What religion was President Thomas Jefferson, the author of The Declaration of Independence, the Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty and a major figure in our separation of church and state? Historians listed him as either a Deist or “no specific denomination.”
Jefferson grew up Anglican but from early adulthood professed faith in a Creator uninvolved in the affairs of this world. He was a product of his time – the Age of Enlightenment – everything in life, including religion, had to have a scientific explanation. Jefferson advised a nephew, “Fix reason firmly in her seat and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion.
Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.” Thomas Jefferson’s religious views did not become a major public issue until he ran for president in 1800 against incumbent Federalist John Adams. The Federalist, eager to retain control over the presidency, unleashed a frenzied personal attack upon Jefferson. They charged him as “an unbeliever who was unworthy to serve as chief magistrate of a Christian nation.” A Jefferson victory, the Federalist declared, would arouse the wrath of God, “destroy religion, introduce immorality…loosen all bonds of society and undermine the standing of the United States among the nations of the world.”
Eugene R. Sheridan, a leading authority on Jefferson’s religious beliefs, states that Jefferson believed in God but not organized religion. He revered Jesus as the greatest moral teacher in history but did not believe that he was the son of God. He rejected the Bible as a source of divine revelation and regarded it as a mere human history. He dismissed the possibility of miracles and the dogma of the Trinity as contrary to human reason and the laws of nature. What most concerned Jefferson was not the religious beliefs of people, but “how men acted in society.” “If acceptance of orthodox Christian doctrines produced virtuous lives, he welcomed the result without supporting the cause.” As much as he criticized orthodox Christianity in private, he rarely did so publicly, “not only out of a sense of political prudence, but also because of his deep commitment to religious freedom which led him to respect the right of others to hold religious opinions different from his.”
Jefferson steadfastly refused to reply in the election to the wave of criticism concerning his religious beliefs, believing that he was accountable to God alone for his convictions.
Jefferson swept to victory, however, the charge that he was an enemy of Christianity continued to plague him. The public disagreed. Jefferson was re-elected president in 1804 in a landslide victory, receiving 162 out of 176 electoral votes.
Sources: The Jefferson Monticello, courtesy of the Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia.
“Jefferson’s Religious Beliefs,”: Wikipedia, “Religious views of Thomas Jefferson,”: Thomas Jefferson (Notes on Virginia, 1782), “Thomas Jefferson on Christianity & Religion,”: Virginia Museum of History & Culture, “Thomas Jefferson and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.”