The Jefferson Bible
by Fr. John Hardon
Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and
third President of the United States, was characterized by some of
his contemporaries as "the arch-apostle of the cause of irreligion
and freethought." Even impartial historians are forced to
conclude that he had "deistic leanings," and that his friendship
with notorious infidels like Thomas Paine did "much to propagate
deistic views" in the early years of the American Republic.
However, there is another side to Jefferson's character which is not
so well known as the negative one of his antipathy to organized
religion. Whatever else may be said in his favor, it must be
admitted that he had a reverence and respect for the person and
teachings of Jesus Christ which according to his limited vision he
tried to put into practice. The purpose of this study will not be to
prove that Jefferson was a Christian, or that he was not a deist. It
will only be to present a piece of historical evidence which should
indicate that the full Jefferson portrait has not yet been painted,
at least on the side of his religious beliefs. There is no need to
point out how important is a just estimate of Jefferson in this
matter, since much of the present-day controversy in America over
the relations of Church and State revolves around the pivotal
question of what our Founding Fathers intended to legislate on the
subject of religion; and their intention, it is safe to say, was an
expression of their own religious convictions.
HISTORY OF THE JEFFERSON BIBLE
The so-called Jefferson Bible, or more accurately, , is now the property of the United
States National Museum at Washington, having been obtained by
purchase in 1895. It is a small folio booklet, some 8 by 4 inches in
area and one inch thick. There are 83 leaves to the book, which is
bound in red leather, and on the title page, in Jefferson's
handwriting, is the caption, "The Life and Morals of Jesus of
Nazareth, Extracted Textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin,
French and English." Except for two maps of Palestine and Asia
Minor, which are inserted among the leaves, the whole volume is a
compilation of four parallel columns of Gospel texts, two to a page,
in the four languages mentioned in the title. The texts are not
written but were cut out of printed copies of Greek, Latin, French
and English Testaments and pasted in this book of blank pages.
It is not certain exactly when Jefferson composed this collection of
the sayings of Jesus. The closest estimate is the winter of 1816-17,
or about nine years before his death. From his correspondence,
however, we know that he had been thinking about the project as
early as 1803. In a letter which he wrote to the chemist, Joseph
Priestley, he congratulated the latter for his comparative review of
Socrates and Jesus, adding that in his opinion the Gospels contained
much extraneous matter. By careful pruning, he thought a selection
could be made of those sayings which were absolutely the words of
Jesus Himself. A week later he wrote a friend that he considered
"the moral precepts of Jesus as more pure, correct and sublime than
those of the ancient philosophers." On April 21, 1803, he wrote
to Dr. Rush, a physician and sincere Christian, sending him the
syllabus of an evaluation of the doctrines of Christ compared with
those of other great teachers. Secretive by nature, Jefferson
explained that he was sending this for his own eye and indicated its
In confiding it to you, I know it will not be exposed to the
malignant perversions of those who make every word from me a text
for new misrepresentations and calumnies. I am, moreover, averse to
the communication of my religious tenets to the public, because it
would countenance the presumption of those who have endeavoured to
draw them before that tribunal, and to seduce public opinion to
erect itself into that inquest over the rights of conscience, which
the laws have so justly proscribed. It behooves every man who values
liberty of conscience for himself to resist invasions of it in the
case of others, or their case may, by change of circumstances,
become his own.
Late in January of the following year, Jefferson wrote to Priestly
from Washington, how pleased he was to hear he had undertaken to
make a detailed study of the doctrines of Jesus compared with those
of the ancient philosophers:
I think you cannot avoid giving, as preliminary to the comparison, a
digest of his moral doctrines, extracted in his own words from the
Evangelists, and leaving out everything relative to his personal
history and character. It would be short and precious. With a view
to do this for my own satisfaction, I had sent to Philadelphia to
get two testaments (Greek) of the same edition, and two English,
with a design to cut out the morsels of morality, and paste them on
the leaves of a book in the manner you describe as having been
pursued in forming your Harmony. But I shall now get the thing done
by better hands.
This is the first clear statement of Jefferson that he planned to
prepare such a book, which he decided at the time not to do himself
but to have Priestley compose. But Priestley died in the same year
(1804), and so the project was not carried into effect. Finally in
1813, John Quincy Adams prevailed upon Jefferson to compose the work
which he had handed over to Priestley, and sent to the ax-President
all of Priestley's unfinished drafts, saying that he did so because
"I wish it may stimulate you."
Writing to Adams from Monticello, Oct. 12, 1813, Jefferson gives a
description of the proposed volume as follows:
We must reduce our volume to the simple Evangelists, select, even
from them, the very words only of Jesus, paring off the
amphiboligisms into which they have been led, by forgetting often,
or not understanding, what had fallen from him, by giving their own
misconceptions as his dicta, and expressing unintelligibly for
others what they had not understood themselves. There will be found
remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has
ever been offered to man. I have performed this operation for my own
use, by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and
arranging the matter which is evidently his and which is as easily
distinguished as diamonds in a dunghill. The result is an octavo of
From this it would seem that Jefferson made two such books, one a
volume of 46 pages, and the other an enlargement which has come down
to us as the Jefferson Bible.
Under date of Jan. 29, 1815, he confided in a letter to Charles Clay
that he had finished making the extracts from the four Gospels:
"Probably you have heard me say I had taken the four Evangelists,
had cut out from them every text they had recorded of the moral
precepts of Jesus, and arranged them in a certain order, and
although they appeared but as fragments, yet fragments of the most
sublime edifice of morality which had ever been exhibited to
Consistent with his previous intention, in this letter Jefferson
declares he does not wish to publish the compilation, saying: "I not
only write nothing on religion, but rarely permit myself to speak on
More revealing still is Jefferson's letter to Charles Thompson, in
commenting on Thompson's interest in the moral teachings of Jesus
I, too, have made a wee little book from the same materials, which I
call the Philosophy of Jesus; it is a paradigma 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 or subject. A more
beautiful or precious morsel of ethics I have never seen; it is
document in proof that I am a real Christian, that is to say, a
disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.
Towards the end of the letter, Jefferson makes a statement which
suggests that he is not describing the volume now in the National
Museum, but the preliminary one of 46 pages, for he says: "If I had
time I would add to my little book the Greek, Latin and French
texts, in columns side by side."
Later in the same year, in a letter to a certain Vanderkemp,
Jefferson gives further details as to how he made this preliminary
volume. After explaining how careful he was that the syllabus should
not get out in connection with his name, being unwilling to draw on
himself "a swarm of insects, whose buzzing is more disquieting than
their bite," he continued:
I made, for my own satisfaction, an extract from the Evangelists of
the text of His morals, selecting those only whose style and spirit
proved them genuine, and his own.... It was too hastily done,
however, being the work of one or two evenings only, while I lived
at Washington, overwhelmed with other business, and it is my
intention to go over it again at more leisure. This shall be the
work of the ensuing winter.
Vanderkemp was himself publishing a book in the near future, and
inquired of Jefferson if he might incorporate into it the latter's
syllabus from the Gospels. Jefferson agreed with the following
proviso: "I ask only one condition, that no possibility shall be
admitted of my name being even intimated with the publication."
Three years later, Jefferson was still planning to expand his Gospel
collection into something more substantial. This is the last
reference in his published and manuscript writings to the "Morals of
Jesus." He wrote from Monticello to William Short: "The last I
attempted too hastily some 12 or 15 years ago. It was the work of 2
or 3 nights only, at Washington, after getting through the evening
task of reading the letters and papers of the day."
As previously stated, the larger syllabus of 83 leaves was composed
some time in 1816 or 1817. The earlier compilation of parallel texts
in English only is last known to have been in the possession of his
grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph. A remarkable fact is the
secrecy in which Jefferson managed to keep both collections of the
sayings of Jesus. Neither syllabus was known to his grandchildren
until after Jefferson's death when they inherited his papers. It was
then also for the first time they learned that he was in the habit
of reading from these extracts every night before going to bed.
The subsequent history of the larger collection is briefly told. The
National Government had purchased Jefferson's papers and had
published an edition of his writings. Public interest was expressed
particularly in the "Bible of Thomas Jefferson" after it came into
the possession of the United States National Museum, and it was in
consequence of this interest that the Fifty-seventh Congress in its
first session passed the following resolution:
That there be printed and bound, by photo-lithographic process, with
an introduction of not to exceed twenty-five pages, to be prepared
by Dr. Cyrus Adler, Librarian of the Smithsonian Institution, for
the use of Congress, 9,000 copies of Thomas Jefferson's , as the same appears in the National Museum;
3,000 copies for the use of the Senate and 6,000 copies for the use
of the House.
CONTENTS OF THE JEFFERSON BIBLE
The photo-lithographic copy of the Jefferson Bible as printed by
Congress has two main sections, following a 19-page introduction.
The first is a Table of Contents, written long-hand in ink by
Jefferson himself, followed by the inserted clippings from the four
New Testaments as described above. Before evaluating the selections
themselves, it will be worthwhile to transcribe the entire Table of
Contents, thus allowing the reader to get a bird's eye view, as it
were, of Jefferson's "profession of faith." The transcription here
given will cover all the details of the original, including
spelling, abbreviations, numeration and corrections:
A Table of the Texts [of this Extract] employed in this Narrative
from the Evangelists and of the order of their arrangement
Page 1. Luke 2. 1-7. Joseph & Mary go to Bethlehem where Jesus is
born. 21, 39. he is circumcised & named & they return to Nazareth.
40, 42-48, 51, 52. at 12 years of age he accompanies his parents to
Jerusalem and returns.
Page 2. L. 3. 1-2. Mk. 1. 4. Mt. 3. 4, 5, 6. John baptizes in
Jordan. Mt. 3. 13. Jesus is baptized. L. 3. 23. at 30 years of age.
Page 3. J. 2. 12-16. drives the traders out of the temple. J. 3.
22. Mt. 4. 12. Mk. 6. 17-28. he baptizes but returns into Galilee on
the death of John.
Page 4. Mk. 1. 21-22. he teaches in the Synagogues.
Page 5. Mt. 12. 1-5, 9-12. Mk. 2. 27. Mt. 12. 14-15. explains the
Sabbath. L. 6. 12-17. call of his disciples.
Pages 6 to 15. Mt. 5. 1-12. L. 6. 24-26. Mt. 5. 13-47. L. 6. 34-36.
Mt. 6. 1-34. Mt. 7. 1-2. L. 6. 30. Mt. 7. 3-20. 12. 35-37. 7.
24-29. The Sermon in the Mount. Mt. 8. 1. Mk. 6. 6. Mt. 11. 28-30.
Page 16. L. 7. 36-36. a woman anointeth him.
Page 17. Mk. 3. 31-35. L. 12. 1-7, 13-15. precepts.
Page 18. L. 12. 16-21. parable of the rich man. 22-48. 54, 59. L.
13. 1-5. precepts.
Page 21. L. 13. 6-9. parable of the fig tree.
Page 22. L. 11. 37-46, 52-54. precepts.
Page 23. Mt. 13. 1-9. Mk. 4. 10. Mt. 13. 18-23. parable of the
Pages 24.25 Mk. 4. 21-23. precepts. Mt. 13. 24-30, 36-52. parable of
Pages 26.27 Mk. 4. 26-34. L. 9. 57-62. L. 5. 27-29. Mk. 2. 15-17.
precepts. L. 5. 36-38. parable of new wine in old bottles.
Page 28. Mt. 13. 53-57. a prophet hath no honor in his own country.
Page 29. Mt. 9. 36. Mk. 6. 7. Mt. 10. 5-6, 9-18, 23, 26-31. Mk. 6.
12, 30. mission, instruction, return of Apostles.
Pages 30.31 J. 7. 1. Mk. 7. 1-15, 14-24. Mt. 18. 1-4, 7-9, 12-17,
Pages 32.33. Mt. 18. 23-35. parable of the wicked servant.
Page 34. L. 10. 1-8, 10-12. mission of the LXX.
Page 35. J. 7. 2-16, 19-26, 32, 43-53. the feast of the tabernacles.
Page 36. J. 8. 1-11. the woman taken in adultery.
Page 37. J. 9. 1-3. to be born blind no proof of sin. J. 10. 1-5,
11-14, 16. the good shepherd.
Page 38. L. 10. 25-37. love god and thy neighbor. parable of the
Page 39. L. 11. 1-13. form of prayer.
Page 40. L. 14. 1-6. the Sabbath.
Page 41. 7-24. the bidden to a feast.
Page 42. 28-32. precepts.
Pages 43.44. L. 15. 1-32. parables of the lost sheep and Prodigal
Page 45. L. 16. 1-15. parable of the unjust steward.
Page 46. 18-31. parable of Lazarus.
Page 48. L. 17. 1-4, 7-10, 20, 26-36. precepts to be always ready.
Page 49. L. 18. 1-14. parables of the widow and judge, the Pharisee
Pages 50.51. L. 10. 38-42. Mt. 19. 1-26. precepts.
Page 52. Mt. 20. 1-16. parable of the laborers in the vineyard.
Page 54. L. 19. 1-28. Zaccheus, & the parable of the talents.
Page 56. Mt. 21. 1-3, 6-8, 10. J. 12. 19-24. Mt. 21. 17. goes to
Jerusalem & Bethany Mk. 11. 12, 15-19. the traders cast out from the
temple. Mk. 11. 27. Mt. 21. 27-31. parable of the two sons.
Page 57. Mt. 21. 33. Mk. 12. 1-9. Mt. 21. 45-46. parable of the
vineyard & husbandman.
Page 58. Mt. 22. 1-14. parable of the king and wedding.
Page 59. 15-33. tribute, marriage, resurrection.
Page 60. Mk. 12. 18-31. Mt. 22. 40. Mk. 12. 32-33. the two
Pages 61.62. Mt. 23. 1-33. precepts, pride, hypocrisy, swearing.
Page 63. Mk. 12. 41-44. the widow's mite.
Page 64. Mt. 24. 1-2, 16-21, 32-33, 36-39, 4044. Jerusalem & the day
of judgment. 45-51. the faithful and wise servant.
Page 65. Mt. 25. 1-13. parable of the ten virgins.
Page 66. 14-30. parable of the talents.
Pages 67.68. L. 21. 34-36. Mt. 25. 31-46. the day of judgment.
Page 69. Mk. 14. 1-8. a woman anointeth him. Mt. 26. 14-16. Judas
undertakes to point out Jesus.
Pages 70.71. 17-20. L. 22. 24-27. J. 13. 2, 4-17, 21-26, 31, 34-45,
Mt. 26. 31-33. washes their feet.
Page 72. L. 22. 33-34. Mt. 26. 35-45. precepts to his disciples,
washes their feet, trouble of mind and prayer.
Page 73. J. 18. 1-3. Mt. 26. 48-50. Judas conducts the officers to
Page 74. J. 18. 4-8. Mt. 26. 50-52, 55-56. Mk. 14. 51-52. Mt. 26.
57. J. 18. 15-16, 17.
Page 75. J. 18. 25-27. Mt. 26. 75. J. 18. 19-23. Mk. 14. 55-61. L.
22. 67-68, 70. Mk. 14. 63-65. he is arrested & carried before
Caiphas the Highpriest & is condemned.
Page 76. J. 18. 28-31, 33-38. L. 23. 5. Mt. 27. 13. is then carried
Page 77. L. 23. 6-12. who sends him to Herod.
Page 78. L. 23. 13-16. Mt. 27. 15-23, 26. receives him back,
scourges and delivers him to execution.
Pages 79.80. Mt. 27. 27, 29-31, 3-8. L. 23. 26-32. J. 19. 17-24. Mt.
Page 81. L. 23. 39-41, 34. J. 19. 25-27. Mt. 27. 46-50, 55-56. his
crucifixion, death and burial.
Page 82. J. 19. 31-34, 38-42. Mt. 27. 60. his burial.
Following this Table of Contents are a number of blank pages,
seven to be exact; these in turn followed by a full page title, in
long hand, which reads: "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth
Extracted Textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French and
Next come the two folded maps previously referred to, cut out of a
book, with the printed numbers "1" and "414" on each,
respectively. Then begin the inserted extracts, roughly ten to
fourteen verses per column, down page, with two columns to a page.
The first three columns are in small print, the fourth in English is
large type. Marked along the right hand margin are the chapters, Mt.
8, L. 19, etc., from which the corresponding verses were drawn.
Occasional errors of placement are the only blemish in an otherwise
scrupulously neat-looking compilation. All told there are exactly
990 verses extracted and collected in the brochure. Most of them are
from the Gospels of St. Matthew and St., Luke; very few from St.
John, although the Joannine selections are noteworthy. For example:
Jesus driving the traffickers out of the temple, the Parable of the
Good Shepherd, Judas' betrayal of Christ, Trial of Christ before the
Highpriest, and Peter's denial of Christ.
In accordance with his plan to give extracts from the life and
morals of Jesus, Jefferson simply eliminated everything in the
Gospels which involves what are technically called strict mysteries,
as well as all comments of the Evangelists on the doctrines of
Christ. Thus every reference to the Divinity of Christ, Baptism, the
Eucharist, and the Primacy is omitted. For this reason also the
fourth Gospel is practically ignored. Not a single miracle of Christ
is listed; so much so that where a moral precept occurs in a
miraculous context, the precept will be cut out of its setting,
verses skipped if necessary, in order to avoid quoting a miraculous
event. To illustrate this prejudice against miracles, we may examine
what Jefferson does when he quotes the long instruction of Christ
regarding divorce, recorded in the first Gospel. Verses 1 to 3 of
chapter 19 in Matthew, which begin the instruction, read as follows
in the full text:
And it came to pass that when Jesus had finished these sayings, he
departed from Galilee, and came into the coasts of Judea beyond
And great multitudes followed him, .
The Pharisees also came unto him, tempting him, and saying unto him:
Is it lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause?
Jefferson quotes these verses in sequence, and beyond them to verse
26 inclusive. Yet out of all these twenty-six verses, he cut out of
the printed English text just five words, italicized above in verse
2, namely, ". . . and he cured them there." In the Greek, the
words excised with a knife and a blank left are . . . , with corresponding blanks also in the
Latin and French versions.
The same sort of excision is found throughout the collection, not
only with regard to the miracles of Christ but in every case where
reference is made to the supernatural life or to supernatural means
of sanctification. To take only one example each from the other
three Gospels, St. Mark in the first chapter, verse 4, relates that:
"John did baptize in the wilderness " Jefferson carefully cut
out the italicized portion. St. Luke in the second chapter
describes the return of Jesus from Jerusalem to Nazareth at the age
of twelve, saying, "And he went down with them, and came to
Nazareth, and was subject unto them; And Jesus increased in wisdom and
stature " Again the italicized
phrases are deleted. In the Gospel according to St. John, the
Evangelist begins the narrative of the Last Supper with the words:
"And supper being ended, , he riseth
from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel and
girded himself." The whole center portion of the narrative is
SIGNIFICANCE OF THE JEFFERSON BIBLE
In order to appreciate the importance of the Jefferson Bible certain
items should be called to mind. The weight of historical evidence
"is abundant to prove Jefferson a deist who shared the views and
attitudes in matters of religion that were common to the English
deists" of his day. Unfortunately the term "deist" has been used
so indiscriminately by secular historians that it is hard to know
just what it means in a particular context, and here as applied to
Jefferson. On the one hand epithets like "infidel," "atheist," and
"materialist" leveled at him by the colonial clergy are suspect
because they were used by his personal enemies. On the other
hand there are so many incriminating statements in Jefferson's
writings, especially his letters, that an unbiased reader is led to
conclude that if the Sage of Monticello was not an infidel, he was
only a shade removed from infidelity. For instance, the following
communication to John Adams seems to bear out Jefferson's own
confession that, "I am a materialist." He writes:
I feel bodies which are not myself: there are other existences then.
I call them matter. I feel them changing place. This gives me
. Where there is an absence of matter, I call it , or
, or . On the basis of sensation, of
matter and motion, we may erect the fabric of all the certainties we
can have or need.
When once we quit the basis of sensation, all is in the wind. To
talk of existences, is to talk of . To say
that the human soul, angels, God, are immaterial, is to say, they
are , or to say 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 the Lockes, the Tracys and the Stewarts.
The question is, how are these damaging confessions to be
understood? Was Jefferson an atheist not only nominally but really?
And if only nominally, what proof do we have that in real life he
admitted the existence of a personal God in spite of the bizarre
speculations he put on paper when trying to philosophize on his
religious beliefs? It is the writer's opinion that the or the Jefferson Bible give us the key to the problem,
proving that its author was not an infidel but a deist, in the sense
of one who rejects the need of divine revelation and consequently
repudiates any form of established religion, beyond the limits of
independent human reason and will.
That Jefferson believed in God is evident first from his ready
acceptance of the teachings of Christ on the subject, the Lord's
Prayer, the Eight Beatitudes, the Parables of the Unjust Steward and
the Ten Talents, the Sermon on the Mount-all of which presuppose a
belief in the existence of God, the Creator of heaven and earth.
Correlative with this goes the belief in prayer and some kind of
Providence, and to that extent, at least, an acceptance of some kind
of grace, requested for example in the petition, "Deliver us from
evil," in the 
Also the allows us to conclude that Jefferson
believed in some sort of future life, where the good are rewarded
and the wicked punished. Besides the Parables of Lazarus and Dives,
of the Pharisee and Publican, and the Wedding Feast, Jefferson
accepted and extracted the whole discourse of Christ about the Day
of Judgment, in the twenty-fifth chapter of Matthew, not excluding
the classic verse 46, in which Christ foretells: "These will go into
everlasting punishment, but the just into everlasting life."
The need for the practice of virtue and the duty to avoid sin are
equally subscribed to by Jefferson on almost every page of the
Extracts. Apart from the very title, ,
it is noteworthy that practically every selection in the anthology
has to do directly with the observance of the commandments of God.
The Sermon on the Mount is typical. Moreover, the single word
"precepts" occurs ten times in the short Table of Contents; and the
following sins are mentioned by name in the same index: adultery,
injustice, avarice, pride, hypocrisy and swearing. On the side of
virtue, the double precept of the love of God and the neighbor is
referred to twice, apparently the only case of duplication in the
syllabus; it is also the only case in which Jefferson quoted
parallel passages from all three Synoptics, bearing on a single
precept of Christ.
A complete analysis of the would extend to a
volume. And the analysis should be made. For our purpose it is
enough to have seen at some length the contents of this unusual
collection of New Testament extracts, and briefly reviewed its
history and theological importance. However, one question still
remains to be answered. What are we to make of Jefferson's apparent
profession of materialism, quoted above, and referred to elsewhere
in his writings? The answer lies in a closer examination of the
context in which these claims to believe in matter only were made.
Writers on colonial history have not always examined this context,
with consequent injustice done to the author of such statements. For
example, in his letter to Adams, it is true that Jefferson speaks of
"my creed of materialism." But what does he mean? He can only mean
the "materialism" professed by John Locke and the other writers
mentioned. Yet we know that Locke was not a materialist, though he
did say that reason alone is scarcely able to decide for or against
the materiality of the soul. He denied, however, any intention
to undermine belief in the spirituality of the soul. In other words,
while he held on faith that the soul was not material, he did not
see his way clear to proving its immateriality.
In the same context, Jefferson naively appeals to the Fathers of the
Church as witnesses to the materiality of God: "Jesus told us, 'God
is Spirit,' but He has not defined what a spirit is, nor said that
it is not And the ancient fathers generally, of the first
three centuries, held it to be matter light and thin indeed, an
etherial gas; but still matter." Jefferson was certainty wrong
in supposing that the Fathers attributed any materiality to God. But
he was right in saying that many of them held spirit "to be matter,
light and thin." Not a few, for example, Ambrose, Chrysostom,
Jerome, Hilary and Origen believed that finite spirits required a
body as a principle of individuation and limitation. Even in
Scholastic times, the degree of immateriality that belongs to finite
spirits was disputed. Jefferson's error, therefore, lay in using a
speculative opinion regarding finite spirits to explain the
constitution of all reality, created and divine.
A correct estimate of Jefferson's attitude toward religion would I)e
a valuable contribution to the history of Church and State relations
in America. To do him justice, however, we should interpret his
religious convictions not on the sole basis of his scattered
statements where he is trying, and fails, to express himself
properly on matters beyond his capacity, but in the light of the
principles by which he guided his interior life and directed his
personal relations with God. Among the extant writings of Thomas
Jefferson, the is the best single source in which
these principles are recorded.
1 E. Stiles, , edited by F. B. Dexter (New York,
1901), III, 125.
2 Herbert M. Morais, (New
York, 1934), p. 117.
3 John Orr, (Grand Rapids,
1934), p. 216.
4 Quoted by Cyrus Adler in the Introduction to (Washington, 1904), p. 12 (Letter dated April
5 Letter to Edward Dowse, April 19, 1803.
6 Adrienne Koch and William Peden, (New York, 1944), pp. 567-68. This letter with
the enclosed syllabus on the Life of Christ is the most detailed
exposition extant on Jefferson's religious beliefs. In separate
sections he analyzes the doctrines of Christ, first negatively for
their defects and then positively for their merits. On the debit
side, he finds five "disadvantages":
(1) Like Socrates, Christ wrote nothing himself.
(2) The biographers of Jesus were unlettered men.
(3) Jesus preached for only three years.
(4) His doctrines are mostly fragmentary.
(5) Followers of Christ have disfigured his doctrines.
On the credit side, he lists these good qualities:
(1) Jesus corrected and purified the monotheism of the Jews.
(2) His moral doctrine is purer than anything in paganism.
(3) His philosophy penetrated to the heart and will of man
(4) He taught a future life as an incentive to moral conduct.
7 , p. 13 (Letter dated Jan. 29,
8 , p. 14.
9 Koch and Peden, , p. 632. In this letter we have a good
sample of Jefferson's vague knowledge of early Christianity. His
plan is to find for himself the "pure and unsophisticated doctrines"
of the "unlettered Apostles, the Apostolic Fathers and the
Christians of the first century." Those who came after them, he
calls "their Platonizing successors" who, "in order to legitimate
the corruptions which they had incorporated into the doctrines of
Jesus, found it necessary to disavow the primitive Christians" whom
they excommunicated "as heretics, branding them with the opprobrious
name of Ebionites or Beggars" (ibid.).
10 p. 15.
12 , p. 16.
14 , pp. 16-17.
16 Koch and Peden, , p. 695. Before coming to describe his
syllabus, Jefferson rapidly characterizes all the great thinkers of
antiquity in a passage which is worth quoting:
"Epictetus has given us what was good of the Stoics; all beyond, of
their dogmas, being hypocrisy and grimace.... Cicero [was] diffuse,
vapid, rhetorical, but enchanting. His prototype, Plato, eloquent as
himself, dealing out mysticisms incomprehensible to the human mind,
has been deified by certain sects usurping the name of
Christians.... Of Socrates we have nothing genuine but in the
Memorabilia of Xenophon.... Seneca is indeed a fine moralist,
disfiguring his work at times with some Stoicisms. . . . But the
greatest of all the reformers of the depraved religion of His own
country, was Jesus of Nazareth. Abstracting what is really His from
the rubbish in which it is buried . . . we have the outlines of a
system of the most sublime morality which has ever fallen from the
lips of man. Epictetus and Epicurus give laws for governing
ourselves, Jesus a supplement of the duties and charities we owe to
others. The establishment of the innocent and genuine character of
this benevolent Moralist . . . would effect a quiet euthanasia of
the heresies of bigotry and fanaticism which have so long triumphed
over human reason" (ibid., p. 694).
17 p. 19.
18 Jefferson's script is fairly large, easily legible and clearly
reproduced in the photographic copy. In the heading immediately
below. the words in brackets are crossed out in Jefferson's original
19 , leaf 50. Whatever else may be
said about Jefferson's religious ideas, there is no doubt that he
repudiated anything that was formally supernatural. In the letter to
William Short quoted above, in referring to the "artificial systems"
which have been built upon the doctrines of Christ, Jefferson adds a
footnote illustrating what this "artificiality" consists in. He
says: "E.g. The immaculate conception of Jesus, His deification, the
creation of the world by Him, His miraculous powers, His
resurrection and visible ascension, His corporeal presence in the
Eucharist, the Trinity, original sin, atonement, regeneration,
election, orders of Hierarchy, etc." (Koch and Pedan, , p.
20 In this and the other examples cited, the parts of the text
retained by Jefferson are taken from his own version of the Gospels;
the missing texts which are supplied are from the Confraternity
translation of the New Testament.
21 , leaf 2.
23 , leaf 70.
24 Orr, , pp. 211-12.
26 Quoted in Gilbert Chinard, Thomas Jefferson, (Boston, 1948), who says: ". . . one might easily be
misled by some declarations of Jefferson to his more intimate
friends. 'I am a materialist-I am an Epicurian,' he wrote on several
instances to John Adams, Thomas Cooper and Short, with whom he felt
that he could discuss religious questions more freely than with any
others" (p. 521).
27 Koch and Peden, , pp. 700-701. Letter is dated Aug. 15,
1820, and has the following footnote, with reference to the "heresy
of immaterialism" brought into the teachings of Jesus by the
Christian Church: "That of Athanasius and the Council of Nicea, anno
324" (p. 701).
28 Some of Jefferson's strictures on the Deity may be explained by
his violent reaction to the Calvinism of his early days. Shortly
before his death he wrote to John Adams:
"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 worshiped a false God, he did. The being described in
his five 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" (Koch and Peden, , pp. 705-706 [Letter dated April
29 , London, (no date), Bk.
IV, Chap. III, no. 6, where Locke says: "He who will give himself
leave to consider freely, and look into the dark and intricate part
of each hypothesis, will scarce find his reason able to determine
him fixedly for or against the soul's materiality" (p. 442).
31 Koch and Peden, , p, 701.
This article was taken from the June 1954 issue of "The American Ecclesiastical Review."