The Billy Graham of Jefferson’s Day Endorsed Jefferson

Lorenzo Dow was the Billy Graham of Thomas Jefferson’s day. Rev. Dow thought of Jefferson as a champion of religious freedom and as an active Christian. Later in life, on a private basis, Jefferson harbored some serious doubts about core Christian doctrines.

Rev. Hugh White was another local minister who wrote to Jefferson on April 16, 1812. He was a neighbor of Jefferson with land in Charlottesville and Milton next to Monticello. He had been a Scottish Presbyterian minister until that year when he was ordained a Swedenborgian clergyman, meaning a Christian with non-Trinitarian heterodox theological views. This again shows the kind of theological dominance of these unorthodox movements that still claimed the Christian label in Jefferson’s hometown. Rev. White sent Jefferson one of his pamphlets to read, and Jefferson replied (referring to himself in the third person) on April 25, 1812, saying: “…The questions this presents are certainly difficult, and mr White has done what alone can be done, he has presented ingenious views of them. Th:J. has long ago abandoned them as insoluble by understandings limited as ours are…”

Another nationally-prominent clergyman moved into the area at this time. He was Rev. Lorenzo Dow. As seen previously, he had led a huge camp meeting near Monticello in 1804 and then apparently had met Jefferson in Washington in 1805 (when he delivered Rev. Fry’s letter and preached in the Capitol) and was the nation’s foremost itinerant evangelist of the time. Although he was constantly traveling throughout America, it is interesting to note that in 1812, this nondenominational camp meeting preacher settled briefly in Buckingham County, adjacent to Albemarle and also filled the pulpit temporarily for Preddy’s Creek Baptist Church in Albemarle County and served as an assistant to its pastor, John Goss. So for a time, he was weekly in Jefferson’s home county.

It is not known if Dow interacted with Jefferson directly while in the area, but Dow wrote on August 21, 1812 an influential political pamphlet in support of Jefferson, Madison, and Democratic-Republican principles. Dow’s pamphlet was called “Analects Upon Natural, Social, and Moral Philosophy,” and it grounded all human rights upon “the great and universal ‘Law of nature.’” Dow wrote boldly about the politics of church and state, saying that: “Jefferson, seeing the evil of law religion [i.e., state government-established, coercive religion], etc, had those barbarous laws…repealed…which compelled every man in the parish, be his sentiment what it might, to give his quota…for the Church Priest;…These things procured the epithet “infidel” for a mark of distinguishment;…From those circumstances arose the prejudice of the clergy of different societies who would be fond of a law religion, as the ground of their animosity and ambition against him…”

This perspective held by America’s most prominent evangelist about Jefferson as being falsely portrayed as an infidel is how evangelical people in most of America viewed him by this point in his life. Indeed, Dow had traveled throughout the country and preached to more people than anyone in his generation, but he especially expressed the religious and political views that dominated Jefferson’s Central Virginia Piedmont region that Dow now called home. There is no evidence of anyone there from his region, in his lifetime, among those who personally knew him longest and best, that thought of Jefferson as anything but a sincere believer and friend of all religious institutions on an equal basis.


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