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Jefferson and Jesus


Interestingly and ironically, the Founding Father who was principally responsible for America’s First Amendment religious freedom also struggled with his own personal faith. That person was Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826).

Jefferson’s intellect was an obstacle to his faith. As a so-called “enlightened” thinker, he believed that human reason alone was the sole judge of spiritual truth. He put Christianity to “the test of rational analysis and concluded that its basic doctrines were simply unacceptable to an enlightened man living in the eighteenth century.”[1] Jefferson rationalized that a supreme being created and sustains (by natural laws) the universe, but did not accept the Genesis account of God’s Creation. He rejected the Bible as divine revelation, dismissed the supernatural as “‘falsehoods . . . unsusceptible of strict demonstration,’”[2] considered Jesus to be only “‘a man [with] a benevolent heart,’”[3] and was critical of established religious authorities.

Jefferson regarded religion as a strictly private matter that belonged to an individual’s freedom of thought and conscience; thus he opposed government interference with religion. Jefferson was more interested in human conduct in society than doctrines of theology. To him, the character of a man’s life was more important than the substance of his religious beliefs (implying that the two are unrelated). For example, he wrote: “‘[I]t does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.’”[4] Based on concepts of natural law and Greek philosophy, Jefferson believed that the keys to improving human behavior were education and self-discipline.

In the mid 1780s, James Madison and Jefferson led the opposition in Virginia against the excesses of the state-established church. The union of church and state in Virginia had resulted in the corruption of religious practices, including persecution of other faiths. Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Liberty (1786) called for absolute religious freedom and the separation of church and state. Jefferson later played a leading role in the drafting and adoption (in 1791) of the First Amendment to the US Constitution, intending that it provide the same protection of religious liberty as the Virginia law.

In his old age, Jefferson confessed that he found in the teachings of Jesus “‘the purest system of morals ever before preached to man.’”[5] Apparently, however, that sentiment did not alter his rejection of New Testament theology (including the divinity of Jesus Christ) or deter him from owning human beings as slaves.

Ironically, Jefferson’s religious skepticism and unbelief helped to secure constitutional freedom of religion for Christians (and other faiths) in America. However, his intellectual struggle with the Gospel proves that the natural man cannot receive “the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14 KJV).

[1] Dickinson W. Adams, ed., Jefferson’s Extracts from the Gospels (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983), 5.

[2] Ibid., 5, quoting Randolph.

[3] Ibid., 7, quoting Jefferson.

[4] Ibid., 11, quoting Jefferson.

[5] Dumas Malone, Jefferson the Virginian (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1948), 109, quoting Jefferson.

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