(I've been going through some of my old essays, etc., particularly those relating to the Founding Fathers. This is from 2001.)
The majority of Jeffersonians were deists, meaning that they held a belief in one only God. Some others, such as Dr. Benjamin Rush, were avowed and practicing Christians. But for all Jeffersonians, Deists and Christians alike, their God was a being to be imitated, rather than worshipped.
The Jeffersonian God was the Creator of the universe, it architect and builder, so to speak. The Creator made a whole world, full of diverse creations, out of a wilderness of nothing. And since it was God who created the universe, He could be found and understood through his creation (Kosela). Writing to John Adams in 1823, Jefferson said, “It is impossible, I say, for the human mind not to believe that there is in all this design, cause, and effect up to an ultimate cause, a Fabricator of all things from matter and motion, their Preserver and Regulator” (Mayo, 299). For the Jeffersonians, Nature was the true word of God by which He spoke to all men universally (Paine).
While God spoke to all men through Nature, it required the use of Reason to divine His message. Writing to his nephew, Jefferson gave this advice, “Fix Reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion” (Kosela). The means by which the Jeffersonians called facts to the tribunal of Reason was scientific inquiry. Hence, “Theology made the study of natural history a work of religious zeal - even the main avenue to God” (Boorstin, 32). This science enabled men to develop a personal relationship with their Creator, unlike the dogmas of the Christian church.
According to the Jeffersonians, the Christian churches had corrupted the simple teachings of Jesus Christ - “To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed, but the not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself” (Mayo, 231). These corruptions were derived from the Platonisms, which Jefferson envisioned to be grafted onto the teachings of Jesus. By confusing the simple parable of Jesus with the mysticism of Plato, the priesthood built “an artificial system which might, from its indistinctness, admit everlasting controversy, [and] give employment for their order...” (Mayo, 301). These controversies allowed the priests to set themselves up as the interpreters of the Bible, making themselves the key to understanding God. As each denomination viewed its doctrines as truth, efforts were made to establish one true church.
Our common mythology has been that many people set for the New World in search of religious freedom, but for freedom from what, or to do what? The Rev. Nathaniel Ward tells us the aims of certain religions:
“I dare to take upon me, to bee that Herauld of New-England so farre, as to proclaim to the world, in the name of our Colony, that all Familists, Antinomians, Anabaptists, and other Enthusiasts shall have free Liberty to keepe away from us, and such as come to be gone as fast as they can, the sooner the better” (Cairns, 114).
These establishments of religion were viewed by the Jeffersonians as a particular evil. Jefferson himself worked in the Virginia Assembly for putting down the establishment of the Anglican Church, and eventually succeeded in seeing his “Statute for Religious Freedom” enacted in 1786. The uniformity of religion was seen as a detriment to the individual rights, truth, and the general utility of religion as a whole.
For the Jeffersonians, a variety of opinions were not only helpful for everyone, but necessary as well. On the score of individual rights, it was put forth that God had made the mind free; and what God had given, man could not take away. As Thomas Paine wrote in his essay Common Sense, “To God, and not to man, are all men accountable on the score of religion” (67). Accountable to God only, a variety of opinions allowed men to discover the truth through Reason and free inquiry, which were the enemy of state sponsored/established religion, because “it is error alone that needs the support of government” (Mayo, 82). The error of established religion undermined the general utility of religion, because it “...tend[ed] only to beget the habits of hypocrisy and meanness...” by coercing persons to subscribe to doctrines in which they do not believe. With regard to men’s opinions, they carried Locke’s doctrine from toleration to religious liberty.
As these corruptions caused doubts, they did not lead Jeffersonians to reject Christianity as a whole. Many Jeffersonians, being Deists, did not believe in the deity of Jesus Christ, but simply regarded him as “a great Reformer of the Hebrew Code of Religion” (TJ to William Short). Eventhough they denied the deity of Christ, they still considered themselves Christians - “I am a Christian, in the only sense that in which he wished anyone to be: sincerely attached to his doctrines in preferences to all others...” (TJ to Benjamin Rush). The doctrines which they preferred were the teachings of Jesus as found in the Gospels in all their simplicity. These simple moral teachings were preferred for their usefulness in producing good works amongst men, because their simplicity made them so understandable to even a little child. For Jeffersonians, it was the morality of religion, and not the divine quality, which was most important.
The key to understanding the Jeffersonian religion in one statement of Jefferson: “I am a Materialist” (TJ to William Short). Jeffersonians were concerned with the material world and religion’s place in it, producing the greatest good for the greatest number without violating individual rights. With their religion begins the first principles of Jeffersonian liberalism.
- Boorstin, Daniel J. The Lost World of Thomas Jefferson. University of Chicago Press: Chicago, IL. 1993
- Jefferson, Thomas. Jefferson Himself: The Personal Narrative of a Many Sided American. ed Bernard Mayo. University Press of Virginia: Charlottesville, VA. 1995.
- Ward, Nathaniel. "On toleration of religious opinions." Selections from Early American Writers: 1607 - 1800. ed William B. Cairns. The Macmillan Co.: New York, NY. 1910. pp 113-116.
- Paine, Thomas. "Common Sense." Essential Writings of Thomas Paine. ed Sidney Hook. Meridian: New York, NY. 1984.