I just watched a documentary called Jefferson’s Secret Bible. (You can download it for free on iTunes or watch it at the Smithsonian website.) The documentary discusses the restoration and some of the theology behind Thomas Jefferson’s rewriting on the Bible. In his day, Jefferson was called an atheist by his detractors; he wasn’t really an atheist, he was more of a Deist, defined in the documentary as someone who believes in God, but believes God is not involved in the daily affairs of men.
Jefferson was not at all comfortable with organized religion, and professed that he was the only person in his sect. It is interesting to me that a so-called atheist was responsible for creating the First Amendment guaranteeing the right to religious freedom. Of course many religious groups are incredibly grateful for this amendment, but he created his own bible where he removed all miracles and references to the resurrection, known as the Jefferson Bible. The documentary states that Congress was so grateful for Jefferson’s bible that,
In 1904, Congress published 9000 copies and distributed it to its members over the next half century. That a Bible lacking the resurrection was shared with an entire branch of government is a true testament to how the government has changed since Jefferson’s time.
For its first century and a half, Virginia’s state law mandated its citizens worship only in the Anglican Church of England, and they were all taxed for the privilege.
Barbara Clark Smith, PhD, Curator of Museum of American History “In Virginia if you believed something else, you were prohibited by law from meeting and worshiping. Preachers who were preaching either a Baptist faith, or a Presbyterian faith, or Quakers who traveled through and preached, those people could be arrested.”
For Jefferson, the discrimination of dissenting believers was a spur to action.
[Historian], “That is a major impulse for Jefferson that is that idea of dismantling that unholy alliance of church and state that was the antithesis of his vision of republicanism, or what we now call democracy.”
Smith, “He believed very very strongly that there were natural human rights. Human rights were innate, and that everyone had them. One of them was the freedom to believe what you wanted to believe.”
[Quoting Thomas Jefferson], “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket or breaks my leg.”
Smith, “For Jefferson, the fact there are all sorts of groups shows God wanted human beings to make up their own minds. He did not want the government to step in and say, no there’s only one right way.”
[Historian], “It’s not about arguing there’s only one right path, but really allowing for those groups to establish their own religious freedom within this larger community.”
In 1777, Jefferson drafted the Virginia statute for religious freedom.
[Historian], “Of all the things he did in his entire life, he really only wanted three achievements to be on his gravestone. He was the author of the Declaration of Independence, the founder of the University of Virginia, and author of the Virginia Stature for Religious Freedom.”
Jefferson’s statute became the basis for the First Amendment to the Constitution. [Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion.]
I thought it interesting that his quote about believing in 20 gods or no gods did him no harm. How do you think Jefferson would have reacted to the following religious freedom issues?
- How would Jefferson have reacted with regards to gun control following mass shootings in Newtown, or the Boston bombings?
It is interesting that Thomas Jefferson, author of “all men are created equal”, felt that only white men were created equal. He owned slaves. While considered egalitarian for his time, there is no record of him pushing for women’s right to vote. What do you make of Jefferson?