The Pious Infidel

Thomas Jefferson and his drive to 'rescue' Jesus

Continued from page 1

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."

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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."

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