supported Jefferson’s church-state views. The famous Danbury letter on the “wall of separation of church and state” that Jefferson wrote about a year later was to Baptists there who held similar views. Rev. White enclosed in his letter to Jefferson two pamphlets. Jefferson replied to him with thanks on January 11, 1801, saying: “I shall with pleasure read the pamphlet you send me;…when these questions shall have passed away, I am in hopes my fellow citizens who have given ear to the calumnies, will be disposed to make a juster estimate of my character.”

About the same time a former Governor of Vermont, Moses Robinson, wrote Jefferson on March 3, 1801, speaking of “our Civil and Religious Rights” and rejoicing in a recent election victory. Jefferson replied on March 23: “…The eastern States will be the last to come over, on account of the dominion of the clergy, who had got a smell of union between Church and State…; The Christian religion, when divested of the rags in which they have enveloped it, and brought to the original purity and simplicity of its benevolent institutor, is a religion of all others most friendly to liberty, science, and the freest expansion of the human mind.”

This was one of the first criticisms Jefferson ever made about clergy in America, but it was specifically about the “eastern States,” meaning New England and New York, and about clergy there who were predominantly allied with the Federalists. Jefferson often did not provide specificity in his anti-clerical statements but this instance provides one of the few times he does so. But the context within most of his letters along with the other body of relationships with clergy is essential to correctly understand the narrow focus of his clerical criticism. And even in this criticism, it is clear that Jefferson maintains a high view of Christianity itself as a main source of freedom in world history. Furthermore, in this letter Jefferson makes one of his first criticisms of “they” who corrupted original Christianity, and this meant the medieval clergy of Europe. Explanation of this trend in his thinking will come later.

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