Friday, August 24, 2012

Jefferson on Religion

Much has been said, and argued, regarding Jefferson's views on God and religion. Whether left or right, Christian, Deist, or Atheist, any person of any perspective can pull two quotes from Jefferson's thousands of comments, construct a straight line of thought, and attempt to sum up his perspective.

The confusion would probably delight our third president, since he refused to have his view of deity confined to any of the theological boxes of his day. In fact, I think Mr. Jefferson summed up his position best, and providentially foresaw the argument his very individual opinions would eventually raise, in this letter, written April 21, 1803, to Dr. Benjamin Rush:

My views...are the result of a life of inquiry and reflection, and very different from the 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 anyone to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines in preference to all others...

Last night, while going through some old research notes I used while writing "Free Men and Dreamers," I came across a Jeffersonian quote about Jesus's teaching--a gem I had planned to use and simply forgot until after the book went to print. It set me off on a new research path, just for fun, and I thought I'd pass along some of the quotes I dug up. I found some online, but most, if not all are available in America's God and Country, by William Federer. It's a great reference book of the Founders' religious quotes, which, in my opinion, provided the basis for their opinions on all else. I think every family ought to have a copy of it on their shelf. In any case, you read his words and define the theological position for yourself. Here goes. Enjoy.

These words are engraved on the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C. They are taken from Jefferson's "Notes on the State of Virginia," circa 1781:
God who gave us life gave us liberty. And can the liberties of a nation be though secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the Gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever.
In this June 17, 1804 letter to Henry Fry, Thomas Jefferson displays his concerns about man's interpretation of the teachings of Jesus Christ.
I consider the doctrines of Jesus as delivered by himself to contain the outlines of the sublimest system of morality that has ever been taught but I hold in the most profound detestation and execration the corruptions of it which have been invented...
Mr. Jefferson waxes eloquent on the relationship between God, man, and government. I personally love the last paragraph.

In matters of religion I have considered that its free exercise is placed by the Constitution independent of the powers of the General Government. I have therefore undertaken, on no occasion, to prescribe the religious exercise suited to it; but have left them, as the Constitution found them, under the direction and discipline of state and church authorities by the several religious societies.

I shall now enter on the duties to which my fellow-citizens have again called me, and shall proceed in the spirit of those principles which they have approved...

I shall need, therefore, all the indulgence I have heretofore experienced...I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our forefathers as Israel of old, from their native land and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessities 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 with me in supplications that He will so enlighten the minds of your servants, guide their councils and prosper their measures, that whatever they do shall result in your good, and shall secure to you the peace, friendship and approbation of all nations.

Clearly, the topic of God and religion of was of great import to Mr. Jefferson, as they consumed a great portion of his personal communications. This statement, made in an 1813 letter to John Adams is especially tender on the topic.

        In extracting the pure principles which Jesus taught, we should have to strip off the artificial    vestments in which they have been muffled...there will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.

Much has been said of Jefferson's version of the Bible, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. Said Jefferson of the book, "We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus. There will be remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man."

In an 1816 letter to Charles Thomson he further states:

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.

Of all the systems of morality, ancient or modern, which have come under my observation, none appear to me so pure as that of Jesus.

The doctrines which flowed from the lips of Jesus himself are within the comprehension of a child; but thousands of volumes have not yet explained the Platonisms engrafted on them.
Had the doctrines of Jesus been preached always as pure as they came from his lips, the whole civilized world would now have been Christians.

Let me conclude with that quote I failed to include in my books:

This excerpt from a letter sent by Jefferson to Jared Sparks on  4 Nov  1820 is the missed quote, the one that i love so much. Really consider what he is saying.

"I hold the precepts of Jesus, as delivered by himself, to be the most pure, benevolent, and sublime which have ever been preached to man."
If the freedom of religion guaranteed to us by law in theory can ever rise in practice under the overbearing inquisition of public opinion, truth will prevail over fanaticism, and the genuine doctrines of Jesus, so long perverted by his pseudo-priests, will again be restored to their original purity. This reformation will advance with the other improvements of the human mind, but too late for me to witness it.

Amazing, right?

He didn't attach himself to any of the churches of his day. His views of Christ and Christian living were unique for his day. He loved the teachings of Jesus while eschewing anyone who re-scripted them. Was he a Christian? You tell me. My opinion is set.

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