Thomas Jefferson’s Religious Beliefs, Part IV

Jefferson’s View of Jesus

After a careful study of the New Testament and the writing of his Syllabus, Jefferson concluded that Jesus Christ was, quite simply, the greatest of all moral teachers. Jefferson sent a copy of the Syllabus to Dr. Rush, writing that he believed that Jesus Christ had possessed “every human excellence” and “believing that he never claimed any other.” He was convinced that Jesus had never considered himself to be divine; the notion of his divinity lay in the “fictions of his pseudo-followers, which have exposed him to the inference of being an imposter.” Jefferson wished to rescue Jesus from the charge of imposter, but he unfortunately opened the door to a charge that Jesus Christ was deluded as to his real nature by the wishful thinking of the Jews. If Christ were so deluded, then he could at best be described charitably as a madman, rather than a great moral teacher – the “reasonable” conclusion of Jefferson’s own thinking, and one which he never intended.

To show the true character and lack of divinity of Jesus Christ could only prove beneficial, and this task Jefferson set for himself, so that Christians would not continue to be misled by lies:

“The establishment of the innocent and genuine character of this benevolent moralist, and the rescuing it from the imputation of imposture, which has resulted from artificial systems*, invented by ultra-Christian sects, unauthorized by a single word ever uttered by him, is a most desirable object…It would in time, it is to be hoped, effect a quiet euthanasia of the heresies of bigotry and fanaticism which have so long triumphed over human reason, and so generally and deeply afflicted mankind….

“*e.g. The immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity; original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of Hierarchy, &c.”

In a heated reply to Adams’ teasing hope that Jefferson should become as perfect a Calvinist as he was, Jefferson retorted:

“The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. But we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with all this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this the most venerated reformer of human errors.”

Christians who believed that salvation lay in faith in Jesus’ divine origins “distorted, deformed and abused the holy doctrines of their Master” and argued that only their interpretation was correct had “made of Christendom a slaughter-house through so many ages.”

Jefferson and the Divinity of Christ

Jefferson also disavowed the divinity of Christ because he had a deep-seated belief in the existence of a personal God who still took an active hand in His creation (the view of the theists, rather than the notion of the deists that God, although once active, had become a distant and impartial observer of His creation). The idea that Jesus was in some way the equal of the God in whom Jefferson devoutly believed was anathema to him, and he believed that it would have been so to Jesus himself (conveniently overlooking “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life; no one comes to the Father except through Me” – John).