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About Thomas Jefferson and his religious beliefs:

Thomas Jefferson (1743 - 1826):

"...served as governor of Virginia, as U.S. minister to France, as secretary of state under George Washington, as vice-president in the administration of John Adams, and as president of the United States from 1801 to 1809. On his tombstone, however, which he designed and for which he wrote the inscription, there is no mention of these offices. Rather, it reads that Thomas Jefferson was 'author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia' and, as he requested, 'not a word more.' Historians might want to add other accomplishments--for example, his distinction as an architect, naturalist, and linguist--but in the main they would concur with his own assessment." 1

Jefferson's religion is a little difficult to pin down. He apparently believed in a supreme being, although not one that resembles the Christian God. He believed in some form of life after death. But he rejected the Christian concept of the Trinity, the virgin birth, and belief in a Hell of eternal punishment. He never joined any religious denomination. His comments about Christianity were rather vitriolic at times.

Author Franklin Steiner wrote:

"Jefferson's most voluminous biographer, Henry J. Randall (Vol. 3, pp. 553-562), insists upon calling him a 'Christian,' a word which is subject to many qualifications. Yet Mr. Randall admits that Jefferson disbelieved in all strictly orthodox dogmas, and was a Unitarian. Unitarians, like Deists, were considered to be as much 'Infidels' in Jefferson's day as an Atheist is now. But in his own day, Jefferson could scarcely have claimed to be a Unitarian, since in the first half of the 19th Century that Church was supernaturalistic and far from being as broad as it is at the present time. 2

Author John Morse wrote:

"To my mind, it is very clear that Jefferson never believed that Christ was other than a human moralist, having no peculiar inspiration or divine connection, and differing from other moralists only as Shakespeare differs from other dramatists, namely, as greatly their superior in ability and fitness for his function. But those admirers of Jefferson, who themselves believe in the divinity of Christ, will probably refuse to accept this view, though they find themselves without sufficient evidence conclusively to confute it." 3

A fairly good case can be made that Jefferson was a Deist -- a religion followed by many of the founding fathers. Deists believe that a supreme being created the universe in the distant past, set up a system of laws governing nature to assure its proper operation. God then left, and hasn't been seen since. It is probably significant that Jefferson used the Deist term "Nature's God" when writing the Declaration of Independence.

According to webmaster Lewis Loflin:

"Jefferson says he was a 'Materialist' (letter to Short, Apr. 13, 1820) and a 'Unitarian' (letter to Waterhouse, Jan. 8, 1825).....Further, Jefferson specifically named Joseph Priestly (English Unitarian who moved to America) and Conyers Middleton (English Deist) and said: 'I rest on them ... as the basis of my own faith' (letter to Adams, Aug. 22, 1813). Therefore, without using the actual words, Jefferson issued an authentic statement claiming Deism as his faith." 4

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Excerpts from his letters during the late 18th century:

Jefferson held a number of posts during this interval: governor of Virginia (1779 to 1781), U.S. minister to France (1784 to 1789), secretary of state (1790 to 1793), and vice-president of the U.S. (1796 to 1801) 5

bullet1782: "The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." Notes on the State of Virginia.
bullet1781-1785: Additional material from "Notes on the State of Virginia:"
bullet "Is uniformity attainable? Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effects of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites."
bullet"Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are a gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever."
bullet1787: The following are excerpts from a letter he wrote to his nephew, Peter Carr:
bullet"He who made us would have been a pitiful bungler, if he had made the rules of our moral conduct a matter of science. For one man of science, there are thousands who are not. What would have become of them? Man was destined for society. His morality, therefore, was to be formed to this object. He was endowed with a sense of right and wrong, merely relative to this."
bullet"The moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of man as his leg or arm. It is given to all human beings in a stronger or weaker degree, as force of members is given them in a greater or less degree. It may be strengthened by exercise, as may any particular limb of the body. This sense is submitted, indeed, in some degree, to the guidance of reason; but it is a small stock which is required for this: even a less one than what we call common sense. State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor. The former will decide it as well, & often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules."
bullet"Above all things, lose no occasion of exercising your dispositions to be grateful, to be generous, to be charitable, to be humane, to be true, just, firm, orderly, courageous, &c. Consider every act of this kind, as an exercise which will strengthen your moral faculties & increase your worth."
bullet"In the first place, divest yourself of all bias in favor of novelty & singularity of opinion. Indulge them in any other subject rather than that of religion. It is too important, and the consequences of error may be too serious. On the other hand, shake off all the fears & servile prejudices, under which weak minds are servilely crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear."
bullet"You will naturally examine first, the religion of your own country. Read the Bible, then as you would read Livy or Tacitus. The facts which are within the ordinary course of nature, you will believe on the authority of the writer, as you do those of the same kind in Livy & Tacitus. The testimony of the writer weighs in their favor, in one scale, and their not being against the laws of nature, does not weigh against them. But those facts in the Bible which contradict the laws of nature, must be examined with more care, and under a variety of faces. Here you must recur to the pretensions of the writer to inspiration from God. Examine upon what evidence his pretensions are founded, and whether that evidence is so strong, as that its falsehood would be more improbable than a change in the laws of nature, in the case he relates."
bullet"Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is no god, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise, and the love of others which it will procure you. If you find reason to believe there is a God, a consciousness that you are acting under his eye, & that he approves you, will be a vast additional incitement; if that there be a future state, the hope of a happy existence in that increases the appetite to deserve it; if that Jesus was also a god, you will be comforted by a belief of his aid and love."
bullet"In fine, I repeat, you must lay aside all prejudice on both sides, and neither believe nor reject anything, because any other persons, or description of persons, have rejected or believed it. Your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven, and you are answerable, not for the rightness, but uprightness of the decision."
bullet1789: "I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else where I was capable of thinking for myself. Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent." Letter to Francis Hopkinson.
bullet1799: "I am for freedom of religion, & against all maneuvers to bring about a legal ascendancy of one sect over another." Letter to Elbridge Gerry.

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Excerpts from his letters between 1800 & 1809:

Jefferson served as president of the U.S. between 1801 and 1809.

bullet1800: The clergy "...believe that any portion of power confided to me, will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly; for I have sworn upon the altar of god, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. But this is all they have to fear from me: and enough, too, in their opinion. Letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush.
bullet1802: "Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between church and State. Letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, CT. The phrase "separation of Church and State" is partly based on this letter.
bullet1803: "I never will, by any word or act, bow to the shrine of intolerance, or admit a right of inquiry into the religious opinions of others."  Letter to Edward Dowse.

During his presidency, he repeatedly refused to issue a Thanksgiving proclamation. He wrote in a letter to the Rev. Mr. Miller that:

"I consider the Government of the United States as interdicted by the Constitution of the United States from meddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises.... But it is only proposed that I should recommend, not prescribe, a day of fasting and praying. That is, I should indirectly assume to the United States an authority over religious exercises, which the Constitution has directly precluded them from.... Every one must act according to the dictates of his own reason and mine tells me that civil powers alone have been given to the President of the United States, and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents." 2

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Excerpts from his letters between 1810 & 1819:

By this time, Jefferson had retired from public life. His main accomplishment during this decade was the founding of the University of Virginia.

bullet1813: "He who steadily observes the moral precepts in which all religions concur, will never be questioned at the gates of heaven as to the dogmas in which they all differ." Letter to WIlliam Canby.
bullet1813: "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. He who follows this steadily need not, I think, be uneasy, although he cannot comprehend the subtleties and mysteries erected on his doctrines by those who, calling themselves his special followers and favorites, would make him come into the world to lay snares for all understandings but theirs. These metaphysical heads, usurping the judgment seat of God, denounce as his enemies all who cannot perceive the Geometrical logic of Euclid in the demonstrations of St. Athanasius, that three are one, and one is three; and yet that the one is not three nor the three one. Letter to WIlliam Canby.
bullet1813: "History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes. Letter to Alexander von Humboldt
bullet1813: "Religion is a subject on which I have ever been most scrupulously reserved. I have considered it as a matter between every man and his Maker in which no other, and far less the public, had a right to intermeddle." Letter to Richard Rush.
bullet1814: "The whole history of these books is so defective and doubtful that it seems vain to attempt minute enquiry into it: and such tricks have been played with their text, and with the texts of other books relating to them, that we have a right, from that cause, to entertain much doubt what parts of them are genuine. In the New Testament there is internal evidence that parts of it have proceeded from an extraordinary man; and that other parts are of the fabric of very inferior minds. It is as easy to separate those parts, as to pick out diamonds from dunghills." On Christian scriptures, in a letter to John Adams
bullet1814: "Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law." Letter to Dr. Thomas Cooper.
bullet1814: "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." Letter to Horatio G. Spafford.
bullet1814: "If we did a good act merely from love of God and a belief that it is pleasing to Him, whence arises the morality of the Atheist? ...Their virtue, then, must have had some other foundation than the love of God." Letter to Thomas Law.
bullet1814: "I am really mortified to be told that, in the United States of America, a fact like this can become a subject of inquiry, and of criminal inquiry too, as an offence against religion; that a question about the sale of a book can be carried before the civil magistrate. Is this then our freedom of religion? and are we to have a censor whose imprimatur shall say what books may be sold, and what we may buy? And who is thus to dogmatize religious opinions for our citizens? Whose foot is to be the measure to which ours are all to be cut or stretched? Is a priest to be our inquisitor, or shall a layman, simple as ourselves, set up his reason as the rule for what we are to read, and what we must believe? It is an insult to our citizens to question whether they are rational beings or not, and blasphemy against religion to suppose it cannot stand the test of truth and reason." Letter to N. G. Dufief, a bookseller in Philadelphia, PA. concerning his having been prosecuted for selling a book dealing with the origins of the universe.
bullet1814: "Our particular principles of religion are a subject of accountability to our god alone. I enquire after no man's and trouble none with mine; nor is it given to us in this life to know whether yours or mine, our friend's or our foe's, are exactly the right. Letter to Miles King.
bullet1817: "Say nothing of my religion. It is known to my god and myself alone. Letter to John Adams.
bullet1819: "You say you are a Calvinist. I am not. I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know. Letter to Ezra Stiles Ely.
bullet1819: "As you say of yourself, I too am an Epicurian. I consider the genuine (not the imputed) doctrines of Epicurus as containing everything rational in moral philosophy which Greece and Rome have left us. Letter to William Short on his admiration of the principles of Epicurus.

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Excerpts from his letters between 1820 and his death in 1826:

The University of Virginia was opened in 1825.

bullet1820: "Among the sayings and discourses imputed to him [Jesus] by his biographers, I find many passages of fine imagination, correct morality, and of the most lovely benevolence; and others again of so much ignorance, so much absurdity, so much untruth, charlatanism, and imposture, as to pronounce it impossible that such contradictions should have proceeded from the same being." Letter to William Short.
bullet1820: "My aim in that was, to justify the character of Jesus against the fictions of his pseudo-followers, which have exposed him to the inference of being an impostor. For if we could believe that he really countenanced the follies, the falsehoods and the charlatanisms which his biographers father on him, and admit the misconstructions, interpolations and theorizations of the fathers of the early, and fanatics of the latter ages, the conclusion would be irresistible by every sound mind, that he was an impostor. I give no credit to their falsifications of his actions and doctrines, and to rescue his character, the postulate in my letter asked only what is granted in reading every other historian... I say, that this free exercise of reason is all I ask for the vindication of the character of Jesus. We find in the writings of his biographers matter of two distinct descriptions. First, a groundwork of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticisms and fabrications. Intermixed with these, again, are sublime ideas of the Supreme Being, aphorisms and precepts of the purest morality and benevolence, sanctioned by a life of humility, innocence and simplicity of manners, neglect of riches, absence of worldly ambition and honors, with an eloquence and persuasiveness which have not been surpassed. These could not be inventions of the groveling authors who relate them. They are far beyond the powers of their feeble minds. They shew that there was a character, the subject of their history, whose splendid conceptions were above all suspicion of being interpolations from their hands... That Jesus did not mean to impose himself on mankind as the son of God, physically speaking, I have been convinced by the writings of men more learned than myself in that lore. But that he might conscientiously believe himself inspired from above, is very possible... Excusing, therefore, on these considerations, those passages in the gospels which seem to bear marks of weakness in Jesus, ascribing to him what alone is consistent with the great and pure character of which the same writings furnish proofs, and to their proper authors their own trivialities and imbecilities, I think myself authorised to conclude the purity and distinction of his character, in opposition to the impostures which those authors would fix upon him; and that the postulate of my former letter is no more than is granted in all other historical works. Letter to William Short describing why he wrote a "Syllabus of an Estimate of the Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus and referring to Jesus’ biographers, the Gospel writers."
bullet1820: "We are not afraid to follow truth wherever it may lead, nor to tolerate any error so long as reason is left free to combat it." Letter to Willian Roscoe.
bullet1820: "To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial, is to say they are nothings, or that there is no god, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise: but I believe I am supported in my creed of materialism by Locke, Tracy, and Stewart. At what age of the Christian church this heresy of immaterialism, this masked atheism, crept in, I do not know. But heresy it certainly is. Letter to John Adams
bullet1821: Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting 'Jesus Christ,' so that it would read 'A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;' the insertion was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination. Autobiography, referring to the Virginia Act for Religious Freedom
bullet1822: "No historical fact is better established, than that the doctrine of one God, pure and uncompounded, was that of the early ages of Christianity . . . Nor was the unity of the Supreme Being ousted from the Christian creed by the force of reason, but by the sword of civil government, wielded at the will of the Athanasius. The hocus-pocus phantasm of a God like another Cerberus, with one body and three heads, had its birth and growth in the blood of thousands of martyrs . . . The Athanasian paradox that one is three, and three but one, is so incomprehensible to the human mind, that no candid man can say he has any idea of it, and how can he believe what presents no idea? He who thinks he does, only deceives himself. He proves, also, that man, once surrendering his reason, has no remaining guard against absurdities the most monstrous, and like a ship without rudder, is the sport of every wind. With such person, gullibility which they call faith, takes the helm from the hand of reason, and the mind becomes a wreck. A discussion of the Christian concept of the Trinity, in a letter to James Smith.
bullet1823: "I can never join Calvin in addressing his god. He was indeed an Atheist, which I can never be; or rather his religion was Daemonism. If ever man worshipped a false god, he did. The being described in his 5 points is not the God whom you and I acknowledge and adore, the Creator and benevolent governor of the world; but a daemon of malignant spirit. It would be more pardonable to believe in no god at all, than to blaspheme him by the atrocious attributes of Calvin. Indeed I think that every Christian sect gives a great handle to Atheism by their general dogma that, without a revelation, there would not be sufficient proof of the being of a god. A discussion of Calvinism in a letter to John Adams.
bullet1823: "The truth is, that the greatest enemies of the doctrine of Jesus are those, calling themselves the expositors of them, who have perverted them to the structure of a system of fancy absolutely incomprehensible, and without any foundation in his genuine words. And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter... But may we hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this most venerated reformer of human errors." Discussion of the virgin birth in a letter to John Adams.
bullet1825: "It is between fifty and sixty years since I read it, and I then considered it merely the ravings of a maniac, no more worthy nor capable of explanation than the incoherences of our own nightly dreams." A discussion of the biblical book of Revelation in a letter to General Alexander Smyth. 6

Thomas Jefferson died on the afternoon of 1826-JUL-04 at Monticello, VA. This was the 50th anniversary of the approval of the Declaration of Independence by the Second Continental Congress. A few hours later, his good friend John Adams died in Quincy, MA.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Thomas Jefferson," Supercomputing 1994, at: http://sc94.ameslab.gov/
  2. Franklin Steiner, "Religious beliefs of our presidents," (1936). Excerpt on Thomas Jefferson is online at: http://www.positiveatheism.org/
  3. John T. Morse, "Jefferson," Chelsea House Publ., (1997), American Statesmen Series, Volume 11, Page 304.
  4. Lewis Loflin, "Was Thomas Jefferson a Deist?" Brown Daily Herald, 2002-FEB-01. Online at: http://www.sullivan-county.com/
  5. "Timeline of Jefferson's Life," Monticello, at: http://www.monticello.org/
  6. "Thomas Jefferson," Wikipedia, at: http://en.wikiquote.org/

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Copyright © 2006 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2006-JAN-31
Latest update: 2006-JAN-31
Author: B.A. Robinson

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