Thomas Jefferson, as we all know, was a skeptic, a man so hostile to Christianity that he scissored from his Bible all references to miracles. He was, as the Freedom From Religion Foundation tells us, “a Deist, opposed to orthodox Christianity and the supernatural.”
Or was he? While Jefferson has been lionized by those who seek to drive religion from public life, the true Thomas Jefferson is anything but their friend. He was anything but irreligious, anything but an enemy to Christian faith. Our nation’s third president was, in fact, a student of Scripture who attended church regularly, and was an active member of the Anglican Church, where he served on his local vestry. He was married in church, sent his children and a nephew to a Christian school, and gave his money to support many different congregations and Christian causes.
Moreover, his “Notes on Religion,” nine documents Jefferson wrote in 1776, are “very orthodox statements about the inspiration of Scripture and Jesus as the Christ,” according to Mark Beliles, a Providence Foundation scholar and author of an enlightening essay on Jefferson’s religious life.
So what about the Jefferson Bible, that miracles-free version of the Scriptures? That, too, is a myth. It is not a Bible, but an abridgement of the Gospels created by Jefferson in 1804 for the benefit of the Indians. Jefferson’s “Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted From the New Testament for the Use of the Indians” was a tool to evangelize and educate American Indians. There is no evidence that it was an expression of his skepticism.
Jefferson, who gave his money to assist missionary work among the Indians, believed his “abridgement of the New Testament for the use of the Indians” would help civilize and educate America’s aboriginal inhabitants. Nor did Jefferson cut all miracles from his work, as Beliles points out. While the original manuscript no longer exists, the Table of Texts that survives includes several accounts of Christ’s healings.
But didn’t Jefferson believe in the complete separation of church and state? After all, Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Baptists in Danbury, Conn., in which he cited the First Amendment’s creation of a “wall of separation” between church and state, is an ACLU proof-text for its claim that the First Amendment makes the public square a religion-free zone. But if the ACLU is right, why, just two days after he sent his letter to the Danbury Baptists did President Jefferson attend public worship services in the U.S. Capitol building, something he did throughout his two terms in office? And why did he authorize the use of the War Office and the Treasury building for church services in Washington, D.C.?
Jefferson’s outlook on religion and government is more fully revealed in another 1802 letter in which he wrote that he did not want his administration to be a “government without religion,” but one that would “strengthen … religious freedom.”
Jefferson was a true friend of the Christian faith. But was he a true Christian? A nominal Christian – as demonstrated by his lifelong practice of attending worship services, reading the Bible, and following the moral principles of Christ – Jefferson was not, in my opinion, a genuine Christian. In 1813, after his public career was over, Jefferson rejected the deity of Christ. Like so many millions of church members today, he was outwardly religious, but never experienced the new birth that Jesus told Nicodemus was necessary to enter the kingdom of Heaven.
Nonetheless, Jefferson’s presidential acts would, if done today, send the ACLU marching into court. He signed legislation that gave land to Indian missionaries, put chaplains on the government payroll, and provided for the punishment of irreverent soldiers. He also sent Congress an Indian treaty that set aside money for a priest’s salary and for the construction of a church.
Most intriguing is the manner in which Jefferson dated an official document. Instead of “in the year of our Lord,” Jefferson used the phrase “in the year of our Lord Christ.” Christian historian David Barton has the proof – the original document signed by Jefferson on the “eighteenth day of October in the year of our Lord Christ, 1804.”
The Supreme Court ruled in 1947 that Jefferson’s wall of separation between church and state “must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach.” Judging from the record, it looks like the wall some say Tom built is, in fact, the wall Tom breached.
The real Thomas Jefferson, it turns out, is the ACLU’s worst nightmare.
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