Thomas Jefferson, Letter VII
By Steve Farrell
Was Thomas Jefferson an enemy of God?
Numerous anti-Christian cynics feel certain, despite ample evidence to the contrary, that the answer is "yes." After all, Jefferson once advised, "Question with boldness even the existence of a God." (1) An interesting challenge.
The quote, found in a personal letter to Peter Carr, has been combined, by these cynics, with several other Jefferson jabs at religion, to give the impression that Thomas Jefferson was more like a soul mate of Karl Marx than John Adam's, and more in favor of freedom from religion than freedom of religion.
But it's not true. The Jefferson quote is taken out of context, way out. So what else is new?
Place the quote in context, and well, take a look for yourself.
"Your reason is now mature enough to examine this object [religion]. In the first place, divest yourself of all bias in favor of novelty and 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." (2)
This is anti-God? A mature, unbiased approach is more vital as regards this subject, than any other. Why? Because Jefferson believed that the two most important teachings of Christ, along with love of God and love of neighbor, were a belief in life after death, and final judgment. (3) Get the point?
"… shake off all the fears and 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." (4)
There's the quote, and here's the honest interpretation, to this point: The Biblical record, as Jefferson understood it, testified that God is a God of love and liberty, not fear and tyranny. Therefore, if the record is true, God must be the author of free inquiry on the subject of his existence. This then, is not a rejection of God, but a rejection of the European church, which Jefferson believed perverted the gospel.
It was also an endorsement of the democratic approach to faith that arose in America, where all men were free to study and discover God and the Bible on their own, rather than through an elite few.
So what's wrong with that?
Better yet, take a look at Jefferson's recommended course of study; it is certainly not for the weak hearted and weak minded, who might blindly discard God without an honest search.
"… naturally examine first, the religion of your own country. Read the Bible, then, as you would read Livy or Tacitus." (5)
What did he mean? When one reads all of the educational advice letters Jefferson sent to Carr, it is clear Jefferson meant, read the Bible in the original, cover to cover, which in this case meant, study it in Greek, and in Latin, and in Hebrew, and then compare the three. (6)
He was also saying, extend at least as much trust to the spiritual writer as to the secular writer. Specifically, he encouraged the lad to implicitly trust in "the authority" of the Biblical writer when the facts "are within the ordinary course of nature," and to only engage in a more aggressive and reflective probe when "those facts in the Bible … contradict the laws of nature". (7)
This makes sense. It is typical Jefferson.
"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." (8)
In other words, Jefferson believed God preferred something more than producing blind faith in men he endowed with reason.
Nevertheless, as he noted, there can be strong enough evidence, of a different sort, which may over-ride the laws of nature, or at least our meager understanding of those laws, and over-ride reason as well.
In this regard, earlier in the same letter, he noted: "He who made us would have been a pitiful bungler, if he had made the rules of our moral conduct a matter of science." (9)
Regarding Christ, his approach was equally demanding and equally open-minded. Christ ought to be studied from the perspective of believers and non-believers, and from Biblical, as well as extra-Biblical sources, before judgment is passed.
"[Y]ou should read all the histories of Christ [including Roman], as well of those whom a council of ecclesiastics have decided for us, to be Pseudo-evangelists … Because these Pseudo-evangelists pretended to inspiration, as much as the others, and you are to judge their pretensions by your own reason, and not by the reason of those ecclesiastics. Most of these are lost. There are some, however, still extant, collected by Fabricius, which I will endeavor to get and send you." (10) (Emphasis added)
This is no passing, no lazy, no antagonistic approach to finding God, Christ, and true religion; but a serious, vigorous, open-minded, open-ended labor-a labor Jefferson personally pursued throughout his life. (11)
And here's the crux of the matter; if, after all this effort, one decides to reject God and Christ as real or divine, Jefferson explained, he will nonetheless, "find incitements to virtue" and a "love of others," as a by-product of this labor. (12)
On the other hand, wrote Jefferson to Carr, "If you find reason to believe there is a God, a consciousness that you are acting under his eye, and that he approves you, [this] will be a vast additional incitement [to virtue];" while hope of "a future state, [and] a happy existence in that [state] increases the appetite to deserve it; [and] if that Jesus was also a God, you will be comforted by a belief of his aid and love." (13)
Just what is wrong with all of this? And how is it that this quote was an ode to Atheism, an ode to a liberty which bans God and Christ from America?
No, it is no such thing, but proof of the sort of dishonesty you and I are daily fed regarding the faith of our forefathers.
So here's the truth the prevaricators won't let out: Jefferson believed in God, believed in eternal life, believed in final judgment, and believed a proper education included a fair and vigorous, life long, personal quest to know God and His true religion.
January 14, 2004
About the Author
Federal Observer columnist Steve Farrell is associate professor of political economy at George Wythe College, and and the author of the highly praised, inspirational novel, Dark Rose.
Contact Steve at firstname.lastname@example.org
The Farrell Archives on The Federal Observer
~ Footnotes ~
1.) Bergh, Albert Ellery, editor. "The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Volume VI,” p. 258. This quote is sited as a stand alone on nearly 1900 web pages. A sampling of some of the organizations, institutions, publications, and websites that have used this quote to prove Jefferson was against God and in favor of an anti-religious agenda for America include: The Yale Political Quarterly; The University of Virginia's Library (the University Jefferson founded, and that houses his personal library); Secular Humanists of Cornell; Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics of Louisiana State University; The Thomas Paine Historical Association; The Ayn Rand Institute; Capitalism Magazine; Counterpunch Magazine; The American Prospect; Capitalism.org; New America Foundation; EarlyAmerica.com; The Freedom From Religion Foundation; The Objectivist Center; Atheism.org; PositiveAtheism.org; AtheistParents.org; Infidels.org; Unbelief.org; SecularStudents.org; Humanists.net; Socialist Party of Arizona; ReligiousTolerance.org; NoBeliefs.com; Deism.com; Ordo Antichristianus Illumaniti (Illuminists, Scholars and Statesmen of the New Order and Antichristendom); MemorableQuotations.com; Quoteland.com; QuoteProject.com; RefDesk.com; GiftofWisdom.com; StudyWorld.com; TheHappyHeretic.com; exmormon.org; exchristian.net; religionisdumb.com; and let's not forget: realmagick.com; jackowitch.com; wikiquote.com. Out of 800 websites this writer personally surveyed, only a handful used the quote in context, and in a manner which reflected faith in God by Jefferson.
2.) Ibid., p. 258
3.) Cousins, Norman, editor. "In God We Trust," New York, Harper and Brothers Publishers, 1958, p. 160. In Jefferson's Letter to Benjamin Waterhouse, June 26, 1822, Jefferson writes: "The Doctrines of Jesus are simple, and tend all to the happiness of men. 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." The man who followed this religion was "the true and charitable Christian."
4.) "The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Volume VI, p. 258.
5.) Ibid., p. 258-259
6.) See, for instance, Jefferson's letter dated August 19, 1785, to his nephew, Peter Carr, wherein he notes, "I advise you to begin a course of ancient history, reading everything in the original and not in translations." Jefferson, personally, went verse by verse through the New Testament, in this fashion, compiling and analyzing comparisons in Greek, Latin, French, and English, for years. "The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Volume V," pg. 84.
7.) "The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Volume VI," p. 259.
9.) Ibid., p. 257.
10.) Ibid., p. 261, see also, p. 260.
11.) Jefferson pursued a study of religion from his early youth to the end of his life. He was the creator of the first "red letter" edition of the New Testament, a work he pursued even as President of the United States; and he had in mind to produce a similar work, highlighting all of the great moral teachings of the Old Testament, but never got around to it (he did, however, persistently encourage the project in others). He was in constant contact, particularly in his retirement, with ministers and thinkers on the subject of religion, from across the globe-sharing notes, books, opinions, and deep feelings on the subject. This was especially the case in his exchange of letters with John Adams. (See Norman Cousins, "In God We Trust: The Religious Beliefs and Ideas of the American Founding Fathers," Chapters 4-6, especially chapter 5.
12.) "The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Volume VI," p. 260.
13.) Ibid., p. 260-261.