President Jefferson Was Active at Church

I saw a website that listed Thomas Jefferson as a Deist at the time of the 1776 Continental Congress, the group that gave us the Declaration of Independence, of which he was the chief author. It is accurate to say that later in his life, Jefferson appeared to doubt key Christian doctrines. However, that was a few decades later. Certainly not at the time of 1776. One of the main points we make in our book, DOUBTING THOMAS, is that Jefferson was not a lifelong skeptic.

Look at some of these everyday examples of his commitment as an Episcopalian in the early 1800s—long after being an Episcopalian/Anglican was no longer required as a Virginia citizen. Jefferson and Madison are the ones who disestablished the Anglican church as a state-church in the state of Virginia in 1786.

When Jefferson was president, in the early 1800s, he attended church on a regular basis at the U.S. Capitol. Around this time, the Episcopal Church began to have a presence in Washington, D.C., so Jefferson began to re-establish his commitment as an Episcopalian.

For example he wrote in his account book (where he recorded money he spent—and Jefferson was generous to Christian causes all his life): “Drew check on bank in favor Revd. Mr. McCormic for 100 Dollars being my subscription to him for 1802. & 1803.” This amount is equivalent to about $2,400 today. Rev. Andrew T. McCormick was rector of the Episcopal parish of Washington. While Jefferson was in Washington, his account book also records that on October 7, 1804, he gave “Charity…at church.” It is not known what church this referred to. But Jefferson certainly continued regularly attending services led by the chaplains in the “Hall” or House of Representatives of the U.S. Capitol building. On November 11, Reverend Manasseh Cutler,* Massachusetts Congressman of the opposing Federalist party, noted in his journal: “Attended worship at our Hall [i.e., House of Representatives]. Mr. McCormick preached a very good sermon on Charity—the good Samaritan. Jefferson at the Hall in the morning.” Then on December 2, Cutler said: “Attended worship at the Capitol. Mr. McCormick preached. Mr. Jefferson and his Secretary, Burril, attended.”

Attendance was not Jefferson’s only role. On December 10 John Hollins wrote to Jefferson about coming with Rev. Glendy to Washington. To this Jefferson replied with delight saying “I obtained the Speaker’s order for reserving the desk of the H. of R. for mr. Glendy on Sunday next, where many of us will be glad to see him…I will expect him to dine with me…” Jefferson then wrote to Senate chaplain McCormick, who, weekly alternating responsibilities with the House chaplain, jointly oversaw the services in the Capitol, to ask for Rev. John Glendy to preach there: “The liberality which I have seen practiced by the gentlemen, chaplains of Congress, in admitting others of their profession who happen here occasionally to perform the Sabbath day functions in the chamber of the H[ouse] of Representatives, induces me to ask that indulgence for the revd. Mr. Glendye, a Presbyterian clergyman from Baltimore who will be in this place next Sunday forenoon. Being acquainted with mr. Glendye, I can assure you that no person to whom that permission could be transferred, will be heard with more satisfaction than he would…could I be allowed so far to profit of your friendship as to ask your requesting this favor from mr. Lowry.”

“Lowry” as Jefferson spelled it above was Scotch Presbyterian Rev. James Laurie who was one of the chaplains in the House of Representatives from the end of 1804 to the end of 1806. That’s why his permission was needed, along with McCormick’s, for Glendy (whose name Jefferson also misspelled in this letter) to preach in the Capitol service (which he did on December 16). McCormick wrote back the same day that Laurie agreed to have Glendy speak, so Jefferson’s desire for Presbyterian Rev. John Glendy to preach at the Capitol service came to fruition. Congressman Cutler’s journal noted this on December 16: “Attended in the Hall. A Mr. Glendy, now settled in Baltimore, preached… but his adulation offered to the President disgusting.”

The modern idea that Jefferson  was some sort of atheist or that he wanted religion (Christianity) completely out of the public square does not square with the facts. For years, while in the White House, he regularly attended church (as noted even in just these examples) at the Sunday morning Christian worship services at the U.S. Capitol building.

*Note: Cutler was obviously not a fan of Jefferson’s and was often critical of him or of the supposed sycophants (even preachers) that loved the third president.

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