Those who knew Jefferson personally tended to believe that he was a professing Christian. That does not preclude the fact that in the 1810’s and beyond (after he was president), he entertained privately some serious doubts about core Christian doctrines. Suffice it to say: it is not tenable to say that Thomas Jefferson was a lifelong skeptic. Doubting Thomas, I believe, provides ample evidence for this point.
In 1802, Rev. Jeremiah Moore started the first Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. and then one in Alexandria, Virginia, in 1803, and The Papers of Thomas Jefferson editors confirm that “He was one…to which TJ contributed $50 [on February 20] in 1805.” Although the earlier connections to Baptists were known generally, it is only at this later period that there is documented proof that Jefferson knew Moore and John Leland personally.
And Jefferson replied to his evangelical Presbyterian friend Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia on September 23, 1800, saying: “…I promised you a letter on Christianity…; I have a view of the subject which ought to displease neither the rational Christian nor Deists…; I do not know that it would reconcile…the irritable tribe of [northeastern Federalist] priests who are all in arms against me. Their hostility is on too interested ground to be softened;…the clause of the constitution, which…covered…the freedom of religion, had given to the [northeastern Federalist] clergy a very favorite hope of obtaining an establishment of a particular form of Christianity thro’ the U.S.;…especially the Episcopalians & Congregationalists. The returning good sense of our country threatens abortion to their hopes, & they believe that any position of power confided to me will be exerted in opposition to their schemes, and they believe rightly for I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man…”
This was not a rejection of all clergy or of the Christian faith. Jefferson biographer Merrill Peterson stated it correctly when he wrote that “unlike the anti-clericalism of the Old World, his hatred of establishments and priesthoods did not involve him in hatred of religion. He wished for himself, for all his countrymen, not freedom from religion but freedom to pursue religion…” This was also Jefferson’s very first mention of Deists and it seemed to portray them objectively separate from himself, rather than identifying himself as being one. In fact, he never said he was one his whole life, not even in private letters later to his most trusted confidants to whom he was freely revealing his spiritual beliefs and identity, and where he would be expected to say he was a Deist if he really was one. But, incredibly, today many commentators say he was.
A Presbyterian clergyman in Baltimore, Rev. Samuel Knox, wrote a defense of Jefferson’s faith at that time, entitled “A Vindication of the Religion of Mr. Jefferson.” Jefferson would later offer him the first professorship at his University in Charlottesville. Knox was a strong opponent of Unitarian Joseph Priestley, and yet united in the Jeffersonian Republican cause.
Meanwhile, local clergy in Charlottesville and other parts of Virginia never knew Jefferson to be anything but a regular Episcopal church member. On November 24, 1800, he records in his account book that he gave “Revd. M[atthew] Maury for 15.Dollars [for] last year’s subscription” to his home church.