Principles of Belief
When Jefferson was born, on April 13, 1743, the Church of England was the established church in colonial Virginia, and Jefferson’s early religious upbringing was relatively conventional. He was baptized, married, and buried in the Anglican or Episcopal Church. Anglican ministers provided his early education, and, as was common for a member of the gentry, he was elected as a young man to an Anglican vestry, both a civil and religious post in pre-revolutionary Virginia.
While attending the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg (1760–1762), Jefferson began to question traditional religion. Studying under William Small, a Scottish Enlightenment professor and the only member of the faculty who was not an Anglican minister, Jefferson developed an affinity for John Locke, Viscount Bolingbroke, and other Enlightenment thinkers who did not profess standard religious doctrine.
Over time, Jefferson’s religion became increasingly unconventional. He rejected many precepts important to Christian belief, including the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth and the concept of the Trinity, in which God exists simultaneously and co-equally as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. He denied the possibility of biblical miracles, including the claim that Mary conceived Jesus while remaining a virgin and that Jesus was resurrected after death. He also rejected atonement, or the idea that Christ’s death allowed for the forgiveness of sin. The doctrine of original sin, which holds that all men and women are born sharing in the sin of Adam and Eve, was ridiculous to Jefferson: he believed that a rational, loving God would not punish one person for the sins of another. Jefferson was equally dismissive of Calvinism and predestination, or the belief that all men and women are fated from birth to be saved or damned. He also actively objected to the idea of salvation through faith, insisting that humans must be judged based on their actions.
Jefferson began to urge friends and relations to pursue his own rationalistic religion, telling one nephew that he should “[q]uestion with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.” Yet Jefferson maintained a firm belief in a benevolent creator God. He is often, somewhat imprecisely, referred to as a deist, or someone who believes that God can be found through reason alone, without the rituals of organized religion, and that the creator does not intervene in the world. For his part, Jefferson believed in God’s continuing intervention in the universe, although, having rejected biblical miracles, he seems not to have believed in the efficacy of prayer to obtain miraculous intervention. While there is doubt among some historians, he also apparently had some belief in an afterlife; he certainly saw belief in a future state of rewards and punishment as a useful social device.
Religion and Politics
Jefferson’s religious beliefs provided a crucial foundation for his political views. Jefferson believed not only that God created man, and gave humans certain rights, but that the right to think freely for oneself—free from the restraints of ministers, dogma, and government—was central to people’s humanity. He argued that neither religion nor free government could flourish if members could not think for themselves. Forced belief was an oxymoron for Jefferson. For these reasons, freedom of thought, including the separation of church and state, was essential both for a true religion and for a functioning republic. This is why it was so essential to Jefferson that what he referred to as “freedom of opinion” be guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.
As a result of both his religious views and his understanding of the essential role of free opinion in a republic, Jefferson became a strong advocate for religious freedom and the separation of church and state. During the American Revolution (1775–1783), with the assistance of James Madison and evangelicals who dissented from the established church, he helped lead the fight in Virginia for disestablishment of the Anglican Church—which he referred to in his autobiography as “the severest contests in which I have ever been engaged.” His Notes on the State ofVirginia, first printed in France in 1784, also urges a clear distinction between government and church responsibilities. Insisting that religious opinion was a private matter, exempt from government supervision, he wrote that “it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg”—an assertion that came back to haunt him politically. Jefferson also drafted the Virginia Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom, enacted in 1786, which he saw as one of his crowning achievements, asking that the Declaration of Independence, the University of Virginia, and the statute be the only things remembered on his memorial. When the United States Constitution was drafted, Jefferson was among the most vocal in insisting that a Bill of Rights, particularly protection for religious freedom, was needed.
This interest in religious freedom was fed by the vicious presidential campaign between Jefferson and John Adams, of Massachusetts, in 1800. During that campaign, a violent press battle labeled Jefferson an “arch-infidel,” and New Englanders were warned to hide their Bibles if Jefferson was elected. Jefferson did not respond publicly, but he took pains to promote religious freedom. It was in part in response to such attacks and what he viewed as dangerous religious divisions in the new nation that he wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association assuring them that the First Amendment to the United States Constitution protected their religious freedom from federal abuse, creating “a wall of separation between Church & State.” His own deeply felt religious beliefs supported that view, and it is a mistake to see the letter or his position on religious freedom as a political ploy.
As president, rejecting the precedent of both George Washington and John Adams, Jefferson refused repeated requests that he issue a proclamation for prayer or thanksgiving, insisting that such an official proclamation was outside the powers of the president and inconsistent with the First Amendment. At the same time, he openly prayed for the assistance of divine providence in both of his inaugural addresses, distinguishing private religious declarations, even when made in public, from the official declarations that he saw as unconstitutional.
Jefferson’s concern for religion seemed to grow over time, and it was a common topic in his private correspondence after he was elected president. Having read and reread Joseph Priestley’s An History of the Corruptions of Christianity (1782), Jefferson became convinced by the turn of the nineteenth century that, as he told Priestley, Jesus’s “morality was the most benevolent and sublime probably that has been ever taught.” It was in this period that he began, again, to identify himself as Christian, by which he meant that he was a devotee of Jesus’s ethical teachings. Jefferson was particularly taken by the fact that while various religious sects disagreed violently on dogma, and such disagreements had played an important role in bloody religious conflicts throughout history, all religions and sects tended to agree on what he saw as more fundamental moral standards. In retirement, he wrote to John Adams, with whom he had renewed a close friendship, that these “moral precepts, innate in man, and made a part of his physical constitution,” should guide the growth of a rational American religion free of the control of dogmatic ministers.
His growing devotion to Jesus’s ethics only served to increase his antipathy for what he viewed as the corruptions of Jesus’s moral teachings by “priestcraft,” ministers determined to use religion, and the support of government, for their own ends. It was particularly significant, then, that Jefferson saw Jesus’s crucifixion as the result of an alliance between church and state, the effort of priests to maintain their positions of power.
As a result of this newfound dedication to Jesus’s philosophy, Jefferson spent many hours excerpting from the Bible what he believed were Jesus’s true statements, ignoring those that he thought had been corrupted by subsequent reporters—”as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill,” he wrote to Adams. Initially, Jefferson compiled a small pamphlet of quotations from Jesus that he entitled The Philosophy of Jesus. This short work was later replaced by the much more detailed The Life and Morals of Jesus, for which Jefferson painstakingly excerpted the Gospels from two copies in each of four different languages (English, French, Greek, and Latin) to produce what he considered a more accurate, demystified history of Jesus and his teaching, excluding miracles and ending with Jesus being placed in the tomb. Jefferson often read from this collection before retiring for the evening. This collection—the so-called Jefferson Bible—was not published commercially until early in the twentieth century, although its existence was known during Jefferson’s lifetime.
University of Virginia
Jefferson’s religious beliefs also took a central role in the formation of the University of Virginia in 1819. In spite of substantial pressure, he refused to hire a minister to teach religion at the new university, arguing that the school was state-owned and therefore could not constitutionally promote or endorse any particular religion. Jefferson argued that religion should instead be taught as part of philosophy and ethics. Under pressure he accepted the notion that religious services might occur in a public building on the university’s grounds, but insisted that such services be unofficial and access to buildings be pursuant to “impartial regulation,” or open to all religious services and other public speakers.
The United States Supreme Court has repeatedly referred to Jefferson as a progenitor and leading advocate of American religious freedom and, in particular, the separation of church and state. His Danbury Baptist letter and the Virginia Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom have been understood to define the scope of the First Amendment’s prohibition on laws “respecting an establishment of religion.”
In 1961, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that Maryland laws prohibiting certain kinds of retail activity on Sundays were constitutional, but the laws could not be used to support religion. In his opinion for the Court, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that the “Court has considered the happenings surrounding the Virginia General Assembly’s enactment of ‘An act for establishing religious freedom,’ … written by Thomas Jefferson and sponsored by James Madison, as best reflecting the long and intensive struggle for religious freedom in America, as particularly relevant in the search for First Amendment meaning.” While Jefferson’s role in that regard has been questioned more recently by several jurists, it continues to hold powerful sway both in the courts and among the public.