Thomas Jefferson versus the Historians: Christianity, Atheistic Morality, and the Afterlife

By Scherr, Arthur | Church History, March 2014 | Go to article overview

Thomas Jefferson versus the Historians: Christianity, Atheistic Morality, and the Afterlife


Scherr, Arthur, Church History


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The author would like to thank the editors, for their advice and encouragement; and Dr. Cara Burnidge, assistant to the editors, for her patience and perseverance in copyediting the article.

Among the most controversial aspects of Thomas Jefferson's life and thought are his religious views, discussion of which perhaps aroused more heat than light both during his lifetime and among writers since. Recently, several historians have attempted to depict Jefferson as an advocate of cooperation between the secular and the sacred. They claim that the Supreme Court and religious liberals, manipulating Jefferson's maxim that a "wall of separation" must exist between church and state, have rendered him more sympathetic to absolute religious freedom from governmental intervention than he was in fact. Although Jefferson expounded this concept in his address to the Danbury Baptist Association on January 1, 1802, some of these scholars overlook that the "wall of separation" metaphor did not originate with Jefferson.1 He probably borrowed it from the English Dissenter and deist James Burgh or Rhode Island's ardent advocate of separation of church and state, Roger Williams. Indeed, these anticlerical sources of inspiration cast doubt on scholars' claims that Jefferson favored close ties between church and state and suggest that the "wall of separation" slogan was not an impromptu rhetorical fragment, but rooted in his reading and thought.2

Most recently, the debate on Jefferson's religious values has entered the public arena with the controversy over religious conservative David Barton's book, The Jefferson Lies . Barton insists that, far from being a religious "skeptic," Jefferson was an "orthodox Christian" for most of his life. This view is strongly disputed by another entry from the public field by Warren Throckmorton and Michael L. Coulter, Getting Jefferson Right , which maintains the opinion that Jefferson was a firm deist.3

I.

Dreisbach on Jefferson's Religion: Fact and Fiction

Closer to Barton than Barton's opponents, Daniel Dreisbach is probably the most eminent scholar who seeks to depict Jefferson as a man of faith and a friend to state supervision of religion. Seeking to eliminate liberals' use of Jefferson's 1802 "wall of separation" apothegm as a weapon against religious establishment, Dreisbach employs three major arguments. First, he notes that, during Jefferson's extensive revisal of Virginia's laws from 1776-1778, he proposed numerous bills whereby the state government would protect religion. Second, as governor of Virginia, Jefferson proclaimed days of fasting and humiliation. Dreisbach infers from these proposals that Jefferson later interpreted the First Amendment as relevant only to religious interference by the national government, as he believed that the individual states should exercise authority over religion and protect it against irreligious elements. Third, Jefferson mentioned "divine Providence" in his inaugural addresses.4 These proofs of Jefferson's religious devotion, however, deserve greater examination.

Contrary to Dreisbach's interpretation, Jefferson probably never favored executive proclamations of days of fasting, thanksgiving, or humiliation. As president of the United States, he rejected the concept, both in his famous message to the Danbury Baptist Association and in refusing to issue such proclamations during his presidency. In this regard, he was stricter than James Madison, who did issue a few such proclamations during the War of 1812.5 As both a colony (long before Jefferson was born) and a state, Virginia had issued similar proclamations. As early as 1644, the Governor, Council, and House of Burgesses had directed the Anglican clergy to perform monthly days of fasting and humiliation. Ministers who failed to preach on these fast days (Wednesdays) would forfeit 500 pounds of tobacco.6 As governor of Virginia, Jefferson was merely following orders from the House of Delegates when he issued proclamations for days of fasting and humiliation. …

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