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JEFFERSON ON RELIGON
—“The religious views of Thomas Jefferson diverged widely from the orthodox Christianity of his era. Throughout his life, Jefferson was intensely interested in theology, religious studies, and morality.
Jefferson was most comfortable with Deism, rational religion, and Unitarianism. He was sympathetic to and in general agreement with the moral precepts of Christianity. He considered the teachings of Jesus as having “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man,” yet he held that the pure teachings of Jesus appeared to have been appropriated by some of Jesus’ early followers, resulting in a Bible that contained both “diamonds” of wisdom and the “dung” of ancient political agendas.
Still, together with James Madison, Jefferson carried on a long and successful campaign against state financial support of churches in Virginia. Also, it is Jefferson who coined the phrase “wall of separation between church and state” in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists of Connecticut. During his 1800 campaign for the presidency, Jefferson even had to contend with critics who argued that he was unfit to hold office because of their discomfort with his “unorthodox” religious beliefs.
In a letter to John Adams dated August 22, 1813, Jefferson named Joseph Priestly (an English Unitarian who moved to America) and Conyers Middleton (an English Deist) as his religious inspirations.
Jefferson used certain passages of the New Testament to compose The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (the “Jefferson Bible”), which excluded any miracles by Jesus and stressed his moral message.
Though he often expressed his opposition to many practices of the clergy, and to many specific popular Christian doctrines of his day, Jefferson repeatedly expressed his admiration for Jesus as a moral teacher, and consistently referred to himself as a Christian (though following his own unique type of Christianity) throughout his life.
Jefferson opposed Calvinism, Trinitarianism, and what he identified as Platonic elements in Christianity. In private letters Jefferson also described himself as subscribing to other certain philosophies, in addition to being a Christian. In these letters he described himself as also being an “Epicurean” (1819), a “19th century materialist” (1820), a “Unitarian by myself” (1825), and “a sect by myself” (1819).
Upon the disestablishment of religion in Connecticut, he wrote to John Adams: “I join you, therefore, in sincere congratulations that this den of the priesthood is at length broken up, and that a Protestant Popedom is no longer to disgrace the American history and character.”—