Advocates on both sides of the debate concerning the separation of church and state have utilized Jefferson in their arguments. He was a person who attended church services in federal facilities during his president; but, he also expressed contempt for any organized religion. And, saw as an anathema, any governmental control on religious thought. Joseph Ellis has called Jefferson the “American Sphinx,” an enigma, hiding his true feelings and beliefs. In many respects Ellis is correct, but in the case of religion, Jefferson is not inscrutable.
It must always be remembered that Jefferson was a product of the Enlightenment. The dominant spirit of the Enlightenment was one of skepticism towards all former truths and of free inquiry in the pursuit of knowledge. This philosophy did not reflect on this world or the hereafter, but stressed change. Reason and inquiry would lead toward those truths, laws, or spirit that cam from nature. Nature’s laws, designed by God, were universal, unchanging, and beneficial to man. These laws, almost given the status of a faith, were secular and utilitarian. They directed all aspects of life be it political, scientific or theological. Jefferson felt the purpose of the Enlightenment was to increase freedom and happiness. He saw the Enlightenment as an optimistic faith preaching the goodness of humanity, that the future would be better than the past, and that if nature’s laws were applied the advance of freedom was irreversible.
There was a neoclassical component to the Enlightenment. Its proponents studied ancient Greek and Roman philosophy and political structure. Jefferson admired many aspects of the ancient Greeks and Romans’ he could read and speak both languages. He agreed with many of their precepts, such as the Greek idea that man is measure of all things. This was the groundwork for his belief in humanism, which recognized no barriers to the use of the mind, and which sought to make all knowledge useful to man. Jefferson particularly admired the Greeks’ idea with respect to man’s relationship to himself.
The Greek Philosophers
Jefferson favored ethical systems of thought over institutionalized dogma. He was influenced by the Greek philosophies of Epicures and the Stoics. He believed as Epicures that happiness was humanity’s main goal and it could be attained through moral and noble actions. From the Stoics, Jefferson took the idea of reining in emotion. He felt these ideas about self-control, moderation and rational behavior in the face of misfortune were paragons on how one should comport oneself.
While the ancients provided guideposts on how an individual should act, Jefferson believed that the teachings of Jesus would steer humanity on how it should conduct its relations with each other. According to Jefferson, the duty of men toward each other was the most important aspect of morality, and Jesus was man’s greatest teacher regarding morality. Jesus’ moral ideas were needed for mankind to progress and ensure liberty, happiness and good government.
Jefferson believed in God, but he based his belief in a God of reason, which he called in the Declaration of Independence, “nature’s God”. This was a rational God who had established the unchangeable laws of nature. He wrote to John Adams:
I hold (without appeal to revelation) that when we take a view of the Universe, in its parts general or particular, it is impossible for the human mind not to perceive and feel a conviction of design, consummate skill, and indefinite power in every atom of its composition…it is impossible, I say, for the human mind not to believe that there is…a fabricator of all things.
In Jefferson’s view, duty toward God was a matter of personal experience, not to be dictated or promoted by the thoughts of others. He explained his belief, grounded in the tenets of the Enlightenment, to a young friend:
Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of the consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is not God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise, and the love of others which it will procure you. If you reason to believe there is a God, consciousness that you are acting under his eye, and that he approves you, will be a vast additional incitement; if that there be a future state, the hope of a happy existence in that increases the appetite to deserve it; if that Jesus was also God, you will be comforted by a belief of his aid and love. In fine, I repeat, you must lay aside prejudices on both sides, and neither believe nor reject anything…Your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven, and you are answerable, not for the rightness, but the uprightness of the decision…
Jefferson’s Enlightenment rationalism also dealt with the Bible. He did not accept Jesus as divine and rejected all account of miracles and the resurrection. His view of scripture was not that it was the infallible word of God, but that man had corrupted it; that scripture needed to have separated “the gold from the dross.” To accomplish this separation, Jefferson took the Gospels in the New Testament (which he called “the most sublime edifice or morality which had ever been exhibited to man”) and combined them into a chronological condensation which he felt would allow Christ’s “genuine character” to be seen. Within this work, The Philosophy of Jesus Extracted from the Texts of the Evangelists(sometimes known as the “Jefferson Bible”), there is what could be considered a completely humanistic view of the life of Christ. Jefferson wrote to John Adams in 1814:
The whole history 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 texts, and with the texts of other books relating to them, that we have a right, from that cause, to entertain much about what parts of them are genuine.
Jefferson sometimes found his precepts at odds with those of Jesus and dubbed his own views “rational Christianity.” Jefferson explained his rationale: “I am a Materialist; he (Jesus) takes the side of spiritualism; he preaches the efficacy of repentance towards the forgiveness of sin; I require a counterpoise of good works to redeem it, etc., etc. It is the innocence of his character, the purity and sublimity of his moral precepts, the eloquence of his inculcations, the beauty of his apologues in which he conveys them that I so much admire…”
Was Jefferson, with his stated beliefs, a Christian? His parents raised him in the Anglican (Episcopal) Church, and later in life was an elected vestryman of the local Church. He contributed to every denomination in Charlottesville; and went to Christian services, almost every Sunday while President. Even so, Jefferson cannot be considered a Christian in the truest sense of the word. He held closely to the Unitarian writings of Joseph Priestley that the teaching of Jesus and his human character had been altered and mutated when the early Church came under the influence of Greek, Platonic doctrine.
Many considered Jefferson a Deist. (A derogatory term at the time for “Freethinkers”.) Deism was not a formal religion, but a label ascribed to individuals who believed that all doctrine must meet the test of reason. They did not believe in the Trinity, miracles, or the authority of the clergy. They regarded the ethics and morality of humans as the core of their belief. Jefferson himself wrote: “I am a sect by myself, as far as I know.”