Principles of Belief
While attending the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg (1760–1762), Jefferson began to question traditional religion. Studying under William Small, a Scottish Enlightenment professor and the only member of the faculty who was not an Anglican minister, Jefferson developed an affinity for John Locke, Viscount Bolingbroke, and other Enlightenment thinkers who did not profess standard religious doctrine.
Over time, Jefferson's religion became increasingly unconventional. He rejected many precepts important to Christian belief, including the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth and the concept of the Trinity, in which God exists simultaneously and co-equally as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. He denied the possibility of biblical miracles, including the claim that Mary conceived Jesus while remaining a virgin and that Jesus was resurrected after death. He also rejected atonement, or the idea that Christ's death allowed for the forgiveness of sin. The doctrine of original sin, which holds that all men and women are born sharing in the sin of Adam and Eve, was ridiculous to Jefferson: he believed that a rational, loving God would not punish one person for the sins of another. Jefferson was equally dismissive of Calvinism and predestination, or the belief that all men and women are fated from birth to be saved or damned. He also actively objected to the idea of salvation through faith, insisting that humans must be judged based on their actions.
Jefferson began to urge friends and relations to pursue his own rationalistic religion, telling one nephew that he should "[q]uestion with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear." Yet Jefferson maintained a firm belief in a benevolent creator God. He is often, somewhat imprecisely, referred to as a deist, or someone who believes that God can be found through reason alone, without the rituals of organized religion, and that the creator does not intervene in the world. For his part, Jefferson believed in God's continuing intervention in the universe, although, having rejected biblical miracles, he seems not to have believed in the efficacy of prayer to obtain miraculous intervention. While there is doubt among some historians, he also apparently had some belief in an afterlife; he certainly saw belief in a future state of rewards and punishment as a useful social device.
Religion and Politics
Jefferson's religious beliefs provided a crucial foundation for his political views. Jefferson believed not only that God created man, and gave humans certain rights, but that the right to think freely for oneself—free from the restraints of ministers, dogma, and government—was central to people's humanity. He argued that neither religion nor free government could flourish if members could not think for themselves. Forced belief was an oxymoron for Jefferson. For these reasons, freedom of thought, including the separation of church and state, was essential both for a true religion and for a functioning republic. This is why it was so essential to Jefferson that what he referred to as "freedom of opinion" be guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
This interest in religious freedom was fed by the vicious presidential campaign between Jefferson and John Adams, of Massachusetts, in 1800. During that campaign, a violent press battle labeled Jefferson an "arch-infidel," and New Englanders were warned to hide their Bibles if Jefferson was elected. Jefferson did not respond publicly, but he took pains to promote religious freedom. It was in part in response to such attacks and what he viewed as dangerous religious divisions in the new nation that he wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association assuring them that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution protected their religious freedom from federal abuse, creating "a wall of separation between Church & State." His own deeply felt religious beliefs supported that view, and it is a mistake to see the letter or his position on religious freedom as a political ploy.
As president, rejecting the precedent of both George Washington and John Adams, Jefferson refused repeated requests that he issue a proclamation for prayer or thanksgiving, insisting that such an official proclamation was outside the powers of the president and inconsistent with the First Amendment. At the same time, he openly prayed for the assistance of divine providence in both of his inaugural addresses, distinguishing private religious declarations, even when made in public, from the official declarations that he saw as unconstitutional.
His growing devotion to Jesus's ethics only served to increase his antipathy for what he viewed as the corruptions of Jesus's moral teachings by "priestcraft," ministers determined to use religion, and the support of government, for their own ends. It was particularly significant, then, that Jefferson saw Jesus's crucifixion as the result of an alliance between church and state, the effort of priests to maintain their positions of power.
As a result of this newfound dedication to Jesus's philosophy, Jefferson spent many hours excerpting from the Bible what he believed were Jesus's true statements, ignoring those that he thought had been corrupted by subsequent reporters—"as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill," he wrote to Adams. Initially, Jefferson compiled a small pamphlet of quotations from Jesus that he entitled The Philosophy of Jesus. This short work was later replaced by the much more detailed The Life and Morals of Jesus, for which Jefferson painstakingly excerpted the Gospels from two copies in each of four different languages (English, French, Greek, and Latin) to produce what he considered a more accurate, demystified history of Jesus and his teaching, excluding miracles and ending with Jesus being placed in the tomb. Jefferson often read from this collection before retiring for the evening. This collection—the so-called Jefferson Bible—was not published commercially until early in the twentieth century, although its existence was known during Jefferson's lifetime.
University of Virginia
The United States Supreme Court has repeatedly referred to Jefferson as a progenitor and leading advocate of American religious freedom and, in particular, the separation of church and state. His Danbury Baptist letter and the Virginia Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom have been understood to define the scope of the First Amendment's prohibition on laws "respecting an establishment of religion."
In 1961, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that Maryland laws prohibiting certain kinds of retail activity on Sundays were constitutional, but the laws could not be used to support religion. In his opinion for the Court, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that the "Court has considered the happenings surrounding the Virginia General Assembly's enactment of 'An act for establishing religious freedom,' … written by Thomas Jefferson and sponsored by James Madison, as best reflecting the long and intensive struggle for religious freedom in America, as particularly relevant in the search for First Amendment meaning." While Jefferson's role in that regard has been questioned more recently by several jurists, it continues to hold powerful sway both in the courts and among the public.
1777 - Thomas Jefferson drafts a bill "for establishing religious freedom" as part of an effort to revise Virginia's colonial laws in order to remove vestiges of monarchy and align them more closely with the state's republican principles and its new, independent status.
January 19, 1786 - "An Act for establishing religious Freedom" is signed into law in Virginia.
January 1, 1802 - In a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, Thomas Jefferson argues for "a wall of separation between Church & State.""
October 6, 1817 - The cornerstone is laid for the University of Virginia. The school's founder, Thomas Jefferson, insists that, as a state university, there should be no official minister nor should special access be given to religious ministers or programs.
1820 - Thomas Jefferson completes his version of The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, commonly referred to as The Jefferson Bible.
Cite This Entry
- APA Citation:
Ragosta, J. Thomas Jefferson and Religion. (2015, November 4). In Encyclopedia Virginia. Retrieved from http://www.EncyclopediaVirginia.org/Jefferson_Thomas_and_Religion.
- MLA Citation:
Ragosta, John. "Thomas Jefferson and Religion." Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, 4 Nov. 2015. Web. READ_DATE.
First published: August 10, 2012 | Last modified: November 4, 2015
Contributed by John Ragosta, an independent historian and lawyer who has written extensively on religious freedom. His most recent book, Religious Freedom: Jefferson's Legacy, America's Creed, is forthcoming from University of Virginia Press.