Jefferson's Religion

By Tomlin, Gregory | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, May 28, 2006 | Go to article overview

Jefferson's Religion


Tomlin, Gregory, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


Thomas Jefferson advocated government protection of religious practice rather than the protection of the government from the influence of Judeo-Christian principles.

When Miguel de Cervantes wrote "Don Quixote" in 1605, he employed a turn of phrase that has become a popular modern idiom: "The proof of the pudding is in the eating." The phrase has since evolved and been shortened, perhaps so much so that its original meaning has been obscured.

Cervantes was saying that one never knows if the pudding has been prepared correctly until it is tasted. Simply put, "Don't believe everything you read."

In the debate on separation of church and state, scholars from all sides have employed Thomas Jefferson in their arsenals, some citing his willingness to attend prayer services in federal buildings and others citing his contempt for organized religion and his opposition to the state's interference in his own religious thought life.

But just as Cervantes counseled, one should not judge the matter of Jefferson's opinions on religion or church-state separation before testing his thoughts, rather than the thoughts of men 200 years removed from his life and work.

Was Jefferson favorably disposed to Christianity? Did he believe that religious people should influence government? Was Jefferson a committed proponent of church-state separation and why? What did this son of the Enlightenment really mean when he wrote to Baptists in 1802 of the need for a "wall of separation" between the church and the state?

The opinions of the author of the Declaration of Independence -- a document that mentioned God on multiple occasions -- are most clearly manifest in his bill for establishing religious freedom in Virginia.

In the legislation (written in 1777, adopted in 1786), Jefferson wrote that coerced religious conformity only produces "habits of hypocrisy and meanness" leading to a corruption of true religion -- an act of offense to "its Holy author." Magistrates the world over, he wrote, had promoted false religion throughout history by compulsory taxation in support of churches.

Jefferson's motive for writing the act was, to the public, very simple: He believed that all men had the inalienable right to express their religious opinions and should not be forced to support a religious establishment, a common vestige of Old Europe. But the freedom to follow his own religious opinions, formed early in his life, was at stake in equal measure.

Calvinist 'dogma'

As a precocious child in the Fredericksville, Va., parish, Jefferson sat under the tutelage of a Scottish churchman steeped in Calvinism, a man he later described as completely "uninspired" in his educational methods. Jefferson showed his contempt for Calvinist theology -- and its teaching that God predestines some to heaven and others to hell -- when he described it as a collection of "metaphysical insanities" and "demoralizing" and "atrocious" dogma.

Jefferson favored ethical systems of thought over religious dogma. He believed, as the Greek philosopher Epicures wrote, that happiness was the goal of life. Happiness could come only through moral and noble living rather than through self-indulgence. The finer things of life, such as art, literature, good wine and philosophical conversation, were permissible as long as they were consumed with restraint, self-discipline, and moral judgment.

Jefferson once advised, "Do not bite at the bait of pleasure till you know there is no hook beneath it."

As he was attracted to Epicurean philosophy, he also was attracted to Stoicism and its emphasis on subduing emotion. Merging these two philosophies, Jefferson argued that one should never overindulge in any activity and never allow emotion to supersede rational judgment. From this philosophical base, he pursued a government based on moral and political restraint.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Jefferson's Religion
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.