Jefferson, Deism and Judeo-Christian Values

Posted: September 3, 2009 in Category - Thomas Jefferson, Deism and Judeo-Christian Values

Jefferson, Deism and Judeo-Christian Values

By Bo Perrin

Was Jefferson a deist? What is a deist? Does it matter? Skeptics have called a Jihad against God in the public square in America. They are fervently, furiously and militantly attempting to eradicate every vestige of God in and on public relics as tenaciously as any good terrorist attempting to eradicate America.

Those who believe in God argue that the Declaration of Independence, which is the heart and soul of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and the Constitution are founded in and on Judeo-Christian values. For an Atheist this is historical heresy. They are attacking this idea as well as Judeo-Christians ideals with a multi-pronged attack through books, blogs and the courts attempting to chip away at the facts hoping, eventually, reality will crumble into a heap.

One particular issue Skeptics raise is that a number of the Framers of the Constitution were not Christians and want to label each a Deist. In this case Skeptics argue that some of these men might be Deists, others borderline religious but none were Christians as popularly defined. Two popular examples Skeptics use as evidence of for the correctness of their argument is Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson. This article will briefly examine Jefferson’s beliefs using his own words.

To begin, the Skeptics’ argument that Jefferson, or any of the founding fathers, is a deist is disingenuous and a straw man. Skeptics make two fallacious arguments. The first argument is that Jefferson is a Deist according to European standards. The second argument is that if Jefferson is a Deist then he did not hold to Judeo-Christian values. Each argument attempts to divert our attention from the real question which is, Did Jefferson believe in Judeo-Christian values and use them in his life? In this article I will use the book Jefferson’s Writings (1) as well as a few other sources to examine Jefferson’s idea of Deism, Judeo-Christian values, God’s providence and morals and government. I will deviate from the normal method of citing quotations so that if you don’t have the book you will know in which of Jefferson’s letters the quotation is found so that you can look it up in another venue.

Jefferson and God.

Jefferson, broadly speaking, was a very moral person and devoted to his version of God. In a letter dated 1825, Jefferson’s latter years, he wrote a letter to his son addressing some life issues. The very first issue in his list is, “Adore God.” (2), [up] the earth itself and all that it contains, rather than do an immoral act.” (3) For Jefferson a person’s relationship with God was a very private affair. He wrote to Richard Rush “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.” (4)

As a person journeys through Jefferson’s letters, it becomes evident he had a select few to whom he opened himself up on the question of religion. So, at the very least while someone might argue with Jefferson and his views about whom God is and what constitutes an immoral act he was clearly devoted to his God and virtue. Jefferson profusely addresses morality throughout his letters. In 1785, Jefferson admonished Peter Carr that “The defects of these virtues can never be made up by all the other acquirements of body and mind. Make these then your first object. Give up money, give up fame, give up science, give the earth itself and all it contains, rather than do an immoral act. And never supposed, that in any possible situation, or under any circumstances , it is best for you to do a dishonorable thing, however slightly so it may appear to you.” (5)

The issue in this article is Jefferson’s belief about God. Theologically there are a number of views about Deity. The two at issue in this article is Deism and Theism. Theism is the belief there are three beings who are one God. Jefferson clearly dismissed this view and so would be considered outside the mainstream of popular Christianity. Jefferson wrote to Wells and Lilly:

“I make you my acknowledgment for the sermon on the Unity of God, and am glad to see our country looking that question in the face. It must end in a return to primitive christianity, and the disbandment of the unintelligible Athanasian jargon of 3. being 1. and 1. being 3. this sermon is one of the strongest pieces against it.” (6)

Clearly, Jefferson had no respect for the doctrine of the Trinity, and it colored his view of Jesus for he rejected the teaching that Jesus was Deity. In fact, Jefferson said, “I can never join Calvin in addressing his god. He was indeed an Atheist, which I can never be . . . If ever man worshipped a false god he did.” (7) Part of the reason Jefferson discounted Calvin was because Jefferson was a materialist. (8) Jefferson did not have a problem calling God spirit. What he would ask is, What is this spirit made of? Since, he argued, Scripture did not say then it is possible this spirit was made up of a form of materialism. It must also be noted Jefferson applied the word atheist to anyone who believed in a triune God, clearly using it outside the mainstream. (9)

Jefferson and Deism

Jefferson’s definition of atheism is not mainstream. This is important in order to understand the term deism. European Deism argues the world as a machine using Isaac Newton’s physical theories of mechanics. A creator god produced this mechanical world and then stepped back from it allowing it to run on its inherent power. The implication of Deism is that this god does not involve himself in our world in any manner whatsoever. This means no miracles, providence or answers to prayers. Mankind is simply created, wound up, let go, runs out of energy, dies and ends before the seat of judgment.

Jefferson implicitly declares himself a Deist but his definition of Deism like atheism is also not mainstream. Some Skeptics have argued that Jefferson never called himself a Deist but this argument is disingenuous. (10) Jefferson specifically used the word Unitarian to describe his theology. Yet, he divided the world primarily into two religious camps—the Deist and Atheist.

Jefferson rejected the “atheist” camp (Calvin and the Triune God) and implicitly tied the doctrine of one God to Unitarianism. He stated, “I rejoice that in this blessed country of free inquiry and belief, which has surrendered its creed and conscience to neither kings nor priests, the genuine doctrine of one only God is reviving, and I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die an Unitarian.” (11)

In addition, Jefferson was a follower of Jesus’ moral teachings, and he refers to Jesus as a Deist. Despite the fact Jefferson did not specifically call himself a Deist, he does so by implication and association. He declares to Dr. Benjamin Rush “II. Jews. I. Their system was Deism; that is, the belief of one only God.” (12) He believed that the Jews had corrupted their Deism, and speaking of Jesus “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.” (12)

Jefferson accepted this particular theological view and therefore, is rightly called a Deist. Jefferson calls his Deistic God Creator, (13) the Almighty, (14) giver of life, (15) Maker, (16) and an intelligent and powerful Agent. (17) Each of Jefferson’s descriptions fits within the theological opinions of European Deism.

Jefferson and Jesus

Nevertheless, Skeptics believe that merely referring to Jefferson as a Deist and throwing around a few out of context quotations tells the whole story and that we are forced to conclude that Jefferson was not a Christian and therefore, did not hold to Judeo-Christian values. Following on this assumption, they conclude the American Republican system is purely secular. But before a final conclusion is drawn about Jefferson’s Deism, his beliefs about Jesus must also be explored.

Jefferson called both Epicurus and Jesus, Master.(18) He seemed to be a collector of ideas rather than a follower of any one individual. Nevertheless, Jefferson had the highest regard for Jesus, praising him “who sensible of incorrectness of their ideas of the Deity, and of morality, endeavored to bring them to the principles of a purer deism, and juster notions of the attributes of God, . . .” (19)

Despite the corrupted condition of Scripture Jefferson believed enough of a picture of Jesus existed for him to conclude Jesus was “the most benevolent the most eloquent and sublime character that ever has been exhibited to man.” (20) Also, in response to Dr. Rush, Jefferson argued that “A development of this head will evince the peculiar superiority of the system of Jesus over all others,” (21) referring to Jesus as “the great reformer of the Jewish religion.” (22)

In addition, Jefferson argued Jesus’ moral system “is presented to us, which, if filled up in the true style and spirit of the rich fragments he left us, would be the most perfect and sublime that has ever been taught by men.” (23) Jefferson believed Jesus’ moral system was superior to any other moral system when he stated “A development of this head will evince the peculiar superiority of the system of Jesus over all others.” (24)

He continues that “He pushed his scrutinies into the heart of man; erected his tribunal in the region of thoughts, and purified the waters at the fountain head.” (25) Clearly, Jefferson held Jesus and his moral system in the highest regard even above Epicurus’ arguing, “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 infidel . . .” (26)

The Platonists refer to Calvin, his teachings and those who believe in the doctrine of the triune God. Jefferson believed himself to be a Christian because he followed Jesus’ moral doctrines. The “morsel” is Jefferson’s book which he called “the Philosophy of Jesus.” (27) Some disingenuously call it “Jefferson’s Bible.” In reality the book was merely a condensed version of Jesus’ moral principles which Jefferson wanted missionaries to use when they went to convert the Indians to Christianity.

Here is what we can conclude about Jefferson to this point: He held Jesus’ moral teachings above any other moral system and because of this he believed himself to be a Christian. What is significant is that Jesus’ moral teachings are the heart of Judeo-Christian values.

Jefferson and God’s Activity in this World

Now, what we have examined so far does not provide the reader with the full picture of Jefferson’s religious beliefs. Jefferson autobiographically declared to Ezra Stiles Ely, “You say you are a Calvinist. I am not. I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know.” (28) Skeptics tend to post this quotation as well as others without any background information or explanations as to what Jefferson might meant by what he said. (29)

Jefferson’s statement is odd. His ideas about Deism, his rejection of Jesus’ deity, and his beliefs about the inspiration and of Scripture seemed to be theologically liberal and clearly in line with Unitarian beliefs. So, why did he see himself as a sect of one? Jefferson’s writings provide some clues which might help us correctly interpret Jefferson’s sect statement.

Jefferson believed God acted in the world of his time. Deism, European style, did not allow for the God’s intervention in this world in any form. Obviously, Jefferson denied God literally came into this world and became Jesus as the Calvinists of his day argued. Nevertheless, Jefferson made some very un-Deistic statements in some of his letters.

I am simply going to list the quotations which are generally conclusions to his letters. Generally a letter’s salutation and conclusion do not require a context to understand what the author meant by what he said. For this reason I will simply record the conclusions which bear upon the subject.

* “I hope in God this article will be rectified before the new constitution is accepted.“ (30)

* “May Heaven favor your cause, and make you the channel thro’ which it may pour it’s favor. (31)

* “En attendant, God bless you.” (32)

* “But thank heaven the American mind is already too much opened, to listen to these impostures; . . . (33)

* “God bless you, and preserve you still for a season of usefulness to your country.” (34)

* “By monuments of such good offices, may your life become an epoch in the history of the condition of man; and may He who called it into being, for the good of the human family, give it length of days and success, and have it always in his holy keeping.” (35)

* “God bless you, my excellent friend, and give you yet many healthy and happy years.” (36)

* “Though separated from my fellow laborers in place and pursuit my affections are with you all, and I offer daily prayers that ye love one another, as I love you. God bless you.” (37)

* “And so endeth the book of Kings, from all of whom the Lord deliver us, and have you, my friend, and all such good men and true, in his holy keeping.” (38)

* “God bless you, and give you to see all these things, and many and long years of health and happiness.” (39)

* “That your success may be as speedy & complete, as it will be of honorable & immortal consolation to yourself, I shall as fervently and sincerely pray as I assure you of my great friendship and respect.” (40)

* “God bless you and preserve you in bodily health.” In his letter to William Short. (41)

* “God bless you, and all our rulers, and give them the wisdom, as I am sure they have the will, to fortify us against the degeneracy of one government, and the concentration of all its powers in the hand of the one, the few, the well-born or the many.” (42)

* “God bless you and preserve you multos anõs.” (43)

This list is important because it shows the Skeptics’ conclusions about Jefferson being a European Deist is false. It shows that Jefferson had an unconventional view of the activities of his Deistic God. Each of the above quotations provides evidence Jefferson believed God did act within his physical world which is diametrically opposed to mainstream Deistic teachings. If Jefferson did not believe that his Deistic God acted within his physical world then his statements and conclusions were disingenuous at best.

Jefferson and Providence

Yet, there is more. Twice Jefferson referred and appealed to Providence. He states to Dr. Rush that “Providence has in fact so established the order of things, as that most evils are the means of producing some good.” (44) To Thomas Jefferson Smith, in one of his final letters, Jefferson admonished “Murmur not at the ways of Providence.” (45)

Interestingly, Jefferson does not define his idea of Providence. To grasp Jefferson’s understanding of what Providence could do we need to look at his view of Deity as well as how the word was employed in his day. This article has clearly documented that Jefferson was an unconventional Deist, who believes God acted within his physical world. In addition, Jefferson implicitly ties the term Providence to his God by capitalizing the term as he does when he refers to his Deistic God. For this reason we can conclude that Jefferson believes the Providence to the same as his Deistic God.

Since Jefferson does not redefine the term Providence, as he does Atheist and implicitly Deism, logically, therefore, we can draw the conclusion that his understanding of the concept of Providence is mainstream for his day in America. In the America of Jefferson’s day, Providence refers to the God who actively guides the affairs of men in this world. George Washington, Joseph Warren, Samuel Adams, Patrick Henry, John Hancock, John Adams, Elbridge Gerry, William Ellery, Richard Stockton, John Witherspoon, Benjamin Franklin and many others in his day believed the God of the Bible was Providence and providentially guiding the events of that era.

In the Federalist No. 37 (January 11, 1788), Madison reveals the astonishment that he and others of his day had at what they were to able to accomplish at the Constitutional convention. In describing the event he says “It is impossible for any man of candor to reflect on this circumstance without partaking of the astonishment. It is impossible for the man of pious reflection not to perceive in it a finger of that Almighty hand which has been so frequently and signally extended to our relief in the critical stages of the revolution.”

Jefferson clearly had significant theological differences with others in his day, yet his understanding of Providence was mainstream. In his first inaugural address Jefferson ends his address saying that he would repair to the work for which the people had chosen him and for as long as they would have him nevertheless, he reveals he understands his limitations and then speaking of Providence he says “And may that Infinite Power which rules the destinies of the universe lead our councils to what is best, and give them a favorable issue for your peace and prosperity.” (46)

In Jefferson’s second inaugural address he declares to his listeners that he is concerned that his human weakness and limited human understanding might produce judgmental errors which might be injurious to the people. So, he says “I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life; who has covered our infancy with His providence and our riper years with His wisdom and power, and to whose goodness I ask you to join in supplications with me that He will so enlighten the minds of your servants, guide their councils, and prosper their measures that whatsoever they do shall result in your good, and shall secure to you the peace, friendship, and approbation of all nations.” (47) Clearly, Jefferson believed his God acts within his physical world actively guiding his decisions providing the wisdom he would need to guide America.

Jefferson and Government

Jefferson believed morality, ethics, and government is interconnected being dependent upon each other. He said “[I consider] ethics, as well as religion, as supplements to law in the government of man.” (48) Jefferson like many of his modern counterparts fails to understand that ethics (morality) is based on religion and in his world that religion is Christianity. Nevertheless, today, Skeptics have declared a Jihad of secularization. This American-based Jihad has declared war against believers in general but especially against those who argue historically that our nation is built on Judeo-Christian principles.

This Jihadist movement declares Thomas Jefferson their inspiration in this battle yet Jefferson, like the vast majority of all those of his day, refused to separate government activity from moral and religious issues. Jefferson wrote to Monroe tying politics, the government, to morals. He said “Political interest [can] never be separated in the long run from moral right.” (49) Jefferson believed in the “separation of church and state” in the sense that the Federal government is to have no say in religious matters nevertheless, he was for the fusion of Biblical morality and government because he believed governmental issues cannot and ought not be separated from moral issues.

The question which now must be raised is, To which form of morality did Jefferson refer? Jefferson claimed he had two masters, Epicurus and Jesus, but it was Jesus’ moral principles that Jefferson claimed was the greatest set of principles ever provided to man. Jesus’ moral principles are the heart of Judeo-Christian principles. Jefferson’s religious beliefs are not mainstream even within the Unitarian denomination because he believed his Deistic God did act within his physical world.

Additionlly, Jefferson’s beliefs about Jesus are not mainstream yet he accepted Jesus’ moral principles as the greatest ever and these were the principles he lived by and implicitly claimed are the morals which were to guide those in the government. In this case Jefferson is mainstream for the morals he held to are the heart and soul of what are called Judeo-Christian principles.

Conclusion

Thomas Jefferson is the hero for Skeptics in their Jihad to create an unnatural division between the secular, government and morals. Jefferson was a Unitarian Deist, believed the Scriptures had been corrupted and that Jesus was not Deity. Also Jefferson believed that Scripture had been corrupted in its transmission. Yet, despite the transmissional problems with Scripture he argued that the only source for Jesus’ moral values is Scripture.

Yet, despite the popular picture Skeptics paint of Jefferson, Jefferson believed his God did act within his physical world, Jesus’ moral principles is the greatest system man has been given without exception,
political aspirations cannot and should not be separated from moral principles and Jefferson’s moral system was Jesus’ moral standard. In this Jefferson was mainstream.

Yet, Jesus’ moral system is in fact the heart of what is called Judeo-Christian values. Therefore, despite the Skeptics argument that our country is not based on Judeo-Christian principles and hold up Jefferson as the poster child for their Jihad, the fact is Jefferson both explicitly and implicitly argued that America was founded upon Judeo-Christian principles and these principles were found in the Bible.

There is a religious, political and economic Jihad against our nation. This Jihad is about secularizing our nation and removing Christianity from the public square in all forms. These Skeptics are not using guns or violence, at least, not yet but the school systems, books, blogs and the court systems to rewrite history.

If our nation is to survive as a Democratic Republic, as described by Jefferson and instituted by the Framers of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, we must return to the Judeo-Christian values upon which this nation was founded the very moral system Jefferson called the greatest and most sublime given to humanity.

Endnotes

1) Merrill D. Peterson, Thomas Jefferson, Writings (Literary Classics of the United States, Inc.: New York, N.Y.)

2) To Thomas Jefferson Smith, Monticello, February 21, 1825.

3) To Peter Carr, Paris, August 19, 1785.

4) Jefferson’s Religious Beliefs, http://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/jeffersons-religious-beliefs

5) To Peter Carr, Paris, August 19, 1785.

6) The Classical Press, To Wells and Lilly, Monticello, April 1, 1818.

7) To John Adams, Monticello, April, 11, 1823.

8) Ibid

9) To John Adams, August 15, 1820

10) Lewis Lofton, Thomas Jefferson: Deist or Christian? Debunking Dr. James Kennedy, (Deism date unknown) http://www.sullivan-county.com/deism/jefferson_deist.htm (accessed August 17, 2012)

11) To Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, Monticello, June 26 1822

12) To Dr. Benjamin Rush, Washington, April 21, 1803.

13) Ibid

14) To Major John Cartwright, Monticello, June 5, 1824

15) To Martha Jefferson, Annapolis, December 11, 1783

16) To James Monroe, Monticello, May 20, 1782

17) To Martha Jefferson, Annapolis, December 11, 1783

18) To William Short, with a Syllabus, Monticello, October 31, 1819

19) To Dr. Joseph Priestly, Washington, April 9, 1803

20) Ibid

21) To Dr. Benjamin Rush, with a Syllabus, Washington, April 21, 1803

22) To Samuel Kerchaval, Monticello, January 19, 1810

23) To Dr. Benjamin Rush, with a Syllabus, Washington, April 21, 1803

24) Ibid

25) Ibid

26) To Charles Thomson, Monticello, January 9, 1816

27) Ibid

28) To Erza Stiles, Monticello June 25, 1819

29) Positive Atheism, Thomas Jefferson On Religion and Liberty, (Positive Atheism, date unknown) http://www.positiveatheism.org/hist/quotes/jefferson.htm (accessed August 17, 2012)

30) To William Smith, Paris, November 13, 1787

31) To Lafayette, Philadelphia June 16, 1792

32) To Mrs. Church, Germantown, November 27th, 1793

33) To William Green Munford, Monticello, June 18, 1799

34) To General Thaddeus Kosciusko, Washington, April 2, 1802

35) To the Emperor Alexander, Washington, April 19, 1806

36) To John Dickinson, Washington, January 13, 1807

37) To Caesar A. Rodney, Monticello, February 10, 1810

38) To Governor John Langdon, Monticello, March 5, 1810

39) To To General Thaddeus Kosciusko, Monticello, June 28, 1802

40) To Edward Coles, Monticello, August 25, 1814

41) To William Short, Monticello, November 28, 1814

42) To Joseph Cabell, Monticello, February 2, 1816

43) To Albert Gallatin, Monticello, December 26, 1820

44) To Dr. Benjamin Rush, Monticello, September 23, 1800

45) To Thomas Jefferson Smith, Monticello, February 2, 1825

46) First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1801

47) Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1805

48) To Augustus B. Woodward, 1824.

49) To James Monroe, 1806

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Comments
  1. Attack is the best defence.

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