The Pious Infidel
Thomas Jefferson and his drive to 'rescue' Jesus
Modern conservatives who can't bear to think that the Declaration of Independence was written by a Bible-defacer have spread the rumor that Thomas Jefferson created his own Bible as an ethical guide to civilize American Indians. The so-called 'Jefferson Bible' was really a tool to introduce the teachings of Jesus to the Indians," declared Rev. D. James Kennedy. Actually, Jefferson's editing of the Bible flowed directly from a well-thought out, long-stewing view that Christianity had been fundamentally corrupted -by the Apostle Paul, the early church, the great Protestant reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin, and by nearly the entire clerical class for more than a millennium. Secularists love to point to the Jefferson Bible as evidence of his heathen nature; but that misses the point, too. Jefferson was driven to edit the Bible the way a parent whose child was kidnapped is driven to find the culprit. Jefferson loved Jesus and was attempting to rescue him.
Most historians who study the Declaration of Independence and Jefferson's ideas look to the philosophers who influenced him most, some emphasizing John Locke, others the Scot, Frances Hutcheson. And there's no question that these men shaped Jefferson's approach to knowledge, reason and freedom of religion. But read through Jefferson's writings on faith and one finds not only an erudite philosophy but a deep rage. To understand his views on liberty, we must tap into this fury. Jefferson believed that a secret to religious freedom was destroying the concept of heresy, the crime of expressing unauthorized religious thought. And he cared deeply - personally, passionately - about heresy because, in the context of his times, Thomas Jefferson was a heretic, and wanted to live in a nation that tolerated men like him.
Diamonds and Dung
Jefferson had studied early Christian history and was particularly influenced by Joseph Priestley's book, The History of the Corruptions of Christianity, which he read "over and over again." In Jefferson's view, Christianity was ruined almost from the start. "But a short time elapsed after the death of the great reformer of the Jewish religion, before his principles were departed from by those who professed to be his special servants, and perverted into an engine for enslaving mankind, and aggrandizing their oppressors in church and state." The authors of the canonical Gospels were "ignorant, unlettered men" who laid "a groundwork of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstitions, fanaticisms, and fabrications." The Apostle Paul made things worse. "Of this band of dupes and imposters, Paul was the great Corypheaues, and first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus."
Then, the Council of Nicea and other clerical bodies designed elaborate doctrines that abandoned Jesus and brought great harm to the world, Jefferson believed. Take, for instance, the concept of the Trinity. "Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity," he declared. "It is mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus" and the "hocus-pocus phantasm of a god like another Cerberus, with one body and three heads." The immaculate conception was preposterous, too, Jefferson believed, and would some day be "classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter."
The Protestant reformation made things no better. John Calvin stressed the idea of predestination - that God chose some to be saved and how they behaved couldn't alter their fate. This idea - at the heart of the faiths practiced by a majority of Americans at the time - disgusted Jefferson. "Calvinism has introduced into the Christian religion more new absurdities than its leader [Jesus] had purged it of old ones," he explained. What would have been the proper response to the "insanities of Calvin"? The "strait jacket alone was their proper remedy." Like Adams, what bothered Jefferson most about this philosophy is that it undermined morality. Any religion that eliminated good behavior as the path to salvation merited no respect, and any god that picked the favored few without considering the lives they led was an imposter, in Jefferson's view. Therefore, he said, Calvin "was indeed an atheist, which I can never be; or rather his religion was Daemonism. If ever man worshiped a false god, he did."
Jefferson did not believe Jesus was divine. "That Jesus did not mean to impose himself on mankind as the son of god physically speaking I have been convinced by the writings of men more learned than myself," he wrote. But he added that Jesus "might conscientiously believe himself inspired from above," since his milieu of Judaism stressed that leadership was invariably based on divine revelation and he might have breathed "the fumes of the most disordered imaginations."
The entire ministerial class - the "priests," as he called all clergy and theologians - was pervasively corrupt, having a vested interest in making Christianity opaque. "Sweep away their gossamer fabrics of fictitious religion, and they would catch no more flies." The history of clerical leadership was a relentless, obsessive and wicked focus on peripheral matters for the purpose of dividing and oppressing -- "vestments, ceremonies, physical opinions, and metaphysical speculations, totally unconnected with morality, and unimportant to the legitimate objects of society." He noted the centuries of bloodshed justified in the name of the Prince of Peace, declaring that Protestant catechisms and creeds have "made of Christendom a slaughter-house, and at this day divides it into castes of inextinguishable hatred to one another." Year after year, priests managed to take the "purest system of morals ever before preached to man," and twist it into a "mere contrivance to filch wealth and power to themselves." He was convinced that the obfuscation was often deliberate, since the "mild and simple" principles of Jesus require little explanation. Priests therefore had to "sophisticate it, ramify it, split it into hairs, and twist its texts till they cover the divine morality of it's author with mysteries, and require a priesthood to explain them."
To an extent rarely acknowledged, Jefferson also despised Jews - or at least the Jews of the Old Testament and the religion it seemed to spawn. The "vicious ethics" of the Jews were "irreconcilable with the sound dictates of reason & morality," encouraged poor relationships between people and were downright "repulsive and anti-social, as respecting other nations." When he began to sketch out a "syllabus" about the life of Jesus, Jefferson explained that the Jewish god bore attributes that "were degrading and injurious." Moses was depicted as "cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust." Though his negative attitude about Judaism seemed mostly confined to antiquity, he occasionally revealed an up-to-date bias. Referring to irksome New England federalists, Jefferson declared that "they are marked, like the Jews, with such a perversity of character, as to constitute, from that circumstance, the natural division of our parties. " Referring to the Quaker tendency to support the British, he said contemptuously, "dispersed, as the Jews, they still form, as those do, one nation, foreign to the land they live in."
In contrast to John Adams, Jefferson was convinced that organized religion invariably opposed freedom. "In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty," he said. The dynamic repeated itself throughout history: unable to spread their principles through persuasion, religious leaders instead rely on the power and support of the state, in exchange for offering the ruler the legitimacy and moral authority of the church. "He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own." These alliances of government and clergy - a "loathsome combination of church and state" -- have brutalized the people throughout history. While James Madison focused on the threat to religion from government, Jefferson wrote more about the effects of religion, and religious leaders, on government, not only in ancient history but contemporary America. By getting themselves "ingrafted into the machine of government," he said, the New England clergy "have been a very formidable engine against the civil and religious rights of man." The priesthood discouraged thinking, which was essential for Republicanism, so a powerful church hierarchy -- especially one entangled with or supported by government - was a great threat to liberty.
The more one reads Jefferson railing against the "priests," the more one is struck by how personal it seems. It is not merely Jesus who was maligned by the priests, but Jefferson. The opinions reviewed above - against the trinity, the virgin birth, the divinity of Christ, Calvin, etc - were violently at odds with orthodox Christianity in Jefferson's time. And Jefferson was conscious of how the clerical class punished such heresies. In Notes on the State of Virginia, for instance, he reviewed the penal laws governing religious belief. "According to an act of 1705, those who don't believe in the Trinity or that scriptures are of 'divine authority' are punishable in the first instance by being banned from holding public office; on the second, a father may lose custody of his children and be sentenced to three years in jail." It was after summarizing these horrors, that Jefferson wrote the words that would get him in trouble during the 1800 presidential election: "The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."
I'm certainly not arguing that Jefferson wanted to change the laws because he feared imminent arrest. But I do believe that for him, the idea that people with unorthodox views should be tolerated was no mere abstraction. During the 1800 campaign, the "genus irritable vatum"- the "irritable tribe of priests" -- were "all in arms against me" and "printing lying pamphlets against me" and spreading "absolute falsehoods." They wanted to preserve or extend their religious establishments - government support of religion - and Jefferson opposed them. "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."
Indeed, after reading several letters in which he describes how Jesus was maltreated by the priestly class and other letters in which Jefferson describes how he was abused by the clergy, one cannot help but wonder whether Jefferson identified his own plight with that of the earlier misunderstood sage. In August 1801, soon after the bruising election, Jefferson wrote to his attorney general, Levi Lincoln, about how the New England clergy was showing him "no mercy." Unselfconsciously, he declared that while "they crucified their Savior," the "laws of the present day withhold their hands from blood" - but that "lies and slander remain to them." Was he writing about Jesus, or himself, when he declared: "The office of reformer of the superstitions of a nation is ever dangerous"? Jesus' efforts to reform religion, he said, were perilous. "A step to right or left might place him within the grip of the priests of the superstition, a blood thirsty race." Same for Jefferson.
Jefferson returned to the theme throughout his life. "I am not afraid of the priests," he wrote in 1816. "They have tried upon me all their various batteries, of pious whining, hypocritical canting, lying and slandering, without being able to give me one moment of pain." His counterattacks defended himself and Jesus at the same time. "I abuse the priests indeed," he wrote in 1815, "who have so much abused the pure and holy doctrines of their master, and who have laid me under no obligation to reticence as to the tricks of their trade. The genuine system of Jesus, and the artificial structure they have erected, to make them the instruments of wealth, power and pre-eminence to themselves, are as distinct things in my view as light and darkness: and while I have classed them with soothsayers and necramancer, I place him among the greatest of the reformers of morals, and scourges of priest-craft that have ever existed. They felt him as such, and never rested until they had silenced him by death."
While other philosophers, like Socrates, focused on how humans could govern their passions to procure "our own tranquility," Jesus forced people to connect to a larger whole. While the early Jews thought like a parochial tribe, Jesus extended the principles of neighborliness to "all mankind, gathering all into one family, under the bonds of love, charity, peace, common wants and common aids." Jewish law focused on actions, but Jesus "pushed his scrutinies into the heart of man; erected his tribunal in the region of his thoughts, and purified the waters at the fountain head." Moses had "bound the Jews to many idle ceremonies, mummeries, and observances, of no effect towards producing the social utilities which constitute the essence of virtue. Jesus exposed their futility and insignificance. The one instilled into his people the most anti-social spirit toward other nations; the other preached philanthropy and universal charity and benevolence." Though he did excise the miracles from the Bible, Jefferson praised Jesus for teaching "the belief of a future state." (Note, however, that Jefferson mostly applauded the idea of heaven's existence because of the practical effect it would have on temporal human behavior.)