Agnosticism, American Founding, American History, American Revolution, Biography, Christianity, church, doubt, Faith, founding fathers, memoir, religion, Reminiscences of Distinguished Men, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson's Religion, Was Thomas Jefferson a Christian?, William Slaughter
“Mr. Jefferson was a public professor of his belief in the Christian religion. In all his most important early State papers… there are more or less pointed recognitions of God and Providence. In his two inaugural addresses as president of the United States, and in many of his annual messages, he makes the same recognitions… declares his belief in the efficacy of prayer, and the duty of ascriptions of praise of the Author of all mercies; and speaks of the Christian religion as professed in his country as a benign religion, evincing the favor of Heaven. Had his wishes been consulted, the symbol borne on our national seal would have contained our public profession of Christianity as a nation. There is nothing in his writings or in the history of his life to show that his public declarations were insincere, or thrown out for mere effect. On the contrary, his most confidential writings sustain his public professions, and advance beyond them into the avowal of a belief in a future state of rewards and punishments…
From his second Inaugural Message, December 15th, 1802: ‘When we assemble together, fellow citizens, to consider the state of our beloved country, our just attentions are first drawn to those pleasing circumstances which mark the goodness of that Being from whose favor they flow, and the large measure of thankfulness we owe for His bounty. Another year has come around and finds us still blessed with peace and friendship abroad; law, order, and religion, at home.’
From his third annual message, October 17th, 1803: ‘While we regret the miseries in which we see others involved, let us bow with gratitude to that kind Providence, which, inspiring with wisdom and moderation our late legislative counsels while placed under the urgency of the greatest wrongs, guarded us from hastily entering into the sanguinary contest, and left us only to look on and to pity its ravages.’
He contributed freely to the erection of Christian churches, gave money to Bible Societies and other religious objects, and was a liberal and regular contributor to the support of the clergy. Letters of his are extant which show him urging, with respectful delicacy, the acceptance of extra and unsolicited contributions on the pastor of his parish, on occasions of extra expense to the latter, such as the building of a house, the meeting of an ecclesiastical convention at Charlottesville, etc. He attended church with as much regularity as most of the members of the congregation — sometimes going alone on horseback, when his family remained at home. He generally attended the Episcopal Church, and when he did so, always carried his prayer book and joined in the responses and prayers of the congregation. He was baptized into the Episcopal Church in his infancy; he was married by one of its clergymen; his wife lived and died a member of it; his children were baptized into it, and when married were
married according to its rites; its burial services were read over those of them who preceded him to the grave, over his wife, and finally over himself. No person ever heard him utter a word of profanity, and those who met him most familiarly through periods of acquaintance that they never heard a word of impiety, or any scoff at extending from two or three to twenty or thirty years, declare religion from his lips. Among his numerous familiar acquaintances, we have not found one whose testimony is different, or who entertained any doubts of the strict justice, sincerity, truthfulness and exemplariness of his personal character.”
Pulled from the Jefferson chapter of William Slaughter’s 1878 book Reminiscences of Distinguished Men.
I’m sorry for the recent hiatus. I’ve been really busy with real business.
In a letter to his eldest daughter, Jefferson cited his personal declaration of faith, which he made in the following letter to his friend, Benjamin Rush, on April 21st, 1803:
In some of the delightful conversations with you, in the evenings of 1798-99, and which served as an anodyne to the afflictions of the crisis through which our country was then laboring, the Christian religion was sometimes our topic; and I then promised you, that one day or other, I would give you my views of it. They are the result of a life of inquiry and reflection, and very different from that anti-Christian system imputed to me by those who know nothing of my opinions. To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus Himself. I am a Christian in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others.
To this rather elastic, New Testament self-definition of Christian, it’s worth adding that Jefferson — who spent a good chunk of his retirement splicing his own, naturalistic version of the Gospels — was found to have hand-written the entirety of Psalm 15 on the inside cover of the prayer book mentioned by Slaughter.
As a small additional note: in 1776, at the Second Continental Congress, Jefferson was appointed along with Franklin and Adams to the committee to design a national seal. Adams suggested Hercules as the seal’s central figure. Franklin recommended Moses standing atop the Red Sea. Jefferson sided with Franklin, but also wanted it to include Pharaoh and Hengist and Horsa, the Germanic brothers who led the Anglo-Saxons in their fifth-century conquest of Britain.
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