Thomas Jefferson’s Religious Beliefs, Part III

Jefferson and Original Sin

Jefferson rejected the traditional idea of original sin, believing instead that mankind was basically good and was constantly journeying towards perfection. To John Adams, he wrote, “I think with you that it is a good world on the whole, that it has been framed on a principle of benevolence…” Writing to DuPont de Nemours: “I believe with you that morality, compassion, generosity are innate elements of the human constitution…that justice is the fundamental law of society.” He admitted that evil excesses existed among men but told Adams that a look at the past few centuries demonstrated that the human race was outgrowing its brutish immorality and progressing towards a more enlightened and gentler future. By the end of his life, even Jefferson had to admit that his views on human progress had been too optimistic: “I fear, from the experience of the last twenty-five years, that morals do not of necessity advance hand in hand with the sciences.”

Social evils caused most of the evil that individuals perpetrated; true evil in man was a rare foible, which could eventually be eradicated by improved education and better government. A great deal of misery had been caused by “morally deformed” leaders; France was “loaded with so much misery” because of her “kings, nobles, and priests.” He also blamed the priests and the church for many social ills:

“His [Christ’s] principles were early departed from by those who professed to be his special servants, and perverted into an engine for enslaving mankind…that the purest system of morals ever before preached to man, has been adulterated and sophisticated by artificial constructions, into a mere contrivance to filch wealth and power to themselves.”

Very few traces of any belief in the Christian idea of sin can be found in Jefferson’s writings. In a literary notebook, he copied down a passage from Milton’s Paradise Lost – “But ever to do Ill our sole Delight” – but most of his writings are more optimistic. Despite setbacks such as the barbarism of the French Revolution (which saddened him greatly), he remained optimistic that man could improve, could go back to the Garden of Eden.

Most philosophers of his time considered the account of man’s fall in Genesis to be a fable or allegory; the Garden of Eden was considered to have been the time of Rousseau’s “noble savage,” a return to which impossibly idyllic time was devoutly desired by the philosophes. Another school of thought held the Garden of Eden story to mean that man was basically good but, being human, subject to the temptations of evil. Jefferson rejected the brutal Calvinistic notion of man’s essential depravity, cornerstone of Luther’s and Calvin’s “pristine Christianity,” in favor of a theory which gave him more hope for the future.

If man was basically good, if original sin could be explained away as a moral disease rather than a fundamental human condition, if the fall from God’s grace in the Garden of Eden stood as no more than an allegory, then surely no need for the death upon the cross ever existed. Whatever Jesus died for (Jefferson characterized his death as a political martyrdom), it was not for the salvation of mankind. This lack of belief alone casts a shadow on Jefferson’s self-professed Christianity, since the work of Jesus Christ centered around the redemption carried forth on the cross, and it is this that sets Christ apart from all other moral teachers. But, even had he believed in the existence of original sin, reason would have forced Jefferson to reject the meaning of the crucifixion; whatever Jesus Christ was, he was not God. Elements of divinity – the virgin birth, the miracles (except for four which could have a natural cause), and the Resurrection – were all carefully excluded from his Bible.