Peter Manseau has been making the rounds in recent days giving interviews about the new exhibit “Religion in Early America” at the Smithsonian Museum of American History. I have enjoyed the interviews I’ve heard and appreciate the attention the Smithsonian is giving to religion in early America.
In two of the interviews, Manseau talked at length about Thomas Jefferson’s faith. I appreciate Jefferson and his vital contributions to the formation of our republic. Each year I enjoy leading homeschool students in reading through the Declaration of Independence, of which Jefferson is the primary author. He was a brilliant writer and thinker, and there are many qualities in Jefferson that we would do well to encourage our children to emulate. His faith, however, is not one of them.
How can we describe Jefferson’s faith? Perhaps the most (in)famous and interesting fact of Jefferson’s religious devotion is that he cut out the moral teachings of Jesus from copies of an English Bible and compiled them in a book of his own which he entitled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. This was a Bible Jefferson could believe in: a Bible devoid of the supernatural.
Yet Jefferson did not disavow Christianity. In practice he continued to attend and financially support local churches in the cities where he lived. Margaret Bayard Smith gave this account from Jefferson’s time as President:
During the first winter, Mr. Jefferson regularly attended service on the sabbath-day in the humble church. The congregation seldom exceeded 50 or 60, but generally consisted of about a score of hearers. He could have had no motive for this regular attendance, but that of respect for public worship, choice of place or preacher he had not, as this, with the exception of a little Catholic chapel was the only church in the new city. The custom of preaching in the Hall of Representatives had not then been attempted, though after it was established Mr. Jefferson during his whole administration, was a most regular attendant. The seat he chose the first sabbath, and the adjoining one, which his private secretary occupied, were ever afterwards by the courtesy of the congregation, left for him and his secretary.
In his Life of Thomas Jefferson, Henry Randall recorded that Jefferson “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.”
Jefferson also made many statements that seem to identify him as an adherent of Christianity:
“The doctrines of Jesus are simple, and tend all to the happiness of man.”1
“The practice of morality being necessary for the well being of society, He [God] has taken care to impress its precepts so indelibly on our hearts that they shall not be effaced by the subtleties of our brain. We all agree in the obligation of the moral principles of Jesus and nowhere will they be found delivered in greater purity than in His discourses.”2
“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.”3
“I am a real Christian – that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus Christ.”4
Yet what we find in those quotes is that Jefferson was fixated only on the moral instruction of Christ recorded in the gospels, and not on the person or work of Jesus Himself. Jefferson’s Bible was all red-letters; he rejected the idea that the entirety of Scripture is the Word of Christ. Most significant of all, Jefferson rejected the resurrection of Jesus.
Many mainstream denominations have followed Jefferson’s trajectory, embracing the morality of Christ while watering-down or explaining away His miracles. Increasingly, however, even the moral teaching of Jesus is becoming unacceptable, requiring His words to be reinterpreted in order to be palatable to modern sensibilities.
Yet how should we think about the faith of Jefferson and those who follow in his footsteps? Paul puts it most clearly in 1st Corinthians 15:17, 19:
17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins…19 If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.
Paul’s statement indicts Jefferson’s faith as 1) futile and 2) pitiable. It is futile in the sense that it does not save (“you are still in your sins.”) It is pitiable in that those who follow a dead Messiah are walking in foolishness. This life is a vapor, and any faith that only serves us in this life misses the main point.
As parents, let us beware instilling in our children a faith that is merely moralistic. Let us point them to a Christ who is living, able to save, and worthy to be trusted not only for this life, but for the one to come.