A reformer in religion

Daily Reading for July 5

Thomas Jefferson epitomized what it meant in America to be a man of the Enlightenment. At his estate of Monticello, he displayed busts of Bacon, Locke, and Newton. Incredibly broad in interests and abilities, Jefferson was sufficiently interested in religious matters that one scholar has described him as “the most self-consciously theological of all America’s presidents.” Religion, the writer declares, “mesmerized him, enraged him, tantalized him, alarmed him, and sometimes inspired him.” . . .

Jefferson came to believe that the combined effect of power-hungry monarchs and corrupt “priests” had despoiled the original, pristine teachings of Jesus: “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 in which I believe Jesus wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other.” . . .

In his last years, Jefferson clearly moved toward a more traditional interpretation of Christianity. He valued Jesus as a person ever more highly. Unlike some Deists, he came to believe in prayer and in a life after death. But belief in an afterlife and in a God who hears prayer were standard Unitarian beliefs of the time. . . . Jefferson’s religion was monotheistic, restorationistic, reason-centered, anti-medieval, anti-Calvinist, anti-clerical, and combative toward mystery. A reformer in religion as well as in politics, . . . an American who believed he had separated the gold from the dross in government and religion, Jefferson wanted to tear down what he considered false to allow what he considered true to shine through.

From “The Religious Views of Thomas Jefferson” in The Faiths of the Founding Fathers by David L. Holmes (Oxford University Press, 2006).

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