Some Pro-Christian Actions by Virginia Gov. Thomas Jefferson

When Thomas Jefferson was governor of Virginia, his personal faith was evident through his continuing support of Rev. Clay and the Calvinistical Reformed Church. On August 15, 1779, he recorded in his account book that he “Paid Rev. Charles Clay in consideration of parochial [i.e., church-related] services.” And on the same day, Jefferson drafted a public Testimonial for Rev. Charles Clay which said: “The reverend Charles Clay has been many years rector of this parish, and has been particularly known to me…[H]is deportment has been exemplary…” This testimonial seems to indicate that Clay’s role in St. Anne’s parish was never going to be an option for him again, so this document gave Clay help if he sought other opportunities. But Clay continued to minister in Charlottesville for at least three more years. Jefferson’s endorsement letter mentioned that besides his religious work, Clay also was politically active. He was a magistrate on the Albemarle County Court from 1771-1783, and his political leadership prompted contemporary historian Hugh Blair Grigsby to assert that Clay’s merit was even greater than that of Presbyterian Samuel Davies.

Jefferson’s friendly relationship with orthodox Christian clergy was not limited to his own pastor. The main leader of Presbyterian clergy in Virginia, Rev. Samuel Stanhope Smith, wrote to Jefferson in March and April 1779, proposing “a coalition of the principal religious sects” to provide nonsectarian religious instruction in the public schools. Smith then offered his “influence on one of the parties,” saying “my utmost exertions shall be at your service.” Smith was head of Hampden-Sydney College and apparently already knew Jefferson from earlier lobbying, hence, his freedom to propose an alliance for the purpose of pushing religious freedom in the legislature.

Smith began to rise in political influence earlier in April 1777 when he drafted a “Remonstrance Against a General Assessment” for the Hanover Presbytery. But before Smith was able to organize this interdenominational Christian “coalition” in opposition to a state church, he was called back to the College of New Jersey (Princeton) in 1779 (retaining some ministry in Virginia up to 1782). It is important to notice that Jefferson wrote to Rev. Smith in early April 1779. This letter is missing today, but Smith’s reply on April 19 mentions it approvingly. Later when Jefferson was president, he also made a donation to Rev. Smith and the College at Princeton, of which he served as president.

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