President Jefferson and Religion

Our book, DOUBTING THOMAS, covers the religious life and legacy of our third president. We believe the evidence is overwhelming that Thomas Jefferson was not a lifelong skeptic—that said, he apparently doubted some major Christian doctrines later in life, at least on a private basis. Here we talk about some of his interactions with ministers early in his presidency.

The New Jerusalem Church of Baltimore, led by Rev. John Hargrove, wrote to congratulate the new president on that inauguration day, March 4, 1801. Rev. Hargrove had been a Methodist but now was a Swedenborgian minister. Swedenborgians or “New Church” adherents held to a non-Trintarianism more similar to a new emerging Arminian evangelical Restoration Movement, than the English skeptical variety of Unitarianism. Jefferson replied on March 9. Note: Arminianism refers to that theological school within Christianity named after Jacob Arminius (1560-1609) from Holland. Arminianism opposes Calvinism and emphasizes the free will of human beings in matters of salvation.

Jefferson later the next year heard Rev. Hargrove preach in the Capitol and corresponded in 1807. Having won the election, Jefferson privately expressed his frustration with the religious attacks in a letter to friend and former ambassador William Short on March 17, 1801, that “…in this transition the New England states are slowest because under the dominion of their priests who had begun to hope they could toll us on to an established church to be in union with the state…” A few days later he wrote to Unitarian Rev. Joseph Priestley of: “…the times…, when ignorance put everything into the hands of power and priestcraft;…[they fear you will] render them useless by simplifying the Christian philosophy—the most sublime and benevolent, but most perverted system that ever shone on man…”

And a few days later he said to his political ally in New England, Elbridge Gerry: “…[In] Your part of the Union…the temples of religion and justice, have all been prostituted there to toll us back to the times when we burnt witches …; …[the] priesthood…twist it’s [i.e., Christianity’s] texts till they cover the divine morality of it’s author with mysteries, and require a priesthood to explain them.”

Later on July 21, 1801, he told a Connecticut ally, U.S. Attorney Pierpont Edwards that: “…[If ] the nature of…government [were] a subordination of the civil to the ecclesiastical power, I [would] consider it as desperate for long years to come…; And there [the Federalist] clergy will always keep them if they can.”

Jefferson’s assessment and concern at this time was unusually but understandably strong after the attacks he had personally suffered. (The 1800 Election had been vicious. Many “Eastern” clergymen (we could say Northeastern) had been unusually vicious against Jefferson. This was the beginning of the notion of Jefferson-the-skeptic—and it was rooted in political opposition to him. While privately deploring the religious situation in the northeast, Jefferson was not opposing Christianity per se. He sent letters that also expressed his faith in God. To Benjamin Waring and citizens of Columbia, South Carolina, he said on March 23: “…I offer my sincere prayers to the Supreme Ruler of the Universe, that He may long preserve our country in freedom and prosperity…”

Episcopal clergyman Rev. Mason Locke Weems, famous for his biography of Washington the year before (popular at the time, but now criticized), wrote Jefferson on June 6, 1801, to promote other religious publications such as sermons by Presbyterian Hugh Blair. Jefferson replied that although he had not read them: “…The publication of these [sermons] cannot therefore but be publicly useful:…wishing you sincerely therefore success in your undertaking.”

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