Understanding the Context of Jefferson’s Home Territory

Clues to Jefferson’s faith context can be be found in part in the messy and scattered fragments of history left among the Piedmont religious communities at the time. They generally are not found on the Internet. Although there has been much research concerning Jefferson and religion, a variety of scholars have noted that there has yet to be written a sufficient account of the historical context. The local religious culture of the Central Virginia Piedmont, found beneath the surface of the readily-available writings and literature about Jefferson (and his friend and colleague James Madison) is not readily seen by many historians, yet it provides the largely forgotten foundation for much of what transpired in his life. Mark Beliles’ Ph.D. dissertation, Free As the Air: Churches and Politics in Jefferson’s Virginia, 1736-1836, is a recommended resource for studying this cultural context.

Sadly, Jefferson’s biographers tend to ignore the local and regional religious history (which was fervently evangelical), while exaggerating his few years in France and selective quotes later in life. This practice exaggerates the time of his life when he held more of a Unitarian position on the Trinity and the Person of Christ, and this has greatly shaped his modern image. Likewise the tendency of many religiously inclined historians, both liberal and conservative, have made the same historical errors as their secular colleagues when it comes to Jefferson. They have adopted a view of Jefferson that lacks the essential historical context of his religious community. However many respected scholars have begun to refute long-standing beliefs that exaggerate the role of Deism and secular Enlightenment thought in colonial America and they believe that America’s Christian culture was only of minor significance to the Revolution.

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