Thomas Jefferson accomplished a great many things in his lifetime. He drafted the Declaration of Independence, was an integral part in the shaping of the United States of America, and served as our third president, but was he actually a Christian?
With the anniversary of Thomas Jefferson’s birthday rolling around again on April 13th last week, I thought it might be prudent to explore this topic. Time and time again, I’ve heard people say that Thomas Jefferson was an atheist…or at the very least, an agnostic. Meaning he either didn’t believe in God at all, or he believed in some sort of god, but didn’t think it possible for mankind to possess knowledge of the divine. I was taught this in high school and again at college, my professors adamant that though he may have leaned toward Christian principles, he didn’t exactly identify himself as a Christian.
This argument dates back to 1790 when his political opponents were the first to make the accusation. An accusation which, at the time, carried much more weight politically than it does today. Back then, Christianity was the status quo, to accuse one in a leadership position of being anything but was to call them unqualified and phony. Though today’s evangelical right wing certainly cares whether or not a politician is a Christian, this type of mudslinging wouldn’t have the same dramatic effect across the political spectrum as it did in the 18th century.
After reading though many of his letters and quotes, I can say with certainty that I believe Jefferson was indeed a true Christian. The quote below serves as evidence enough, but also led me to an entirely different thought process on the topic (which you’ll see if you read further). In response to Charles Thomson, Thomas Jefferson wrote in regard to a small book he carried, outlining Jesus’ teachings:
“…it is a document in proof that I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus, very different from the Platonists, who call me infidel, and themselves Christian and preachers of the gospel, while they draw all their characteristic dogmas from what it’s Author never said nor saw…”
Whoa. Just whoa.
Ok, let’s forget about the issue at hand and investigate that simple statement. Do we not still see this today? There are a great many pastors, leaders, and online personalities who twist the Word to suite their purpose. What about churches who issue sets of their own made-up rules and practices rather than simply following the gospel itself?
If one is simply following Jesus, is that not the epitome of being Christian?
Even still, after having stated his beliefs, it seems to yet remain a mystery to what tenants Jefferson truly subscribed. Why? Because it wasn’t enough for people back then to simply hear someone state they were a Christian. No, he had to prove it. Show it. Live it out loud so that his actions (and good works) would be good enough for all to believe.
See, in his time, regular church attendance evidenced faith. It wasn’t sufficient that he simply followed Jesus- I’m taking a bit of liberty here in assuming that he followed Jesus’s teachings because he believed Jesus was indeed the Messiah and history may prove me wrong, or it might not. Jefferson was a very private man when it came to faith, but that’s my opinion and I’m sticking to it. He was also an intelligent, deep thinker. It is my opinion that when he openly spoke against Christianity, it wasn’t the belief system, but rather the man-made religion formed by humans from the belief system. Think about all that he’d seen in his life as a result of man’s misinterpretation of God’s Word. It’s not hard to understand why he considered himself a disciple of Jesus and nothing else.
So, why all the outrage? Why would history show that many of his peers doubted him? Well, for starters, people didn’t like the fact that he was so private about his beliefs.
Again, sound familiar?
At the end of the day, I have to wonder, does any of it even matter?
Sure it does for him and his eternal soul, but for us present-day Americans, what can be learned by exploring this question? If we found definitive proof tomorrow that Jefferson was a stone-cold atheist, would that change the wonderful contributions he made to our developing nation? I don’t think so. He was one of the first proponents for freedom of religion, and for that we owe him and his fellow founders great gratitude.
I think if anything can really be learned from the question at hand, it isn’t whether Thomas Jefferson was actually a Bible-reading, Savior-believing Christian, but more so, why did Thomas Jefferson have to prove it?
What does that say about people back then?
And when you come up with that answer, ask yourself, have Christians changed much over the past 200 years?
A while back, when volunteering at my daughter’s school, I overheard a fellow volunteer discussing her brother with a friend. She said she was worried about his salvation.
The friend asked her, “Why, isn’t he a Christian?”
She responded with an all-knowing smirk, “Well, he says he is, but his language and attitude tell me differently.”
Oh, ok then. Apparently, it is completely our place to judge other people’s hearts. Kind of like Jefferson’s political opponents did to him, though it seems they did so for political gain while we do so to stroke our own identity of self-righteousness.
And yet, his reaction to such accusations only spoke more of his integrity. Jefferson remained steadfast in his beliefs and consistent in his public persona. He didn’t divulge every detail of his religious life, he didn’t jump to attention when called on the carpet, and he surely didn’t change who he was in an effort to impress or be accepted by others. Thomas Jefferson simply remained himself and history would thank him for it hundreds of years later.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for outspoken evangelism that screams ‘Jesus’ to the world every chance we get, when that’s what one is called to do. However, I think it’s worthwhile to remember that everyone isn’t the same. Some people are not comfortable with putting themselves out there like that, and that’s ok. Perhaps they are better suited spreading the gospel through their actions or close relationships. I can appreciate the notion of one being private in their faith. That doesn’t make them a better or worse Christian in my eyes, and it shouldn’t in yours either. Besides, last I knew there is only One qualified to judge.
Just some thoughts for today’s Spark of History. And if you couldn’t tell, Thomas Jefferson is my favorite president. Who’s your favorite American founder or historical hero? Tell me in the comments, I’m always up for an American history discussion!