The Christian Environment in Which Jefferson Lived

In Jefferson’s day, when he was in the White House, there were many camp meetings in his Albemarle County and the surrounding area. These were “revivals” of evangelical religion The chief organizer of these camp meeting revivals in Central Virginia was Methodist Rev. Henry Fry. Jefferson and Fry knew each other going back to serving together on the Anglican vestry and in the legislature in the 1760s. But it was in this new season of grief that Jefferson’s friendship with him becomes more evident because of a letter Jefferson wrote to Rev. Fry on May 21, 1804, saying: “…When I had the pleasure of seeing you at your own house you expressed a wish to see Priestley’s Corruptions of Christianity. But the morning I passed you…meeting with mr. [Rev. Matthew] Maury in the road I was glad to leave them with him to be presented to you in my behalf…” Obviously, Jefferson and Rev. Fry had met in his home and discussed religion recently, and it led to the topic of alleged corruptions of Christianity.

Rev. Fry replied on June 9, and Jefferson wrote again on June 17, speaking of “priestcraft and…kingcraft constituting a conspiracy of church and state against the civil and religious liberties of mankind.” When he condemned priestcraft and the conspiracy of church and state, his anti-clericalism here was obviously narrow, since Rev. Fry was himself a minister, political activist, and ally. The context shows that it was a reference to Europe’s type of state government-established religious system that Virginia had thrown off with the help of evangelical clergy allies like Rev. Fry who had served in the legislature on the Committee on Religion in 1785-1786 that passed the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. This critique of the state-church system was something that Jefferson and these revivalist preachers held in common. Modern commentators too often ignore or fail to understand who Fry was and the context of this statement.

Rev. Fry responded on February 26, 1805 by suggesting a more orthodox writer than Priestley for Jefferson’s study of historical theology and the letter also introduced to Jefferson “The bearer Lorenzo Dow…” Dow, who has been dubbed the Billy Graham of that day, apparently met the president and recorded in his journal later that he was “invited to preach in Congress-Hall before the House.” With Jefferson likely in attendance, he spoke from Proverbs 14:34 in the Bible: “Righteousness exalteth a nation; but sin is a shame to any people.”

Historian Jon Butler notes that after this Dow “regularly carried letters on his travels from political officials, especially Jeffersonian Republicans like James Madison.” Correspondence of Jefferson with groups of Baptists from Delaware and Connecticut respectively has already been noted. Another group of Baptists wrote the President in late 1803 from the towns of Portsmouth and Norfolk in Virginia. Then in January of 1804 Jefferson replied to them saying he believed in: “…the genuine spirit of their primitive Christianity, which so peculiarly inculcated the doctrines of peace, justice, and good will to all mankind.”

Later in his life, Jefferson did begin to doubt (privately) some of the core Christian doctrines. Nonetheless, the kind of interaction between Thomas Jefferson and evangelicals in his day (described above) disprove the myth that Jefferson was a lifelong skeptic. They also disprove the myth that he wanted to see religion (Christianity) have no influence on the government.


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