Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Reality of Thomas Jefferson's Spirituality

Thomas Jefferson

Revised and edited 8/17/12

I keep hearing people remark that many of the founding fathers were not Christian and some, Thomas Jefferson in particular, were atheist and that Christianity had no part in the creation of the United States. One only has to read Jefferson's own words to know that he was a Christian who believed in God and followed the teachings of Jesus Christ and to see how he influenced the founding of the nation based on his, and the other founding fathers, Christian beliefs.

Thomas Jefferson’s views were misunderstood or even somewhat disliked during his lifetime, he needed to change his Statute of Virginia for religious freedom in order for it to be passed, yet the Statute of Virginia was one of 3 items (the other two being the author of the Declaration of Independence and Father of the University of Virginia)  put on the epitaph on his tombstone (he did not want his presidency listed on his tombstone) indicating the importance he placed on it. “All persons shall have full and free liberty of religious opinion; nor shall any be compelled to frequent or maintain any religious institution.” 

Jefferson abhorred the mainstream, organized Christian religions of his day calling them "Romish Follies," and believed "He who follows this steadily need not, I think, be uneasy, although he cannot comprehend the subtleties and mysteries erected on his doctrines by those who, calling themselves his special followers and favorites.” He disagreed with portions of the Bible and creating his own Jefferson Bible entitled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. Because he shunned traditional religion and disregarded portions of the Bible is, perhaps, where a common misconception, that he was atheist or not Christian, stems from. But contrary to this belief, Jefferson was an active Christian.

Jefferson made donations to a number of different churches in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Charlottesville and he regularly attended church throughout his life. Evidence supports that he became a religious Unitarian Christian. While Jefferson never joined a specific Unitarian Church, as John Adams did, he was friendly with and frequently enjoyed attending Unitarian services with Unitarian Minister Joseph Priestley. In addition to Adams, Jefferson regularly corresponded with Unitarian church members Thomas Cooper, Jared Sparks, and Benjamin Waterhouse in regards to religion.

Though Jefferson was not a traditional Christian, he believed in and and followed the teachings (though not all, but can you find even one person who follows all the teachings in the Bible?) of Christ “Of all the systems of morality, ancient or modern, which have come under my observation, none appear to me so pure as that of Jesus."

He defends being Christian: "To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; & believing he never claimed any other.”and that his bible was "proof that I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus, very different from the Platonists, who call me infidel and themselves Christians and preachers of the gospel.” It is not for me to argue with Thomas Jefferson his beliefs and to evaluate how 'good' a Christian he was, he was a Christian.

Adams and Jefferson
Jefferson and John Adams were friends and it was Adams who persuaded the committee to have Jefferson pen the declaration.  The Declaration of Independence went through many incarnations.  It was determined that a preamble, stating the reasoning for the declaration, was needed and this was penned by John Adams and includes the phrase: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  It is likely throughout the penning process of both the preamble and the Declaration that Jefferson and Adams would have had discussions and it is probable that Jefferson would have influenced Adams famous line of the preamble as Jefferson had stated previously in 1774: “The God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time; the hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them.”  Both Adams and Jefferson signed the Declaration showing agreement with the content.  

Jefferson placed high importance on religious freedom most likely because he did not subscribe to the common religious beliefs of his day.  He was a religious man, a Christian, who believed in God and in Christ and believed that government should not interfere in the way one worshipped.  Proof of this lies in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association,“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and State.” Jefferson later reiterated “Religion... a matter between every man and his Maker in which no other, and far less the public, had a right to intermeddle and in.He believed this so fervently that Jefferson convinced James Madison to write the Amendments/Bill of Rights to the Constitution and in particular the First Amendment which states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" to protect religious freedom, not stifle it.

Jefferson was a Christian and his Christianity, although not considered traditional by many, and the Christian beliefs of the people and of the founders is what this nation was built on.  Their Christian values, Jefferson's inparticularly, and their belief and faith in God and the desire for relgious freedom that is seen throughout our founding documents, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitiution and the Bill of Rights.

1 comment:

  1. Great post, L! I especially like your conclusion. "Phooey!"