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The Real Jefferson on Religion

by Robert S. Alley


The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 18, Number 4.


In late May 1998 the Library of Congress opened a new exhibition entitled "Religion and the Founding of the American Republic." The Library's collection of documents is impressive and well displayed. There is just one problem. It and an attending essay, "The Wall of Separation Between Church and State: What Jefferson Originally Wrote and What It Means" by Chief of Manuscripts Dr. James Hutson are being employed to "fictionalize" history by distorting documents and utilizing sloppy reasoning. The primary target of this strange campaign appears to be Thomas Jefferson. There seem to be two motives: to gloss over Jefferson's own extensive writings on religion and to distort the clear message of Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists.

The exhibit makes an effort to soften Jefferson's critique of Christian theology and its clergy, making him appear sympathetic to the doctrines of that religion. The exhibit and the essay both contend that Jefferson had no theoretical basis for his church-state views, only political motives.

Concerning Jefferson's religion, there are at least 47 extant letters from the Sage of Monticello in which he addressed that subject. The Library has seen fit to display a single letter written to Benjamin Rush in 1803, perhaps because Jefferson enclosed with that letter his Syllabus on the "doctrines of Jesus." The Library uses this one letter, along with the "Syllabus," as the only document by which to judge Jefferson's "Opinion of Jesus." But since even this carefully selected letter fails to make the point upon which the Library seems intent, it tampered with the text in a vain effort to make its interpretation fly.

The Library begins by making the judgment that, "influenced by the writings of Joseph Priestly," Jefferson "seems to have adopted a more positive opinion of Christianity." The Library does not bother to distinguish between organized Christianity and the message of Jesus. But Jefferson did just that in an 1801 letter to Priestly. "Those who live by mystery and charlatanerie, fearing you would render them useless by simplifying the Christian philosophy - the most sublime and benevolent, but most perverted system that ever shone on man - endeavored to crush your well-earned and well-deserved fame." As Jefferson noted in an 1800 letter to Rush, "I have a view of the subject (Christianity) which ought to displease neither the rational Christian or Deist. ..."

Sadly, the Library of Congress decided to edit what Jefferson had written to Rush in 1803. It begins its butchery by noting that Jefferson asserted that he was "Christian, in the only sense in which [Jesus] wished any one to be." Scholarly integrity would require the Library to note that Jefferson placed no period after the word be. There is, rather, a semi-colon followed by the words, "sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all other; ascribing to himself every human [underscored in the original] excellence, and believing he never claimed any other." As was his practice, Jefferson contended that Jesus never claimed to be a deity. That sentiment had already ignited severe opposition by a large segment of the religious establishment in his day. The Library appears to be advancing an alternate theory that has no legitimacy, but may be more to the liking of Christian orthodoxy. This may explain why the Library continues its commentary on the subject by quoting only a fragment of a rather lengthy sentence by Jefferson in his Syllabus. The Library is shameless in doctoring that sentence, which reads in its entirety:

The question of his being a member of the god-head, or in direct communication with it, claimed for him by some of his followers, and denied by others, is foreign to the present view, which is merely an estimate of the intrinsic merit of his doctrines.

The Library of Congress altered it to read:

Jefferson declined to consider the "question of [Jesus] being a member of the god-head, or in direct communication with it, claimed by some of his followers, and denied by others."

Why the changes? Perhaps to invent a baptized Jefferson! That may explain why the Library fails to cite any other of the 47 Jefferson letters on religion. For they have a common theme, accusing those who professed to be special servants of Jesus as having "perverted" his ethics "into an engine for enslaving mankind, and aggrandizing their oppressors in church and state: ..." (Thomas Jefferson to William Baldwin, 1810).

Any perusal of the Jefferson writings will establish that the Sage of Monticello was a Deist who accepted the label Christian as he defined it. To him Jesus was a moral man who based his ethics on the natural rights of human beings. Jefferson, as his writings make abundantly clear, had contempt for much of the Christian clergy, rejected John Calvin as a tritheist, and wrote his own bible that excluded all references to miracles, wonders, signs, virgin birth, resurrection, the god-head, and whatever else conflicted with his own religious thought.

Switching from the Library's attempt to baptize Jefferson, Dr. Hutson moves to "debunk" Jefferson's famous letter to the Danbury Baptists. Dr. Hutson's essay depends upon a flawed premise: that simply by comparing the original draft with the final version of the president's reply a reader can fully "discern Jefferson's true intentions in writing the celebrated Danbury Baptist letter." From there, the essay devolves into an all-out assault on the phrase "separation of church and state" supported with absurd assumptions drawn from what Jefferson excised. In this venture Dr. Hutson was aided by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which produced a transcript of the words deleted by Jefferson. He seems excited that the word eternal was marked through by the president. (I saw the original document at the Library of Congress in 1994 and deciphered eternal without the aid of the FBI.) Dr. Hutson appears to assume that intent and meaning can be derived from examining the Jefferson deletions. He makes no mention of the text of the letter from the Danbury Baptists. And he chooses to interpret the meaning of "separation" from what Jefferson did not write. Just as Jefferson's rich understanding of separation of church and state cannot be determined by referencing a single letter, so too his intent cannot be derived solely from comparing deleted with included sections. There are several possible explanations as to why Jefferson crossed out certain words, including the most obvious to any experienced writer, editing while composing. Although scholars may differ as to the reasons for Jefferson's editorial selections, there is no basis for arguing that these omissions indicate that the reply was not "conceived to be a statement of fundamental principles," but rather, "was meant to be a political manifesto, nothing more."

Finally, it is not accurate to claim, as the Library does, that the reply to the Baptists was "political" and not "a dispassionate theoretical pronouncement." That is absurd. Of course it was political, and that fact in no way negates either the significance of his statements or his commitment to principle. For Jefferson the two most prized of his writings - The Declaration of Independence and the Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia - were unapologetically "political," even as every line in each was laced with "principles" concerning democracy and freedom.

Citizens have a right to expect the Library of Congress to be dedicated to the fair and complete presentation of its holdings so that opinions may flourish with the safety net of accuracy. When the Library abandons that canon of responsibility, it forfeits its singular franchise.


Robert S. Alley is a Contributing Editor to Free Inquiry and Professor of Humanities Emeritus at the University of Richmond.


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