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Religion In The Lives Of The American Presidents

A series of lectures organized and compiled by the Forum Class, Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, Washington DC, in 1976. Full text online

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Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson, undoubtedly one of the greatest minds in the entire history of mankind, was an authentic genius and scholar and one of the most profound thinkers in the field of religion and ethics. It has been written that Adams and Jefferson were the most actively interested in scholarly religious inquiry of any Presidents. Jefferson was a nominal Episcopalian but early adopted strongly Unitarian views. His views were definitely Deist and he expressed his belief that religion is an ethical system if it is anything. He once wrote, "I have ever thought religion a concern purely between our God and our consciences,... I have ever judged the religion of others by their lives... for it is in our lives and not from our words that our religion must be read."

Jefferson was denounced by the preachers of his day as an infidel and a vile atheist who would destroy America. The Puritan preachers in Massachusetts warned their people that they would have to hide their Bibles in their wells if Jefferson were elected President. He had to suffer the constant attacks of his political and religious opponents all during his life time; and yet how did this evil infidel spend his spare time in the White House? Translating the Gospels and writing what is called the Jefferson Bible, what Jefferson himself called "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth." Jefferson went through the four Gospels and attempted to create a chronological harmony of the life and work of Jesus.

He rejected the miracles of supernatural elements which he thought had been added to Christianity and instead created an orderly portrait of Jesus and His teachings through His (Jesus') own words. He clipped and pasted up in parallel columns the excerpts from the Bible in English, Greek, Latin and French. Jefferson called the teachings of Jesus, "the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has even been offered to man." Jefferson's summary of Christianity was this: "The doctrines of Jesus are simple and tend to all the happiness of man; 1. That there is only one God and He is all perfect, 2. That there is a future state of rewards and punishments, 3. That to love God with all thy heart and thy neighbor as thyself is the sum of all religion." Jefferson regarded himself as a Christian because he believed in the ethical teachings of Jesus, "I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus."

Jefferson was profoundly tolerant of the views of others. In 1803 he wrote, "I will never by any word or act bow to the shrine of intolerance or admit a right of inquiry into the religious opinions of others," We all know his wonderful statement that appears on the Jefferson Memorial, "I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."

Another characteristic of Jefferson's thought was anticlericalism. He felt that the clergy were dangerous in politics and that their control of government would always lead to a denial of religious and civil liberty to others. He also claimed that Calvinism had added more evils to Christianity than any other single philosophy. But it was Jefferson's contribution to the cause of religious freedom for which we should probably most fondly remember him, Jefferson deeply believed that freedom of conscience ought to be protected by civil law and that there should be no established religion. He drafted the great Virginia statute for religious freedom in 1776, but it was Initially rejected by the Virginia House of Delegates. It was through the efforts of his friend James Madison that the bill was finally passed by the legislature seven years later.

In it Jefferson said that, "no man shall be compelled to support any religious worship place or ministry whatsoever... to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves is sinful and tyrannical," In this bill he wrote, "All men shall be free to profess and by argument to maintain their opinions in matters of religion."

Jefferson was concerned that religious liberty must be maintained at all costs. In a letter of 1803 he wrote, "It behooves every man who values liberty of conscience for Himself, to resist invasions of it in the case of others," He was delighted that religious freedom was finally guaranteed in Virginia* He wrote to his friend Madison on December 16, 1786, "we have solved by fair experiment the great and interesting question whether freedom of religion is compatible with or in government and obedience to the laws," Those who supported religious liberty had been accused by others of opening the door to anarchy, Jefferson was convinced, however, that religious liberty would lead to a better government. While he was President he was asked by the Danbury Baptist Association what the First Amendment meant, Jefferson wrote to them on New Year's Day 1802 the following: "Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof' thus building a wall of separation between church and state."

Jefferson adhered to strict separationist views throughout his presidency. He refused to proclaim a national Thanksgiving Day, and after becoming President of the University of Virginia, he refused to appoint a professorship of divinity because he felt that the state should not finance any religious indoctrination. He believed that, "by bringing the denominations together and mixing them with a mass of other students we shall soften their asperities, liberalize and neutralize their prejudices and make the general religion a religion of peace, reason and morality."

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Posted By: J.J. Burks

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Updated: 6-3-2016