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Thomas Jefferson Was ‘Sect to Himself’

No matter what we believe of Jefferson’s faith commitment, he himself believed he was a Christian. In a letter to Charles Thomson, he declared, “I am a real Christian.” Late in life, Jefferson also wrote that he “was a sect to himself.”

He served as a delegate to the House of Burgesses in colonial <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Virginia, the governor of Virginia during the War for Independence, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention, the U.S. minister to France, the first secretary of state under George Washington, and the vice president under John Adams.  <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office” /> 
Today, Jefferson’s life and leadership are often revered by some religious conservatives who attempt to rewrite history in order to make Jefferson into a Christian. Yet little about Jefferson’s personal philosophy resembles Christianity. 
 
We know Jefferson attended the Anglican Church in Albemarle County, Va., during his childhood, but he found this established church to be intolerant, dull and pompous. While a student at an Anglican-sponsored school, William and Mary College, Jefferson studied with Dr. William Small, who became his favorite teacher. Small used a rational and scientific rather than a religious and didactic teaching style, and he introduced Jefferson to enlightenment thought, classical philosophy, scientific rationalism and natural religion.   
 
A review of Jefferson’s early writings on religion reveals that he dismissed revelation, divine grace, Christian mysticism and institutional religion, relying instead on natural reason. The future president also firmly believed that individuals should subject their religious beliefs to honest and informed inquiry. 
 
In a 1787 letter to his nephew, Peter Carr, the 34-year-old Jefferson wrote, “Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because if there be one he must approve of the homage of reason more than that of blindfolded fear.” Once sufficient inquiry had been made, Jefferson believed that individuals should feel free to form their own opinions. Religion, therefore, must be a private concern.
 
Jefferson’s faith became a key issue in the 1800 presidential election. A Boston Federalist newspaper, the New England Palladium, proclaimed that if “that infidel Jefferson should be elected the seal of death is set on our holy religion.” Clergymen echoed this fear and called for their congregations to vote against this atheist, who would surely abolish the Sabbath and confiscate Bibles.   
The ugliness of the campaign hurt Jefferson, but he kept quiet and allowed his Republican friends to defend his character and principles. In the end, Jefferson was elected with 73 electoral votes to John Adams’ 65. 
During his third year as president, Jefferson initiated a lifelong project. It began late one evening as he sat in his study in Washington. Jefferson took a copy of the New Testament and began cutting out Gospel passages that he believed had been corrupted. He wanted to strip away “impurities” in the New Testament and discover the plain, unsophisticated moral texts.   
After cutting many passages out—including references to the virgin birth, miracles stories, Jesus’ divinity and the resurrection—Jefferson was left with 46 pages, which he called the “Philosophy of Jesus.” He mentioned this work to no one.  
Later, he refined and greatly expanded this work; in 1820, his final version was titled, “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.” It now had 164 pages. Apparently, he still mentioned his work to no one, but after his death, this compilation was discovered and published. It has long been referred to as “The Jefferson Bible.”  
Jefferson’s complex religious beliefs make him difficult to classify. He gave money to a variety of denominations and attended religious services, but he belonged to no church. He seemed interested in Unitarianism, but he never officially affiliated with a Unitarian congregation. He denied the deity of Jesus, but held fast to Jesus’ call to love God and neighbor.   
No matter what we believe of Jefferson’s faith commitment, he himself believed he was a Christian. In a letter to Charles Thomson, he declared, “I am a real Christian.” Late in life, Jefferson also wrote that he “was a sect to himself.” 
Perhaps that is the best way to understand his religious commitment. 
Pam Durso serves as assistant professor of church history and Baptist heritage at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, N.C.

Also read: 
Washington Held Deist Beliefs,” by Pam Durso 
Lincoln’s Faith Eludes Definition,” by Pam Durso 
Thomas Jefferson and the New Nation: A Biography, by Merrill D. Peterson