The “Atheist” Who Governed the Country

“Make your own Bible,” Ralph Waldo Emerson proclaimed in his Journals in 1836. “Select and collect all the words and sentences that in all your readings have been to you like the blast of a trumpet.”

He meant to encourage readers to follow the Renaissance practice of compiling favorite quotes, poems, letters, passages, and aphorisms into a Commonplace Book to be used for reflection and inspiration. But, while Emerson didn’t realize it at the time, Thomas Jefferson took this idea quite literally more than 30 years earlier.

In February 1804, President Jefferson sat in the White House with a copy of the King James Bible, a razor, a pair of scissors and a pot of glue. He was about to do something that would have shocked and outraged his contemporaries.

Jefferson believed that centuries of translation and transmission had left the Gospels with imperfect texts and contradictory dictates that left readers with a jealous and angry deity, magic and superstition, some deplorable ethical standards and embarrassing theological notions.

So he began cutting and pasting onto blank pages – in English, French, Greek and Latin – those verses of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John that he believed were supported by history, science and common sense.

It was a chronological story of the life of Jesus of Nazareth and his teachings. He included the Sermon on the Mount, the most memorable parables, and the admonitions to help the poor and love your enemies. He left out Jesus walking on the Sea of Galilee, turning water into wine, and feeding the multitudes with two fish and five loaves of bread. He struck out all the miracles, genealogy and prophecy, and excised every passage “of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, or superstitions, fanaticisms, and fabrications.” Out went the angels, the virgin birth, and the resurrection.

Yet Jefferson was confident in his project, telling his friend John Adams that he found the true parts “as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill.” By March 10, his forty-six-page volume – The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth – was completed.

Jefferson was a lifelong student of religion. One biographer calls him “the most self-consciously theological of all American presidents.” Yet he also was a great admirer of empiricists like Isaac Newton, John Locke, Francis Bacon, David Hume, and the mighty Voltaire.

He had incredibly wide interests. Jefferson was a statesman, historian, surveyor, philosopher, scientist, diplomat, architect, inventor, educator, lawyer, farmer, breeder, manufacturer, botanist, horticulturalist, anthropologist, meteorologist, astronomer, paleontologist, lexicologist, linguist, ethnologist, Biblicist, mathematician, geographer, librarian, bibliophile, classicist, scholar, bibliographer, translator, writer, editor, musician, gastronome and connoisseur of wine.

It’s hard to reflect on Jefferson’s life without feeling like a bit of an underachiever.

But he was a man of contradictions. He wrote the Declaration of Independence but was a lifelong slaveholder. He insisted life in the spotlight did not suit him, but served as delegate to the Virginia General Assembly and to Congress, as Governor of Virginia, Minister to France, Secretary of State, Vice President, and President from 1801 to 1809. He was an advocate of strictly limited government but doubled the size of the United States with a swift purchase of the Louisiana Territory, a move many claimed was unconstitutional.

Jefferson was an autodidact, an avid reader in English, Spanish, French, Greek and Latin. His personal library – which later became the foundation of the Library of Congress – contained nearly ten thousand volumes. Many of these dealt with ethics and morality.

However, Jefferson insisted most religious doctrines served merely to prop up clergymen or those in power – recall that the King of England ruled by divine right – and prevented people from understanding the straightforward message of Jesus. He believed that obedience to the teachings of the Nazarene and reflection on the purity of his life would help citizens transcend their parochialisms and narrow self-interests.

In 1777, Jefferson composed the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, enacted a few years later by the Virginia House of Delegates. It was the first law in the history of the world to guarantee freedom of worship, protecting people of all faiths and those with no religion at all.

Jefferson himself was at least nominally Episcopalian. He was raised in the Church of England at a time when it was the established church in Virginia. He was christened in an Anglican ceremony and married by an Anglican priest. But his religious skepticism began at an early age. He questioned, for instance, why the creator of the universe would reveal himself solely to a small population in the eastern Mediterranean and leave the rest of the world in a spiritual void, ignorant of his existence.

Although he kept his personal beliefs private, he often spoke out against religious intolerance. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, first published in 1784, Jefferson argued that unorthodox beliefs and outright disbelief posed no threat to society. “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.”

For this, Jefferson was denounced in the election of 1800 as an arch-infidel and a “howling atheist.” New England ministers warned that if elected, Jefferson would confiscate all Bibles and convert churches into temples of prostitution.

Hurt by these attacks on his integrity and character, Jefferson chose not to respond in public, but in a letter to his friend Benjamin Rush he wrote, “They believe that any portion of power confided to me will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly; for I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”

Jefferson insisted that mystical revelations could not satisfy his questions. Only reason and evidence were reliable guides to an understanding of life and the natural world. He cast a skeptical eye on everything that smacked of superstition or the supernatural.

Jefferson’s bible was and is heretical to many. But it was the only form of Christianity he could embrace. Though he rejected the notion of revelation, he was not anti-religious. He found poetry in the Psalms, love in the Gospels and beauty in the Anglican hymns and liturgy.

Jesus himself wrote nothing, of course. And Jefferson felt his teachings had suffered badly at the hands of his editors. In particular, he believed that the apostle Paul was “the first corruptor of the doctrines of Jesus,” turning the religion of Jesus into a religion about Jesus. This, in his view, led to fanciful tales, dogma, and what he called “priestcraft.” Jefferson wanted to rescue Jesus from these distortions.

In his bible, he compiled the passages he believed were truthful to reveal a master whose “system of morality was the most benevolent and sublime… ever taught, and consequently more perfect than those of the ancient philosophers.”

Jefferson credited Socrates, Epicurus, Pythagoras, Cicero, Seneca, Epictetus and others with teaching followers to govern their passions. But he considered their views on our duties to each other to be sorely underdeveloped. He concluded that Jesus’s precepts were “the most pure, benevolent, and sublime which have ever been preached to man,” calling him the greatest moral philosopher and “the first of human Sages.”

While he showed The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth to a few close friends, the book – which he had bound in red leather by a Richmond bookbinder – was never published during his lifetime. It served only as his private manual of devotion.

Today Jefferson is variously described as an agnostic, a Deist, a skeptic, a Unitarian, or a freethinker. But in another letter to Rush he wrote, “I am a Christian, in the only sense he 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.”

The Jefferson Bible – recently on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History and available for viewing online – is a book that has intrigued and outraged Americans ever since it was published by the National Museum in Washington in 1895.

For Jefferson, the subject of religion was fascinating, alarming, enraging and inspiring. He blithely predicted near the end of his life that reason would ultimately prevail and every young man in the country then living would die a Unitarian. He was spectacularly wrong about that, of course. But millions of educated Americans, Christian and Jewish and of no particular congregation, now hold similar views.

Jefferson was a champion of the primacy of reason and individual conscience, the cause of human rights, and the importance of education. He not only defined his own time but still shapes our understanding of freedom today.

In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson declared that the American Republic was founded on universal principles, and was therefore most decidedly for export.

So were his views on individual conscience. For Jefferson, the greatest of all liberties is the freedom of the human mind.

[Ed Note: Alex Green is the author of excellent books like, The Secret of Shelter Island: Money and What Matters, and Beyond Wealth, that show you how to lead a “rich” life during trying economic times.]
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  • Dm

    I think Jefferson recognized religion as a man made product that repeatedly throughout history was used for tyranny murder, and gain.
    I differ with him on rewriting and editing the Bible.
    The whole point of the Bible is to show us that without grace we are doa.
    Jesus did not teach religion, but had the strongest anger toward it.
    Love, healing, grace. Your mind and body can’t get more freedom than that- when propagated in relations with God, family, and country.

    • DavidBarton

      How do you get that Jesus hated Religion when He said that He came not to do away with the Law (Mosaic Law) but to fulfill it. I do believe he hated the hypocrisy of the Teachers of the Day and the Burdens they placed upon the people with false teachings in contradiction of the Old Testament. Teaching to do as I say and not as I do and much more. I think Jefferson found himself in the same situation with regard to the established religions of his day.

      • Lucas Longshanks

        Jesus coming abolished old Jewish Law, including the institution of it. Be good to people. He never condoned his teachings to be used as an organized religion. This is evident through the letters of Paul as well. Jefferson was probably a deist, at best. During this time they were burning witches at the stake in Salem. Announcing to everyone that he was an atheist wouldn’t have been a wise move. His “religion” was philosophy and reason.

  • mizar5

    While Jefferson was certainly an intelligent man, it appears that he was unable to reconcile the secular and the spiritual. In his inability to do so, he vainly re-writes the bible according to his terms while at the same time putting his own ignorance on display. I think this was a colossal error on his part, to have a, “Well, if I can’t see it, it cannot be so…” attitude. Still, he did argue against religious intolerance, and that was mighty white of him, I’d say.

    • DavidBarton

      I am thinking he believed in God but not necessarily the divinity of Jesus as the Son of God. A lot of people feel that way. My Mother did for a long time. I also think that he was trying to get the people to think for themselves and gain a freedom of the mind so to speak. It would make sense to me that his focus was on getting people to stop being sheep for the self serving. How else could he motivate a nation to rise up against its self appointed masters and declare Economic and Spiritual Independence? He was the man God led to write the Declaration of Independence from tyranny of the mind. The rest is history. Too me the Declaration is our most important founding document and describes God’s purpose for us as a nation and Republic.

    • DavidBarton

      Ryan Siefert Wrote on Facebook, concerning Jefferson’s Bible:

      It could be that he was looking at the morality and philosophy through Jesus’ teachings and doing an analysis of that specifically.

      It should also be noted that the full title of his Bible is: The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, being Extracted from the Account of His Life and Doctrines Given by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John; Being an Abridgement of the New Testament for the Use of the Indians, Unembarrased [uncomplicated] with Matters of Fact or Faith beyond the Level of their Comprehensions.

  • DavidBarton

    Jefferson was no doubt a great man in thought and deed. We owe much to him for the Declaration of Independence. I agree with his logic and reason especially on Free Will and its role in personal development. He achieved as much as he could leaning to his own understanding. I am sure that now he understands he was missing one element of the highest wisdom and knowledge. After all we can do in seeking knowledge and wisdom, we must bow our head as General Washington did and seek communication with God, to receive guidance and achieve a complete understanding of the knowledge we have gained.
    I do not fault him for this but I believe he missed out on some enlightening Revelation. Maybe that was not his mission in life though. Maybe his mission was to help us to see the follies of the day and think for ourselves, that we might throw off the tyrannies over the mind, whatever they may be, and from whatever source. To do this he had to reach the entire audience with his core message of using reason and Free Will to establish a freedom of the mind.
    As far as this article, I question how and why the author, would so boldly classify Jefferson as an Atheist. As he noted, Jefferson kept his personal beliefs to himself. I believe he did this because he could not follow the Organized Religious Teachings of the day in good conscience. He preferred to follow his own conscience and reason in understanding God. I think that makes him a wise man who could not find complete truth in the Religions of the day. I don’t think that makes him an atheist, at least as far as I understand the label. I think his bible was a good exercise in getting to the core truth that should guide us in reading the rest of it. I know that God will reveal wisdom to men in their stewardships. He has for me, and I am just a man like any other.–Gunny Barton, Ret.

  • DavidBarton

    I am thinking he believed in God but not necessarily the divinity of Jesus as the Son of God. A lot of people feel that way. My Mother did for a long time. I also think that he was trying to get the people to think for themselves and gain a freedom of the mind so to speak. It would make sense to me that his focus was on getting people to stop being sheep for the self serving. How else could he motivate a nation to rise up against its self appointed masters and declare Economic and Spiritual Independence? He was the man God led to write the Declaration of Independence from tyranny of the mind. The rest is history. Too me the Declaration is our most important founding document and describes God’s purpose for us as a nation and Republic.

  • DavidBarton

    Jefferson’s rough draft of the Declaration included the following on Indian warfare incited by the king and The King’s slave trade apparently forced upon the colonists it seems. Jefferson may have been a slave holder but not necessarily by choice it seems to me from what he thinks of the institution.

    “he has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, & conditions of existence:

    he has incited treasonable insurrections in our fellow-subjects, with the allurements of forfeiture & confiscation of our property:

    he has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it’s most sacred rights of life & liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the CHRISTIAN king of Great Britain. determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, & murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them; thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

    in every stage of these oppressions we have petitioned for redress in the most humble terms; our repeated petitions have been answered by repeated injury. a prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a people who mean to be free. future ages will scarce believe that the hardiness of one man, adventured within the short compass of 12 years only, on so many acts of tyranny without a mask, over a people fostered & fixed in principles of liberty.”

  • DefendOurCountry

    Interesting point of view. I don’t agree with the entire article, but still an intriguing point of view.

  • juxtaposer

    Data points that do not conform to the majority can yield important information. Not understanding something (and then seeking to learn) differs from excluding it, for example, some may not understand why one does a warm up, but others may consider it to be risky to skip it. However, concentrating on certain aspects can be beneficial, with the understanding that it is a subset of the whole.

  • DavidBarton

    Saying something does not make it so.

  • CrosbyTee

    Boy have you ever got it wrong.

  • Colin

    I didn’t know Jefferson did this…..what a fool, and so arrogant!! He will be regretting his folly eternally!