Thomas Jefferson’s Religious Beliefs, Part II

Jefferson’s Own View of His Faith

Despite the accepted belief that he was, at best, a deist and, at worst, an infidel who would abolish all religious worship, Jefferson considered himself a Christian. In 1816, he wrote that he had fashioned a Philosophy of Jesus by cutting the texts of Christ’s teachings out of the Bible and arranging them in a blank book by time and subject (the “Jefferson Bible”). He called it “a document in proof that I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.” He later told a correspondent that, while he was a Christian, he was “of a sect by myself, as far as I know.” He wrote in 1803: “I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he [Jesus] wished anyone to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others….” His own independence of thought and his long research into the teachings of Christ (including research in the original Greek of the New Testament) had, he felt, made him into the type of Christian of which Jesus would have approved. The arrogance of mind demonstrated by appointing himself judge and jury of God’s revealed word apparently escaped his notice.

Jefferson and the Priests

In common with the European philosophes, he had a horror of priests and ministers as a whole, contending that they had perverted the meaning of Christianity, and declared once that “there would never have been an infidel if there had never been a priest.” He reserved particular venom for John Calvin, whom he felt had driven Christians apart, going so far as to refer to him as an atheist.

Jefferson’s Study of Christianity

Jefferson approached the study of Christianity with the tools of reason and investigation. Calvin’s “demoralizing dogmas” included the propositions that “reason in religion is of unlawful use” and that “faith is everything, and the more incomprehensible the proposition, the more merit in its faith.” Jefferson, like the other philosophes, did not admit the possibility of revelation as a source of religious knowledge. Truth could be found, but only through “reason and free inquiry…the only effectual agents.” In 1787, he described the best way to embark on a study of religion:

Divest yourself of all bias in favor of novelty and singularity. Indulge them in any other subject rather than that of religion. It is too important, & the consequences of error may be too serious. On the other hand shake off all the fears & servile prejudices under which weak minds are servilely crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear…Read the bible then, as you would read Livy or Tacitus. The facts which are within the ordinary course of nature you will believe on the authority of the writer, as you do those of the same kind in Livy & Tacitus. The testimony of the writer weighs in their favor in one scale, and their not being against the laws of nature does not weigh against them.  But those facts in the bible which contradict the laws of nature, must be examined with more care, and under a variety of faces. Here you must  recur to the pretensions of the writer to inspiration from god. Examine upon what evidence his pretensions are founded, and whether that evidence is so strong as that its falsehood would be more improbable than a change in the laws of nature in the case he relates. (Emphasis added)

Jefferson on Studying the New Testament

Jefferson then went on to describe the proper way to study the New Testament:

You will next read the new testament. It is the history of a personage called Jesus. Keep in your eye the opposite pretensions 1. of those who say he   was begotten by god, born of a virgin, suspended & reversed the laws of nature at will, & ascended bodily into heaven: and 2. of those who say he was a man of illegitimate birth, of a benevolent heart, enthusiastic mind, who set out without pretensions to dignity, ended in believing them, & was punished capitally for sedition by being gibbeted according to the Roman law which punished the first commission of that offence by whipping, & the second by exile or death… Keep your reason firmly on the watch in reading them all… In fine, I repeat that you must lay aside all prejudice on both sides, & neither believe nor reject anything because any other persons, or description of persons have rejected or believed it. Your own reason is the only oracle  given you by heaven, and you are answerable not for the rightness but uprightness of the decision. (Emphasis added)

That reason and investigation might prove inadequate to the study of Scripture, that reason had limits and faith did not, did not occur to him.

Jefferson’s View of the Bible

Jefferson did not accept the Bible as divinely inspired and believed that many errors in translation had been made and that the epistles, particularly those of Paul, were irrelevant to the true message of Christianity. It was necessary to cull “the grain from the chaff,” “the gold from the dross” in the Bible. The gospels were the best guide to the true spirit of Jesus, but they needed cleansing of the corruptions and mistakes added by Christ’s overenthusiastic and uneducated disciples. The corruptions centered around Jesus’ claim to divinity, the miracles ascribed to him, and the resurrection. These elements Jefferson omitted in his Jefferson Bible, concentrating instead on what he considered to be Jesus’ true message: the parables and the Sermon on the Mount.