Dr. Garrett Ward Sheldon
This is a surprising and very important book. It changes our views of the religious life and attitudes of perhaps the most significant American Founder: Thomas Jefferson. As such, it commends a re-examination of our entire view of Early American Religion and Politics, past scholarship on those subjects, and the implications on our contemporary debates on Church and State.*
The analysis and documentation in this volume show Jefferson as an appreciative and thoughtful student of and actor in Christianity who genuinely esteems many of the doctrines and persons associated with the Faith. His letters often show an affectionate and respectful regard for religious persons, including Catholic clergy, priests, nuns, and teachers; evangelical Protestant preachers, Calvinists and Anglicans. His sensitivity to their character and motives belies the common caricature of Jefferson as dismissive or contemptuous of religious believers. Mr. Beliles other recent book, Selected Religious Letters, further confirms this positive and catholic approach of Jefferson.
I grew up and was trained with the common view of Jefferson as a secular skeptic, an Enlightenment Deist, indifferent or even hostile to organized religion, spirituality, the Church, and Christianity. We read over and over his derisive comments on “monkish ignorance,” or Catholic “priestcraft”; that Calvinists were rigid, Jews “barbaric” and simple religious folk naive and ignorant. All the Liberal prejudices against faith projected onto America’s premier Founder.
Where did this mainstream academic attitude come from? The negative attitudes were certainly there in some of Jefferson’s correspondence. But, like his equally extreme characterizations of political opponents, they were written to certain colleagues, at certain times, and so in a context that cannot be generalized. Beliles and Newcombe provide that context along with the balance of Jefferson’s other, overwhelmingly positive views on religion and religious people, movements, denominations and beliefs.
Jefferson comes across in this vast wealth of material as a sensitive, intelligent, appreciative student of religious people, beliefs and institutions. He was an intelligent seeker after truth with a seriousness unseen today in public figures. His attitudes, well represented in this book’s selections, shows the real breadth and depth of religious consciousness in eighteenth century America. We are grateful for the authors’ careful and serious corrective of this major figure in American history and thought. This scholarship finally places religion in its proper and prominent place in Jefferson’s mind and life; and in America.
—Dr. Garrett Ward Sheldon
The John Morton Beaty Professor of Politics,
University of Virginia College at Wise
Author, The Political Philosophy of Thomas Jefferson
(Johns Hopkins University Press).
Co-editor, Religion and Political Culture in Jefferson’s Virginia
Dr. Peter A. Lillback
Thomas Jefferson is an omnipotent American icon of liberty. He, along with a few others, has an indisputable place in the American pantheon of Founders whose life and words have shaped the destiny of the United States. His words, “the wall of separation between church and state” from a private letter to the Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut, have been essentially read into the First Amendment by Supreme Court decisions, whether one agrees with them or not.
But for all this American certainty about the significance of Thomas Jefferson for what George Washington called “the American experiment in the Republican form of government,” there is great dispute about the worldview and religious beliefs of Jefferson. Was he St. Thomas Jefferson, or, would he be better described as Doubting Thomas Jefferson? If he was an icon of liberty, was he an icon of faith as well?
The options are boldly asserted by scholars and citizens alike on either side of the fault lines of faith that divide contemporary American life. To most on the secularist bank of the cultural rift, Jefferson was a freethinking rationalist who deeply longed for the removal of the overt expressions of faith from public life. As a doubting deist, the church and the Scriptures belonged in the private sphere of life, where they could do no harm, not in the public arena of law and government.
But those who stand opposed to the secular view often assert that Jefferson’s life manifested a sincere faith in Christian truth. He worshiped as President in, of all places, a public church service held in the Supreme Court’s chambers in the US Capitol Building. His faith, if not fully orthodox, extolled Jesus’ ethics and celebrated divine providence.
But whose view is right? The problem for those who investigate the question is to let Thomas Jefferson speak for himself. It has been all too easy to rely on secondary sources, both past and present to make one’s case. A far more daunting challenge is to dig into Jefferson’s voluminous writings and let his own words and his own actions speak for themselves. When this is done, the person who emerges may not fit neatly into the well worn images crafted by a long dispute over a hero that all sides wish to identify with their partisan views.
So it is with gratitude to Mark Beliles and Jerry Newcombe that I commend to you their study, Doubting Thomas? These authors present a careful investigation of our American hero of liberty that should be taken seriously by reader and researcher alike due to their careful analysis of original sources and cogent construction of pertinent data. Their conclusion emerges from the sources left to us by Jefferson himself. The accuracy and nuance that are found here make for a compelling case that
Jefferson was a complex personality and thinker whose beliefs cannot be expressed by pat answers, knee-jerk reactions or facile explanations. Instead, the Jefferson that emerges is a multifaceted figure whose thinking grows, develops, changes, and yet all the while simultaneously holds together disparate commitments as he moves through various stages of his life.*
Please read, reflect, learn and be instructed. Jefferson may well have doubted, moved and changed over time, but there is no doubt that his intellectual journey was informed by faith all along the way.
—Dr. Peter A. Lillback
President, Westminster Theological Seminary
President, The Providence Forum
Author with Jerry Newcombe of George Washington’s Sacred Fire
“In this honest and thorough examination of Thomas Jefferson’s public and private life, authors Beliles and Newcombe make a strong and persuasive case that in his critical younger years—when he drafted the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia bill for religious freedom—Jefferson was a practicing orthodox Christian. Painstakingly researched and written, the authors refute those scholars who would superimpose Jefferson’s later doubts about core Christian doctrines in support of their views that religion must be separated from politics.* To the contrary, as Beliles and Newscombe ably contend, Jefferson’s contribution to the Declaration and the Virginia statute for religious freedom evidences the work of a Christian statesman whatever his personal belief may have been about the redemptive work of Christ at the cross. Any one who wants to know Jefferson’s real contribution to religious liberty ought to read this book.”
Founding Dean, College of Law and Government, Regent University (1986-1993)
“The Bible’s first book, Genesis, is devoted to recounting the lives of Israel’s founding fathers. Any healthy nation and robust culture remembers its founders with fond admiration. Willfully corroding the history of its founders is a sign of a culture’s impending extinction. To our enormous appreciation, Beliles and Newcombe compellingly correct our recollection of Thomas Jefferson. A grateful nation will thank them.”*
—Rabbi Daniel Lapin,
American Alliance of Jews and Christians
“Doubting Thomas is a must read book regarding one of the most frequently discussed and often misunderstood Founding Fathers of the American experiment. This book is a refreshing analysis of the faith journey of Thomas Jefferson, and the reader will find particularly helpful how the book puts Jefferson’s evolving views of God and religion in historical context. A quote from the later years of Jefferson cannot be used to fully explain his views at earlier times and vice versa.* What is critically important is the fact that at the time of Jefferson’s life when he had the most direct impact on the founding of America and some of its organic documents, such as the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom, Jefferson was a faithful churchman in the Anglican Church. The Jefferson that groups like the ACLU often present is not the Jefferson of history. This book deals openly and honestly with one of America’s key Founding Fathers.Doubting Thomas is no doubt be one of the most important books on the faith of Thomas Jefferson.”
—Mathew D. Staver,
Founder and Chairman, Liberty Counsel
“A must read regarding one of our most commonly misunderstood Founders: Thomas Jefferson. While Jefferson’s life and writings are used to create the “wall of separation” between church and state, the historical truth is far more complicated. This book takes you on a fascinating journey into the mind and life of man whose ideas regarding government, faith, and liberty are still impacting our culture today. Thoroughly documented and well-written, I gladly endorse this fascinating examination of our Third President. An important book for our generation to better understand the Jeffersonian balance between God and government.”*
—Attorney David C. Gibbs III,
President & General Counsel, National Center for Life and Liberty
“Dr. Mark Beliles and Dr. Jerry Newcombe are preeminent researchers who have uncovered priceless treasures of America’s heritage long buried beneath generations of complacency and ideological drift. Newcombe and Beliles’ classic work, Doubting Thomas, is destined to be THE authoritative treatise on Jefferson’s many faceted beliefs. They honestly portray Jefferson’s journey of faith though its ever-evolving nuances during a time when the world was going through unprecedented political changes. Jefferson was a brilliant leader who had profound influence on America at its most formative period. By understanding Jefferson and his faith, we gain a clearer understanding of the foundations of our freedoms, and possibly discover keys to preserving them. I highly applaud and wholeheartedly recommend every American read Dr. Mark Beliles and Dr. Jerry Newcombe’s book, Doubting Thomas.”*
—William J. Federer,
Bestselling Author and Speaker
“Fascinating, well researched, and wonderfully nuanced, Doubting Thomas pulls back the curtain and exposes the myths about this brilliant and controversial man of fascinating faith who helped birth America, write the Declaration of Independence, and shape the way Americans think about Church and State. This is a must read for anyone who wants the real story of Thomas Jefferson.”*
“Christian values influenced our government for the first 160 years of our nation’s history until a misreading of Thomas Jefferson on the subject of the separation of church and state. That’s why I’m please to recommend this new book, Doubting Thomas? which helps set the record straight. Although Thomas Jefferson was no evangelical Christian, he was certainly far from the ACLU’s version of Jefferson portrayed today as this book so aptly demonstrates.”*
—Dr Robert Jeffress,
Pastor, First Baptist Church, Dallas
“Once in a great while a book so thoroughly and even-handedly treats a controversial topic that combatants are silenced, the uninformed argument is banished and learning gratefully reigns. Such a book is Doubting Thomas?* In its pages, unflagging scholarship escorts an authentically complex Thomas Jefferson to the fore. The authors allow truth to settle where it may and are unapologetic that myths flee and that scholarly malpractice is exposed before their work. We are grateful for their devotion to their craft.”
—Stephen Mansfield, Ph.D.,
New York Times Best-selling Author
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