There has been and continues to be overwhelming confusion apropos Jefferson’s religiosity. That is, in large part, due to Jefferson, whose behavior invites contradictory assessments of it. He attended worship services and participated in prayers and hymns at churches of various denominations, though he railed against the empleomania of religious clerics. He wrote of god as privileging humans—“When the measure of [slaves’] tears shall be full, … a God of justice will awaken to their distress … by His exterminating thunder” (TJ to Jean Nicholas Démeunier, ca. 26 June 1786)—though he commonplaced Lord Bolingbroke concerning the cosmos or even the planet not being made for the sake of man. He had amicable relationships with many local ministers, many of whom were Calvinists, though he generally spoke ill of Calvinism—its trinitarianism being a “hocus-pocus phantasm of a god like another Cerberus, with one body and three heads” (e.g., TJ to James Smith, 8 Dec. 1822). Here, once again, his numerous critics grouse, there are clear instances of Jefferson’s hypocrisy—his capacity to say anything to anyone to suit his purposes. Was Jefferson such a chameleon?
The confusion concerning Jefferson’s conception of religion exists in large measure because of widespread confusion concerning his conception of deity.
Jefferson employed often “deity” and “god” in writings. “I pray to God” and “god bless you” occur with great frequency in writings, and he frequently ignored capitalizing the latter, when doing so would not prove offensive to a correspondent. That is not inconsequential.
Yet Jefferson seemed never to have had much to say on the nature of deity, and he habitually refused to speak of his religiosity. To John Adams (11 Jan. 1817), he gave his customary reply to anyone who would press him on religion: “Say nothing of my religion. It is known to my God and myself alone.”
Jefferson, however, wrote enough on deity to enable us to piece together, with a great degree of confidence, the nature of his god. One must appeal especially to his letters to intimates, his Literary Commonplace Book, and his version of the bible.
In his Literary Commonplace Book, Jefferson abundantly commonplaces Lord Bolingbroke’s religious views from the latter’s Philosophical Works. Bolingbroke’s deity is “sovereignly good, … almighty and alwise” (§14), and has no difficulty enabling certain types of matter to think (§§11–13). Bolingbroke’s god does not intervene in foreordained cosmic events—e.g., through Christ’s miracles (§22 and §26), punishment for the fall of man (§15 and §42), or divine superintendency—but establishes once and for all cosmic harmony, as “nothing can be less reconcileable [sic] to the notion of an all-perfect being, than the imagination that he undoes by his power in particular cases what his wisdom … once thought sufficient to be established for all case” (§49)—thus, deism, not theism. Moreover, Bolingbroke’s deity has not made “man the final cause of the whole creation” (§16 and §46). Bolingbroke’s deity does not communicate his existence through revelation or inspiration, or only to one type of people (§16, §§20–22, §24, §32). Bolingbroke’s deity does not punish or reward humans in an eternal afterlife, for “justice requires that punishments … and rewards … [ought to] be measured [o]ut in various degrees and manners, according to the various [c]ircumstances of particular cases, and in due proportion to them” (§52)—i.e., justice ought to be meted out in this life. The religious law of Bolingbroke’s deity—“the law of nature is the law of god” (§36)—is to be found in nature. “Natural religion represents an allperfect being to our adoration and to our live,” and requires humans to “love the lord thy god with all thy heart” (§56).
Jefferson appropriated Bolingbroke’s conception of god and largely kept that conception throughout his life.
Like Bolingbroke and others (e.g., Kames, Hume, Smith, and Tracy) whom Jefferson read and assimilated, Jefferson thought deity was visible in the cosmos. He writes to John Adams (11 Apr. 1823): “When we take a view of the Universe, in it’s parts general or particular, it is impossible for the human mind not to be percieve [sic] and feel a conviction of design, consummate skill, and indefinite power in every atom of it’s composition.” Use of “see” and “feel” indicate appropriation of the epistemology of Destutt de Tracy and Lord Kames, each of whom stated deity was immediately visible in or felt through the cosmos. Neither invoked an argument from design. That sensual epistemic appropriation is also manifest in a letter to John Adams (15 Aug. 1820) to whom Jefferson states paranomastically in the manner of Descartes: “I feel: therefore I exist. … On the basis of sensation, of matter and motion, we may erect the fabric of all the certainties we can have or need.” There is no appeal to reason.
Jefferson limns the attributes of deity in both letters to Adams. In the 1823 letter, he says that God is the designer and “fabricator of all things from matter and motion, their preserver and regulator while permitted to exist in their present forms, and their regenerator into new and other forms.” God is a “superintending power” that “maintains the Universe in it’s course and order.” Regeneration and superintendency are attributed to deity because of new discoveries in astronomy—“Stars, well known, have disappeared, new ones have come into view”—and in biology—“certain races of animals are become extinct.” In the 1820 letter, he states that all things—“the human soul, angels, god”—are matter, for if not, “they are nothings.” He cites Locke, Tracy, and Stewart as authorities for his materialism.
The question redounds: Was Jefferson a deist, like Bolingbroke, or a theist? Some writings, especially early ones, offer evidence of deism. He writes to Dr. Benjamin Rush (23 Sept. 1800) concerning the yellow-fever epidemic in Philadelphia: “When great evils happen, I am in the habit of looking out for what good may arise from them as consolations to us, and Providence has in fact so established the order of things, as that most evils are the means of producing some good.” Here the suggestion is that of a pre-established order, implying nonintervention and deism. Yet the 1823 letter to Adams speaks of god as a regenerator or superintendent—implying periodic intervention and theism.
Could it be, as others have claimed, that Jefferson began as a deist and was forced to accept theism because of species extinction, which he was early in life disinclined to accept, and supernovae, like that of 1572?
On settling that bristly issue, Jefferson’s 1820 bible has a bearing. Reconstructing the works of the four evangelists in the New Testament, Jefferson was insistent on removing all thaumaturgy—“things against the course of nature” (TJ to William Short, 4 Aug. 1820). He cites “calves speaking” and “statues sweating blood” as illustrations. Hence, passages in which Jesus feeds a great crowd with two fish and five loaves of bread (Matthew 15: 32–38) or brings back to life a dead young woman (Matthew 9: 18–26) are excised. Insistence that all thaumaturgy be removed from his bible, believed to be the real life and words of Jesus, is another way of Jefferson, following Bolingbroke, saying that god, through Jesus’s miracles, “undoes by his power in particular cases what his wisdom … once thought sufficient to be established for all case”—viz., that he allows for periodic exceptions to the laws of nature—evidence of divine impotency, not divine omnipotency. Thus, divine superintendency is best explained for Jefferson by a deity that is either equivalent to the cosmos (a Stoic deity) or a deity that has built superintendency into the cosmos in the manner of a builder who fashions a thermostat for a house to regulate its temperature. Theism is unneeded.
Nonetheless, such a god, creator of an enormous cosmos, is not a being to whom a person would sing or pray. Such a god could take no notice of song or prayer by creatures, beautifully constructed and essential parts of the cosmos, but nonetheless relatively inconsequential. Such a god could care nowise of its name being spelled by humans with a lowercase “g.”
Yet the existence of the cosmos is one miracle in which Jefferson, a disdainer of miracles, believes. And so he considers it to be a moral duty of sensual and rational creatures to pay homage to their creator, because of human awareness of the enormousness, beauty, and perfection of the cosmos. Perhaps the best ways of fulfilling that duty are through science—e.g., study of the cosmic “skeleton” through reading Newton’s Principia, examining telescopic and microscopic phenomena, or even participating in scientific farming—or through art—e.g., replicating great figures of human history for future generations through sculpture or painting or innovating in architecture of the sort in the pavilions at UVA.
Why then did Jefferson periodically attend religious services and sing and pray at such services when his god was deaf to supplication and praise? Why did Jefferson befriend certain religious clerics of various denominations when he always believed that the principles that distinguished one religion from another were political or metaphysical twaddle? Given his god, are these not instances of his infamous hypocrisy?
Jefferson’s god, for whatever reason, created humans in such a way that they would greatly debate religious (and political) matters (Query XVII, Notes on Virginia) through misuses of reason. Thus, they would even form different conceptions of deity, and worship god in varied manners. Deity, it follows, must have deemed inhomogeneity vis-à-vis such concerns to be good, at least at this stage of human development, and humans ought not to question the ways of deity. In such matters, ignorance, as he is sometimes wont to say, is the softest pillow.
It follows that Jefferson’s avowed hypocrisy is best explicated by his conception of deity and by his love of god and of the cosmos. Knowing that god has created humans to be religiously and politically diverse, it is not his task to challenge another’s religious views—even those of an atheist. Reason, in time, will have its say. As he says famously: “Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error. … They are the natural enemies of error, and of error only.”
M. Andrew Holowchak is the author of many books about Thomas Jefferson including "Framing a Legend: Exposing the Distorted History of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings" (2013).
This article was originally published at History News Network