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."