The Myth of Thomas Jefferson the Lifelong Skeptic

Contrary to the notion that Thomas Jefferson was a lifelong skeptic, the reality is that our third president had many interactions with Christians and Christian leaders. He was a hero in his day among the evangelicals in Virginia because he championed religious freedom. Later in life, he developed some doubts about some core Christian doctrines, but these doubts were only shared on a private basis. Meanwhile, our book, DOUBTING THOMAS, shows that our third president went through religious phases—the first of which was, by all outward appearances, an orthodox (small o) Christian.

Here are some of Jefferson’s interactions with clergy when he was serving in the White House. On May 27, 1802, a Quaker from Delaware named William Canby wrote Jefferson and mentioned that he had “…attended with Dorothy Ripley, on her application for thy concurrence with her desire, to attempt the education of about 64 female black or colored Children…” Rev. Ripley was a British nondenominational/ Quaker missionary. Editors of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson say that they went with Secretary of State James Madison to “the President’s House, where they met with TJ on 5 May, with the goal of gaining TJ’s approval…” On page 67 of her memoir, entitled Extraordinary Conversion, Ripley recorded this meeting and reported that TJ wished her success…” She wrote that she said to Jefferson: “…I wish to have thy approbation before I move one step in the business [of abolitionism], understanding thou art a slave-holder. The President then rose from his seat, bowing his head and replying, ‘You have my approbation, and I wish you success, but I am afraid you will find it an arduous task to undertake.’ I said again, ‘Then I have thy approbation,’ to which he [i.e., Jefferson] rose and performed the same ceremony over, repeating nearly the same sentence he had already done…” Rev. Ripley also lodged with the Madisons while in Washington.

Ripley’s vision for a school never materialized due to lack of funds, but she later preached in the Capitol with Jefferson in attendance on January 12, 1806. Rev. Dorothy Ripley (1767-1832) was the first woman to speak in the Capitol and gave an evangelical, camp meeting style sermon on the voice of God. She later became an associate of Lorenzo Dow—the most famous national evangelist of the era. Opposition Congressman Rev. Cutler noted in his journal on December 12, 1802: “Attended worship in our Hall [i.e., House of Representatives]. Dr. Gant[t] preached, A.M. [morning service]; Mr. McCormick, P.M. [evening service]. Meetings very thin, but the President, his two daughters, and a grand-son, attended in the morning.” In his entry on December 26, Cutler said: “Attended at the Hall. A Mr. Hargrove, of Baltimore, a Swedenborgian, preached. Gave his creed in part; not very exceptionable. President attended, although a rainy day.

In the afternoon, attended at the Treasury. Heard a newly-imported Scotchman [Presbyterian James Laurie]—pretty good speaker.” Jefferson obtained a copy of John Hargrove’s sermon. His account book also shows him possessing a book called Swedenborg on the Soul that he orders to be bound for him. Cutler, although a critic of Jefferson, nonetheless shows in his diary Jefferson’s faithfulness to worship and also endorsement by his presence of the use of the Capitol building for worship, and his comfort with various denominations. Recapping the same information as above, Rev. Cutler wrote in another letter, January 3, 1803, to Joseph Torrey, that He [i.e., Jefferson] and his family have constantly attended public worship in the Hall [of the House of Representatives]. On the first Sabbath before the Chaplains were elected [i.e., December 12], and when few members had arrived, Dr. Gant[t] proposed, on Saturday, to preach the next day December 13, 1802, when the President, his daughter and grandson, and Mr. [Meriwether] Lewis, attended. On the third Sabbath [i.e., December 26], it was very rainy, but his ardent zeal brought him through the rain and on horseback to the Hall.

The details about Thomas Jefferson’s life do not support the notion that he was a skeptic. If he lost his faith, it was a later stage. Even in the last five years or so of his life, he began to go to church again when an Episcopal Church reopened up in Charlottesville.

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