Was Jefferson a Christian?

Thomas Jefferson was a complicated man. He was an outspoken champion of freedom and opponent of slavery, yet he owned slaves virtually all his life and never freed them, not even upon death. Samuel Johnson

Around the time of the American Revolution, Dr. Samuel Johnson in England asked a penetrating question. “How is that the loudest YELPS for LIBERTY come from the drivers of Negroes?”[i]

Thomas Jefferson was also a complicated man when it comes to religion. He wasn’t always consistent. But there are some definite traceable patterns. The purpose of this final chapter is to review the overall thrust of what we have seen and then to make recommendations based on the conclusions of our study.


The authors of this book differ on how we might answer that question. However, we would both agree that ultimately only God knows. We would also agree that some of Jefferson’s religious perspectives, views he tried to keep private, perspectives he especially embraced later in life—are not commendable from a biblical perspective. If God’s Word has revealed that He is indeed triune, then who is any one, no matter how esteemed in this world, to reject that? Who is anyone to subtract from the Word of God and declare this is inspired and this is not? The true Christian can’t approach his faith cafeteria style. The Bible even warns us, “It’s a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10).

It is a matter of public record—not well known today—that Thomas Jefferson was a lot more involved in Christian ways than we realize. Let’s just review of these things:

∙Jefferson was a believer in Christian education. He received his education at the hands of Christians, and he paid for his children and grandchildren to receive such an education.

∙All his life, when it was available, he attended Christian worship services. He was a member in good standing at Trinitarian congregations and a regular worshiper. He was a lifelong Episcopalian. But even when such a church was not in close proximity, he worshiped among other Christian groups, which were also Trinitarian.

∙While president, he not allowed for regular Christian worship every Sunday at the U.S. Capitol, he often attended such services. On occasion, he even recommended a preacher to the Congressional chaplains, whose responsibility it was to fill that pulpit. Jefferson did not see Christian worship at the U.S. Capitol or at the Treasury or other government buildings as the violation of “the separation of church and state”—a phrase which comes from him directly.

∙He was a very active giver to Christian causes. This was a pattern throughout his life, even in the last phase, which was the least orthodox of his earthly sojourn. Per capita, Jefferson probably gave more than today’s average Christian. He kept meticulous record of his expenditures in his account book, and we find repeated donations to Christian churches and causes. While there may have been occasional donations to Unitarian churches, the vast majority of the beneficiaries of his generosity were Trinitarian causes.

∙As a young man, around the time that he wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom—major contributions to human and religious rights, Jefferson served as a vestryman (like an elder/deacon rolled into one) for the Episcopal Church.

∙Also, around this same time, in 1777, he wrote up the charter for a Christian church with an evangelical preacher, the Rev. Charles Clay—with whom he had a lifelong friendship—and Jefferson was the biggest single contributor to this fledgling congregation.

∙Jefferson was a lifelong reader of the Bible. He had some serious problems with some of it, especially after coming under the influence of Unitarian Rev. Joseph Priestley of England, who settled in Philadelphia. Priestley believed that the original Christian revelation was pure and of divine origin but had been corrupted early on. The problem rests with how early such alleged corruption took place—among the apostles themselves. Jefferson eventually adopted a pick-and-choose approach to the Holy Scriptures. No true Christian can agree with this approach. We should realize that Jefferson mistakenly thought he (and Priestley) were correct in this approach. But more importantly, in today’s highly secular age, where secularists will sue at any hint of Christianity in the public arena—in a sense in the name of Thomas Jefferson (and James Madison)—Jefferson (and Madison for that matter) was a major fan of major portions of the Bible. Jefferson arrayed for his own edification major portions of the teachings of Jesus, which he studied in English, in the original Greek, in Latin, and in French. Read for yourself the 1804 version of Jefferson’s digest (the so-called “Jefferson Bible.” Would a student be able to read such statements aloud in school today? No. Yet these are words that Jefferson pored over repeatedly.

∙Along these lines, we should realize that the third president had nothing but the highest praise for Jesus’ moral teaching, which he thought was the best in the whole world.

[i] Paul Johnson, A History of the American People (New York: HarperCollinsPublishers, 1997),  72.

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