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An 1800 portrait of Thomas Jefferson by artist Rembrandt Peale.
Associated Press
An 1800 portrait of Thomas Jefferson by artist Rembrandt Peale.

Jefferson and Christianity

Religion | A history and political science professor at The Master’s College offers a brief review of David Barton’s claims in The Jefferson Lies—and Barton responds, and Frazer rebuts

Our online debate between history writer David Barton and his critics demanded a lot of attention from readers: thousands of words, numerous footnotes, complicated argumentation. That many of you read, pondered, and commented is a good indication that poor history teaching in many colleges hasn’t killed among many of us the desire to learn what really happened.

The debate isn’t over yet. One of Barton’s critics, Gregg Frazer, a history and political science professor at The Master's College, had 1,200 words he wanted to get off his chest, and we said yes. Frazer is the author of The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders: Reason, Revelation, and Revolution, published last year by The University Press of Kansas.

After Frazer's message comes a brief response from David Barton. —Marvin Olasky

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David Barton’s fundamental claim in chapter 7 of The Jefferson Lies is that Jefferson was orthodox for the first 70 years of his life and only rejected the fundamental doctrines of Christianity in the final 15 years of his life. In support of this claim, Barton said that in his 1776 Notes on Religion, Jefferson “affirmed that Jesus was the Savior, the Scriptures were inspired, and that the Apostles’ Creed ‘contain[ed] all things necessary to salvation’” (p. 168). That is simply not true.

In his Notes on Religion, Jefferson wrote, “The Apostles creed was by them taken to contain all things necessary to salvation [emphasis mine].”[i] In the context, “by them” refers to “the people they were written to” (i.e., the early church). Jefferson did not say that he believed this. Of the original, Barton only quoted “contain[ed] all things necessary to salvation.” Barton did not offer any other direct statement by Jefferson—doctored or not—in support of the fundamental doctrines of Christianity because there are none.

Jefferson never affirmed the core doctrines of Christianity, whether in his first 70 years or the last 15. For him, Christianity was simply the moral teachings of Jesus—not all of Jesus’ teaching, only the morality. That, along with Jefferson’s opinion of the Apostle Paul, is why Jefferson repeatedly dismissed the rest of the New Testament as a “dunghill.”[ii]

It is also important to understand that Jefferson, in his Notes on Religion, noted for his own reference in encyclopedic fashion what various religious groups and individuals believed—not giving his own beliefs!

Notes starts with: “Sabellians,” and then describes what they believed. The next paragraph starts “Socinians,” and then describes what they believed. The section Barton quoted as being Jefferson’s own view begins with: “Locke’s system of Christianity is this:” and then goes on for a lengthy description of what Locke said about Christianity. The particular quote about the Apostles’ Creed is a nearly verbatim transcription from Locke’s A Vindication of the Reasonableness of Christianity. There, Locke wrote, “The Apostles Creed was taken, in the first Ages of the Church, to contain all things necessary to Salvation.”[iii] Barton’s other claims about the Notes on Religion are also in the section on Locke’s Christianity—not personal affirmations by Jefferson.

In support of his thesis that Jefferson was orthodox until sometime around 1810, Barton claimed that Jefferson “first expressed Anti-Trinitarian views in a letter to John Adams in 1813” (185). At another point, he quoted a letter that Jefferson wrote to Benjamin Rush “well before the Restoration movement” (1803, to be precise). As he regularly does, Barton omitted a critical part of the quote. In Barton’s version, Jefferson said:

“To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus Himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense He wished any one to be; sincerely attached to His doctrines, in preference to all others” (189).

But in the actual letter, the sentence did not end there. Jefferson continued:

ascribing to himself every human excellence; & believing he never claimed any other” [italics original; bold mine].[iv]

So, in a letter that Barton identified as being written before Jefferson’s supposed change of heart, Jefferson clearly indicated that he did not believe in the deity of Christ and, by extension, the Trinity. It is also worth mentioning that the pronouns for Jesus are not capitalized in Jefferson’s original, as he, unlike Barton, did not consider them to be pronouns for God.

Furthermore, Jefferson’s reference to “the corruptions of Christianity” was a reference to Joseph Priestley’s A History of the Corruptions of Christianity, as he indicated in a letter to Priestley 12 days before the Rush letter and to his daughters in letters four days after the Rush letter. He recommended it to them for “attentive perusal, because it establishes the groundwork of my view of this subject [‘my religious creed’].”[v]

____________

ENDNOTES

[i] Thomas Jefferson, The Works of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Paul Leicester Ford (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904-1905), II:255.

[ii] E.g. October 12, 1813 letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Adams and January 24, 1814 letter from Jefferson to Adams, in The Adams-Jefferson Letters, ed. Lester J. Cappon (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959), 2:384 & 2:421; April 25, 1816 letter from Jefferson to F.A. Van der Kemp, in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. H.A. Washington (Washington, D.C.: Taylor & Maury, 1853-1854), 6:594; October 31, 1819 letter from Jefferson to William Short, in The Works of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Paul Leicester Ford (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904-1905), XII:141.

[iii] John Locke, “A Vindication of the Reasonableness of Christianity,” in John Locke Writings on Religion, ed. Victor Nuovo (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 217.

[iv] April 21, 1803 letter from Jefferson to Benjamin Rush in The Works of Thomas Jefferson, ed. H.A. Washington (Townsend Mac Coun, 1884), IV:479.

[v] April 9, 1803 letter from Jefferson to Joseph Priestley in Jefferson’s Extracts from the Gospels, ed. Dickinson W. Adams (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 327; April 25 letter from Thomas Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph in Jefferson’s Extracts, 335.

[vi] April 9, 1803 letter from Jefferson to Joseph Priestley in Jefferson’s Extracts, 328.

[vii] August 22, 1813 letter from Jefferson to John Adams, in The Adams-Jefferson Letters, ed. Lester J. Cappon (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959), 2:369.

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