Jeffersonian Religion

By: Mormon Heretic
April 22, 2013

ThomasJeffersonI just watched a documentary called Jefferson’s Secret Bible.  (You can download it for free on iTunes or watch it at the Smithsonian website.)  The documentary discusses the restoration and some of the theology behind Thomas Jefferson’s rewriting on the Bible.  In his day, Jefferson was called an atheist by his detractors; he wasn’t really an atheist, he was more of a Deist, defined in the documentary as someone who believes in God, but believes God is not involved in the daily affairs of men.

Jefferson was not at all comfortable with organized religion, and professed that he was the only person in his sect.  It is interesting to me that a so-called atheist was responsible for creating the First Amendment guaranteeing the right to religious freedom.  Of course many religious groups are incredibly grateful for this amendment, but he created his own bible where he removed all miracles and references to the resurrection, known as the Jefferson Bible.  The documentary states that Congress was so grateful for Jefferson’s bible that,

In 1904, Congress published 9000 copies and distributed it to its members over the next half century.  That a Bible lacking the resurrection was shared with an entire branch of government is a true testament to how the government has changed since Jefferson’s time.

For its first century and a half, Virginia’s state law mandated its citizens worship only in the Anglican Church of England, and they were all taxed for the privilege.

Barbara Clark Smith, PhD, Curator of Museum of American History “In Virginia if you believed something else, you were prohibited by law from meeting and worshiping.  Preachers who were preaching either a Baptist faith, or a Presbyterian faith, or Quakers who traveled through and preached, those people could be arrested.”

For Jefferson, the discrimination of dissenting believers was a spur to action.

[Historian], “That is a major impulse for Jefferson that is that idea of dismantling that unholy alliance of church and state that was the antithesis of his vision of republicanism, or what we now call democracy.”

Smith, “He believed very very strongly that there were natural human rights.  Human rights were innate, and that everyone had them.  One of them was the freedom to believe what you wanted to believe.”

[Quoting Thomas Jefferson], “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods, or no god.  It neither picks my pocket or breaks my leg.”

Smith, “For Jefferson, the fact there are all sorts of groups shows God wanted human beings to make up their own minds.  He did not want the government to step in and say, no there’s only one right way.”

[Historian], “It’s not about arguing there’s only one right path, but really allowing for those groups to establish their own religious freedom within this larger community.”

In 1777, Jefferson drafted the Virginia statute for religious freedom.

[Historian], “Of all the things he did in his entire life, he really only wanted three achievements to be on his gravestone.  He was the author of the Declaration of Independence, the founder of the University of Virginia, and author of the Virginia Stature for Religious Freedom.”

Jefferson’s statute became the basis for the First Amendment to the Constitution.  [Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion.]

I thought it interesting that his quote about believing in 20 gods or no gods did him no harm.  How do you think Jefferson would have reacted to the following religious freedom issues?

Would Jefferson have supported or opposed polygamy as a religious principle?

  • support (68%, 19 Votes)
  • oppose (32%, 9 Votes)

Total Voters: 28

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Would Jefferson support or oppose gay marriage?

  • support (56%, 14 Votes)
  • oppose (44%, 11 Votes)

Total Voters: 25

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  • How would Jefferson have reacted with regards to gun control following mass shootings in Newtown, or the Boston bombings?

It is interesting that Thomas Jefferson, author of “all men are created equal”, felt that only white men were created equal.  He owned slaves.  While considered egalitarian for his time, there is no record of him pushing for women’s right to vote.  What do you make of Jefferson?

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7 Responses to Jeffersonian Religion

  1. Jenn on April 22, 2013 at 6:38 AM

    He was not only Deist, he was Unitarian. The UUs are proud to claim him as one of their own.

    I don’t see a poll for question #3, and I think I’m ok with that, as I don’t think there is anyway of knowing how he would feel about gun control. Our world is VERY different from his. He was a product of his time, as evidenced by his ownership of slaves.

    f course I’d love to say he’d agree with me (common sense regulation of guns) but I recognize my bias:)

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  2. MH on April 22, 2013 at 12:23 PM

    Regarding guns, I suppose the Jefferson may have had different answers depending on the time of his life. As a rebel, he would have wanted every access to guns and bombs that he could get. I could see him devising a pressure cooker bomb with ball bearings and shrapnel to take out British soldiers. But I cannot see him make a bomb for innocent bystanders attending a marathon.

    President Jefferson would have reacted differently than Rebel Jefferson. I think President Jefferson would have used all means necessary to try to prevent innocent men, women, and children from having limbs blown off.

    I think it’s also interesting to hear the phrase ” It neither picks my pocket or breaks my leg.” I think Jefferson would have been appalled at a unholy alliance of Islamic Jihad, especially killing and maiming women and children. I suspect great intolerance for this form of religion.

    On the other hand, I can’t see Jefferson as being all that concerned about religious polygamy. It’s not harming him, so let men and women believe and worship how they please. He may well have felt the same way about gay marriage. Who is it hurting?

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  3. ken on April 22, 2013 at 4:57 PM

    Jefferson was one of the brightest stars in the firmament of our founding, but like all great men (and women) he was often contradictory and even confounding. As for religion, one gets the distinct impression that what he wanted most of all was to be left alone. I think he would have been appalled by Mormonism’s early lack of separation between religion, economics and politics, as would most of us today. As for guns, I doubt very much he would have approved of assault rifles, bazookas and personal RPGs. The man was not stupid.

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  4. FireTag on April 22, 2013 at 7:27 PM

    I happened to come from the permas comment page where it’s possible to read all posts’ comments on the same page, so I read the comments to this post before seeing the OP. The comments on guns particularly struck me as surprising given Jefferson’s view of conflict would have been formed by the French and Indian War, the Revolution, and the general Napoleonic Wars by the time he became President.

    The wars of his time were fought with cannon at close range and rockets, also only accurate at close range. So, yeah, they had the equivalent of bazookas and RPGs, and they were used against unarmored flesh. Naval battles often used chain shot or other goodies designed particularly to take out sailors from fragments. They didn’t call them “wooden ships and iron men” for nothing.

    While forts guarding cities were generally separate from the cities themselves, so you didn’t HAVE to destroy the cities to destroy them, that didn’t save Washington during the War of 1812, nor would it have saved Baltimore if Fort McHenry had fallen.

    And on the frontier, both sides committed massacres of women and children in both the French and Indian War and the Revolution.

    But the biggest innovation made by the Americans in the Revolution that was considered against all the laws of war of the day had nothing to do with murdering or defiling women and children. The Americans hit on the idea of stationing snipers with the specific job of targeting OFFICERS. Officers, being of the upper class, had been the ones considered off limits. The officers could be sent back home on parole with only their word that they would not fight again; soldiers or “civilians” you could do with what you wished.

    I can’t remember where I read this, but some one in the military history field once wrote that there is a cyclic quality to conflict in which eras where war is seen as conducted under “laws” or “ritual” alternate with bloodier eras where the side that survives does so because it finds a tactically or strategically superior atrocity.

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  5. Stan Beale on April 23, 2013 at 7:10 PM

    Though Jefferson might have personally be for allowing polygamy and SSM, it is doubtful he would have spoken out for them during his lifetime. He was a politician and concerned about hi image and would not say or do something unpopular unless he felt it was important enough. Neither issue would seem to be that significant while he was alive. If he were here today it might be a completely different matter.

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  6. Douglas on April 27, 2013 at 8:24 PM

    I voted that TJ would not have supported either polygamy or gay marriage in HIS day because neither was widely known and certainly not accepted (I’m sure there were a few homosexuals in Colonial America, but this was but a few generations from the time in Europe when “sodomites” would have been burned at the stake, and for all I know, maybe a few in the colonies suffered that fate as well, if Cotton Mather and the like had anything to do with it). Were TJ living in either the later Nineteen Century, or in our day, he’d likely express a “live and let live” attitude, so he’d not have opposed Government prohibition against polygamy or gay marriage, respectively.
    Gun Control? Again, in his day, firearms were considered a necessary tool, like have shovels, pitchforks, hammers, and clubs. The notion that any Government had any authority to regulate firearms with respect to freemen would have seemed laughable to him. Of course, state laws forbidding slaves to bear arms, he’d have been alright with that. I haven’t been able to find out laws in antebellum America, especially the South, about the ability of “free” Negroes (considering the extant black codes, how “free” they were is debatable) but it wouldn’t surprise me if a free fellow of colour would’ve risked his very life to stroll into town packing! As for technology (e.g, would he oppose so-called “assault” weapons?). Probably not. For example, breech-loaders (i.e. Ferguson rifle) had been introduced as early as 1776, and there was never any discussion about restricting civilians to muskets! However, someone going “postal” and shooting either a workplace or a school up doesn’t seem to be a phenomenon of his time, either.
    I trust that TJ, being a polymath, would approach the issues of our time, were he with us, with wisdom and wit. He was probably about as Libertarian as Presidents go, but not strictly in line with modern-day LP. His Embargo Act of 1807 was certainly not something a Libertarian would do.

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  7. Douglas on April 27, 2013 at 8:34 PM

    (Revising the earlier comment) – mistake. I meant to say that TJ, were he living in our time, would oppose Government intervention in private relationships, and so would not want prohibition of polygamy and would not oppose legalization of gay marriage.

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