Posthumous Misrepresentations of Jefferson’s Faith, Part 1

Some in Virginia criticized Thomas Cooper (a vociferous Unitarian) being hired at the University of Virginia without questioning Jefferson’s personal faith, and as noted before, no clergyman in Virginia or anywhere south of New York ever criticized Jefferson’s faith in his entire lifetime. However, after Jefferson’s death some historical revisionism began.

One of the more surprising of these was Rev. Samuel Miller, Presbyterian of New York. Miller had friendly correspondence with Jefferson and even supported Jefferson during his elections unlike fellow-New Yorker Rev. Linn. But eventually Miller wrote in 1830 that “after the publication of his [Jefferson’s] posthumous writings, in 1829, my respect for him was exchanged for contempt and abhorrence…His own writings evince a hypocrisy…a blasphemous impiety, and a moral profligacy, which no fair, honest mind, to say nothing of piety, can contemplate without abhorrence.”[1] Miller added that “It was wrong for a minister of the gospel to seek any intercourse with such a man.” But Miller admits that he had been a “warm and zealous partisan in favor of Mr. Jefferson’s administration” while also claiming that “I thought, even then, that he was an infidel; but I supposed that he was an honest, truly republican, patriotic infidel. “ It was convenient for Miller to say it in 1830 after he read some of Jefferson’s private letters, but there is no evidence for Miller’s critical view at the earlier date.

Dr. Francis Lister Hawks was Episcopal priest, and a politician in North Carolina who wrote in 1836, ten years after Jefferson’s death, an Ecclesiastical History of the Protestant Episcopal Church in Virginia that portrayed Jefferson negatively in regards to his faith. Hawks, not a minister until after Jefferson’s death, relied on some of Jefferson’s posthumously published private writings and second-hand stories. It was strongly rebuffed by family and neighbors of Jefferson and in a biography of Jefferson by George Tucker the following year.[2] But it started a trend that was continued by Presbyterian minister Robert Baird in his 1844 Religion in America. Baird called Jefferson a Deist without the benefit of research or facts.[3] William Meade made the same mistake two decades after Jefferson’s death saying, without proof, that, “Even Mr. Jefferson and [George] Wythe, who did not conceal their disbelief in Christianity, took their parts in the duties of vestrymen, the one at Williamsburg, the other at Albemarle; for they wished to be men of influence.”[4]


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