A Christian Nation? An Examination Through the Words of Thomas Jefferson

Introductory Remarks

President John F. Kennedy held a dinner at the White House for Nobel Prize winners of the Western Hemisphere.   He toasted the group by saying: ‘This is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson had dined there alone’.

Indeed Jefferson was a powerful intellectual force that helped shape the foundation of our country.  A memorial was built in his honor in our nation’s capital and his visage was carved onto Mt. Rushmore.  Of Jefferson’s many accomplishments he served as governor of Virginia, US minister to France, secretary of state under George Washington, vice president under John Adams, and as our third president of the United States.  Jefferson designed his own tombstone and wrote the inscription.  He chose not to mention a single one of the powerful offices he had held.  Rather, he wanted to be remembered for what he considered to be his three greatest accomplishments “author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia”, and as he requested, “not one word more”.

Last week my wife returned from a meeting where a discussion ensued about whether America was founded as a Christian nation.  I have also heard that same claim in separate discussions, and it is a position supported, amongst others, by the conservative Christian right.  This claim always seemed to me to run contrary to information I had studied and read over the years including the religious persecution abroad that drove many to our shores and the principle of separation of church and state as defined in our Constitution.

I have decided to examine this issue of America being a Christian Nation through the words of Thomas Jefferson himself.  For those of you unfamiliar with Jefferson’s writings, you may be taken back by his frankness about Christianity.  Indeed he was one of the more outspoken of the founding fathers at the time.   I want to make clear that what follows is not, nor should it be construed as, an attack on Christianity.  I firmly believe and respect that the citizens of this country have the freedom to worship as they chose, even not at all should that be their inclination.  In Jefferson’s own words: “But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God.  It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg” (Notes on Virginia, 1792).  The intent of this article is simply to examine the claim that America was founded as a Christian nation through the words of a founding father who was a formidable intellectual force in shaping the framework of our country.

Background

It is widely held that Jefferson was Deist, not a Christian, and he was not alone in this regard during his time.  Several of the Founding Fathers and/or Framers of the Constitution including the likes of Benjamin Franklin,  James Madison, John Adams, Cornelius Harnett, Hugh Williamson, Alexander Hamilton, Ethan Allen and Thomas Paine held Deist beliefs as well.   Enlightenment philosophy was heavily inspired by Deist principles and Deism became prominent during the Age of Enlightenment in what is now the United States, Great Britain, France and Ireland.  Deists believe that there was a creator, one God, but that this God did not intervene with human life nor alter natural laws.  Deists believed that the universe (and religious truth as well) could be understood through reason and observation of the natural world.  What organized religions view as divine revelation and holy books, Diests view as being manmade interpretations rather than authoritative sources.  As such they rejected aspects of Christianity including miracles, the Trinity, the divinity of Jesus and the infallibility of scripture.   Deist influence has been credited with contributing to the principle of separation of church and state and the principle of religious freedom in this country.

Indeed our Founding Fathers also included Christians.  However, there is debate as to the religious affiliation of our early presidents.  Christian faith, at least in my readings, bore little influence on the thinking or policy of our early presidents.   Article 11 from the Treaty with Tripoli (1796) provides an interesting case in point.  The treaty was written during the presidency of George Washington and signed under the presidency of John Adams.  Article 11 states:  “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 Mussulmen – and as the said states never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries”.  The senate’s ratification was only the third recorded unanimous vote of 339 votes taken and the treaty was published in the lay press without evidence of public dissent.  Although there has been debate about the accuracy of the ‘Barlow translation’ of this document, it was that translation, including Article 11, that was presented to, read aloud in, and ratified by the senate.

Jefferson’s Words

The quotes I use have come from compilations and should anyone find that any of them are in error, they are free to so comment.  I have divided Jefferson’s statements into  titled subsections.

On Christianity/Religion and State

“Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law”.  To Dr. Thomas Cooper, February 10, 1814

“Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting ‘Jesus Christ’, so that it would read ‘A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion’; the insertion was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination”.  Autobiography, in reference to the Virginia Act for Religious Freedom – considered by Jefferson to be one of his three greatest accomplishments.

“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”.  Letter to Danbury Baptist Association, CT, January 1, 1802

“History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free and civil government.  This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes”.  To Alexander von Humboldt, December 6, 1813

“May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all), the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.  All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man.  The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view that palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.”  To Roger C. Weightman, June 24, 1826 (in the last letter Jefferson penned).

On Christianity/Religion (General)

“Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined and imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity”.  – Notes on Virginia, 1782

“I concur with you strictly in your opinion of the comparative merits of atheism and demonism, and really see nothing but the latter in the being worshipped by many who think themselves Christians”.  To Richard Price, January 8, 1789 (Price had written to Jefferson on October 26 about the harm done by religion and wrote ‘Would not Society be better without Such religions?  Is Atheism less pernicious than Demonism?’)

“Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used against unintelligible propositions.  Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity.  It is the mere Abracadabra of the montebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus.”  To Francis Adrian Van der Kemp, July 30, 1816

On Reason and Thought

“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”. To Peter Carr, August 10, 1787

“I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else where I was capable of thinking for myself.  Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent”.  To Francis Hopkinson, March 13, 1789

“If we did a good act merely from love of God and a belief that it is pleasing to Him, whence arises the morality of the Atheist?…Their virtue, then must have had some other foundation than the love of God”.  To Thomas Law, June 13, 1814.

“You say you are a Calvinist.  I am not.  I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know.”  To Ezra Stiles Ely, June 25, 1819.

“Man once surrendering his reason, has no remaining guard against absurdities the most monstrous, and like a ship without rudder, is the sport of every wind.”  To James Smith, 1822

On Christian Scripture

“The whole of these books (the Gospels) is so defective and doubtful that it seems vain to attempt minute enquiry into it; and such tricks have been played with their text, and with the texts of other books relating to them that we have a right, from that cause, to entertain much doubt what parts of them are genuine.  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”.  To John Adams, January 24, 1814.

“Among the sayings and discourses imputed to him (Jesus) 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, so much absurdity, so much untruth, charlatanism, and imposture, as to pronounce it impossible that such contradictions should have proceeded from the same being.”  To William Short, April 13, 1820

“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 Minerve 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.”  To John Adams, April 11, 1823

“It is between fifty and sixty years since I read it (the Apocalypse), and I then considered it merely the ravings of a maniac, no more worthy nor capable of explanation than the incoherences of our own nightly dreams.”  To General Alexander Smyth, January 17, 1825

On the Clergy

“They (the clergy) believe that any portion of power confided to me, will be exerted in opposition to their schemes.  And they believe rightly; for I have sworn upon the altar of god, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.  But this is all they have to fear from me; and enough too, in their opinion, and this is the cause of their printing lying pamphlets against me…”.  To Dr. Benjamin Rush, September 23, 1800. (Note: a section of this letter is engraved on the Jefferson Memorial – ‘I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man’ – however, it is little understood that the quote was derived from the letter written to Benjamin Rush in response to Rush’s warning about the Philadelphia clergy attacking Jefferson, who was viewed as an infidel by his enemies during his election for president).

“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”.  To Horatio G. Spafford, March 17, 1814

“My opinion is that there would never have been an infidel, if there had never been a priest.  The artificial structures they have built on the purest of all moral systems, for the purpose of deriving from it pence and power, revolts those who think for themselves, and who read in that system only what is really there.”  To Mrs. Samuel H. Smith, August 6, 1816.

Priests…dread the advance of science as witches do the approach of daylight and scowl on the fatal harbinger announcing the subversions of the duperies on which they live.”  to Correa de Serra, April 11, 1820.

Concluding Remarks

It is my belief that Jefferson’s opinions as expressed in his writings are self-evident.  It is inconceivable that Jefferson would have engaged in, tolerated, or supported the creation of a ‘Christian nation’.  It is evident from his writings and actions that he espoused a clear separation of church and state.  Freedom of religious belief and practice, a cornerstone of our country, would have been jeopardized had there been a predominant national religion upon which law could be enacted.  Indeed the formation of our country during the Age of Enlightenment provided the philosophical background to separate ourselves as a nation, in approach to religion, from England that had its own church.

Jefferson was not alone in his opinion that no one religion should be favored over another.  The ‘great majority’ rejected an amendment to the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom that proposed adding the name Jesus Christ as the holy author of our religion thus opening the protections of this Act to believers of all faiths and non-believers as well.  And, the Treaty of Tripoli, written under the presidency of Washington, signed under the presidency of John Adams, ratified unanimously in the senate, and published in the lay press without evidence of public dissent, states that “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion”.

One final point worth considering.  Jefferson, being an out-spoken critic of Christian dogma (known by the Christian clergy of his day) somehow got elected to two terms as president of the United States in a Christian nation?

I wonder what words would be issued today by Jefferson to legislators who are accepting money in consideration of pursuing a fundamentalist Christian agenda.

Selected Reading

1.  JFK Remarks at a Dinner Honoring Nobel Prize Winners of the Western Hemisphere

2. Thomas Jefferson

3. Deism in the United States

4. Article 11 of the Treaty of Tripoli

5. Thomas Jefferson on Christianity and Religion

One comment

  1. Some people won’t like this but I feel it explains the separation of church and state from the founding fathers perspective.  Thanks Art!

    Like

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