Editor’s note: Two of our nation’s Founders — John Adams and Thomas Jefferson — died on the same day: July 4, 1826. A two-part series by veteran writer and freethinker James A. Haught examines their lives and their skepticism toward organized religion.
Popular history avoids mentioning that Thomas Jefferson was a skeptic who wrote many attacks on the clergy and was denounced as a “howling atheist” and an “enemy of religion.”
Jefferson was born into the Anglican Church and remained a lifelong member, nominally. Yet he rejected his church’s supernatural dogmas, such as the belief that Jesus was divine. Jefferson concluded that Jesus was simply a human advocate of compassion and forgiveness — the finest such in history. Jefferson even compiled the moral maxims of Jesus into a condensation later called the “Jefferson Bible” from which he omitted what he called the “superstitions, fanaticisms and fabrications” that perverted the gospels.
As a Virginia legislator and governor, Jefferson led efforts to separate church and state. He succeeded in disestablishing his Anglican denomination as the official state church, and wrote the “Virginia Act for Religious Freedom” outlawing religious tests for citizens. “No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever,” he stated in the document.
Jefferson befriended English Unitarian leaders, deniers of the Christian Trinity, and called himself a Unitarian. He also was ranked among Deists, the Enlightenment-era thinkers who rejected mystical Christianity but felt they perceived God in the vastness and intricacies of nature. “Question with boldness even the existence of a God,” he once proclaimed.
Publicly, Jefferson was reticent about his disbelief but he expressed it boldly in dozens of private letters to friends. He also revealed hints of doubt in his only full-length book, Notes on the State of Virginia, published in London in 1787. In this work, Jefferson noted that Christian conflicts had killed millions and that it did no harm for a person “to say there are twenty gods, or no god.”
He was vehement in his disdain for organized religion and its effects on society.
“History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government,” he wrote in an 1813 letter to Baron Alexander von Humboldt. “This marks the lowest grade of ignorance, of which their political as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes.”
Biographer Fawn Brodie opines: “No other statesman of his time could match Jefferson in his hatred of the established faith. … His distrust of clergymen as factionalists, schismatizers and imprisoners of the human spirit continued to his death.”
This is very obvious in many of his private remarks.
“In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty,” he wrote in an 1814 letter. “He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.”
During the presidential campaign of 1800, ministers and Federalist political opponents called Jefferson an atheist. He was denounced so frequently, and with such vehemence, that many historians regard the 1800 campaign as the cruelest in U.S. history. Although he narrowly won the election, accusations of atheism continued until Jefferson’s death and for decades afterward. Gradually they faded, supplanted by the sanitized popular view that he was a conventional believer.
This doesn’t change the fact that Jefferson remained steadfast in his skepticism throughout his life.
“The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter,” he wrote in a letter to John Adams a few years before his death.
His hostility toward the clergy also never abated.
“The priests of the different religious sects … dread the advance of science as witches do the approach of daylight, and scowl on the fatal harbinger announcing the subdivision of the duperies on which they live,” he remarked in an 1820 letter.
Today, Jefferson’s immortal vow of “eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man” is engraved upon his memorial in Washington but few who read it know that he was speaking of the clergy.