My Birthday Wish For Thomas Jefferson: An End To The Religious Right’s Lies About Him

Thomas Jefferson was not a fundamentalist Christian, nor did he believe that the United States was founded to be a 'Christian nation.'

Today is Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, and my modest gift to him is to debunk the latest David Barton nonsense about our third president.

Barton, a Religious Right historical revisionist who promotes discredited “Christian nation” propaganda, has lately taken aim at one of Jefferson’s most famous projects: The so-called “Jefferson Bible.” As usual, Barton’s version has only a passing relationship with the truth.

Formally titled The Life and Morals of Jesus Christ, the Jefferson Bible is an intriguing document. Over several years, Jefferson did a cut-and-paste rewrite of the Gospels, removing the portions he did not agree with. In Jefferson’s retelling, there is no virgin birth, no miracles, no claims of Jesus’ divinity and no resurrection.

According to Barton, Jefferson didn’t remove this material because he disagreed with it. Rather, he was trying to produce a version of the Gospels that could be used to evangelize Native Americans.

What utter tripe.

We know why Jefferson undertook the project because he talked about it with several friends. On Oct. 13, 1813, Jefferson outlined his plans in a letter to John Adams.

“In extracting the pure principles which he [Jesus] taught,” Jefferson wrote, “we should have to strip off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests, who have travestied them into various forms, as instruments of riches and power to themselves….We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus.... There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man. I have performed this operation for my own use, by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and arranging the matter which is evidently his, and which is as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill. The result is an octavo of forty-six pages, of pure and unsophisticated doctrines.”

Barton’s claim about Native Americans rests on exceedingly thin evidence: There is a cover page to an early version of the book that refers to the volume being useful for Indians. But it’s not in Jefferson’s handwriting, and it’s unclear who wrote it and when. Also, in 1895, long after Jefferson’s death, one of his descendents opined that the book was intended for Native Americans. She had no evidence for this and was speaking at a time when the “Christian nation” view of America was popular and Jefferson’s unorthodox theological opinions were considered somewhat scandalous.

Did Jefferson ever say the book was intended to evangelize Indians? Nope. He corresponded with friends about his project and never once mentioned using it to evangelize anyone, let alone Native Americans. In fact, Jefferson stated several times that the book was for his personal use.

Furthermore, it would have been impossible for the tome to be used for evangelism because Jefferson never intended for it to be published, and it wasn’t during his lifetime. The first edition didn’t appear until 1895 – 69 years after Jefferson’s death.

And, as a moment’s thought will demonstrate, a book portraying Jesus as merely a man with worthy ethics (as opposed to the supernatural son of God) isn’t likely to lure anyone into a conservative form of Christianity. If Jefferson sought to “Christianize” Indians, his idiosyncratic version of the Bible would be an odd tool for that task.

In fact, Jefferson didn’t seek to Christianize Native Americans (or anyone else). Like many people of his day, Jefferson harbored certain prejudices about America’s original inhabitants. He wanted to see them “civilized” – meaning they should live like the European settlers. But he didn’t advocate giving them his version of the Bible to achieve this. Rather, he suggested two other works: Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and (the decidedly pre-Christian) Aesop’s Fables.

The question of Jefferson’s religion has fascinated scholars for years. There will always be room for debate, but a few things are clear: Jefferson was not a fundamentalist Christian, nor did he believe that the United States was founded to be a “Christian nation.”

Jefferson was an advocate of religious freedom for everyone – Christian and non-Christian – and he believed that the best way to protect that freedom was through a high and firm wall of separation between church and state.

If you really want to know what Jefferson thought about these issues, ignore Barton and go straight to the source: Jefferson’s own words. Americans United has compiled some of his best thoughts on religious liberty here. Information about his famous letter to the Danbury Baptists, which contains the “wall of separation” metaphor, is here.

Celebrate Jefferson’s birthday by reflecting on his wisdom about freedom of conscience.

P.S. Thanks to Chris Rodda, author of Liars for Jesus, for research help.