On May 16, 1816, Charles Thomson replied to Jefferson saying he was glad to hear of his extracts of the Gospels* and proof that he was a “real Christian, that is, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.” Thomson also told him of his habit every morning and sometimes at night of reading religious literature. Through Thomson, a dedicated Christian, others heard this news of Jefferson reportedly being a Christian and wrote to Jefferson with the assumption that this marked a change. On August 6, 1816, Jefferson replied to one of these, a Washington author Margaret Bayard Smith (also known as Mrs. Samuel Harrison Smith), saying: “…I recognize the same motives of goodness in the solicitude you express on the rumor supposed to proceed from a letter of mine to Charles Thomson, on the subject of the Christian religion. It is true that, in writing to the translator of the Bible and Testament, that subject was mentioned; but equally so that no adherence to any particular mode of Christianity was there expressed, nor any change of opinions suggested. A change from what? The [northern] priests indeed have heretofore thought proper to ascribe to me religious, or rather anti-religious sentiments, of their own fabric, but such as soothed their resentments against the act of Virginia for establishing religious freedom. They wished him to be thought atheist, deist, or devil, who could advocate freedom from their religious dictations.”
To understand that last sentence, the reader has to realize that he speaks of himself in the third person. Jefferson identified at this time with Christianity in general but no “particular mode” of it. Note also that Jefferson puts “deist” and “atheist” in the same category of “devil,” certainly none of which he felt was true of himself.
Jefferson continues (to Mrs. Smith), “But I have ever thought religion a concern purely between our God and our consciences, for which we were accountable to him, and not to the priests. I never told my own religion, nor scrutinized that of another. I never attempted to make a convert, nor wished to change another’s creed. I have ever judged of the religion of others by their lives, and by this test, my dear Madam, I have been satisfied yours must be an excellent one, to have produced a life of such exemplary virtue and correctness. For it is in our lives, and not from our words, that our religion must be read. By the same test the world must judge me. But this does not satisfy the priesthood. They must have a positive, a declared assent to all their interested absurdities…”
The New Testament certainly prioritizes deeds over words when it says, faith without works is dead (James 2:26) and that true religion is not mere talk but actions (1 John 3:18). In saying that he “never told my own religion,” he had done so with a variety of individuals in private, but he seemed to define what he meant by this statement in this letter by adding that he “never attempted to make a convert” to his views (similar to his letter to Rev. King in 1814). To Philadelphia publisher Matthew Carey on November 11, Jefferson wrote: “… On the dogmas of religion as distinguished from moral principles, all mankind, from the beginning of the world to this day, have been quarrelling, fighting, burning and torturing one another, for abstractions unintelligible to themselves and to all others, and absolutely beyond the comprehension of the human mind.”
The next day he wrote former Pennsylvania Senator George Logan, a Quaker and frequent correspondent, his general agreement with the need for religion and morals to influence national leaders. He wrote also saying: “…Christianity itself [is] divided into its thousands also, who are disputing, anathematizing and, where the laws permit, burning and torturing one another for abstractions which no one of them understand, and which are indeed beyond the comprehension of the human mind;…[but] The sum of all religion as expressed by it’s best preacher [i.e., Jesus], “fear God and love thy neighbor,” [and] contains no mystery, needs no explanation.”
On December 25, 1816, Jefferson wrote Philadelphia religious publisher Joseph Delaplaine, saying: “my religion…is known to my God and myself alone.” As already seen, this only makes sense if one realizes what has come before. Jefferson’s views were known to quite a few people with whom he was more intimate, and he attended church throughout his life. But Jefferson was now prone to give such answers to less intimate inquirers (see letter to King and to Mrs. Smith), to try and discourage discussion of his religion. This was true of both his heterodox beliefs as well as his recent statement that he was a Christian. He wished to avoid further communication on the subject with anyone.
*These were the teachings of Jesus that Jefferson laid out for the purpose of teaching the Indians the morality of Jesus Christ. They do contain some miracles of Christ, but their focus is on His teachings. We have written previous blogs (here and here) on this work—this so-called “Jefferson Bible,” which to our knowledge was never published in his lifetime.