Politics Seemed to Sour Worsening Relations Between Jefferson and Some Clergy

Was Thomas Jefferson an atheist or skeptic? To hear some modern commentators you would think so. But in our book, Doubting Thomas, Dr. Mark Beliles and I show that the modern idea of Thomas Jefferson as a lifelong skeptic of Christianity does not fit the facts. After a few decades of a seeming good relationship between Jefferson and the church, during the campaign of 1800—when Jefferson ran for president against Federalist John Adams—some of the clergymen of New England began to criticize Jefferson for his faith or the alleged lack thereof. This marks the beginning of Jefferson and of some clergy (mostly opponents on a political basis) having a negative relationship—-not the previous positive one.

Sometime that spring of 1800, the Presbyterian of New York, Rev. William Linn, with whom Jefferson had previously corresponded in a friendly way seven times, wrote an essay attacking Jefferson’s religious beliefs titled: “Serious Considerations on the Election of a President.” Using Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, he argued against Jefferson’s election, asserting “his disbelief of the Holy Scriptures…his rejection of the Christian Religion and open profession of Deism.” This was the second time the term “Deism” was used of Jefferson.

There is nothing in Jefferson’s public writings to this point that would substantiate that charge, and in light of the previous friendly private correspondence between Jefferson and Rev. Linn, this attack makes a historian scratch his head. What happened? Unfortunately, there is no evidence that explains it. With all other things remaining equal, the only thing new in 1800 was the looming presidential election. Clergy in the northeast did not criticize Jefferson’s faith until it was apparent that he would be the political opponent of that region’s favorite son, John Adams.

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