In my previous post I may have given the impression that I was simply doing what I accused David Barton of doing, namely, cherrypicking quotes from Thomas Jefferson in order to paint him how I wished. So here are a few more selections from the Jefferson oeuvre that should put to rest any notions that Jefferson was in any way an orthodox Christian.
In a letter to Joseph Priestley, written in April 1803, Jefferson outlines how he would treat of religion:
I should then take a view of the deism and ethics of the Jews, and show in what a degraded state they were, and the necessity they presented of a reformation. I should proceed to a view of the life, character, & doctrines of Jesus, who sensible of incorrectness of their ideas of the Deity, and of morality, endeavored to bring them to the principles of a pure deism, and juster notions of the attributes of God, to reform their moral doctrines to the standard of reason, justice & philanthropy, and to inculcate the belief of a future state, This view would purposely omit the question of his divinity, & even his inspiration. To do him justice, it would be necessary to remark the disadvantages his doctrines have to encounter, not having been committed to writing by himself, but by the most unlettered of men, by memory, long after they had heard them from him; when much was forgotten, much misunderstood,& presented in very paradoxical shapes. Yet such are the fragments remaining as to show a master workman, and that his system of morality was the most benevolent & sublime probably that has been ever taught, and consequently more perfect than those of any of the antient philosophers. His character & doctrines have received still greater injury from those who pretend to be his special disciples, and who have disfigured and sophisticated his actions & precepts, from views of personal interest, so as to induce the unthinking part of mankind to throw off the whole system in disgust, and to pass sentence as an impostor on the most innocent, the most benevolent, the most eloquent and sublime character that ever has been exhibited to man.
Note this was written 23 years before his death. Barton alleged that Jefferson’s turn towards heterodoxy occurred relatively late in life. But here Jefferson firmly laid down his opinion that the real Jesus had been distorted.
Two weeks later, in a letter to Benjamin Rush, Jefferson asserted “I am a Christian, in the only sense he wished anyone to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; & believing he never claimed any other.” He then added that Jesus died at a young age after only about three years of preaching. “Hence the doctrines which he delivered were defective as a whole, and fragments only of what he did deliver have come to us mutilated, misstated, & often unintelligible.” His teachings were further mutilated by his followers, “who have found an interest in sophisticating & perverting the simple doctrines he taught by engrafting them into subtleties, & obscuring them with jargon, until they have caused good men to reject the whole in disgust, & to view Jesus himself as an imposter.”
Okay, perhaps he thought Jesus’s message had been distorted by his followers, so what? After all, don’t all Protestants believe that to some degree? One can think that Christians have distorted Christ’s teachings without necessarily thinking that Jesus Himself was not the son of God. Well, this is what he wrote to William Short in August 1820:
My aim in that was, to justify the character of Jesus against the fictions of his pseudo-followers, which have exposed him to the inference of being an impostor. For if we could believe that he really countenanced the follies, the falsehoods and the charlatanisms which his biographers father on him, and admit the misconstructions, interpolations and theorizations of the fathers of the early, and fanatics of the latter ages, the conclusion would be irresistible by every sound mind, that he was an impostor. I give no credit to their falsifications of his actions and doctrines, and to rescue his character, the postulate in my letter asked only what is granted in reading every other historian.
So if we take the Gospels at their word, then Jesus was an imposter. Meaning, that if Jesus is all that the Gospels maintained that he claimed to be, we couldn’t take Jesus seriously.
Luckily for us all, Thomas Jefferson was gifted with the ability to divine (no pun intended) the real from the fake within the Gospels.
We find in the writings of his biographers matter of two distinct descriptions. First, a groundwork of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticisms and fabrications. Intermixed with these, again, are sublime ideas of the Supreme Being, aphorisms and precepts of the purest morality and benevolence, sanctioned by a life of humility, innocence and simplicity of manners, neglect of riches, absence of worldly ambition and honors, with an eloquence and persuasiveness which have not been surpassed. These could not be inventions of the groveling authors who relate them. They are far beyond the powers of their feeble minds. They shew that there was a character, the subject of their history, whose splendid conceptions were above all suspicion of being interpolations from their hands. Can we be at a loss in separating such materials, and ascribing each to its genuine author? The difference is obvious to the eye and to the understanding, and we may read as we run to each his part; and I will venture to affirm, that he who, as I have done, will undertake to winnow this grain from its chaff, will find it not to require a moment’s consideration. The parts fall asunder of themselves, as would those of an image of metal and clay. There are, I acknowledge, passages not free from objection, which we may, with probability, ascribe to Jesus himself; but claiming indulgence from the circumstances under which he acted.
That’s mighty nice of Jefferson to forgive Christ his transgressions.
Now just in case you weren’t convinced that Jefferson held an unconventional view of Christ, he also added this passage:
That Jesus did not mean to impose himself on mankind as the son of God, physically speaking, I have been convinced by the writings of men more learned than myself in that lore. But that he might conscientiously believe himself inspired from above, is very possible. The whole religion of the Jews, inculcated on him from his infancy, was founded in the belief of divine inspiration. The fumes of the most disordered imaginations were recorded in their religious code, as special communications of the Deity; and as it could not but happen that, in the course of ages, events would now and then turn up to which some of these vague rhapsodies might be accommodated by the aid of allegories, figures, types, and other tricks upon words, they have not only preserved their credit with the Jews of all subsequent times, but are the foundation of much of the religions of those who have schismatised from them. Elevated by the enthusiasm of a warm and pure heart, conscious of the high strains of an eloquence which had not been taught him, he might readily mistake the coruscations of his own fine genius for inspirations of an higher order. This belief carried, therefore, no more personal imputation, than the belief of Socrates, that himself was under the care and admonitions of a guardian Dæmon. And how many of our wisest men still believe in the reality of these inspirations, while perfectly sane on all other subjects. Excusing, therefore, on these considerations, those passages in the gospels which seem to bear marks of weakness in Jesus, ascribing to him what alone is consistent with the great and pure character of which the same writings furnish proofs, and to their proper authors their own trivialities and imbecilities, I think myself authorised to conclude the purity and distinction of his character, in opposition to the impostures which those authors would fix upon him; and that the postulate of my former letter is no more than is granted in all other historical works.
Dang Jews – not only did the crucify Christ for passing himself off as the son of God, it turns out they’re the ones who implanted that idea in his head in the first place.
I don’t mean to belabor the point. I just reemphasize that it is essential that we understand our historical figures for who they really are, and not for who we want to pretend they were.