October 11, 2003


Thomas Jefferson And Freedom Of Religion (Ecclesiastical Review)

For his notes on Christianity as a system, Jefferson did not go directly to the Scriptures themselves, but to John Locke's treatise on The Reasonableness of Christianity as Delivered in the Scriptures. This author had found "little Satisfaction . . . in most systems of Divinity" and so betook himself "to the sole reading of the Scriptures (to which they all appeal) for the understanding of the Christian Religion." The results of his "attentive and unbiassed Search" Locke set forth as "the sense and tenor of the Gospel." It was this that Jefferson summarized as Locke's system of Christianity, beginning with Adam's sin punished by the loss of immortality and the redemption of mankind by the Son of God. Its fundamentals were to be found primarily in the Gospels, which give the preaching of our Savior, and only incidentally in the Epistles where fundamentals are mixed with other truths, written occasionally for edification and explanation, adapted to the notions and customs of the people addressed. Assent to these other truths, though written by inspired men, ought not to be demanded, according to Locke, for admission into the communion of the Christian Church here or to God's Kingdom hereafter inasmuch as "the Apostles' Creed was by them taken to contain all things necessary to Salvation, and consequently to a communion."

Jefferson, furthermore, found Locke reducing the fundamentals of Christianity in the Gospels to two things: to faith in Jesus as the promised Messiah, and to repentance sincerely proved by good works. Now those who did not have the Gospels were not therefore lost to salvation; for "the Jews had the law of works revealed to them . . . and a lively faith in God's promises to send the Messiah would supply defects;" "the Gentiles have the law written in their hearts, i.e., the law of nature to which adding a faith in God . . . that, on their repentance, he would pardon them, they also would be justified." While Jews and Gentiles could thus be saved even without the Gospel, the Savior's mission brought mankind the following advantages, as Jefferson summarized them:

1. The knowledge of one God only.

2. A clear knowledge of their duty, or system of morality delivered on such authority as to give sanction.

3. The outward forms of religious worship wanted to be purged of that farcical pomp and nonsense with which they were loaded.

4. An inducement to a pious life by revealing a future existence in bliss, and that it was to be a reward of the virtuous.

Despite all effort to put Christianity into a system, Thomas Jefferson then noted that there was no uniformity, but dissent from every religious establishment in Christendom. [...]

The question of Church Polity in the controversy between Episcopalians and Presbyterians moved Jefferson also to collect some notes on the subject. From Milton's two tracts of 1641: The Reason of Church Government urged against Prelaty and Of the Reformation in England and the Causes that hitherto have hindered it, Jefferson took Patristic texts and other historical notes. According to Milton these established that the title of clergy belonged to all God's people at first and not only to priests; that Bishops were originally elected by the whole Church, had no certain diocese, and were not lords over fellow presbyters; that consequently "a modern bishop, to be moulded into a primitive one, must be elected by the people, undiocest, unrevenued, unlorded."

In principle, a Protestant should not have bothered with tradition at all, but should have relied on Scripture alone. One of Jefferson's notes did, in fact, collect texts from the Epistles of St. Paul to Timothy and to Titus and from the epistle of St. James, to which were added the original Greek words used to designate the ministers of the Church in Apostolic days. From the occasional use of Bishop and Presbyter as synonyms in Scripture there is drawn here an inference that there is not only identity of names, but also of office, which is a bad fallacy.

Although such study seemed to have undermined Jefferson's Episcopalian Faith, it did not make a Presbyterian of him. The Notes on the Trinity are clearly anti-Trinitarian, and he himself became a professed Unitarian in course of time.

It may well be fair to say that the rationalism of several Founders made them skeptical of much of Christianity, but one thing above all seems to have kept men like Jefferson and Franklin quite tightly tethered to it, that for a moral system to have authority it required God. That remains true today and is one of the main means of rational access to faith. If you believe morality must exist beyond your own opinion of right and wrong, you must believe in God.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 11, 2003 9:24 AM

I always found the deep friendship - love really - between Jefferson and Adams peculiar. Adams recognized clearly the need for that "inner check" that religion provides. Self government, after all, requires the governing of the self. Religion serves as that "governor."

Perhaps, and I'm reaching (but not too far), that the two represent the two schools of Enlightenment thought. Viz., the Anglo-Scottish variety (Adams) and the Continental. American revolution versus the French.


Posted by: SteveMG at October 11, 2003 3:24 PM


Yes, what wouldn't you do to have a friendly foe write you this letter:


Posted by: oj at October 11, 2003 4:15 PM

Now if we could just get all the Gods, or all the versions of God, to agree on morality.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 12, 2003 7:13 AM

There's only One.

Posted by: oj at October 12, 2003 10:52 AM

Okay, then get rid of all the versions except the correct one.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 13, 2003 7:56 AM

We will eventually.

Posted by: oj at October 13, 2003 8:53 AM


A bit utopian, no?

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at October 13, 2003 9:52 AM

"If you believe morality must exist beyond your own opinion of right and wrong, you must believe in God."

This is the party line for moralists of nearly all stripes, and it's certainly the way things have worked for centuries, if not millennia. The religious moralists, among which we can confidently include OJ, would have me believe that right and wrong are delineated by God, and that for my moral transgressions (which I will keep to myself, thank you very much) I will answer to Him. In a practical sense, this is the threat that is meant to keep me in line during my corporeal existence here on Earth. It's this way because _God says so_.

How easy is it, then, to deny this god, and thus justify any moral transgression I choose to make? History tells us that it is very easy indeed. In many, many cases I need not even (consciously) deny God. God-given law, and principles of right and wrong, have no practical meaning whatsoever unless backed by material force in the here and now, sponsored by social authority.

No one has yet explained to my satisfaction the practical difference between bucking a social authority that claims a validity conferred by supernatural mandate vs. one that claims its validity from popular democracy, to take one possible alternative. The one is as easy to violate as the other. And always has been.

Posted by: M. Bulger at October 13, 2003 12:55 PM


The difference would seem obvious: if there is a God then state genocide is immoral; if there is not, if that which the majority chooses to do must be treated as moral, then there's nothing wrong with genocide.

Obviously genocide will occur in both nations where morality prevails and where mere majority opinion prevails, but in one it is wrong, in the other right.

Posted by: OJ at October 13, 2003 1:10 PM


Natural law or the regulatory power inherent in a well formed conscience has no need for the enforcement of a secular police power. That's the point: a manageable governing structure can only exist in a more self-regulating society than not.

In a purely relativistic and materialistic society the state, by necessity will grow, and overpower the self-regulating aspects of a more moral society.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at October 13, 2003 2:53 PM

Self-regulating? That part appears to have been broken from the git-go. Don't any of you guys read the Bible?

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 13, 2003 6:07 PM

I wonder if the victims of genocide could, in whatever state they now exist, might think OJ's position a distinction without a difference.


Utopian, no. Just a rationalist's reflex answer to religiously based claims of moral certainty.

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 13, 2003 9:45 PM


They're dead. The question is the living. Religious folk are required to stop religiouis genocides and secular rationalist genocides. The rationalists never stop killing on their own, witness the Nazis, Communists, etc.

Posted by: OJ at October 13, 2003 11:42 PM

I qualified by saying MORE self-regulating rather than less. Relativists would tend to need more of the police power rather than less. I believe that my contention is self-evident, obvious and in clear agreement with Washington, Madison, Adams, Jefferson et al. The more contained the coercive power of the state, the more easily sustained is the ordered liberty envisioned by the constitutional framers.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at October 14, 2003 10:42 AM


But the Communists did stop--or at least greatly slow--killing on their own. Witness the Soviet Union's arc from Stalin to Brezhnev.

This is no defense of Communism, but the Inquisition's killings lasted, what, a couple hundred years?

Posted by: Jeff Guinn at October 14, 2003 11:49 AM

Christianity's lasted two thousand years and has killed a few heretics. Communism has lasted eighty years and killed one hundred million +, with more dying every day in Cuba, China, and N. Korea. Where's the Inquisition?

Posted by: OJ at October 14, 2003 12:00 PM


Communist atrocity went a bit beyond Stalin-Brezhnev. Guess what, it's still around.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at October 14, 2003 8:37 PM

A few heretics?

In 1648, parts of Germany were so empty of people that they haven't recovered to this day.

It's doubtful any of the modern despotisms killed as great a percentage of their targets as the religious ones did, despite their allegedly more efficient technology.

Even Hitler managed to miss about one in three Jews. The Christians of 13th century Sicily killed all the Muslims there.

None of them, by the way, was a heretic.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at October 14, 2003 10:06 PM


They certainly weren't Christians.

Posted by: oj at October 14, 2003 11:02 PM
« THIS ISN'T SELF-PARODY EITHER (via Political Theory): : | Main | NOT STIRRED: »