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Thomas Jefferson is one of the most important men to ever live in America. He is admired for helping to found the country and drafting the Declaration of Independence. Because of this it may seem shocking that his personal religious views are so different from those that admire him now and in his own time. Jefferson instead was a Deist, rejecting the strict Calvinist Christianity of the majority of his fellow denizens.
Thomas Jefferson was raised in Virginia as a member of the Anglican Church and attended church services throughout his entire life.
He was a believer in that Christian faith until he went to receive an education at the College of William and Mary. There he was exposed to the new ideas of the Enlightenment. This included a new system of religious belief called deism to which the founding father began adhering to.1 As a deist Jefferson still believed in a God, but only as a creator who did not intervene.
He thought that nature showed clear design and that Creation implied the Creator.2 Although he did not believe in Christianity, Jefferson still believed in religious tolerance for all and championed the idea of the separation of church and state.
Christianity can be defined through the beliefs that are held by its adherents. Five basic beliefs that one must have to be a Christian are the Trinity, Incarnation, Resurrection, Redemption, and Ascension. The beliefs of the Anglican Church, the church that Jefferson attended and publicly professed, are put more specifically and eloquently in the Thirty Nine Articles3 written by Parliament and the Nicene Creed4. They state the same concepts as the five basic beliefs along with clauses about the authority of Scripture and the original sin of man.
1 Alf J. Mapp, The Faiths of Our Fathers: What America’s Founders Really Believed (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003): 4-6
2 Thomas Jefferson, [Letter] “To John Adams,” Monticello, April 11, 1823: 1
3 “Thirty Nine Articles”
4 “Nicene Creed”
Jefferson never indicated that he personally held any of these beliefs and even refuted some of them. In his system of belief, which he stated many times in his personal letters Jesus was simply a great teacher and who died a tragic, early death and that anything mystical or beyond reason in the New Testament was a corruption of Jesus’ original pure teachings5. He saw God as a creator who determined the laws of nature and then let the world run its course without intervention. He was a man who believed everything about religion could be discovered with reason instead of faith or revelation.
Regarding the Trinity, the belief that God is one being in the three persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Jefferson denies this outright as foolishness. He at one point discusses with John Adams how this is simply unreasonable and people can only pretend to understand.6 On another occasion he describes the concept of the Trinity as one of the “demoralizing dogmas of Calvin”7.
Jefferson believes that Jesus never considered himself to be God incarnated. He passes off that concept as an idea created by the writers of the New Testament who were both uneducated and recording Jesus’ life far too long after it actually happened.8 9 He describes Jesus as a teacher of morals and a reformer of the Jewish religion in his day. At one point he tells his
5 Thomas Jefferson, [Letter] “To Dr. Benjamin Rush, with a Syllabus,” Washington, April 21, 1803: 3
6 Mapp, The Faiths of Our Fathers: 11
7 Thomas Jefferson, [Letter] “To Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse,” Monticello, June 26, 1822: 9
8 Jefferson, [Letter] “To Dr. Benjamin Rush, with a Syllabus”: 11
9 Thomas Jefferson, [Letter] “To Dr. Joseph Priestley,” Washington, April 9, 1803: 7
good friend John Adams that the virgin birth and divinity of Christ will one day be considered a simple myth by most people10. The other three basic beliefs of Christianity are never mentioned by Jefferson, so it must be assumed he did not follow them.
Although Jefferson himself states that, “I am a Christian,”11 in his letter to Benjamin Rush he does not define Christianity by its beliefs as a religion as it is above, but instead as the moral and ethical teachings of Jesus. He believes that the Christian faith, more specifically teachings that were the exact words of Jesus, does a better job teaching morals than any other philosophy worldwide. In his letter to Joseph Priestly, Jefferson totally strips down Christianity of anything supernatural and gives that as his view12. To form his religious views he thinks that reason must be used as he tells his nephew Peter Carr.13 Jefferson’s personal reasoning leads him to reject the basic beliefs of Christianity and to embrace the new system of deism.
Deism, more specifically the English school of deism to which Thomas Jefferson subscribed, can be defined by Lord Cherbury’s five pillars of deism. They are as follows, there is one God, God is worthy of worship, the main method of worship is being virtuous, one should not sin, there is an afterlife consisting of either reward of punishment depending on how one lives. Jefferson did believe in a God using the logic that because there was creation there must be a creator. In another of his letter to John Adams Jefferson asserts that there is a God whom he “acknowledge[s] and adore[s],”14 proving his belief in the first two pillars.
10 Jefferson, [Letter] “To John Adams”: 15
11 Jefferson, [Letter] “To Dr. Benjamin Rush, with a Syllabus”: 10
12 Jefferson, [Letter] “To Dr. Joseph Priestley”: 9
13 Thomas Jefferson, [Letter] “To Peter Carr,” Paris, August 10, 1787: 6
Jefferson asserts the other pillars of deism by following those parts of the Bible that he accepts. He very clearly states in his letter to Benjamin Waterhouse that men treating each other well is the best way to please God, and that men will be punished or rewarded according to how they lead their lives15. On many occasion he mentions how humans are born with the ability to reason on their own without God. He believes that all men can do this not just those who are baptized or elect.
Jefferson’s personal religious beliefs are very important to consider when examining that he authored one of America’s most important documents, the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration of Independence is logically not a Christian document, for it was not written by a Christian.
There are only three references to God at all contained within the document, “Natures God,” “Creator,” and “divine Providence”16. Among those three references none of them are specifically Christian. The phrase “Nature’s God” is much more deist than Christian. It is not Jesus Christ, the Christian God, or even our God, instead it is simply a God that made nature and nothing else. Another fact of note is that when mentioning entitlement from “Nature’s God” it is also mentioned that the Laws of Nature entitle men to the same things, therefore implying that that is the way it is setup without intervention or interference from God.
A “Creator” and “divine Providence” are things that all monotheistic faiths believe in, making it in no way specifically Christian. Creator is also a common deist term for God, because like Nature’s God it implies only a being that set the universe in motion, not one that is
14 Jefferson, [Letter] “To John Adams”: 13
15 Jefferson, [Letter] “To Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse”: 16
16 Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of Independence (1776)
active in it. Jefferson’s deism bleeds into the document in these instances when he references the divine.
Furthermore, the document asserts none of the five basic beliefs of Christianity found in its creeds. The Trinitarian God that is deeply emphasized in the Athanasain Creed17 is never mentioned, nor is God incarnate as Jesus Christ as emphasized in the Apostles Creed18 and Nicene Creed19. The declaration has no trace at all of Christian doctrine or dogma in it completely leaving out all five basic beliefs. Instead it contains references to the deist pillar of Nature’s God. The Declaration of Independence is therefore a deist document.
The Declaration of Independence’s main editor, Benjamin Franklin was also a deist. Franklin was born a Presbyterian in Boston. As a young adult he ran away to Philidelphia and by the age of 22 had formed his own deist beliefs. In his Articles of Belief he asserts the deist pillars of there being a Creator and that the Creator deserves worship.20 In the same document Franklin rejects monotheism with the assumption that the Creator may have created other lesser gods.
Later in his autobiography, Franklin reaffirms his Articles of Belief that he had written many years prior.21 In this work Franklin also distances himself from Christianity by stating that he does not belong to any sect of organized religion, preferring to study his own ideas about God rather than those of in a minister’s sermon. Franklin has also has very well explored ideas about
17 “Athanasain Creed”
18 “Apostles Creed”
19 “Nicene Creed”
20 Benjamin Franklin, Articles of Belief (1728)
21 Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography (1791)
how to achieve perfection through virtues in his autobiography. He values these ideas over religious doctrine.
Finally, in a letter to the president of Yale, Ezra Stiles, which he wrote just before he died, Franklin again espouses deism.22 In it he adds to his previous statements asserting all the remaining pillars of deism. Writing about how not sinning and treating one’s neighbors well is looked upon favorably by God and how does not doubt an afterlife following his quickly approaching death. When responding to a prompt about his opinions of Jesus, he rejects some of the five basic beliefs of Christianity. He questions the divinity of Jesus therefore rejecting the Incarnation. Rejecting Jesus as God also eliminates one member of the Trinity, destroying that basic belief. Of the other basic beliefs Franklin never discusses any, so it must be assumed that like Jefferson he was a non-believer.
Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson had very similar sets of beliefs. They both assert all five of Cherbury’s pillars of Deism and accept reason over revelation. The two men see it as important to worship God through a good life, instead of the through the strict ceremonies and Sacraments of their day. Both also see no harm in others practicing organized religion, which was different than many other deist thinkers of their time. The two founding fathers even thought very fondly of some Christian sects such as the Unitarians and Quakers who were thought of as more reasonable in beliefs and quite charitable.23 The ultimate teacher of morals according to both men is Jesus.24 25
22 Benjamin Franklin, [Letter], “To Ezra Stiles”
23 Jefferson, [Letter] “To Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse”: 16
24 Jefferson, [Letter] “To Dr. Joseph Priestley”: 9
25 Franklin, [Letter], “To Ezra Stiles,”: 5
Franklin, however, is less outright about Jesus’ divinity. He claims to be doubtful but not know for sure because he has not examined the subject. Jefferson on the other hand rejects the idea outright as the work of superstitious fools long after Jesus’ time.26 Another topic on which they fray is that Franklin imagines a universe filled with intelligent beings and lesser gods beyond Earth, while Jefferson never once indicates belief that the Creator made intelligent beings beyond humans. Jefferson also continued attending Sunday services throughout his life, unlike Franklin who rarely went to church because he despised sermons about the particulars of religious beliefs instead of moral behavior.27
Most scholars who agree that Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were deist is Alf J. Mapp. In his book The Faiths of Our Fathers he discusses the religious lives of the founding fathers including Jefferson and Franklin who he asserts were deist. 28 Mapp defines deism through Cherbury’s pillars and Christendom through its basic beliefs the same as they are defined above. He then goes through their lives and illustrates how they adhered to deism instead of the popular Christianity. He writes about how they both were raised as Christians until they left home and were exposed to new ideas and how those ideas shaped their lives and their policies as leaders of the United States.
Avery Cardinal Dulles gives a different opinion in his essay The Deist Minimum, Jefferson not viewed simply as a deist but as a Christian deist.29 Franklin on the other hand is not given this distinction and is still considered just a regular deist. Dulles reconciles the
26 Jefferson, [Letter] “To Dr. Benjamin Rush, with a Syllabus”: 11
27 Franklin, Autobiography (1791): 4
28 Mapp, The Faiths of Our Fathers
29 Avery Cardinal Dulles, The Deist Minimum (2005)
incompatibility of deism and Christianity by defining Christianity through its values instead of its beliefs for his article. Not all of the founding fathers were deist though individuals such as James Madison and Patrick Henry were strong Christians. James Madison was one of the most liberal Christians among the founding fathers. Although he had some influence from deism, he remain a pious Christian his whole life. Both Mapp30 and Dulles31 agree on this assessment of Madison’s faith. Madison was very tolerant of other faiths and favored separation of church and state like Jefferson. This was vastly different than the general public of the day who on average were more close-minded Christians.32
Patrick Henry was very different from the founding fathers already discussed. He was Christian and he viewed deism as morally depraved and was offended if someone thought him to be deist. He was one of the more orthodox Christians according to Dulles.33 His religion was one of the most important things in Henry’s life and he held it dearly to his deathbed. He spent much time defending his faith and tried to convert non-Christian founding fathers from their deist ways. Unlike most of the other founding fathers he was not against the separation of church and state, and he tried to make the Episcopal Church the official state church of Virginia. Henry did maintain a concept of religious tolerance though. He would defend members of
30 Mapp, The Faiths of Our Fathers
31 Dulles, The Deist Minimum
32 Mapp, The Faiths of Our Fathers
33 Dulles, The Deist Minimum
persecuted sects such as Baptist in court and offered some sects equal status to his preferred Episcopal faith if it had become the official state religion.34
One founding father who seemed to wax and wane between Christianity and deism in his life is John Adams. He was raised a Puritan, but became a much more liberal Christian in his adult life and at times rejected organized religion entirely. Dulles uses this information to classify Adams as a Christian with deist leanings, instead of a man whose opinions changed throughout his adult life.35
Jefferson was a large influence on Adams and the two shared many ideas with each other. He was more critical of organized religion than his American contemporaries and despised clergymen like many European deist. Unlike other deist he did believe in revelation and even saw it in some non-Biblical books. During times with and without faith Adams always went to church and believed in religious tolerance for all much like Jefferson.36
34 Mapp, The Faiths of Our Fathers
35 Dulles, The Deist Minimum
36 Mapp, The Faiths of Our Fathers
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