Thomas Jefferson’s New Testament: Partial ABSTRACT: E.M. Halliday, American Heritage.
Thomas Jefferson had an intense interest in religion’s relation to government. In his second term as President (1805-09) he composed for his own satisfaction a version of the New Testament called “The Life and Morals of Jesus.” He left out the Last Supper. He said he wrote it to rescue the moral teachings of Jesus from “the crazy speculations of crazy theologists, abstracting what is really his from the rubbish in which it is buried.”
Jefferson called himself Christian, but rejected “the immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity, original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of Hierarchy, etc.” He thought Christ was a great reformer, author of a “system of the most sublime morality which has ever fallen from the lips of man” – but human not divine. To be Christian one had only to follow Christ’s system of ethics, uncontaminated by additions, adulterations, and distortions of those who came after. The “free exercise of reason” was all one needed to tell Jesus’ original teaching from the dross. Orthodox clergy called this heresy; a cheap disguise for atheism; and it made Jefferson an easy target for Federalists in the campaign of 1800.
Yet Jefferson held a belief in a Supreme Being based on reasoned conclusions drawn from evidence and deduction, not implicit faith. He wrote to John Adams, “I hold (without appeal to revelation) that when we take a view of the universe, in its parts, general or particular, it is impossible for the human mind not to perceive and feel a conviction of design, consummate skill, and indefinite power in every atom of its composition.” Newton and his contemporaries demonstrated that man lived in a universe of precise mathematical law and order; it seemed scientifically evident that such cosmic design could only come from the hand of a divine Creator.
It was not traditional Christianity, this idea of an invisible but demonstrable God whose existence was proved only by His handiwork; for “He” was now a nearly impersonal power, responsible for the origin and laws of the universe, but not interfering in its operation once the myriad wheels of the great machine had been set in motion. This was “Nature’s God,” as Jefferson phrased it in the Declaration of Independence; and to him and many others the religion appropriate to Nature’s God must be natural, not supernatural. Deism, or “natural religion,” expressed their theological creed, not a Christianity based on revelation, mystery, and miracle.
Atheism and Natural Morality
Prominent in France, Diderot, d’Alembert, Condorcet, and the Baron d’Holbach postulated an automatic universe, operating by inexorable natural laws, but utterly devoid of God or God’s purpose. Jefferson resisted such atheism, but he was not an absolutist, even on the question of God’s existence. His creed of intellectual freedom was too firm for that, and he saw no threat in atheism. He wrote: ”It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty Gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” He urged his nephew to make reason his guide, “call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of God; because, if there be one, he must approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.”
Jefferson saw moral and material degradation in France caused by a combination of religious persecution and tyrannical government. Voltaire wrote that atheists, deplorable as they might be, made better neighbors than religious fanatics. Jefferson knew French atheists as friends, not monsters. “Diderot, d’Alembert, Condorcet, and d’Holbach,” he wrote, “are known to have been among the most virtuous of men. Their virtue, then, must have had some other foundation than the love of God.” The basis of human morality and government intrigued Jefferson all his life.
Its essence was natural morality. “Man was destined for society,” he wrote. “He was endowed with a sense of right and wrong, merely relative to this. This sense is as much a part of his nature as the sense of hearing, seeing, feeling; it is the true foundation of morality. The moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of man as his leg or arm.” A gift of the Creator, acknowledgement of its source was not necessary to its function. If one chose to be an atheist, “you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise, and the love of others which it will procure for you.”
The Rock of Democratic Faith
Natural morality was the rock of Jefferson’s democratic faith. The doctrine of original sin was anathema; human nature could be trusted: all normal men were endowed by their Creator not only with unalienable rights, but also unalienable instincts, including a natural moral sense. Except in conditions of ignorance, poor education, poverty and bad social conditions, the mass would gravitate toward what was right on fundamental issues, if allowed complete freedom of conscience. Majority rule – a sacred principle to Jefferson – depended on a well-informed public, each member of which could choose among moral or political alternatives with absolute freedom from mental coercion.
An organized church was unlikely to leave men’s minds completely free. Each sect claimed special revelation of God’s will directly to its prophets or priests, or recorded in a “bible”. Religions were unwilling to give up moral (and, political) choices to the untrammeled conscience of the individual citizen. The Declaration of Independence envisaged a free society ruled by consent of the governed. Informed decision and consent needed good public education based on complete freedom of mind. Religion made the first fundamental challenge to the republic’s freedom of mind.
Writing to Dr. Benjamin Rush in 1800 before he became President, Jefferson alleged certain clerical “schemes” to breach the religion clause of the First Amendment. He would oppose them with all his power, he said, “for I have sworn on the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” It was “Nature’s God” that he was thinking of; and for that vow above all others the altar was not to be found, he believed, within the limits of any dogmatic creed.
ABSTRACT: E.M. Halliday, American Heritage. READ THE FULL ESSAY: Nature’s God and the Founding Fathers
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