Here's the Truth Behind Thomas Jefferson's Resolutely Liberal View of Religion

Are Thomas Jefferson’s not-so-radical religious views a remedy for the moral illnesses of our day?

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Jefferson was a uncompromising liberal when it came to religion. He expresses that sentiment in a letter to Patrick Henry (11 Oct. 1776): “The care of every man’s soul belongs to himself. But what if he neglect the care of it? Well what if he neglect the care of his health or estate, which more nearly relate to the state? Will the magistrates make a law that he shall not be poor or sick? Laws provide against injury from others; but not from ourselves. God himself will not save men against their wills.”

In a passage from Query XVII of his Notes on the State of Virginia, he expresses the same thought, but elaborates more fully. Those governing us have authority over our natural rights only insofar as we willfully grant them that authority. In electing them, we have not submitted our rights of conscience, for those have been allotted us by nature. He sums this up famously: “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But 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.”

Constraint, he continues, only forces hypocrisy, which will “not make him a truer man.” What will make him a truer man is championing reason and free enquiry. “Give a loose to them, they will support the true religion, by bringing every false one to their tribunal, to the test of their investigation. They are the natural enemies of error, and of error only.”

When a religious sect has the patronage of government, then that is a signal that it is not the true religion. Who are the governmental officials who are to determine the true religion? “Fallible men; governed by bad passions, by private as well as public reasons.” Making one religion the law, that religion establishes itself through coercion, and coercion has no other aim than uniformity, which is to introduce a Procrustean bed for religious belief. Yet uniformity in religious belief is not more desirable than uniformity of “face and stature.”

Uniformity of religious belief is also impossible. There are, Jefferson presumes, some one billion people on the globe and some 1,000 religions. If one person wishes all other sects to conform to his religious sect, then he has the tiresome task of convincing those participants of the 999 sects to see religion as he does—a daunting, and unmanageable task, which, numbers show, cannot be effected by force. As he writes to Charles Clay (29 Jan. 1815): “To under take to bring them all right, would be like undertaking, single-handed, to fell the forests of America.” He sums in Query XVII, “Reason and persuasion are the only practicable instruments,” and both need the governmental sponsorship of free enquiry. “Error alone … needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.”

The various dogmata of particular religions are manifestations of the variabilities of human thought and deed. To Rev. James Fishback (27 Sept. 1809), he writes, “The varieties in the structure and action of the human mind as in those of the body, are the work of our Creator, against which it cannot be a religious duty to erect the standard of uniformity.” Yet there is uniformity in moral sensing. “The practice of morality being necessary for the well-being of society, he has taken care to impress its percepts so indelibly on our hearts that they shall not be effaced by the subtleties of our brain.”

The letter to Henry and the passage from his Notes on the State of Virginia are stark illustrations of Jefferson’s purchase of liberalism. Concerning religious belief, a state can force behavioral conformity to one particular religious sect, as has been traditionally done, but behavioral conformity is not genuine conformity. It lacks the patronage of will.

For Jefferson, each person possesses a God-given free capacity to choose among conceivable alternatives. God has made humans such that each is responsible for his own path in life, and thus, he is free to choose ends conducing to or even destructive of his happiness. A man, thus, might choose to neglect his health, his estate, or even his God-granted inborn sense of right action. And so, a man has his own capacity to choose his own religion, or choose not to adopt a religion, or choose even to believe in no God.

There is a nodus. “Well aware that the opinions and beliefs of men depend not on their own will,” Jefferson begins his Bill for Religious Freedom, “but follow involuntarily the evidence proposed to their minds; … Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested his supreme will that free it shall remain by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint.” We are free to choose how to opine and what to believe, but not when an abundance of evidence points us in one particular direction and there is no evidence contradicting that abundance. In that case, reason can, it seems, only assent. That sentiment is Stoical, as the Stoics believed in sensory impressions that were cataleptic. Writes Cicero of the Stoics’ cataleptic impressions: “Just as a scale must sink when weights are placed in the balance, so the mind much give way to clear presentations. Just as no animal can refrain from seeking what appears suited to its nature—which the Greeks call oikeion—so the mind cannot refrain from assenting to a clear object.”

How does this relate to religious debate? Here we arrive at the problem of religious clericalism: the failure to discuss religious concerns with an eye open to the evidence of the senses. If those seeking truth in religion, the religious prelates, were to go into debate with minds open to evidence, they would see that most of what they debate is metaphysical double-Dutch—empty nonsense. He writes to Unitarian Richard Price (26 Oct. 1788) of sectarian religion being akin to demonism:

There has been in almost all religions a melancholy Separation of religion from morality. Popery teaches a method of pleasing God without forsaking vice, and of getting to heaven by penances, bodily mortifications, pilgrimages, saying masses, believing mysterious doctrines, burning heretics, aggrandizing Priests &c. Mahometans expect a paradise of Sensual pleasures. Pagans worship’d lewd, revengeful and cruel Deities, and thus Sanctify’d to themselves Some of the worst passions. The religion likewise of many Protestants is little better than a compromise with the Deity for wrong practises by fastings, Sacraments hearing the word &c. Would not Society be better without Such religions? Is Atheism less pernicious than Demonism? And what is the religion of many persons but a kind of demonism that delights in human Sacrifices and causes them to look with horror on the greatest part of mankind? Plutarch, it is well known, has observd very justly that it is better not to believe in a God than to believe him to be a capricious and malevolent being.

That points to another, less conspicuous motivation for Jefferson’s Bill for Religious Freedom: clerical empleomania, or the tendency of clerics to use religious authority for political gain. That problem is, and has been for centuries, acute, and it is behind another increasingly popular misapprehension concerning Jefferson’s religiosity: that Jefferson on the whole had a friendly relationship with religious clericalism.

That thesis has been put forth recently by Jerry Newcombe and Mark Beliles in Doubting Thomas. They assert Jefferson had great respect for and full acceptancy of all denominations. What seems like anti-clericalism is really “trans-denominationalism”—acceptance of all denominations and enjoinment of a cooperative approach to religious instruction.

With respect to Jefferson’s avowed execration of the clergy Newcombe, in “Five Distinct Phases of Jefferson’s Religious Life,” states: “Jefferson was not universally opposed to the clergy. His anti-clericalism was clearly selective and focused, and for biographers to not make that distinction is unfair to Jefferson. Indeed, those that fail to make the distinction become the allies of his political enemies.” The last sentence, a clear non sequitur, can be overpassed. For Newcombe, Jefferson’s opposition to the clergy was chiefly aimed at Federalist clerics, who often made scandalous claims concerning Jefferson’s religiosity. “Jefferson had very good relations for the most part with hundreds of ministers, the vast majority of whom were Trinitarian Christians…. He donated generously to all sorts of Christian causes.”

Jefferson was on good terms, often friendly terms, with ministers of many denominations, and he did donate generously to Christian causes. He befriended those ministers, however, not on account of denominationalism, but because those ministers were fine, morality-inspiring men. In his recommended reading list to John Minor (30 Aug. 1814), he lists the sermonizers Revs. Sterne, Massillon, and Bourdaloue, because their sermons were fraught with benevolent sentiments, though they also contained pointless metaphysical claims. He donated to the Christian causes, because “in all of them we see good men, and as many in one as another” (TJ to James Fishback, 27 Sept. 1809). Jefferson, as the books he recommended on morality shows, found moral inspiration wherever it could be found: moral treatises, history (especially ancient), philosophy, sermons, the Bible and his own deterged version of the New Testament, and even fiction of the right sort.

Jefferson on the whole was anti-clerical because he believed that sectarian religions were political and greatly in need of reform in the direction of simplification toward naturalized religion. “I should as soon think of writing for the reformation of Bedlam, as of the world of religious sects,” he says in an unsent letter to P.H. Wendover (13 Mar. 1815). “In chusing our pastor,” he continues, “we look to his religious qualifications, without enquiring into his physical or political dogmas, with which we mean to have nothing to do.”

Jefferson ingeminated that there were principles common to all above-board religious sects, and then there were the abundancy of sectarian dogmata. “every [sic] religion consists of moral precepts, & of dogmas,” he tells James Fishback (27 Sept. 1809). “in the first they all agree. all forbid us to murder, steal, plunder, bear false witness Etc. and these are the articles necessary for the preservation of order, justice, & happiness in society. in their particular dogmas all differ; no two professing the same.” Those dogmata—consisting of “vestments, ceremonies, physical opinions, & metaphysical speculations”—have nothing to do with morality, and thus, are de trop.

The effect of dogmata has been schisms and movement away from true religion—the non-thaumaturgical teachings of Jesus. He tells Elbridge Gerry (29 Mar. 1801): “The mild and simple principles of the Christian philosophy would produce too much calm, too much regularity of good, to extract from its disciples a support from a numerous priesthood, were they not to sophisticate it, ramify it, split it into hairs, and twist its texts till they cover the divine morality of its author with mysteries, and require a priesthood to explain them. The Quakers seem to have discovered this. They have no priests, therefore no schisms.” That convolution of something so simple, so pure, has been accomplished over the centuries only for the sake of political power.

Duties to God and duties to man are the sum total of religion, rightly grasped—“our moral duties … are generally divided into duties to God and duties to man,” he says to Thomas Law (13 June 1814)—and they are the principles of natural religion, the axial principles of morality. For Jefferson, natural religion and morality are the same. Sectarian religions in the main acknowledge those principles, but add numerous superfluous doctrines, without which one could not be a member of that sect. That is why Jefferson could never be a member of any particular sect. He writes to Rev. Thomas Whittemore, (5 June 1822): “I have never permitted myself to mediate a specified creed. these formulas have been the bane and ruin of the Christian church, its own fatal invention which through so many ages, made Christiandom a slaughter house, and to this day divides it into castes of inextinguishable hatred of one another.”

Duties to God and duties to man are at the core of Jefferson’s avowed embrace of Unitarianism, which in Jefferson’s day was an attempt to liberalize and liberate Christianity of its metaphysical dogmata. Yet there was no uniform Unitarian doctrine. The Unitarianism of Rev. Richard Price differed much from the Unitarianism of Rev. Joseph Priestley and much from the Unitarianism of former minister and Dutch scholar, Francis Adrian Van der Kemp, who accepted much of Christian dogmata. Jefferson’s Unitarianism was merely a commitment to the belief in one God.

Despite clear and consistent evidence of Jefferson’s religiosity in numerous writings, Jefferson was often, perhaps because of his friendships with several philosophes, considered an atheist. The passage in Query XVII of his Notes on the State of Virginia—“it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god”—has long been interpreted as an elliptical expression of Jefferson’s atheism, fueled by his conversations with intellectuals during his five-year tenure (1784–1789) in France.

Yet Jefferson was no atheist. He had an unflinching, express commitment in God, but his God was not one to whom one would pray or supplicate. Jefferson’s God was insensitive to the entreaties of mortals. Instead, the most god-full man was the one who studied deity’s creation through works of natural philosophy—such as Galileo’s Siderius Nuncius (Sidereal Messenger), Harvey’s De motu cordis (On the Circulation of the Blood), and Newton’s Principia Mathematica (Principles of Mathematics)—and through study of nature through botany or natural history. To stand in awe and admiration of the magnificence of the cosmos is to fulfill fully our duties to God, and that can be likened to the manner in which Jefferson was “violently smitten” when seeing the Hôtel de Salm in Paris. The architect, of course, could never know of Jefferson’s love of the building, and Jefferson, with much larger recognition of the beauty of the structure than most, could not but love the building.

To fulfill fully our duties to man was merely a matter of following the words and emulating the deeds of Jesus, a mere mortal man, but a man of unequaled wisdom.

We might do well today to reflect on Jefferson’s not-so-radical religious views. We might find them a catholicon for the moral illnesses of our day: e.g., inauthenticity, cravenness, unconcern, mendacity, injustice, and ignorance. Even if not, we might find the entreaty that each ought to attend to the state of his own soul and leave the state of another’s to himself to be advice worth heeding.

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