Was Jefferson a “Confirmed Deist”?

Some people today like to think that Jefferson was basically just an atheistic-type product of the Enlightenment. Doubting Thomas shows that that is not true—nor was he orthodox in his private writing later in life.

Having concluded that a secular Enlightenment or Deism were not the origin of many things in American religious history, the alternative view presented by R. J. Rushdoony is that “American…waywardness must be read in terms of Arminianism, not in terms of the Enlightenment.” In reality, the source of much of Jefferson’s unorthodoxy was the American revivalism and restoration movements of the early 19th century. Jefferson’s waywardness simply parallels the church in the Piedmont (and perhaps in America). This is an uncomfortable truth for many Evangelical historians, but one which, if embraced will at least lead to a more accurate understanding of America’s religious history.

While it would be incorrect to argue that outside cultural, theological, and philosophical forces (including influences that were non-Christian, deistic, and Unitarian) had no impact on men such as Jefferson and Madison, it would be equally, if not more, misleading to emphasize these influences while ignoring the impact of the religious communities of the Central Virginia Piedmont where they spent most of their lives. For example, the Library of Congress’ James Hutson based his analysis of the early period of Jefferson’s life on secondary sources that fail to provide this history, and therefore concluded that Thomas Jefferson “in the 1770s and 1780s…was, at this stage of his life, a confirmed deist.”[1] But his view of Jefferson changes when he examines primary sources while Jefferson was President. If Jefferson himself publicly and voluntarily identified with the Calvinistical Reformed Church and Evangelical ministers such as Charles Clay, or said that it was the Baptists of Albemarle County who understood him “best,” then scholarly research and discussion must address this important source of influence and perspective.[2]

[1]   Hutson, 73, 84.

[2]  The praise of Jefferson by the Baptists in central Virginia was also true of every other sect in the area. Despite the strong support of many clergymen and religious communities in America, the attacks of clergymen against Jefferson are unfortunately emphasized by modern biographers today. The earliest biographers of Jefferson and Madison, who themselves lived in the Piedmont, had a different perspective. Henry Randall portrayed Jefferson as a committed churchman rather than standing outside the religious culture of the day. Likewise did the earliest Madison biographer, William Cabell Rives (who lived in the same area as Madison during the last 16 years of Madison’s life). See Rives, 602-603.

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