Any fair reading of the faith of Thomas Jefferson should take in all sides of the story. When we examine Jefferson and the Bible, we see that he was overall a student of the Scriptures. We also see that he had bought into the philosophy, prevalent in Unitarian circles (and even some of the Restoration circles, popular in his area of Virginia in that day), that the Bible we have is corrupted. One of the leaders of the Restoration church movement was Alexander Campbell. He was anti-Trinitarian and anti-Calvinist and 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 alleged flaws and perversions. Campbell, however, is still treated today by the evangelical world as a legitimate Christian in American history. But Jefferson has not been treated with the same deference as Campbell. We believe they should be treated the same, but perhaps Jefferson with more grace since he was not trained in theology.
Jefferson felt that, despite such (alleged) corruptions, the morality of Jesus was the finest the world has ever seen. So, without getting into any metaphysical debates or issues, he wanted to focus his personal study on a digest of “the philosophy of Jesus.” Initially he did so in 1804 in an edition that he said, in his subtitle, was for the use of the Indians.
Later in 1819 or 1820, for his own use he enlarged it about a third more and called it “the Life and Morals of Jesus.” This one included columns with the Greek, Latin, and French versions, as well as the King James Version of these various sayings of Jesus. Not all the miracles of Jesus were deleted from either version, however.
The skeptics of today who try to drive the Bible completely out of our schools today and out of the public arena often hide behind Jefferson to do their dirty work. I would love to see those same skeptics become regular readers of the moral teachings of Jesus that Jefferson was. Some reports indicated he studied Jesus and His teachings all the time, virtually every day. I cannot imagine that being the case among the atheist-type groups constantly suing to keep knowledge of the Good Book from impacting society today.
Thomas Jefferson said, “Of all the systems of morality, ancient or modern, which have come under my observation, not appear to me so pure as that of Jesus.” (To William Canby, September 18, 1813). So although Jefferson had an unorthodox approach to the Gospels, it is still a matter of public record that he greatly appreciated the teachings of Jesus Christ.