The Pious Infidel

Thomas Jefferson and his drive to 'rescue' Jesus

Exerpted from Founding Faith by Steven Waldman

 

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.

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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."

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