Thursday, May 14, 2009

LET'S TALK ABOUT THOMAS JEFFERSON

I have asserted in previous posts my belief that the basic tenets of the founding fathers was that of Christianity.

Included in those posts was the inclusion of Thomas Jefferson as one of those Christians.

I came under some considerable scrutiny and not a little ridicule for my position, which I will endeavor to defend in this rather lengthy, but I believe significant, post.

Thomas Jefferson was the third President of the United States.

He, of course, was the principle writer of the Declaration of Independence, in which he used the phrase, "...that they are endowed by their Creator..."

What did he mean by that?

The reason that is an important question is that is defines where our rights as citizens come from and precludes that they come from government.

Much has been made about Jefferson's religious beliefs, some calling him a Deist, others a Unitarian, while some evangelicals have tried to make him into one of them.

In a practical sense, classifying Jefferson as a "Deist" with regards to religious affiliation is misleading and meaningless. Jefferson was never affiliated with any organized Deist movement.

He considered himself a Christian, but one of a particular sort.

While he loved the teachings of Jesus, from an ethical, and moral standpoint, Jefferson rejected the divinity of Christ. He believed that Christ was a deeply interesting and profoundly important moral or ethical teacher and it was in Christ's moral and ethical teachings that Jefferson was particularly interested, and to which he held.

And so that's what attracted him to the figure of Christ: the moral and ethical teachings as described in the New Testament. But he was not an evangelical and he was not a deeply pious individual.

In the minds of many, particularly evangelicals, this would exclude him from being regarded as "Christian."

But there are many today who claim Christianity whom I would in no wise call Christian, including some evangelicals.

Nevertheless, they are not atheists, agnostics, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhists, Confucians, etc., so the only designation they see as be left to be is Christian...and in that sense, I suppose, they are.

It is important to note, though that the principal Founding Fathers--Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Franklin--were in fact deeply suspicious of a European pattern of governmental involvement in religion.

They were deeply concerned about an involvement in religion because they saw government as corrupting religion.

Ministers who were paid by the state and paid by the government didn't pay any attention to their parishes. They didn't care about their parishioners. They sold their parishes.

It was common for them to sell jobs and bring in a hireling to do it and they wandered off to live somewhere else where they didn't need to pay attention to their parishioners because the parishioners weren't paying them.

The state was paying them.

This is the thinking behind the rather famous letter to the Danbury Baptist Church (see below), to which we have become accustomed to assigning the doctrine of the Separation of Church and State (which doctrine is mentioned in neither the Declaration of Independence nor the Constitution of the United States of America).

Some evangelicals, have tried to make Jefferson out as an evangelical. He was not.

Jefferson actually was deeply interested in the question of religion and morals and it's why particularly in his later years, he developed a notebook of Jesus' sayings that he found morally and ethically interesting.

It's now long since been published and is sometimes called, "The Jefferson Bible."

It is not a Bible, but an abridgement of the Gospels created by Jefferson in 1804 for the benefit of the Indians.

But Jefferson did have real trouble with the Divinity of Christ and he had real trouble with the description of various events mentioned in both the New and the Old Testament so that he was an enlightened skeptic who was profoundly interested in the figure of Christ as a human being and as an ethical teacher.

He wrote: "Among the sayings and discourses imputed to him by his biographers, I find many passages of fine imagination, correct morality, and of the most lovely benevolence; and others, again, of so much ignorance, of so much absurdity, so much untruth and imposture, as to pronounce it impossible that such contradictions should have proceeded from the same being. I separate, therefore, the gold from the dross, restore to him the former, and leave the latter to the stupidity of some and the roguery of others of his disciples"

This is a statement I, an evangelical, certainly agree with.

Lots of "preachers" take Scripture out of context, twist it around, use it to support their particular "Christian" philosophy, imbue it with superstition, try to force it to explain circumstances of natural cause or coincidence to the point that they do a major disservice to the Gospel.

Jefferson hated the priesthood and had very little regard for most non-Catholic preachers as well.

Here is Jefferson's estimate of priestcraft: "In every country and in every age the priest has been hostile to liberty; he is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own."

Writing to John Adams, July 5, 1814 -- he refers to this subject: "The Christian priesthood, finding the doctrines of Christ leveled to every understanding, and too plain to need explanation, saw in the mysticisms of Plato materials with which they might build up an artificial system, which might, from its indistinctness, admit everlasting controversy, give employment for their order and introduce it to profit, power and pre-eminence"

Passages of Thomas Jefferson are often quoted that seem to be antagonistic against Christianity itself. In their context, however, the really railed against proponents of irrational Christian beliefs, never negating what he saw as true Christianity...which today I might call not Christianity at all.

Ninety-seven percent of what passes as Christianity today is exactly what Jefferson found so distressing. So do I. I hope you do, too.

There is a document signed by Thomas Jefferson on September 24, 1807, permission for a ship called the Herschel to proceed on its journey to the port of London.

The interesting characteristic of this document is Jefferson's unique use of the phrase "in the year of our Lord Christ."

Many official documents say "in the year of our Lord," but we have found very few that include the word "Christ."

However, this is the explicitly Christian language that President Thomas Jefferson chose to use in official public presidential documents, the afore mentioned and many others.

Were he alive today, he would most likely be included with the Unitarians, although he affiliated with no particular denomination.

Unitarianism was different then than it is now. Today, it classifies itself as a different "religion" than Christianity.

Unitarianism in Jefferson's time was regarded as one liberal Protestant denomination among many other Protestant denominations extant in America. Virtually nobody thought of Jefferson as a non-Christian (or even non-Protestant) president.

Jefferson was never one to exclude reference to God. In the thick of party conflict in 1800, Thomas Jefferson wrote in a private letter, "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."

When two separate parties, the Federalists and the Democratic-Republicans, began to form, Jefferson gradually assumed leadership of the Republicans, who sympathized with the revolutionary cause in France.

Attacking Federalist policies, he opposed a strong centralized Government and championed the rights of states.

I like that. Don't you?

Now some Jefferson quotations that show his disdain for conventional Christianity, but indicate his particular stance toward it:

"By our own act of Assembly of 1705, c. 30, if a person brought up in the Christian religion denies the being of God, or the Trinity, or asserts there are more gods than one, or denies the Christian religion to be true, or the Scriptures to be of divine authority, he is punishable on the first offense by incapacity to hold any office or employment, ecclesiastical, civil, or military; on the second, by disability to sue, to take any gift or legacy, to be guardian, executor, or administrator, and by three years' imprisonment without bail. A fathers right to the custody of his own children being founded in law on his right of guardianship, this being taken away, they may of course be severed from him, and put by the authority of the court, into more orthodox hands..." "Notes on Virginia," (pp. 234-237,)

"I doubt whether the people of this country would suffer an execution for heresy, or a three months' imprisonment for not comprehending the mysteries of the Trinity. But is the spirit of the people infallible -- a permanent reliance? Is it government? Is this the kind of protection we receive in return for the rights we give up? Besides, the spirit of the times may alter -- will alter. Our rulers will become corrupt, our people careless. A single zealot may become persecutor, and better men become his victims." (Notes on Virginia, p. 269.)

"Jesus, taking for his type the best qualities of the human head and heart, wisdom, justice, goodness, and adding to them power, ascribed all of these, but in infinite perfection, to the Supreme Being, and formed him really worthy of their adoration." Letter of Thomas Jefferson to William Short, August 4, 1820.

"Jesus had to walk on the perilous confines of reason and religion: and a step to right or left might place him within the grip of the priests of the superstition, a blood thirsty race, as cruel and remorseless as the being whom they represented as the family God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob, and the local God of Israel." Letter of Thomas Jefferson to William Short, August 4, 1820.

"His [Calvin's] religion was demonism. If ever man worshiped a false God, he did. The being described in his five points is ... a demon 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"
Source: Thomas Jefferson, Works, Vol. IV, p. 363.

"In the New Testament there is internal evidence that parts of it have proceeded from an extraordinary man; and that other parts are of the fabric of very inferior minds. It is as easy to separate those parts, as to pick out diamonds from dunghills."
Source: Letter of Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, January 24, 1814.

"I never will by any word or act, bow to the shrine of intolerance. I never had an opinion in politics or religion which I was afraid to own; a reserve on these subjects might have procured me more esteem from some people, but less from myself." Source: Thomas Jefferson the Freethinker.

A short time before his death, Jefferson, in a letter to John Adams, after commending the morals of Jesus, wrote as follows concerning his philosophical belief: "It is not to be understood that I am with him in all his doctrines. I am a Materialist."

"The serious enemies are the priests of the different religious sects to whose spells on the human mind its improvement is ominous" (Works, Vol. iv., p. 322).

"No religious reading, instruction or exercise, shall be prescribed or practiced [in the elementary schools] inconsistent with the tenets of any religious sect or denomination." Source: Thomas Jefferson, Note to Elementary School Act, 1817

"Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between church and State." Source: Letter of Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association, Connecticut, January 1, 1802.

"And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. But may we hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this most venerated reformer of human errors." Source: Letter of Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, April 11, 1823.

"Religion is well supported; of various kinds, indeed, but all good enough; all sufficient to preserve peace and order: or if a sect arises, whose tenets would subvert morals, good sense has fair play, and reasons and laughs it out of doors, without suffering the state to be troubled with it. They do not hang more malefactors than we do." Source: Thomas Jefferson, "Religion" in Notes on the State of Virginia (1782), p. 287.

Author's Note: I am quite aware of many Jefersonian quotations regarding "religion" and "Christianity" that are not included in this post. I tried to select the ones that are most representative of the bulk of his writing on the subject...having read all of them, or at least more than most college professors. But having been accused of writing posts that most liberals, having been taught in government schools, cannot endure due to their length, I have attempted to keep this post as short as possible, while fairly inclusive.

How did I do?

Not so well, I think.

29 comments:

TAO said...

Your point was? You might find that the reason these people you decry at public school educated liberals might get lost in your longer posts is because your argument gets lost in longer posts too.

You prove that:

1. You are an evangelical
2. That you have a disdain for most of what passes as evangelical today.
3. That Jefferson believed in the morality and ethics of the new testament but had a disdain for organized religion and the authority of church leadership.

Pretty much how most Americans are today don't you think?

As I read what you have quoted I realize that Jefferson, if alive today, might have experimented with buddhism, and a variety of new age related concepts of spiritual well being.

Not exactly the poster child for right wing social conservatives...

Joe said...

TAO: I had no trouble finding my argument. I asumed most who cared to take the time could to.

But there is no reason to get upset. If you don't like the length of my posts, wait for one of my shorter ones.

There should be one in a few months.

1) My point was that it is not improper to include Jefferson as one of those who helped found the nation on Christian principles, but that it meant something different to him than it did to mainline Christians.

2) Yes, I do have disdain for what passes as evangelical today, and on that point would agree with Jefferson. See, you got the point of that one.

3) Quite right. I have nothing to add to that thought. I will avoid just adding words, lest this response to your comment get lengthy and unreadable. So, don't worry...I'll keep it short. Very short. Really, really short.

As to your point about most Americans today: Look around, TAO. Mainline churches are rather struggling, but evangelical and pseudo-evangelical churches are often filled to the brim.

Our own church, a Southern Baptist congregatin, has to have three Sunday morning services to accomodate the crowd.

"...if alive today, might have experimented with buddhism..." That I highly doubt.

"Not exactly the poster child for right wing social conservatives..." With that I totally agree. However, that does not preclude his picking and choosing the parts of Christianity he liked to include in the founding documents of our counrty.

bluepitbull said...

And if Ghandi were alive today, he might be a suicide bomber. What type of argument is a reference in time?

He was what the environment made him, thus he was as was stated.

TAO said...

Thank you Bluepitbull...

If Jefferson was a product of his environment then obviously as the environment changes so do the product and or people of the environment.

Which means that we CANNOT go back to the principles of the founding fathers without recreating the environment.

Which means that you believe all of us are creatures of our environment?

Kind of a liberal argument don't you think?

Mark said...

I think that is as good a scholarly work as any PhD. Jeffersoon probably wasn't a Christian, in the good ol' Southern Baptist sense, but neither was he an atheist.

Great post, Joe!

Ration Al said...

I do believe that hell has indeed turned into a Frigidaire dealership. I can't believe I would ever say this:

Good post, Joe.

That was a good bit of scholarly work you did - job well done, and very well articulated.

Jefferson did respect the best that Christianity has to offer, as I do, and as you obviously do.

Sincrerely,

Ration Al

bluepitbull said...

How is it a liberal argument?

How, in any way does it argue that we cannot go back to the founding principles?

Just because we live in a different time doesn't mean that we can't follow the rules. By that reasoning we can't follow the Golden Rules or the Ten Commandments, and I have a hard time believing that you don't follow those, either Tao.

Anyway, I won't make this a personal discussion, as per posting rules, Joe. Good discussion, as usual.

Joe said...

bluepitbull: The rules are designed to keep one commenter from ATTACKING another. I don't mind if you, as you always do, engage in dialog. I just ask that everybody keep to the point, be as brief as possible (I'm a good one to be talking about brievity...right?), not call one another names, and engage in discourse, not inane ad hominims.

Joe said...

Ration Al: I actually thank you for your comment, and will trust tht it was made in good faith, as its tone seems.

Joe said...

mark: Thank you...your kindness is greatly appreciated.

Tapline said...

joe, wasn't it Jefferson who spoke to the koran or the Moslem people??? I seem to remember something about that in some of his writings and they weren't complimentary remarks...If I read your post correctly, He also points to some religions who are not what most expect,but they can be laughted off out of doors...Not quite huh..Or did I misread......Outstanding post as usual and I didn't think it was too long when one wants to make certain points one must include as much information available to make the point.....Great post......stay well...

Joe said...

In 1786, the newly founded United States found that it was having to deal very directly with the tenets of the Muslim religion.

The Barbary states of North Africa were using the ports of what we know today as Algeria, Libya, and Tunisia to wage a war of piracy and enslavement against all shipping that passed through the Strait of Gibraltar.

Congress gave assent to the Treaty of Tripoli, negotiated by Jefferson's friend Joel Barlow, which stated...that "the government of the United States of America...has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of (Muslims)."

Having read Quran (Koran), and having decided that it was a dangerous writing, Jefferson decided to make war on the Muslim states of North Africa as soon as the opportunity presented itself.

I wonder what Prsident BO would think of Jefferson (and his "Bible") if he had any knowledge of that little piece of history?

Ration Al said...

Yes, and of course it was made in good faith.

shoprat said...

Jefferson as Unitarian had more in common with Christians then he does modern secularists but that simple fact is lost on some people.

Anonymous said...

[It's still legal - and always God-honoring - to air messages like the following. (See Ezekiel 3:18-19.) In light of government backing of raunchy behavior (such offenders were even executed in early America!), maybe the separation we really need is the "separation of raunch and state"!]

In Luke 17 in the New Testament, Jesus said that one of the big "signs" that will happen shortly before His return to earth as Judge will be a repeat of the "days of Lot" (see Genesis 19 for details). So gays are actually helping to fulfill this same worldwide "sign" (and making the Bible even more believable!) and thus hurrying up the return of the Judge! They are accomplishing what many preachers haven't accomplished! Gays couldn't have accomplished this by just coming out of closets into bedrooms. Instead, they invented new architecture - you know, closets opening on to Main Streets where little kids would be able to watch naked men having sex with each other at festivals in places like San Francisco (where their underground saint - San Andreas - may soon get a big jolt out of what's going on over his head!). Thanks, gays, for figuring out how to bring back our resurrected Saviour even quicker!

TAO said...

Pitbull,

"Environment" is a word used to explain why the poor are poor. Why people commit crimes, and all of that...and that is a liberal argument.

I also don't buy the argument that it was the 'times' that made our founding fathers who they were.

One of the things about the bill of rights and the constitution is that there is absoluetly no discussion about wealth, economics, and or money.

But yet, today that is all we discuss.

The new testament does go on and on about the evils of wealth.

Having principles takes risks and risks can cost one alot of money and can risk alot of ones wealth.

But how much money does it take to comfort the soul when one has no principles.

I do believe that the constitution is a living document and it is necessary for it to change from time to time.

But I believe that a lot of the changes we need to see, such as abortion, are incapable of being changed by a constitutional amendment and rather could be changed by people living lives with principles.

Mark said...

Tao, wealth in itself is not evil. Jesus plainly said the love of wealth is the root of evil.

Liberals never seem to draw the right conclusions about wealthy people.

They are not evil simply because they are rich. Some wealthy people happen to be both rich and evil, because they love their wealth more than they love God. That is the point Jesus was making.

There are millions of poor evil people. What is their excuse?

And for the record, I am not wealthy. I have to go to my office now and collect my $59.50 paycheck. That's for last week.

I just understand the difference between money and it's juxtaposition to the first commandment.

Z said...

It's an interesting read, for sure, but very difficult for me to wrap my mind around a guy who doesn't believe in the divinity of Jesus being called a Christian. Didn't he even remove Jesus's quotes from the New Testament? I believe so.
What's Paul say? Something about "if the resurrection didn't happen, we HAVE no faith, no hope..?"

As Mark said, Jefferson certainly was no atheist, that's true. I agree with shoprat, too.

Joe said...

Z: "Didn't he even remove Jesus's quotes from the New Testament?"

No...only the ones that he thought refer to Jesus as divine.

He is reported to have actually used a razor blade to physically extract them from the Bible.

I agree. I don't know how someone can consider themselves Christian if they don't believe in John 3:16 and Romans 10:9&10, et. al.

Jefferson had no trouble with that, though.

The Merry Widow said...

And, if a person cannot speak of sometime in their life there having been a change of heart and an opening of understanding of spiritual things, they are not a Christian.

I respect Thomas Jefferson, but if he couldn't accept the divinity of Jesus Christ, then HIS atoning death on the cross is rendered meaningless and useless...therefore, by evidence of Jefferson's own stated writings, he cannot be a Christian.

Not a pagan, but not a born again believer either.

tmw

Joe said...

The Merry Widow: "by evidence of Jefferson's own stated writings, he cannot be a Christian."

You know that and I know that, but Jefferson would not have agreed with us. (Although he would probably not argued with us about it. He would have just expressed disdain and walked away.)

I.H.S. said...

Z, in the true sense of the word Christian one can't be if one doesn't accept the divinity of Jesus.

However, as I have said many times; the definition of christian no longer entails the belief of Jesus' divinity but rather refers to the moral ethical life of an individual. Which why I believe it is easier to identify Jefferson as a Chrsitian than with anyother group.

Blessings.

Z said...

Sorry, Joe..somehow, I thought you were suggesting Jefferson was a Christian and I was kind of stunned.. Should have known better.

I.H.S...TMW.. both great points..thanks. And thank you, Joe!
blessed weekend to you!

The Merry Widow said...

Joe-Well, one can hold to a stated position with their life, but when push comes to shove, it's what G*D says in the end...and Christianity is solidly anchored on the Lord Jesus Christ's being the Eternal Son of G*D incarnate, 100% G*D and 100% man...so, Jefferson for all his intellectual powers, is wrong.

Dead and gone to Hell wrong.

tmw
A true pity!

biggirlpants said...

great post, joe - i'm glad z pointed me over here. ihs, i disagree that people call others (or themselves) christians based on some moral code and not based on the blood of the lamb. one can be godly but still not be a christian. that is where i would paint jefferson.

tapline, you KNOW i love you, but i have to take extreme exception to this statement: "I do believe that the constitution is a living document and it is necessary for it to change from time to time."

the constitution is NOT a living document. it is a binding contract and that is why it is unable to be changed in any manner except through an amendment. there is a legal process for passing an amendment layed out in the constitution and that is the only manner in which the constitution can/may be changed.

Ration Al said...

I am a Democrat who considers the Libertarian Party the conscious of American politics. People too soon forget that the foundation of conservatism -- and our country -was not Christianity, but fear of the concentration of power.

Christianity was there at the beginning, but it intentionally took a back seat in the affairs of government.

The Constitution was intended to be a living document, and to be the beginning of a body of laws that build on the inherent ambiguity and tensions designed into the Constitution.

The Constitution was designed to solve a particular problem at a particular point in time, and the Framers knew they couldn't anticipate everything.

The rights of man are maleable - whence the Bill of Rights, which Hamilton argued against btw. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are very broad and ambiguous concepts. Hence the need to amend the Constitution with the Bill of Rights.

The definitions of and relationship between the branches of government, and the role of government, were specifically designed to be maleable as well.

All you have to do is read the Constitution and read the debates at the constitutional convention to understand this.

Now, on a Christian nation.

The Declaration mentions God, but not Christ. And the Constitution doesn't even mention God. Sure, there were, early on, local Christain loyalty oaths, but the fact of the matter is:

The USA was built by a diverse crowd of beliefs, with a majority of them Christian. But there were lots of others, and they were pretty darn vocal at thge constitutional convention, and there was a extremely wide array of beliefs within Christians.

Those Christians came to America to large extent because of state sanctioned religion and the concentration of power in the monarchy.

They had Christian values but, CLEARLY, wanted to put a country mile between organized religion and the State.

That's the right answer, and they had no problem dealing with what current day political evangelicals call hypocrisy - going to Church every Sunday and putting aside a bias towards organized religion in matters of government.

It really is interesting - the rapture right of today would consider many of the founders hypocrits.

The Merry Widow said...

Ration Al-This country was founded on Judeo-Christian values, not sectarian/denominational ones.

Therefore it is a Christian(actually, it no longer is)nation from it's inception. And the original intent of the founders WAS indeed for it to be a Christian nation.

Not, Lutheran, not Presbyterian, not Methodist or Episcopalian or Congregationalist...simply to be anchored on The Rock and Scriptural morality.

In the 1960's, we threw that all away, and we are reaping the consequences...

tmw

Jeff said...

Joe,

I happened across your post as I was doing some research, and although it has been some months since this thread was active, I thought I would post a comment.

Overall, I think you did a fair job In your commentay of accurately portraying Jefferson's spiritual views as they relate to him personally. However, I would note that several of the quotes appearing at the end of your post appear out of context. 

But I take exception specifically with one of your responses in the comments section where you state: "Congress gave assent to the Treaty of Tripoli, negotiated by Jefferson's friend Joel Barlow, which stated...that "the government of the United States of America...has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of (Muslims)." 

You have disingenuously removed the portion of Article 11 of that treaty most relevant to your premise on the nature of our government's founding. 

The full text reads, as you know:

"As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquility, of (Muslims)"

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