Thomas Jefferson’s Religious Beliefs, Part V

Jefferson and the Trinity

Jefferson referred to belief in the existence of the Trinity as “an unintelligible proposition of Platonic mysticisms that three are one, and one is three; and yet one is not three, and the three are not one.” He refused to stand as godfather for a friend’s child because he would have to recite in public a belief in the Trinity, the “hocus-pocus phantasm of a God like another Cerberus, with one body and three heads.” He blamed the entire notion of the Trinity on an interpretation of “Plato’s foggy notions” (Augustine and Constantine both quoted Plato as the source of their belief that God had been incarnate in Christ). He adopted Priestley’s explanation of Logos in a letter to Adams in which he reinterpreted the beginning of the Gospel of John. He translated Logos, Greek for Word, as “mind”: Christians, he contended, had corrupted the word to mean a second person:

“Knowing how incomprehensible it was that ‘a word,’ the mere action or articulation of the voice and organs of speech could create a world, they undertake to make of this articulation a second preexisting being, and ascribe to him, and not to God, the creation of the universe.”

Jefferson researched early Church history from his library, searching for the beginning of the belief in the existence of the Trinity, and finally wrote that “The Trinity is nowhere expressly declared by any of the earliest fathers, and was never affirmed or taught by the Church before the Council of Nice [sic]” (325). He held the belief in the Trinity to be as divisive a force as Jesus’ so-called divinity:

“When we shall have done away [with] the incomprehensible jargon of the Trinitarian arithmetic, that three are one, and one is three; when we shall have knocked down the artificial scaffolding, reared to mask from view the simple structure of Jesus; when, in short, we shall have unlearned everything which has been taught since his day, and got back to the pure and simple doctrines he inculcated, we shall then be truly and worthily his disciples; and my opinion is that if nothing had ever been added to what flowed purely from his lips, the whole world would at this day have been Christian.”

He spent a good deal of time attacking the divinity of Christ and the impossibility of any place for him in a so-called Trinity; rarely, if ever, did he mention the Holy Ghost, the third person in the Trinity.


In summary, Jefferson based his Christianity in his belief that the moral systems urged by Jesus Christ on the human race were superior to all others. Jesus Christ was the greatest of all moral reformers, but he was not divine in origin and was certainly not the equal of God the Creator. Jefferson’s Christianity remained consistent within itself. Denial of Christ’s divinity led, in a domino effect, to denial of the existence of the Trinity, denial of the supernatural elements in the Gospels, denial of the efficacy of the redemptive work on the cross, and then to denial of any need for redemption, i.e., original sin. He made his rational view of mankind consistent with his denial of original sin by labeling man’s evil as the result of social ills and poor government.

That Jefferson was a theist, professing faith in an active God who still took part in the universe, cannot be contested. He wrote too often and too warmly on his faith in God to doubt his word. His relationship with God through his nightly devotions removes him from the category of the deists, whose God was more remote. But he was not a Christian. In demoting Jesus Christ to the position of the greatest of human reformers, Jefferson robbed Christianity of its uniqueness. Other religions throughout history have had great moral teachers, and many of them have advocated the same behavior and lifestyle that Jesus Christ urged upon those who would truly be his followers. The unique message of Christ lay in that he was the Son of God, that his death was more than a political martyrdom, that he offered a means for man to overcome his fundamentally sinful condition. Jefferson called himself a Christian because he admired Jesus’ moral teachings, but he did not consider Jesus unique. He could have easily substituted virtually any other moral teacher for Jesus, and it would have made no difference in his life. The great message of Jesus Christ was that he did make a difference. For those reasons, it becomes necessary to conclude that Thomas Jefferson was mistaken about his own beliefs – that he was indeed not a Christian.