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."