The “Christian” Source of Jefferson’s Later Anti-Trinity Views?

Here is a portion of the book by Dr. Mark Beliles and Jerry Newcombe on faith (or lack thereof, later in life) of Thomas Jefferson. The book is DOUBTING THOMAS, and it makes 2 overall points: 1) Jefferson was not a lifelong skeptic, and 2) Jefferson did not believe in “the naked public square”—the idea that religion (Christianity) should have no influence in public. The overall thrust of the following passage is that as Jefferson began the third major phase—and the most anti-Christian phase of his life, religiously—he was far more influenced by some non-denominational professing Christians of his day who questioned the historic doctrine of the Trinity. This short passage comes from the chapter called “Thomas Jefferson’s Religious Life, 1813-1820.” It begins with this quote: “We should all then, like the Quakers, live without an order of priests, moralize for ourselves, follow the oracle of conscience, and say nothing about what no man can understand, nor therefore believe….[i.e.,] in the Platonic mysticism that three are one and one is three…” —Thomas Jefferson, 1814. For the record, Beliles and Newcombe are devout Trinitarians and believe that our third president was clearly in error on this point. Clearly.

The fourth phase of Jefferson’s religious life commences in 1813 when he expresses for the first time his clear rejection of Trinitarian doctrine. He does it in a private letter to John Adams. But to understand it correctly it is essential to first look at the local religious landscape. The Context of Charlottesville’s Religious Culture In Jefferson’s Central Virginia Piedmont, James O’Kelly’s Christian Churches (first known as Republican Methodists) emerged first in the 1790s—the earliest Restoration movement in America—and then came followers of Kentucky camp-meeting leader Presbyterian Barton W. Stone at the turn of the century.

Stone’s followers also become very strong in Jefferson’s area. A similar movement emerged in New England led by former Congregationalist Elias Smith and in Pennsylvania led by former Presbyterian Alexander Campbell. Campbell’s churches eventually became known as the Disciples of Christ, and Albemarle and Orange Counties (where Jefferson grew up and then lived) eventually became one of Campbell’s strongest areas in Virginia. In 1810 O’Kelly’s group met at the Pine Stake Church in Orange County and decided to henceforth call themselves the “Independent Christian Baptist Church.” And a year later in 1811 the northern and southern Restoration movements met together in Orange County adjacent to Jefferson’s Albemarle and created the national “Christian Connection.” Elias Smith was at that meeting and became its national spokesman. He then preached about 30 times in the Piedmont and valley of Virginia and published news of the national movement in his Herald of Gospel Liberty newspaper.

The most important thing to note is that all these leaders were non-Trinitarian, anti-creedal, and anti-Calvinist, and they were the dominant religious influence in Jefferson’s part of Virginia. The next year, 1812, Elias Smith published his New Testament Dictionary containing his Unitarian beliefs. It said: “In all the glorious things said of Christ, there is no mention of his divinity, his being God-man, his incarnation, the human and divine nature, the human soul of Christ, his being God the Creator, and yet the Son of the Creator; these things are the inventions of men, and ought to be rejected.” Thomas H. Olbricht, in Christian Connexion and Unitarian Relations 1800-1844, explains the movement as “a Biblically oriented anti-Calvinism” and adds: “Because of anti-Calvinism, however, one is not to suppose that the early members of the Christian Connexion felt a kindred spirit with the Arminian Congregationalists. The gap between the two was a wide one, for the Christians emphasized revivalism, experiential conversion, baptism by immersion and had an uneducated ministry…The Christians are a sort of Unitarian Methodist, having the theology of the elder [i.e., European] Unitarians without their culture, and the heat and fervor, the camp-meeting usages, and emotional feelings of the Methodists, without their ecclesiastical system of opinions.

All of these groups preferred just calling themselves “Christians” and felt very different from the New England rationalist Unitarians (identified above as the “Arminian Congregationalists”), even though both rejected the Trinity. A major reason no traditional church denominations existed in the second decade of the 19th century in Charlottesville was because their members went to these new non-denominational gatherings. Since Jefferson was living there at the time, it is likely that he became aware of these trends if he was not already. Indeed some of Jefferson’s first overt expressions of unorthodox religious opinions now emerged, but they were no different from what most of the evangelical clergy in his area were already saying. In fact, the writings of some  religious leaders in the Piedmont at this time were far more harsh (against certain doctrines, clergy, etc.) than any of Jefferson’s writings. Jefferson’s religion for the rest of his life cannot be properly understood apart from this context of non-denominational, non-creedal, non-Trinitarian and anti-Calvinist, anti-clerical movement that he now found predominant in his home town. Many in the movement were strongly anti-Trinitarian, but the highest value was unity and this meant they attempted (but failed) to be inclusive of both views by requiring adherence to no one view.

The fact that Jefferson did not speak clearly against the Trinity until these churches were prevalent is often overlooked by most biographers and erases the entire context for understanding him accurately. One of the few to mention it at all is Edwin Gaustad’s biography of Jefferson which says that his statements about this time have “language remarkably similar to that of [Alexander] Campbell.” Campbell said that he wanted to save “the Holy Scriptures from the perplexities of the commentators and system-makers of the dark ages” and therefore (similar to Jefferson), published his own edition of the New Testament in 1826 to correct the perceived textual flaws and corruptions. And Gaustad noted that “…Barton Stone could have…provided a most suitable preface” to Jefferson’s abridgement of the New Testament.

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