Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) is a world-renowned figure. Founding Father, author of the Declaration of Independence, ambassador, first secretary of state, third president of the United States, founder of the University of Virginia, inventor, farmer – the list goes on. To this day, his Virginia plantation, Monticello, is a shrine of sorts. But what is less well known (and our current interest) are the religious beliefs of the famed statesman.
On one level, Jefferson was a conventional Anglican/Episcopalian, as was expected in the planter class into which he was born. Baptised, married, and buried with Anglican rites, he never belonged to any other denomination, and was a vestryman of his home parish. He was a regular worshipper at churches of that denomination in Charlottesville, Williamsburg, Philadelphia and Washington.
But that attendance was about as far as his adherence to the Church of England or its American daughter went. His theology was very different from that of either high church or low church in his day or ours.
Jefferson first began to doubt conventional Christianity while a student at Williamsburg’s William and Mary College. Deism, with its rejection of Christ’s divinity, the Trinity, miracles and indeed any kind of a personal God, was very much in the air.
In time Jefferson came to absorb all of these denials, save the last (to some degree).
He came to believe that most of Christianity was a sort of Platonism grafted on to what he considered the “primitive religion of Jesus” – primarily to benefit the priesthood; for this reason, he conceived a particular hatred of Catholicism and a suspicion of most clerics of any kind. In 1820 he published a Bible of his own, with all the miraculous elements of the Gospels excised, calling himself Unitarian (though he never joined a Unitarian church).
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