Doubting Thomas: The Religious Life and Legacy of Thomas Jefferson

Doubting Thomas: The Religious Life and Legacy of Thomas Jefferson

by Mark A. Beliles, Jerry Newcombe


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Thomas Jefferson and the founding fathers intended a strict separation of church and state, right? He would have been very upset to find out about a child praying in a public school or a government building used for religious purposes, correct? Actually, the history on this has been very distorted.
While Jefferson may seem to be the Patron Saint of the ACLU, his words and actions showed that he would totally disagree with the idea of driving God out of the public square. Doubting Thomas documents that. . .
* Jefferson said that our rights come from God. God-given rights are non-negotiables.
* At the time that he wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom—major contributions to human and religious rights—Jefferson served diligently as a vestryman (like an elder and a deacon rolled into one) for the Episcopal Church.
* In 1777, he wrote up the charter for the Calvinistical Reformed Church in his town with an evangelical preacher, the Rev. Charles Clay—with whom he had a lifelong friendship. Jefferson was the biggest single contributor to this fledgling congregation.
* Jefferson had nothing but the highest praise for Jesus’ teaching, which he studied religiously (even in the original Greek), in order to pattern his life after that which he called “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.”
* As president, he attended church on a regular basis at the US Capitol building, even sometimes recommending preachers to fill that pulpit.
* He had many positive relationships with orthodox clergymen and active lay Christians.
* He actively supported Christian causes, financially, in ways that would put the average Christian to shame.
* He set out to create a non-denominational college that accommodated Christian groups of different stripes.
And on it goes.
Historical revisionism has distorted the religious views of Thomas Jefferson, making him far more skeptical than he was. But there is no doubt that by the end of his life, he seemed to privately embrace Unitarian views of the Christian faith, while outwardly supporting and attending his local Trinitarian church.
Thus, a legacy of Jefferson’s has been taken out of context and used to squelch religious freedom in America. Ironically, religious freedom was one of Jefferson’s core beliefs and contributions. But this is being turned on its head.
Chiseled in stone at the Jefferson Memorial are his famous words: “The God who gave us life gave us liberty. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the Gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath?”
Regardless of Jefferson’s private religious views, he stood solidly against the state making theological decisions for its people. Therefore, he would stand solidly against the anti-Christian crusade being carried out in his name today. It’s time to set the record straight.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781630471507
Publisher: Morgan James Publishing
Publication date: 11/04/2014
Series: Morgan James Faith Series
Pages: 520
Sales rank: 832,253
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Mark A. Beliles, historian and teacher of American religious culture, founded the Providence Foundation in 1983 through which he has organized several scholarly symposiums on Jefferson and religion held at the University of Virginia. He is the editor of The Selected Religious Letters and Papers of Thomas Jefferson (America Publications, 2013). He earned his PhD from Whitefield Theological Seminary with his dissertation entitled Churches and Politics in Jefferson’s Virginia (America Publications, 2000). Other books co-authored by Beliles for popular audiences include America’s Providential History and Contending for the Constitution: Recalling the Christian Influence on the Writing of the Constitution and the Biblical Basis of American Law and Liberty. Beliles, an ordained minister, has served as a senior pastor for 36 years and has spoken in over 40 countries and many cities across America. He resides in Jefferson’s hometown where he served for many years as Chairman of the Charlottesville Historic Resources Committee and co-chairman of the city’s 250th Anniversary in 2012.

Dr. Jerry Newcombe serves as the co-host, a columnist, and a spokesperson for Truth in Action Ministries, founded by the late Dr. D. James Kennedy. Jerry has produced or co-produced more than 60 one hour television specials that have aired nationwide. Jerry is the author or co-author of twenty-three books, at least two of which have been bestsellers, George Washington’s Sacred Fire (with Dr. Peter Lillback) and What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? (with Dr. Kennedy). Jerry has appeared on numerous talk shows as a guest, including Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher (4x), Janet Parshall's America, Point of View, the Moody radio network, TBN, the Fox News Channel, the Fox Business Channel, C-Span2's "Book Notes," etc. Jerry hosts a weekly radio program on Christian radio, "GraceFM,", Thursdays, 12-1 PM Eastern time. Jerry is happily married with two children and a grandchild. The Newcombes reside in South Florida.

Read an Excerpt


Thomas Jefferson's Religious Life, 1767-1787

"We ... [are] desirous of encouraging and supporting the Calvinistical Reformed Church, and of deriving to our selves, through the ministry of its teachers, the benefits of Gospel knowledge and ... for explaining the holy scriptures ... in our town of Charlottesville;. ..." — Thomas Jefferson, 1777

The religious life of Thomas Jefferson is complicated. Upon close examination, five phases of his adult life seem to appear — the first being from 1767 through 1787. The first 21 years of Jefferson's independent adult life from 1767-1787 show almost nothing but orthodox Christian beliefs and practice.

Jefferson's upbringing was in the context of the Anglican tradition in Virginia. Jefferson's parents were members of the Church and had Jefferson baptized as an infant. So Jefferson's adult religious life begins already as a member of the Fredericksville Parish in Albemarle County. While in school and college Jefferson copied quotes of famous writers (i.e., in his Literary Commonplace Book) as part of his assignments, but these are unreliable for making definitive judgments about his personal beliefs. The best opportunity one has to discover Jefferson's freely-held beliefs as an adult really begins in 1767, once he returns from his college studies in Williamsburg.

Jefferson's Early Adult Years, 1767-1776

Jefferson returned to Albemarle County from Williamsburg and began practicing law in 1767. He also joined the vestry of Fredericksville Parish, which made him part of the lay-leadership of the church that was still served at that time by Rev. James Maury, whose school Jefferson had attended before college. The Anglican Church required that any vestryman enter the office by taking an oath to "conform to the doctrine and discipline of the Church of England." The Fredericksville Parish Vestry Book has Jefferson's name listed under those words in that year. Thus, at this stage in his life he took an oath claiming belief in all the basics of the historic Christian faith, i.e., belief in the Trinity, the Deity of Jesus, that He died for sinners, that He rose again from the dead, that the Bible is God's Word, etc.

Some might think that Jefferson joining the vestry was simply building his resume, but where is the evidence for that? Certainly church attendance and donations were still legally required, but time serving on the vestry and even additional time as warden and doing various projects for the Church were voluntary choices of Jefferson. From these extra commitments isn't it more likely that these indicate that Jefferson did so sincerely in service to God? The Vestry Book shows that he attended at least two vestry meetings every year and six in 1768 alone. In 1769 it shows him also serving as warden and helping to choose the land for a new church building. The parish tax was not voluntary, but Jefferson's investment of time as vestryman and warden was above the common duty of a typical Anglican member, attending many meetings and giving time for various needs of the vestry.

As an Anglican Churchman, Jefferson also made efforts to help other clergymen than just his own pastor. In a letter of August 18, 1768, Jefferson appealed to a Presbyterian elder from adjacent Augusta county named William Preston for his "... suffrage [i.e., vote] in favor of ... the Revd James [Maury] Fontaine who offers himself as a candidate for the place of Chaplain to the House of Burgesses." Meanwhile, Fredericksville Parish minister James Maury died and the vestry, including Jefferson, began looking for replacements to recommend to the bishop. Jefferson wrote several letters at this time in this regard. A man known to Jefferson was Rev. James Ogilvie, who visited the area and met Jefferson sometime prior to March 1770. Jefferson tried to get him the position in a nearby parish.

Jefferson himself was elected to the House of Burgesses and then went to Williamsburg frequently over the next several years. While there he worshiped at the Bruton Parish until the capital was moved to Richmond in 1779. The significance of all this is that, at this point in his life, Thomas Jefferson was an active churchman, even an active lay-leader within the Church — and, was an earnest friend of orthodox Trinitarian ministers.

Jefferson moved south across the Rivanna River into the first completed section of his home, Monticello, on November 26, 1770. This move put him in the jurisdiction of a new parish and Jefferson, according to biographer Edwin Gaustad, "was also elected vestryman." Bishop William Meade also confirms his place on the vestry, and Jefferson appears in the St. Anne's vestry minutes serving the parish. Rev. Charles Clay was its minister, who was unusual, being an evangelical Anglican. Evangelicals emphasize the authority of the Bible and the necessity of a personal conversion known as the "new birth." Only between three and eight percent of the Anglican clergy in Virginia was evangelical, but in the Anglican parishes of the Central Virginia Piedmont region, it was the norm (especially in St. Anne's in Albemarle and in St. Thomas in nearby Orange county).

Historian Harry S. Stout of Yale observes that the "most accurate guide we ... have to what people actually heard are the handwritten sermon notes that ministers carried with them into the pulpit." Significantly, fifty handwritten sermons by Clay from this period have been preserved. These were donated to the Virginia Historical Society in 1992 by Clay's descendants. Since having not been published and thus unavailable for two centuries, they have been overlooked in virtually all studies on Virginia's religious culture and Clay's famous parishioner, Thomas Jefferson. Clay's messages are especially enlightening because, as Bishop William Meade said in his early history of the Episcopal Church in Virginia, they were "sound, energetic and evangelical beyond the character of the times." For the first time ever, we have published two of those sermons. (They appear in the Appendix of this book.)

Rev. Clay and Jefferson became lifelong friends and neighbors for over 50 years and exchanged dozens of letters until 1819 when Clay died. No one outside of Jefferson's family corresponded with Jefferson longer than they did. Jefferson's letter to Clay in 1815 said he had spoken with Clay about religion more "than to any other person." So any biography of Jefferson's religion must have Clay as a prominent feature of it. Yet sadly, very few modern treatments do so. A couple letters from Clay late in Jefferson's life will offer a new way of interpreting Jefferson's late unorthodoxy that has never been presented in any other biography.

A sense of Jefferson's personal religious life at this time also begins to be seen through some of his private actions and letters. Jefferson purchased a classic religious book in 1770, called Pilgrim's Progress by John Bunyan. This bestselling 17th century allegory promotes spiritual discipline and is the source of common phrases, such as "Vanity Fair" or "Slough of Despond." Eventually Jefferson's library included a collection of many subjects including religious literature by various non-Christian faiths, atheists, and more. Some of the heterodox additions to his collection are discussed later in this study, but his purchases at this time seem consistent with letters Jefferson wrote to Robert Skipwith. In a August 3, 1771 letter, Jefferson urged his friend to "... exercise ... the moral feelings" and cultivate "... a habit of thinking and acting virtuously ..." In other letters Jefferson also asked his friend to "... offer prayers for me ..." and claims: "I pay [sic] continual devotions." These actions and letters suggest a sincere person of faith. And when Jefferson decided to marry Martha Wayles Skelton, he chose an Anglican wedding that was conducted at the family plantation in Charles City County east of Richmond on January 1, 1772, by Rev William Coutts — a friend of Martha's family.

Up until 1774, the Jeffersons worshiped at Clear Mount Church but then switched to the new Forge Church (both served by Rev. Clay). The Forge Church was chosen by Jefferson and fellow-Burgess John Walker as the location for a 1774 special Fast Day service they requested on July 23. In a letter they sent "to the Inhabitants of the Parish of Saint Anne," they asked for " ... prayers and a sermon suited to the occasion by the reverend Mr. Clay at the new church." This Fast Day was observed earlier on June 1 in Williamsburg in order to coincide with the closing of the port of Boston on that day by the British. Jefferson wrote much later in his autobiography that he was the one who initiated a resolution "Designating a Day of Fasting, Humiliation, and Prayer" that was adopted by the House of Burgesses on May 24.

The Public Fast day was necessary due to political conflict between the American colonies and England over taxation on tea and other products. The Boston Tea Party in Massachusetts led to a response by the King to blockade their harbor. A year later the first shots were fired and the American Revolution was in full motion.

Jefferson's Account book shows him giving money to Bruton Parish church in Williamsburg. It was then from a worshiper and supporter of the church that the Resolution suggested a special service be held there on June 1 ... "to implore the divine interposition ..." regarding their national crisis. But Jefferson was not satisfied with only calling for prayer and fasting on the part of the Burgesses, thus, his request for another service back in Albemarle on July 23. That Christian worship service featured a sermon by Rev. Clay based on 2 Chronicles 7:14 that promises God will heal a land when His people humble themselves to pray and turn from their sin. In Jefferson's autobiography, he said that a large crowd attended and that the day was like "... a shock of electricity, arousing every man ..." to resist the tyranny of Britain.

About half a year later in March 1775, Jefferson attended the Second Virginia Convention in Richmond, where he was elected one of Virginia's delegates to the Continental Congress. A notable event occurred at that gathering. One Virginia delegate named Patrick Henry made a speech that called the colony's leaders to begin to prepare for war, with his closing appeal to "give me liberty or give me death!" The convention met in St. John's Episcopal Church in Richmond, and the church's minister at the time was Rev. Miles Selden, who was at the convention and with whom Jefferson almost certainly became acquainted.

Jefferson was then in Philadelphia for the Second Continental Congress for about a month beginning in June 1775. At the Congress, Jefferson helped in the drafting of the "Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms," which included religious references. His initial draft cited God and religious freedom and "those powers which our creator hath given us." His draft also indicated a belief in a God who responded to prayer to intervene in human affairs, for it said "we devoutly implore the assistance of Almighty God to ... dispose his majesty, his ministers, & parliament to reconciliation with us ..."

Jefferson's expressions of faith in public documents and acts were not the only indication of his faith in 1775. While in Philadelphia, there is also evidence that he attended church, as was his custom for most of his life (when available). His account book for July 14 says that he " ... put in church box at German Church." This church that he supported was apparently the German Lutheran Church in that city, led by Rev. Henry M. Muhlenberg (but also could have been the German Reformed church). Jefferson attended and donated again in October. This may have been the first time he worshiped at a different denomination than the one in which he was raised, and shows the willingness that Jefferson had to support various expressions of Christian faith even though many of the colonies still had laws limiting religious freedom. Jefferson had an unusual openness in an era when interdenominational persecution was still common.

1776 was a watershed year for both political and religious freedom. Jefferson was again in Philadelphia at Congress beginning May 14. He also wrote a preliminary draft of a constitution for Virginia on June 13 that said: "All persons shall have full and free liberty of religious opinion; nor shall any be compelled to frequent or maintain any religious institution." It represented his first expression on this topic.

But his intellectual talents were also drawn on by the Congress to draft a Declaration of Independence. His original language touched on religion when it mentioned "... the laws of nature and of nature's God" and "... We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable, that all men are created equal." Jefferson's phrase "the laws of nature and of nature's God," was clearly defined by Blackstone's Commentaries as meaning the unwritten law of God in creation and the revealed law of God in the Bible. This is dealt with in greater depth in a later chapter. Other references to God such as "endowed by their Creator" and "the Supreme Judge" and "the protection of divine providence" were added during the collaborative process by others in Congress before the final document was adopted but Jefferson never expressed any dissent with these phrases.

Providence terminology was used by his own pastor and orthodox theologians for many years, and was not known distinctly as an Enlightenment or Deist language. Jefferson wrote of God's providential help in private letters as well. To Richard Henry Lee, Jefferson reported on the military front: "Our camps recruit slowly, amazing slowly. God knows in what it will end. The finger of providence has as yet saved us by retarding the arrival of Ld. Howe's recruits."

While in Congress, Jefferson also served on a committee to propose a national seal for authenticating official documents. Jefferson proposed on August 20 they use an image of "... the Israelites: rays from a pillar of fire in the cloud, expressive of the divine presence, and command, reaching to Moses who stands on the shore and, extending his hand over the sea, causes it to overwhelm Pharaoh. Motto: Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God." Jefferson biographer Dumas Malone says that Jefferson had the motto "put on his own seal later, and made it a personal slogan throughout life."

About this same time, his account book shows his ongoing relationships with Anglican clergymen. In Philadelphia he came to know Rev. Jacob Duché of Christ Church who also served as chaplain for the Continental Congress. In fact, Jefferson enclosed a copy of a new form of prayer suggested by Duché in a letter to John Page. This form of prayer in his possession implies also Jefferson's attendance at Christ Church, while residing in Philadelphia.

Jefferson returned home briefly from Philadelphia before going to Williamsburg on October 6 for two months of service in the General Assembly in order to revise various laws. In the course of this work during the final months of 1776, Jefferson personally compiled nine documents that reflected very orthodox beliefs. He may have agreed with these beliefs, but like his earlier literary commonplace college notes, it cannot be proven because he made no comments on them.

In the capital of Williamsburg on October 11, he joined the committee on religion in the legislature and began meeting with many dissenting clergymen. A Dissenter was one who was not part of the government- favored denomination (i.e. Anglicans) and who wished the laws to be revised in favor of religious freedom for all denominations equally. Rev. John Todd, the moderator of the Hanover Presbytery, led the Presbyterian effort to bring in petitions that fall. Since petitions and declarations written by these dissenters are found in Jefferson's papers, it is likely that Jefferson obtained these through meeting them while at the assembly. One petition was drafted by a local Charlottesville Presbyterian minister named William Irvin, sometime before the end of October, titled "Petition of Dissenters in Albemarle and Amherst Counties." Rev. Irvin sent the petition to his "friend" Jefferson and included a personal letter.

Another petition dated October 16, 1776 and signed by over 10,000 people was put in Jefferson's hands by Baptist Rev. Jeremiah Moore and other clergy leaders. Baptist ministers who lobbied Jefferson and the legislature included Rev. John Waller, Rev. Elijah Craig of Orange, and Rev. John Leland of nearby Louisa, who had presented Jefferson a "Declaration of the Virginia Association of Baptists." It is worth noting that these orthodox Christian leaders sought out Jefferson, not vice-versa, and they found a reliable friend for their cause.

In late 1776, the state legislature finally suspended the law that required dissenters to support the state church, and launched a total voluntary system in its place. Denominationalism had been strong in European culture for several centuries, but in America, due especially to the Great Awakening, it was waning – at least in the frontier areas such as Jefferson's home county. And as diverse denominations were gaining acceptance, so there began a new era. Once free from England's control the Americans began shifting toward a society having no state-established churches where all citizens were required to worship or at least financially pay taxes to support one particular denomination.


Excerpted from "Doubting Thomas?"
by .
Copyright © 2015 Mark A. Beliles & Jerry Newcombe.
Excerpted by permission of Morgan James Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

PART I The Religious Life of Thomas Jefferson,
Introduction to the Religious Life of Thomas Jefferson,
Chapter 1 Thomas Jeffersonâ&8364;(tm)s Religious Life, 1767-1787,
Chapter 2 Thomas Jeffersonâ&8364;(tm)s Religious Life, 1788-1802,
Chapter 3 Thomas Jeffersonâ&8364;(tm)s Religious Life, 1803-1812,
Chapter 4 Thomas Jeffersonâ&8364;(tm)s Religious Life, 1813-1820,
Chapter 5 Thomas Jeffersonâ&8364;(tm)s Religious Life, 1820-1826,
PART II The True Religious Legacy of Thomas Jefferson,
Introduction to the True Religious Legacy,
Chapter 6 Non-Secular Government: God-Given Political Freedom in the Declaration of Independence,
Chapter 7 Non-Coercive Religion: Liberty of Conscience in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom,
Chapter 8 Non-Denominational Education: Equal Opportunity at the University of Virginia,
PART III The Distorted Religious Legacy of Thomas Jefferson,
Introduction to the Distorted Religious Legacy,
Chapter 9 Jefferson and the Clergy: An Exaggerated Conflict,
Chapter 10 Jefferson and the Bible: A Misunderstanding of His Extracts of the Gospels,
Chapter 11 Jefferson and Orthodoxy: His Misunderstanding of the Trinity and other Doctrines,
Chapter 12 Church and State: The Misapplication of Jefferson's "Wall of Separation",
Chapter 13 Conclusions and Implications for Today,
About the Authors,
Appendix 1 Chronology of Key Religious Writings and Actions of Jefferson,
Appendix 2 Some Religious Letters from Jefferson's Papers,
Appendix 3 List of Clergy to Whom Jefferson sent letters or gave money,
Appendix 4 A 1775 Sermon by Jefferson's Pastor Charles Clay,
Appendix 5 A 1775 Sermon by Jefferson's Pastor Charles Clay,
Appendix 6 Christian Answers to Jefferson's Objections to the New Testament,
Appendix 7 The Gospel Message Funded by Thomas Jefferson,
Companion Books for this Study by Mark Beliles,

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