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The ‘Core’ Beliefs of Thomas Jefferson – Now Revealed!

November 15, 2013

Our most brilliant Founding Father, in the minds of many, was Thomas Jefferson. A thorough review of all his writings has now revealed his core beliefs and his views about God, Christianity, Jesus, and his motives for creating a free society where diversity and differences of views could be resolved via ‘reason’, ‘debate’, and ‘contemplation’. Thomas Jefferson grew up in Virginia under the doctrines of the Anglican faith.   He was an author of the Declaration of Independence and was the third President of the United States, holding the office from 1801 to 1809. He was a prolific writer and expressed his views on a broad array of topics including government, law, politics, education, economy, literature, the arts and religion. Being very private about his religious beliefs, his views are preserved in the personal letters only, not public discourses.

Thomas Jefferson created his own religious sect as his beliefs can not be viewed as orthodox nor within established models of Christianity or Platonic theology!

Thomas Jefferson was the primary author of the United States Declaration of Independence. Jefferson articulated a statement about human rights that most Americans regard as nearly sacred. While not necessarily being averse to such things as affirming the people’s “acknowledging and adoring an overruling providence” (as in his First Inaugural Address[3]), and expressing the need for “the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old”[4] in his second inauguration, yet, together with James Madison, Jefferson carried on a long and successful campaign against state financial support of churches in Virginia. It is Jefferson who created the phrase “wall of separation between church and state” in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists of Connecticut. During his 1800 campaign for the presidency, Jefferson had to contend with critics who argued that he was unfit to hold office because he did not have orthodox religious beliefs.

Though he often expressed his opposition to clergy and to Christian doctrines, Jefferson repeatedly expressed his belief in a deistic god and his admiration for Jesus as a moral teacher. Opposed to CalvinismTrinitarianism, and what he identified as Platonic elements in Christianity, in private letters Jefferson variously refers to himself as “Christian” (1803),[5] “a sect by myself” (1819),[6] an “Epicurean” (1819),[7] a “materialist” (1820),[8] and an Unitarian by myself” (1825).[9] Historian Sydney E. Ahlstrom associated Jefferson with “rational religion” or deism.[10]

In 1760, at age 16, Jefferson entered the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, and for two years he studied mathematics, metaphysics, and philosophy under Professor William Small. He introduced the enthusiastic Jefferson to the writings of the British Empiricists, including John LockeFrancis Bacon, and Isaac Newton.[16] Jefferson biographers say that he was influenced by deist philosophy while at William & Mary, particularly by Bolingbroke.[17][18]   Phrases such as “Nature’s God”, which Jefferson used in the Declaration of Independence, are typical of Deism. The view that Jefferson should be labeled as a Christian Deist derived from his strong view that Jesus’ moral teaching and Jesus’ desire for social reform were what society needs to maintain a strong and growing human character. 

Following the American Revolution, Jefferson played a leading role in the disestablishment of dogmatic religion in Virginia. Jefferson desired ‘free’ thought and ‘open’ debate on all issues of religion and belief. The dogmatic pronouncements of most clergy, he thought, were most detrimental to ‘free’ debate and ‘open’ discourse. He asserted that the human mind is not subject to coercion and that the opinions of men are not absolute. His elevation of the human mind (as free from clergy manipulation) was essential for individual growth and freedom of conscience. This view was hailed in Europe as “an example of wisdom and liberality never before known”.  From 1784 to 1786, Jefferson and James Madison worked together to oppose Patrick henry’s attempts to assess general taxes in Virginia to support churches. In 1786, the Virginia assembly passed Jefferson’s bill for religious freedom.

Federalists attacked Jefferson as a “howling atheist” and infidel, claiming that his attraction to the religious and political extremism of the French Revolution disqualified him from public office.[30][31] At that time, calling a person an infidel could mean a number of things, including that they did not believe in God. It was an accusation commonly levelled at Deists, although they believe in a deity. It was also directed at those thought to be harming the Christian faith in which they were raised. While opposed to the institutions of organized religion, Jefferson consistently expressed his belief in God. For example, he invoked the notion of divine justice in 1782 in his opposition to slavery,[32] and invoked divine Providence in his second inaugural address.[33]

Jefferson sought what he called a “wall of separation between Church and State”, which he believed was a principle expressed by the First Amendment. Jefferson also publicly affirmed “acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence” by the nation in his First Inaugural Address[42] and in his Second Inaugural Address expressed his need of “the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old”, and thus asked the nation “to join in supplications” with him to God.[43]. All these statements of Jefferson reveal that he believed in the God of the Old Testament (who he called Creator) and he viewed Jesus (Yeshua) as a messenger from this Old Testament God (and fully human).  He also rejected Platonic philosophy which the clergy used to promote ideas like the ‘virgin birth’, ‘the Trinity’, and a ‘physical’ ‘resurrection’ from the dead. It is obvious that Jefferson had a unique view of Christianity which challenged all the orthodox views being presented within the Christian church community of his day. 

Jefferson has been characterized as profoundly anticlerical, and his writing express a “sweeping condemnation of all clergymen everywhere”.[55] Jefferson’s residence in France just before the French Revolution left him deeply suspicious of Catholic priests and bishops as a force for reaction and ignorance. His later private letters indicate he was skeptical of too much interference by Catholic clergy in matters of civil government. He wrote in letters: “History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government”[56] and “In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.”[57] Observing inter-denominational intolerance in the United States, he extended his skepticism to Protestant clergy. 

In summary, Jefferson was both a deist and a Christian deist as he believed in a Creator God, in divine Providence, and natural religion. His belief in the teachings of Jesus as a moral teacher and social reformer make him a Christian (a sect of his own thinking within a broader perspective of Christianity). He was NOT orthodox as he rejected concepts like the Virgin Birth, the Trinity, and the idea that Jesus was God in human form. Jefferson understood the history of Israel from the Old Testament and he separated this God (which he called Creator) from the being of Jesus (Yeshua)…who he viewed as fully human and merely a messenger or teacher from this one God (YHWH) of the Old Testament. He also did not view Jesus as the promised Messiah. He did believe in a 2nd coming, however.

In his later life (after serving as our third President) he did communicate in writing with our 2nd President, John Adams, about many of his religious beliefs. John Adams seemed to agree with Jefferson on many of his beliefs so this made Adams also a deist and/or Christian deist. Both lived a long life and both died precisely on July 4th, 1826 (50 years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence). John was 90 years of age and Jefferson was 83. The brilliance and intellect of Thomas Jefferson can not be denied. He was truly a man who sought reality and freedom for himself and for the common man. His views need to be available for every American to ponder and discuss. We can all learn from the experiences and thinking of this brilliant Founding Father. Enjoy this missive! I am:

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