Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), the author of the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the third President of the United States, was a deist. Some of his earliest writings earned a place for him in the hearts of historians as “the major penman of the American Revolution” (Ketcham, 4:259). His philosophical and religious views undergird his writings but are not generally made explicit, except in his letters. Chiefly from these letters can his deism be clearly discovered.
Jefferson’s religious views are reflected in his abridgment of the Gospels, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (1803). In an 1816 reference to it he called it “a paradigm of his doctrines, made by cutting the texts out of the book, and arranging them on the pages of a blank book, in a certain order of time or subject. . . . A more beautiful morsel of ethics I have never seen.” The fifty-seventh Congress evidently agreed, ordering an edition published in 1904.
The Jeffersonian Worldview
God and the World.
Jefferson believed that there is one God, the Creator, Sustainer, and Manager of the universe. He held that this God is infinitely wise, good, righteous, and powerful. Influenced by Isaac Newton, Jefferson understood the world to be harmonious, under the rule of natural law, and open to human investigation. God created it that way. That all this is true is clear from the design of the universe:
I hold (without revelation) that when we take a view of the universe, in its parts, general or particular, it is impossible for the human mind not to perceive and feel a conviction of design, consummate skill, and indefinite power in every atom of its composition. The movements of the heavenly bodies, so exactly held in their course by the balance of centrifugal and centripetal forces; the structure of the earth itself, with its distribution of lands, waters and atmosphere; animal and vegetable bodies, examined in all their minutest particular; insects, mere atoms of life, yet as perfectly organized as man or mammoth; the mineral substances, their generation and uses; it is impossible, I say, for the human mind not to believe that there is in all this design, cause and effect up to an ultimate cause, a Fabricator of all things from matter and motion, their Preserver and Regulator. [Foote, 10]
Miracles. Jefferson also maintained that God had never broken into history through supernatural miracles or revelation. Such accounts to the contrary were fabrications, superstition, or fanaticism (Fesperman, 81).
Jefferson emphatically rejected the virgin birth of Christ. “The day will come,” he said, “when the account of the birth of Christ as accepted in the trinitarian churches will be classified with the fable of Minerva springing from the brain of Jupiter” (Foote, 49).
He also cut the resurrection from his supernatural-sanitized “Bible,” ending it: “Then took they the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury. Now, in the place where he was crucified, there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulcher, wherein was never man yet laid. There laid they Jesus, and rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulcher, and departed” (Life and Morals, 132).
Obviously Jefferson regarded the Gospels as distortions wherever they intimated supernatural action by God. He charged the writers with “forgetting often, or not understanding, what had fallen from Him, by giving their own misconceptions as His dicta, and expressing unintelligibly for others what they had not understood themselves” (ibid., vii). Jesus’ teachings had been rendered “mutilated, misstated, and often unintelligible” (ibid., 49) by a band of “dupes and impostors” who corrupted the true moral teachings. Worst in this bad lot was the apostle Paul, “the great Coryphaeus, and first corrupter of the Doctrines of Jesus” .
Jefferson literally cut the miracles from the Gospels and retained only the moral teachings of Jesus. His views were not as radically deistic as were Thomas Paine’s. They most closely resembled the deism of Matthew Tindal in his Christianity as Old as the Creation; or, The Gospel: A Republication of the Religion of Nature and those of the unitarian Joseph Priestley. Jefferson rejected all major theological teachings of Christianity, such as the deity of Christ, original sin, salvation by grace through faith alone, and the substitutionary death of Christ. He believed Jesus to be the greatest reformer and moralist in history.
It was up to those who understood the truth, such as Jefferson, to purify the truth of the errors that had been imposed upon it. He endeavored to assemble the redacted truth from various portions of the four Gospels, arranged in the order that seemed to him most natural (Fesperman, 81, 83–84).
As stated in the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson considered it “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.” These “unalienable rights” are grounded in nature, which is itself unchangeable. Since these rights are natural, they are universal . Other natural rights, in Jefferson’s view, were the right of association, the right to self-government, and the right to be free in regard to religion (Padover, 89–91, 143, 148, 155, 156).
God’s creation of all people as equal had logical consequences. One was that slavery as an accepted practice in the United States had to be abolished. Jefferson attempted to accomplish this end by seeking to pass a plan he drafted, the “Report of Government for the Western Territory” (1784). This provided for the abolition of slavery in all the states after 1800 (ibid., 92–93). His legislation was defeated by one vote. Two years later he wrote of this decision: “The voice of a single individual . . . would have prevented this abominable crime from spreading itself over the country. Thus we see the fate of millions unborn hanging on the tongue of one man, and Heaven was silent in that awful moment! But it is to be hoped it will not always be silent, and that the friends of the rights of human nature will in the end prevail” (Foote, 18).
The human is a “rational animal” who has been endowed “with an innate sense of justice.” Both reason and the human sense of morality could go wrong, for neither “wisdom” nor “virtue” are hereditary. However, truth will eventually prevail, and human beings can “be restrained from wrong and protected in right, by moderate powers, confided to persons of his own choice” (Padover, 143, 131–135, 178, 91).
God and Government
It is clear from the Declaration that Jefferson did not envision the separation of God from government. Indeed, he believed governments owed allegiance to God. Inscribed in the marble of his memorial in Washington, D. C., is the quotation: “God who gave us life, gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation remain secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are a gift of God?”
Although Jefferson was in France as ambassador when Congress ratified the First Amendment (1789), he certainly agreed that “Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion; nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This is not the “wall of separation” he is said to have espoused. The intent of the First Amendment is clearly that the federal government was not to establish a national religion in the English manner. It is interesting that five colonies had state religions when they ratified this amendment. It was actually in a fit of pique over what the Baptist association in Danbury, Connecticut, had said about his beliefs that Jefferson wrote of the “wall of separation between Church and State.” He never used the phrase outside the context of this private letter, and other statements indicate that Jeffersonian “wall” should protect the state government from federal interference with regard to religion.
Jefferson left ample evidence of his views about church and state cooperation. He established a department of religion in the University of Virginia. He even proposed that students be required to attend church and refrain from swearing. In a treaty with the Kaskaskia Indians, Jefferson and Congress paid for the services of a missionary and a church building with tax funds. Congress did this more than once, being careful not to favor one religious group over another.
The central philosophy in this was that no religious view or group should be given legal sanction at the expense of another view or group. He said, “I am for freedom of religion, and against all maneuvers to bring about a legal ascendancy of one sect over another” (Padover, 119). Besides maintaining that such action would violate the natural law right of free religion, Jefferson believed it would be disadvantageous for religion, since each sect is a check on the others.
Christ and Religion
Religion had been the cause of great evil in Jefferson’s view, and it was important that one opinion be balanced by opposing opinions. Millions had been burned, tortured, fined, and imprisoned, “yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity.” Past coercion had made half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites.
While Jefferson identified himself as a Christian, many agreed with the Danbury Baptists that he was not orthodox. He considered his redacted “Bible” proof “that I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus” (Life and Morals, viii). Jefferson admitted he was not a Christian who accepted the historic teachings of the Bible and church. “I am a Christian in the only sense in which I believe Jesus wished anyone to be, sincerely attached to his doctrines in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing that he never claimed any other” (Foote, 4).
People have both good and evil qualities. Indeed “experience proves, that the moral and physical qualities of man, whether good or evil, are transmissible in a certain degree.” A primary function of government is to protect people from injuring each other and to be attentive to the needs and desires of the masses. When a government fails to perform this function, its officers “become wolves.” This is not an unusual occurrence. The tendency of people to wield abusive power over others “seems to be the law of our general nature, in spite of individual exceptions; and experience declares that man is the only animal which devours his own kind.” The kind of government that tends to promote this evil is that run by kings, nobles, or priests. “There is scarcely an evil known in [Europe] which may not be traced to their king as its source” (Padover, 164, 97, 103). When governments become tyrannical, it is the obligation of the governed to overthrow it.
Following John Locke’s natural law tradition, Jefferson held that the natural moral law applies to nations and to individuals: “It is strangely absurd to suppose that a million human beings, collected together, are not under the same moral laws which bind each of them separately” (Foote, 42). The source of human morality is “love for others,” which has been “implanted” by nature. It is this “moral instinct . . . which prompts us irresistibly to feel and to succor” the distress of others. Moral actions are relative. Actions deemed virtuous in one country are considered vicious in another. This occurs because “nature has constituted utility to man [as] the standard . . . of virtue” (Padover, 150–51).
Jefferson considered the greatest moral teachers to have been Epicurus and Jesus. He considered himself a follower of both, though he identified most closely with Epicurus. Concerning this he wrote, “I . . . am an Epicurean. I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us” (Padover, 175).
The human soul does survive death. While on his deathbed Jefferson penned these words as a farewell to his surviving daughter:
Life’s visions are vanished, its dreams are no more;
Dear friends of my bosom, why bathed in tears?
I go to my fathers, I welcome the shore
Which crowns all my hopes and which buries my cares.
Then farewell, my dear, my lov’d daughter, adieu!
The last pang of life is in parting from you.
Two seraphs await me long shrouded in death;
I will bear them your love on my last parting breath. [Foote, 68]
Jefferson spoke of the Judge of all humanity in the Declaration, but he did not define what he meant by the term. He did not omit Jesus’ references to rewards in heaven for the righteous and punishment in hell for the wicked from his abbreviated Bible. Just how literally he took this is another question.
Since Jefferson was a deist his views fall under the same critique. This includes his denial of miracles as well as his rejection of God’s immanence . His views on the Bible were also unfounded.
J. Butler, The Analogy of Religion Natural and Revealed to the Constitution and Course of Nature
F. I. Fesperman, “Jefferson’s Bible” in Ohio Journal of Religious Studies, 4:2 (October 1976)
R. Flint, Anti-Theistic Theories
H. W. Foote, Thomas Jefferson: Champion of Religious Freedom, Advocate of Christian Morals
N. L. Geisler, Miracles and the Modern Mind
———, and W. Watkins. Worlds Apart
I.. Kant, Religion within the Limits of Reason Alone
R. Ketcham, “Jefferson, Thomas” in The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 4:259
J. LeLand, A View of the Principal Deistic Writers . . .
R. Nash, Christian Faith and Historical Understanding
J. Orr, English Deism
S. K. Padover, Thomas Jefferson and the Foundations of American Freedom
Geisler, N. L. (1999). In Baker encyclopedia of Christian apologetics (pp. 378–380).