Thomas Jefferson was born April 13, 1743. He drafted the Declaration of Independence, 1776; was governor of Virginia, 1779-1781; and founded the University of Virginia in 1819.
While U.S. minister to France, 1785-1789, Jefferson met with the Muslim ambassador from Tripoli to negotiate freeing hundreds of captured U.S. sailors held in dungeons. Jefferson was secretary of state under President Washington, 1790-1793; and vice-president under John Adams, 1797-1801.
Immediately after being inaugurated the third U.S. president, Jefferson received a demand from the Muslim pasha of Tripoli for $225,000 as an extortion tribute payment, or they would declare war. Jefferson refused and sent over the U.S. Navy and Marines in the First Muslim Barbary Pirate Wars.
In 1803, Jefferson approved purchasing the Louisiana Territory from Napoleon, and sent Lewis and Clark to explore it, 1804-1806.
Jefferson took a public stand for religious freedom. On May 24, 1774, Thomas Jefferson drafted a Virginia Resolution calling for a Day of Fasting, Humiliation and Prayer to be observed the day British ships blockaded Boston’s harbor.
In 1777, Jefferson organized the independent Calvinistical Reformed Church, which met in the Charlottesville courthouse. That same year, fellow church member Col. John Harvie introduced Jefferson’s Bill for Religious Freedom in the Virginia Legislature. Jefferson’s bill was passed as the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, Jan. 16, 1786: “Almighty God hath created the mind free. … All attempts to influence it by temporal punishments … tend only to begat habits of hypocrisy … and are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in His Almighty power to do, but to extend it by its influence on reason alone.”
In 1779, as governor of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson signed a proclamation appointing a Day of Thanksgiving and Prayer: “Whereas … Congress … hath thought proper … to recommend to the several States … humbly to approach the throne of Almighty God … that he hath … been a shield to our troops in the hour of danger, pointed their swords to victory … and above all, that he hath diffused the glorious light of the Gospel, whereby, through the merits of our gracious Redeemer, we may become the heirs of his eternal glory
“Resolved … to appoint … a day of publick and solemn Thanksgiving to Almighty God … that he would grant to his church, the plentiful effusions of divine grace, and pour out his Holy Spirit on all Ministers of the Gospel; that he would bless and prosper the means of education, and spread the light of Christian knowledge through the remotest corners of the earth … and finally, that he would establish the independence of these United States upon the basis of religion and virtue. … Given under my hand and the seal of the commonwealth, at Williamsburg, this 11th day of November, in the year of our Lord, 1779, and in the fourth of the commonwealth. THOMAS JEFFERSON”
Jefferson approved a treaty with the Kaskaskia Indians, Dec. 3, 1803: “Whereas the greater part of the said tribe have been baptized and received into the Catholic Church, to which they are much attached, the United States will give annually, for seven years, one hundred dollars toward the support of a priest of that religion … and the United States will further give the sum of three hundred dollars, to assist the said tribe in the erection of a church.”
Jefferson wrote to William Canby, Sept. 18, 1813: “Of all the systems of morality, ancient or modern, which have come under my observation, none appear to me so pure as that of Jesus.”
Jefferson wrote to Jared Sparks, Nov. 4, 1820: “I hold the precepts of Jesus as delivered by Himself, to be the most pure, benevolent and sublime which have ever been preached to man.”
Jefferson wrote to Joseph Priestly of Jesus, April 9, 1803: “His system of morality was the most benevolent and sublime probably that has been ever taught, and consequently more perfect than those of any of the ancient philosophers.”
Jefferson wrote to John Adams, July 5, 1814: “The doctrines that flowed from the lips of Jesus himself are within the comprehension of a child.”
Jefferson lived in Virginia, which had the Anglican Church established from 1606 to 1786. Establishment meant mandatory membership, mandatory attendance, mandatory taxes to support it and no one could hold public office unless he was a member. Other Protestant Christian denominations were considered “dissenters” and Catholics were prohibited from entering the colony. With the king of England being the head of the Anglican Church of England, there were conflicting allegiances for Anglican clergy during the Revolution, with many siding with the king.
Vocalizing his sentiments, Jefferson wrote to Henry Fry, June 17, 1804: “I consider the doctrines of Jesus as delivered by himself to contain the outlines of the sublimest system of morality that has ever been taught but I hold in the most profound detestation and execration the corruptions of it which have been invented.”
In 1813, Jefferson wrote to John Adams: “In extracting the pure principles which Jesus taught, we should have to strip off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled … there will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.”
On April 21, 1803, Jefferson wrote to Dr. Benjamin Rush, also a signer of the Declaration: “My views … are the result of a life of inquiry and reflection, and very different from the anti-Christian system imputed to me by those who know nothing of my opinions. To the corruptions of Christianity I am, indeed, opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines in preference to all others…”
Jefferson wrote further: “His system of morals … if filled up in the style and spirit of the rich fragments He left us, would be the most perfect and sublime that has ever been taught by man. …
1. He corrected the Deism of the Jews, confirming them in their belief of one only God, and giving them juster notions of His attributes and government.
2. His moral doctrines…were more pure and perfect than those of the most correct of the philosophers … gathering all into one family under the bonds of love, charity, peace, common wants and common aids. A development of this head will evince the peculiar superiority of the system of Jesus over all others.
3. The precepts of philosophy, and of the Hebrew code, laid hold of actions only. He pushed his scrutinies into the heart of man; erected his tribunal in the region of his thoughts, and purified the waters at the fountain head.
4. He taught, emphatically, the doctrines of a future state … and wielded it with efficacy as an important incentive, supplementary to the other motives to moral conduct.”
Jefferson told Benjamin Waterhouse, June 26, 1822: “The doctrines of Jesus are simple, and tend all to the happiness of man.
1. That there is one only God, and he all perfect.
2. That there is a future state of rewards and punishments.
3. That to love God with all thy heart and thy neighbor as thyself, is the sum of religion. These are the great points on which he endeavored to reform the religion of the Jews. …
Now, which of these is the true and charitable Christian? He who believes and acts on the simple doctrines of Jesus? … ”
Jefferson continued: “Had the doctrines of Jesus been preached always as pure as they came from his lips, the whole civilized world would now have been Christian. … How much wiser are the Quakers, who, agreeing in the fundamental doctrines of the gospel, schismatize about no mysteries, and, keeping within the pale of common sense, suffer no speculative differences of opinion … to impair the love of their brethren.”
Jefferson wrote “Notes on Religion,” possibly in October of 1776, for use in his speeches in Virginia’s House of Delegates regarding the disestablishment of the Episcopal Church (“The Works of Thomas Jefferson,” Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, editor, New York and London, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904-5, Vol. 2): “Another plea for Episcopal government in Religion in England is its similarity to the political government by a king. No bishop, no king. This then with us is a plea for government by a presbytery which resembles republican government. The clergy have ever seen this. The bishops were always mere tools of the crown.
“The Presbyterian spirit is known to be so congenial with friendly liberty, that the patriots after the restoration finding that the humour of people was running too strongly to exalt the prerogative of the crown promoted the dissenting interest as a check and balance, & thus was produced the Toleration Act …”
Jefferson added in his “Notes on Religion”: “The Gentiles have the law written in their hearts, i.e. the law of nature: to which adding a faith in God’s & his attributes that on their repentance he would pardon them, they also would be justified. This then explains the text ‘there is no other name under heaven by which a man may be saved,’ i.e. the defects in good works shall not be supplied by a faith in Mahomet Foe, or any other except Christ …”
Jefferson continued: “The fundamentals of Christianity as found in the Gospels are 1. Faith, 2. Repentance. That faith is everywhere explained to be a belief that Jesus was the Messiah who had been promised. Repentance was to be proved sincerely by good works. … The fundamentals of Christianity were to be found in the preaching of our Saviour, which is related in the Gospels. …
“What are fundamentals? The Protestants will say those doctrines which are clearly & precisely delivered in the Holy Scriptures. … If we are Protestants we reject all tradition, & rely on the Scripture alone, for that is the essence & common principle of all the Protestant churches. … The care of every man’s soul belongs to himself. But what if he neglect the care of it? Well what if he neglect the care of his health or estate, which more nearly relate to the state. Will the magistrate make a law that he shall not be poor or sick? Laws provide against injury from others; but not from ourselves. God himself will not save men against their wills.”
Jefferson compiled “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted Textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French and English” in 1816, which stated on the original handwritten cover page: “The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth – extracted from the account of his life and doctrines as given by Matthew, Mark, Luke & John – being an abridgement of the New Testament for the use of the Indians unembarrassed with matters of fact or faith beyond the level of their comprehensions.”
Jefferson wrote to Charles Thomson, Jan. 9, 1816: “I have made this wee-little book … which I call The Philosophy of Jesus. It is 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 and subject. A more beautiful or precious morsel of ethics I have never seen; it is a document in proof that I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus, very different from the Platonists, who call me an infidel, and themselves Christians and preachers of the gospel, while they draw all their characteristic dogmas from what its Author never said nor saw.”
Franklin Roosevelt said on the 400th anniversary of the printing of the English Bible, Oct. 6, 1935: “Learned as Jefferson was in the best of the ancient philosophers, he turned to the Bible as the source of his higher thinking and reasoning. … He held that the Bible contained the noblest ethical system the world has known. His own compilation of the selected portions of this Book, in what is known as Jefferson’s Bible, bears evidence of the profound reverence in which he held it.”
In 1904, the 57th Congress, in order to restrain unethical behavior, voted: “That there be printed … for the use of Congress, 9,000 copies of Thomas Jefferson’s Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, as the same appears in the National Museum.”
In his second inaugural, 1805, Jefferson wrote: “I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our forefathers, as Israel of old.”
In 1798, Jefferson had written the Kentucky Resolutions: “That in cases of an abuse … where powers are assumed which have not been delegated, a nullification of the act is the rightful remedy. … Each State has a natural right … to nullify of their own authority all assumptions of power by others within their limits; that without this right they would be under the dominion, absolute and unlimited, of whosoever might exercise this right of judgment for them.”
Inscribed on the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C., are his words: “God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever.”
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