Thomas Jefferson & Religion: Views & Quotes

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will explore Thomas Jefferson's views on religion. We will learn how he was influenced by Deism and we will highlight his views regarding religious tolerance.

Thomas Jefferson: An Enigmatic Figure

Have you ever known someone who doesn't easily fit into a label or category? Perhaps you may know someone whose political views span the spectrum of conservative and liberal ideology. Hard-line liberals may consider this person a conservative, but hard-line conservatives may consider this person a liberal. In many respects, Thomas Jefferson is like that. Both liberals and conservatives love to quote Jefferson and attempt to claim him as their ideological inspiration. Jefferson's views on religion are particularly interesting (and sometimes complicated). His writings on religion have been used by the religious community and the non-religious community alike to support their respective viewpoints. Because of this, many people are confused about what Thomas Jefferson actually believed. In this lesson we will explore Jefferson's views on religion. Let's dig in!

Thomas Jefferson wrote widely about religion, and his writings have been revered by both the religious and non-religious communities alike.

The Enlightenment and Deism

We can't accurately understand Jefferson's views on religion without first understanding the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement that took place throughout the 18th century that emphasized themes of skepticism, reason, and humanism. Central to the Enlightenment, was a skepticism and antagonism toward organized religion. Enlightenment thinkers perceived the Church as a corrupt political institution that held people back from using reason.

Thomas Jefferson was very much influenced by the Enlightenment. It would be fair to consider him a product of the Enlightenment. Along with Benjamin Franklin, Jefferson was a leading figure of the American Enlightenment. Many Enlightenment thinkers (across both sides of the Atlantic) held to a religious belief system called Deism. Deism is the belief that God exists, but that He doesn't interact supernaturally with the universe. Deism affirms the belief in a Supreme Being who created the universe, but then left it to ''operate'' according to natural law, or in other words, according to natural principles of cause and effect. Deists have often described God as a sort of ''Clockmaker'' who wound up the universe like a clock, but then left it to operate on its own. Deism denies that supernatural occurrences (miracles) are possible. In the 18th century, many Deists also denied the divinity of Jesus Christ. In many respects, Deism can be understood as an attempt to reconcile science and religion.

Jefferson was a Deist. In a letter to a friend, he stated: ''You say you are a Calvinist. I am not. I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know.'' Jefferson conceived of God as a Supreme Being who could be known through human reason. In another letter, he 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.'' Jefferson believed in God, but believed Christianity had become corrupted. He denied orthodox Christian doctrines, such as the virgin birth of Christ and the Trinity. And yet, he referred to the teachings of Jesus as ''the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.'' So we can see, Jefferson's religious views were complex.

The ''Jefferson Bible''

One of the most fascinating historical artifacts related to Jefferson and religion still exists. It is known as the ''Jefferson Bible'' and it was recently on display at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. So what is so special about it? Because Jefferson did not believe in miracles, he took a razor to a copy of the New Testament and literally cut out passages that contained the miracles of Jesus. His aim was to modify the New Testament so that it would contain only the moral teachings of Jesus. In fact, he titled this work The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, although it is more commonly known as the ''Jefferson Bible.''

The title page of the Jefferson Bible, handwritten by Jefferson himself.

Jefferson on Religious Liberty

Some of you may know this, but more than just about any other Founder, Jefferson was known for his intense commitment to religious liberty. Freedom to worship (or not worship) in one's own way was a trademark of Jefferson. His support for religious liberty is reflected in his statement: ''I am for freedom of religion, and against all maneuvers to bring about a legal ascendancy of one sect over another.'' In this spirit, he drafted the 1777 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which, when finally enacted in 1786, disestablished the Anglicanism (Church of England) as the official religion of Virginia and guaranteed religious liberty to Virginians of all sects and religions. Jefferson considered this an even more important achievement than being elected president. In fact, on his gravestone he wanted to be remembered for three things and three things only: writing the Declaration of Independence, founding the University of Virginia, and writing the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.

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