Insights from Jefferson’s Bible
The Reverend Peter Edward Lanzillotta, Ph.D.
” I swear upon the altar of God, eternal hostility
gainst any form of tyranny over the mind of [humanity.]”
This quote lays the basis for one remarkable man and his valuable contribution to religious freedom and to our secular republican form of governance.
As a quote, it frames a lifetime of rare dedication, and serves us well as a lasting example of a personal faith that championed truth, reason, and freedom. These ideals formed the heart, mind, and soul of Thomas Jefferson.
As every school child knows, or should know, Thomas Jefferson was the third President of the United States. He was probably our most brilliant, literary, articulate, and visionary leader. As the first President espousing a republican viewpoint, which in those days meant peer representation and moving away from any monarchy or rule by a wealthy or privileged class. Jefferson’s presidency contributed the most to the progress and solidarity of the American character, it expanded not only its territory but sharpened its governmental ideals, and confirmed its religiously inclusive outlook.
Ironically, history seems to have thought more of his presidency than he did! He purposely left out any mention of presidency on his gravestone epitaph. Instead, it was inscribed to include what Jefferson felt were his most important accomplishments:
The gravestone at Monticello reads:
Here was buried… Thomas Jefferson… Author of the Declaration of American Independence and of the Statue of Virginia for Religious
Freedom and the Father of the University of Virginia
We can ask: Why such a glaring omission? To him, those years were but a step in a progressive life- a life that was dedicated to the pursuit of serving his guiding ideals.
His intentional omission of the Presidency indicates Jefferson’s wary approach to privilege and to power and the need to direct ones energies towards the common good. Widely read in the classical philosophies, they left him incomplete, for they were too involved in self interest. As a consequence, and as a clear preference, he directly credits this caution to his understanding of moral teachings of Jesus, and to all the parables about money and power as having a persuasive ability to corrupt us, and how the desire for personal success and power can take us away from making sincere and lasting social and moral contributions to the betterment of our society and the world.
As Americans, and as serious students of both our country’s political and religious realities, I expect that you know the contents of the Declaration of Independence; maybe not by heart, although I would guess that it is at least familiar because of its famous, stirring Preamble that so many of us were assigned to memorize in grade school, along with The Gettysburg Address, and along with saying the Pledge of Allegiance on a daily basis. While a case can be made for such patriotism, or at least for greater political literacy, I will not ask that we recite it together this morning… However, I do think that an annual reading of its contents is a valuable exercise in reminding us of its lasting significance- and to recall how those guiding principles, values, and ideals that it contains greatly influences us still.
For Jefferson, the Statue of Virginia, the first such statue since the founding of Rhode Island by Roger Williams, was a cornerstone in his life. With the assistance of his fellow Virginian, James Madison (Remember, Virginia gave us four of the first six presidents, with the other two being from Massachusetts) together they crafted a statement that offered complete religious freedom to all citizens, regardless of their personal creeds or their dissenting convictions. Remember, at that time Maryland was primarily Catholic, Georgia Methodist, and New England Calvinist; Once this statement that became ratified, it was the first governmental statement that did not require any religious beliefs before being accepted as a citizen of a state.
The third most significant and lasting endeavor, was started when he was in his 70’s; This was to found the University of Virginia. …
Jefferson, an experienced architect, agronomist, and philosopher; he designed all the buildings, its landscaping, horticulture, and he even influenced the recruiting of its first faculty ands the design of its first college curriculum. Remember, Jefferson was known to say that his whole life was in books! In fact, so extensive was his personal library- that after the library was burned by the British in 1814, he gave his library to his country-some 10,000 volumes- that donation became the first Library of Congress!
Because he was such a multidimensional man… Brilliant and flawed, futuristic and patriarchal, ideological and duplicitous, it would be foolish to try to give you a comprehensive biography… He is the subject of much ongoing research!
Besides, I know that I will return to him next Fall, as I am considering a sermon series on how U-Uism has had such an important impact on politics and the national character- so much so, that it has already provided me with definitive information that declares that we are not a Christian country… We are a U-Uist country! But more on that later…
Today, I will limit my focus on Jefferson as a religious reformer, and as a pioneer in creating what he called, “The Philosophy of Jesus” where he asserts, in no uncertain terms, that ethics in action is the true basis for a religion, not some obtuse theology!
For Jefferson, a person’s faith is not just what they believe privately or individually…
One’s faith, be it liberal or conservative, is best seen or revealed by how well they practice what they say that they believe, and how well they support its ideals, and how well they live it out in their choices and responsibilities on a daily basis…
As an astute public servant, letting his pen express his strong opinions, he also learned to be sensitive to the temperamental wind of politics, and the whims of religious controversy. As a man who prized reason above all assertions of faith, he never fully revealed his dissent from traditional Christianity until he left office. Yet, even with such decorum and discretion, he was unmercifully vilified by New England Calvinists, because he was such a strong advocate of personal and religious freedom.
He was often scourged from the pulpit as depicted as a “corrupter of morals; as a virulent atheist who wished to undermine traditional religion! There is even a story of a baptism; Some Boston cleric refused to christen a child because he was named after Jefferson; to baptize a child named Thomas Jefferson was a blasphemous act!
As a retort, Jefferson once wrote: “[That any attempt towards religious coercion should be resisted, and any rule by guilt, fear, or ignorance are the avowed enemies of religious freedom and personal liberties. If coercive activities win out, because of a lack of support for liberalism, then there is a possibility that half the world will become ignorant fools, and the other half would become hypocrites!”]
You can see how popular he was with priests and prelates! By getting themselves “engrafted into the machine of government,” he said, the New England clergy “have been a very formidable engine against the civil and religious rights of man.” Which clearly relates to the Religious Right today!
Because of the hot controversy surrounding him and his dissenting religious beliefs, his only recourse was to explain and expound on his convictions through a series of now famous letters to his friends; John Adams, James Madison, Dr. Thomas Cowper, Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, Dr. Benjamin Rush, and Joseph Priestley…
In fact, it was Priestley’s book on The Corruptions of Christianity that inspired his own questioning and his further dissent from orthodoxy. His letters to Priestley, Waterhouse, and to Dr. Benjamin Rush, the father of mental health and Universalist minister, Jefferson revealed a religious outlook that was a profound and simple faith.
My colleague Wayne Arnason, formerly the long time minister at Charlottesville, VA near Monticello, once made these observations from the pulpit of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church:
“[The first thing we may say about Jefferson’s Unitarianism is that he took very seriously…. The second thing we might say is that he was ” a very conservative Unitarian.” … Earlier in life, he was a believer in God as the first cause, architect, and master builder… As he grew older, Jefferson moved away from Deism, to a belief in a God that is knowable through human love, through justice, moral perfection, reason, and expressed through natural beauty.
While some would choose to dispute this because of his wide ranging and sometimes paradoxical statements, Jefferson did believe Providence or destiny and in an afterlife though he had no rational proof of it. Now some scholars looking at and
analyzing Jefferson’s life say with compassion, that his beliefs reflected all the sorrows he personally endured. His wife whom he adored, died after ten years of marriage. Only two of his six children survived into adulthood, and only one outlived him. In one of his letters, It was said that his fondest hope, as he grew older, was that he might be united with his wife and children.”]
In contrast, within his later correspondence, Jefferson stated that his religion was based on logic and not based on faith. It was, at its core, morality in action, and “salvation by character.” So the controversy rages on about whether Jefferson was a Unitarian… Witness a recent posting on the web site dedicated to the new book, Founding Faith by Steven Waldman, in the chapter on Jefferson: “The Pious Infidel”
*Mar 18, 2008 5:28 PM It’s no wonder that Jefferson admired Unitarianism. He had quite the distaste for organized religion, but an admiration for Jesus. Were he transported in time to the present, I’m sure he’d be disgusted with the Christian right, but I also think he’d view secularists as misconstruing his viewpoint. Ultimately, Jefferson wanted us all to be free to form our own beliefs, without … compulsion.
Modern conservatives who can’t bear to think that the Declaration of Independence was written by a Bible-defacer have spread the rumor that Thomas Jefferson created his own Bible as an ethical guide to civilize American Indians. … Actually, Jefferson’s editing of the Bible flowed directly from a well-thought out, long-stewing view that Christianity had been fundamentally corrupted -by the Apostle Paul, the Early Church, the great Protestant reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin, and by nearly the entire clerical class for more than a millennium. Secularists love to point to the Jefferson Bible as evidence of his heathen nature; but that misses the point, too. Jefferson was driven to edit the Bible the way a parent whose child was kidnapped is driven to find the culprit. Jefferson loved Jesus, and was attempting to rescue him” Release him from all the mistaken creeds and pious and perplexing
miracles attributed to him. He sought to recapture the moral teacher who had so inspired his character and who most consistently informed his conscience daily.
In a truly admirable, astute, and audacious way, Jefferson took up the challenge of writing a revised, ethical Gospel- a text that he believed would become universally regarded by all Americans as the text for civic and public morality, a basis for human rights, and the guidelines for personal conduct. Because he purposely excluded any texts or references to what he considered to be unreasonable and insupportable, he excluded almost every statement of faith or theological belief commonly held. Without saying, his ideas were considered to be vile blasphemy to the Calvinists, heretical to any pious Anglican, a travesty to any Catholic, an insult to any Methodist… And a refreshing, clear minded, and comprehensive account for any free thinking person!
Let it be known, that there is a serious attempt at revisionism trying to take place in our country today- where religious conservatives and fervent believers are trying to reclaim the Constitution and the Founding Fathers as pious men and devout Christians!
They use such lame evidence as they went to church regularly… As if that was some test of faith! Other than the effort of getting out of bed, it gives little credence to their claim… We all are familiar with the casual member, or the superficial identity, and throughout our lives we have seen ample evidence of those who “go through the motions” and look like they believe what is being said, and come to church only as a social convention… Jefferson, Washington, Franklin and many others did the same… Hardly a convincing tact because they knew their times… So they did not write to their friends or declare their objections publicly because of the political tenor and religious climate that would have easily interrupted any good they would do in the government!
It is also curious, ironic and a wonderful practice how the Congress, at least up to modern times, would award each new representative with a copy of Jefferson’s Bible, to be used as their ethical guide… I have to wonder if any of them have ever read it !
Jefferson’s religious views, as given to us in his many letters, were the forerunner of liberal religion since he would repeatedly emphasize the superiority of reason over any doctrinaire faith. Following the Great Commandment, he also saw service to his neighbors and to the betterment of his society to hold an equal importance to any profession of beliefs- thereby allowing ethics and compassion to trump any dogmas and directives from an exclusive religious point of view. He called the results of his efforts, ” The Philosophy of Jesus” and what he actually did was this:
He had four copies of the New Testament, and a larger blank book… Excluding the Hebrew scriptures as being too archaic and too inhumane, and excluding the letters of Paul because he saw him as the first corrupter of the religion of Jesus, he focussed only on the Gospels and the words attributed to Jesus according to the best scholarship of his day…. Which is generous by the standards of the Jesus Seminar today…
He then proceeded to literally “cut and paste” separate quotations and collate all the teachings of Jesus that correspond most closely to a humanistic, liberal, and egalitarian point of view. He did this using the Greek, Latin, French, and English translations! With a painstaking precision, and with his investigatory editing, he produced a much condensed version of the Gospels that he felt would appeal to “the moral sentiments of a more enlightened populace”. Without going through all his edits, it is sufficient to say he saw Jesus as a moral teacher, as a man, and as the supreme human example of how to live, and how to treat other people…
Jefferson’s exercise, of creating one’s own set of texts, ideas, and resources that are most inspirational and meaningful to you would seem to be a recommended task for any U-U’s who seeks to identify themselves within our larger movement in a clear and comprehensive way. To me, it sounds like the best Adult Education imaginable!
For a few years, I subscribed to the Jesus Seminar reports and research and found it to be fascinating and complementary to my own investigations. Just to refresh you, The Jesus Seminar is a collection of progressive Biblical scholars, using the very best literary, archeological, and cultural context, sought to discover which of the words of the Gospel, did Jesus actually say- which ones were authentically his… To summarize the work, and following Jefferson’s example, these scholars found that only about 25% of the Gospel could be considered to be original or authentic… Which, for many of them, was sufficient to maintain their progressive faith as liberal Christians. Before returning to Jefferson, I would recommend that every U-U spend some time creating their own Gospel or set of ” Good News.” Each of us has the freedom to draw from World Scripture, philosophy, poetry, lyrics, science, art or any other source that you find to be inspirational, of lasting value, and worthwhile. The creation of your own Bible, your own personal or spiritual resource book, then becomes your enriching personal commentary or literary companion, and can act as an important pathway towards self discovery, inner comfort, acceptance, and peace.
It is my conclusion, after rereading various sources on Jefferson’s outlooks, that we need to look to giants like Jefferson, imperfect as they might be, for our best human and humane examples.
In fact, Jefferson was such an active, avid, advocate of religious freedom that he wrote , in 1822, to his colleague and friend, Benjamin Waterhouse, these words of fervor and conviction:
“I rejoice in this blessed country of free inquiry and belief that has surrendered its conscience to neither kings nor priests, and that a genuine doctrine of only one God is reviving, and I trust that there is not a young [person] now living, that will not die a Unitarian…
Overly idealistic? Of course! But there is no denying the strength, confidence or courage of his words! His earnest ideals sought to challenge public contentment and to energize social transformation.
It is my hope that this community will grow more Jeffersonian; To become as strong, as resilient, as prophetic and willing to add our names beside his… And I believe that such a goal is possible- As a congregation that actively and generously supports its mission, and as a community that will work to clarify, uphold and extend its foundational values.
Following in his example, may we become examples of goodness, truth, mercy, service and freedom… Not just for ourselves … But for all of us to know and see!
So Be It!