Thomas Jefferson, Expressions of Religious Belief, and the Importance of Religion and Morality for America

 

Michael T. Griffith

2008

Second Edition

 

“Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” (Northwest Ordinance, Article 3, July 13, 1787, drafted by Thomas Jefferson)

 

“Let us, then, with courage and confidence pursue our own Federal and Republican principles . . . . to honor and confidence from our fellow-citizens, resulting not from birth, but from our actions and their sense of them; enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence. . . .” (First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1801)

 

“I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our forefathers, as Israel of old, from their native land, and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life; who has covered our infancy with his providence, and our riper years with his wisdom and power; and to whose goodness I ask you to join with me in supplications, that he will so enlighten the minds of your servants, guide their councils, and prosper their measures, that whatsoever they do, shall result in your good, and shall secure to you the peace, friendship, and approbation of all nations.” (Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1805)

 

“When we assemble together, fellow-citizens, to consider the state of our beloved country, our just attentions are first drawn to those pleasing circumstances which mark the goodness of that Being from whose favor they flow and the large measure of thankfulness we owe for His bounty. Another year has come around, and finds us still blessed with peace and friendship abroad; law, order, and religion at home; good affection and harmony with our Indian neighbors; our burthens lightened, yet our income sufficient for the public wants, and the produce of the year great beyond example. These, fellow-citizens, are the circumstances under which we meet, and we remark with special satisfaction those which under the smiles of Providence result from the skill, industry, and order of our citizens, managing their own affairs in their own way and for their own use, unembarrassed by too much regulation, unoppressed by fiscal exactions.” (Second Annual Message to Congress, December 15, 1802)

 

“In taking a view of the state of our country we in the first place notice the late affliction of two of our cities under the fatal fever which in latter times has occasionally visited our shores. Providence in His goodness gave it an early termination on this occasion and lessened the number of victims which have usually fallen before it.” (Fifth Annual Message to Congress, December 3, 1805)

 

“Looking forward with anxiety to their future destinies, I trust that, in their steady character unshaken by difficulties, in their love of liberty, obedience to law, and support of the public authorities, I see a sure guaranty of the permanence of our republic; and retiring from the charge of their affairs, I carry with me the consolation of a firm persuasion that Heaven has in store for our beloved country long ages to come of prosperity and happiness.” (Eighth Annual Message to Congress, November 8, 1808)

 

In writings and in letters to friends and others, Jefferson expressed Christian belief:

 

“Of all the systems of morality, ancient or modern which have come under my observation, none appears to me so pure as that of Jesus.” (Letter to William Canby, 1813)

 

"I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus." (Letter to Benjamin Rush, April 21, 1803)

 

“It [the Bible] is a document in proof that I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus." (Letter to Charles Thomson, January 9, 1816)

 

"I can never join Calvin in addressing his god. He was indeed an Atheist, which I can never be; or rather his religion was Daemonism. If ever man worshipped a false god, he did. The being described in his 5 points is not the God whom you and I acknowledge and adore, the Creator and benevolent governor of the world; but a daemon of malignant spirit. It would be more pardonable to believe in no god at all, than to blaspheme him by the atrocious attributes of Calvin.” (Letter to John Adams, 1823)

 

Jefferson was aware that some of his statements and views could be taken out of context to seem anti-Christian, when they were really just anti-sectarian.  Jefferson proclaimed himself to be a Christian.  He simply didn’t accept some of the man-made interpretations that had taken hold in so many Christian churches, such as Calvinism and some of the teachings of Athanasius.  But, make no mistake, Jefferson claimed he was a Christian:

 

“My views . . . are the result of a life of inquiry and reflection, and very different from the anti-Christian system imputed to me by those who know nothing of my opinions. To the corruptions of Christianity I am, indeed, opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian in the only sense in which He wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines in preference to all others.” (Letter to Benjamin Rush, April 21, 1803)

 

Here are some other statements by Jefferson relating to God and religion:

 

“God who gave us life gave us liberty. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are a gift from God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, and that His justice cannot sleep forever.” (Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781)

 

“I consider the doctrines of Jesus as delivered by himself to contain the outlines of the sublimest system of morality that has ever been taught, but I hold in the most profound detestation and execration the corruptions of it which have been invented. . . ." (Letter to Henry Fry, June 17, 1804)

 

Although Jefferson held to some doctrines that sectarian Christians would view as unorthodox, and although he suffered a crisis of faith after devastating deaths in his family late in his life, the following facts should also be kept in mind when considering the issue of Jefferson and religion:

 

  • Jefferson included prayer in both of his inaugural addresses.  He signed bills to appropriate funds for chaplains in Congress and the military branches.  His Articles of War "earnestly recommended to all officers and soldiers, diligently to attend divine services" on April 10, 1806.

 

  • Jefferson (along with Ben Franklin) proposed the design for the nation's seal to include a biblical image of the cloud of fire (by God) holding off Pharaoh’s army at the passing across the Red Sea.  The banner around the seal was proposed to read "Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God." (http://www.trumpetofheritage.org/pages.asp?pageid=51189)

 

  • In 1774, in the Virginia Assembly, Jefferson introduced a resolution calling for a Day of Fasting and Prayer: “To invoke the Divine interposition to give to the American people one heart and one mind to oppose by all just means every injury to American rights.”

 

  • On July 6, 1775, Jefferson composed The Declaration of the Causes and Necessity for Taking Up Arms, in which he stated: “With a humble confidence in the mercies of the Supreme and impartial God and Ruler of the Universe, we most devoutly implore His Divine goodness to protect us.”

 

  • On November 11, 1779, as Governor of Virginia, Jefferson issued a Proclamation Appointing a Day of Public and Solemn Thanksgiving and Prayer to Almighty God: “That He would in mercy look down upon us, pardon all our sins, and receive us into His favor; and finally that He would establish the Independence of these United States upon the basis of religion and virtue.”

 

  • Jefferson wrote most of the words of the Declaration of Independence, and signed the final version published on July 4, 1776, which referred to God four times: “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God . . . Endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. . . . Appealing to the Supreme Judge of the World for the rectitude of our intentions. . . . With a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence.”

 

  • On April 30, 1802, President Jefferson signed the Enabling Act for Ohio, extending the Northwest Ordinance, which stated in Article III: “Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, school and the means of education shall be forever encouraged.”

 

Mark A. Beliles of the Providence Foundation has assembled an impressive list of some of Jefferson's actions.

 

  • Promoted legislative and military chaplains.
  • Included the word "God" in our national motto.
  • Established official days of fasting and prayer at the state level.
  • Punished Sabbath breakers.
  • Punished irreverent soldiers.
  • Protected the property of churches.
  • Required that oaths be phrased by the words "So help me God" and be sworn on the Bible.
  • Granted land to Christian schools.
  • Allowed government property and facilities to be used for worship.
  • Encouraged clergymen to hold public office.
  • Funded religious books for public libraries.
  • Funded salaries for missionaries.
  • Exempted churches from taxation. (http://www.free2pray.info/TJefferson.html)

 

 

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Michael T. Griffith holds a Master’s degree in Theology from The Catholic Distance University, a Bachelor’s degree in Liberal Arts from Excelsior College, two Associate in Applied Science degrees from the Community College of the Air Force, and an Advanced Certificate of Civil War Studies and a Certificate of Civil War Studies from Carroll College.  He is a two-time graduate of the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, in Arabic and Hebrew, and of the U.S. Air Force Technical Training School in San Angelo, Texas, and has completed advanced Hebrew programs at Haifa University in Israel and at the Spiro Institute in London, England.  He is also the author of five books on Mormonism and ancient texts and one book on the John F. Kennedy assassination.