Warning – History and Politics ahead. 🙂

Sunday, April 13th, was Thomas Jefferson’s birthday.  As one of the principle architects of the the US Constitution Jefferson was truly one of our nations greatest leaders.  

He was not a perfect man, he owned slaves, and although he drafted, and tried to enact, several anti-slavery laws he also viewed blacks as inferior to whites. 

Among our founding fathers Jefferson was perhaps the leading proponent of the principle of separation of church and state.  Thanks to his efforts this principle is in our constitution.

From Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_jefferson :

Thomas Jefferson (April 13, 1743July 4, 1826)

1) Jefferson was raised in the Church of England at a time when it was the established church in Virginia and only denomination funded by Virginia tax money. Avery Dulles, a leading Catholic theologian reports, “In his college years at William and Mary [Jefferson] came to admire Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, and John Locke as three great paragons of wisdom. Under the influence of several professors he converted to the deist philosophy.” Dulles concludes:

In summary, then, Jefferson was a deist because he believed in one God, in divine providence, in the divine moral law, and in rewards and punishments after death; but did not believe in supernatural revelation. He was a Christian deist because he saw Christianity as the highest expression of natural religion and Jesus as an incomparably great moral teacher. He was not an orthodox Christian because he rejected, among other things, the doctrines that Jesus was the promised Messiah and the incarnate Son of God. Jefferson’s religion is fairly typical of the American form of deism in his day.

Before the Revolution, Jefferson was a vestryman in his local church, a lay position that was informally tied to political office at the time. He also had friends who were clergy, and he supported some churches financially.

2) Jefferson’s conclusions about the Bible are noteworthy. He considered much of the new testament of the Bible to be lies. He described these as “so much untruth, charlatanism and imposture”. He described the “roguery of others of His disciples”, and called them a “band of dupes and impostors” describing Paul as the “first corruptor of the doctrines of Jesus”, and wrote of “palpable interpolations and falsifications”. He also described the Book of Revelation to be “merely the ravings of a maniac, no more worthy nor capable of explanation than the incoherences of our own nightly dreams”. While living in the White House, Jefferson began to make his own condensed version of the Gospels, omitting Jesus’ virgin birth, miracles, divinity, and resurrection, primarily leaving only Jesus’ moral philosophy, of which he approved. This compilation was published after his death and became known as the Jefferso n Bible

3) Jefferson did not believe in the divinity of Jesus, but he had high esteem for Jesus’ moral teachings, which he viewed as the “principles of a pure deism, and juster notions of the attributes of God, to reform [prior Jewish] moral doctrines to the standard of reason, justice & philanthropy, and to inculcate the belief of a future state.” Jefferson did not believe in miracles. Biographer Merrill Peterson summarizes Jefferson’s theology:

First, that the Christianity of the churches was unreasonable, therefore unbelievable, but that stripped of priestly mystery, ritual, and dogma, reinterpreted in the light of historical evidence and human experience, and substituting the Newtonian cosmology for the discredited Biblical one, Christianity could be conformed to reason. Second, morality required no divine sanction or inspiration, no appeal beyond reason and nature, perhaps not even the hope of heaven or the fear of hell; and so the whole edifice of Christian revelation came tumbling to the ground.

4) Jefferson sought what he called a “wall of separation between Church and State,” which he believed was a principle expressed by the First Amendment. This phrase has been cited several times by the Supreme Court in its interpretation of the Establishment Clause. In an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, he wrote:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between church and State.

5) From 1784 to 1786, Jefferson and James Madison worked together to oppose Patrick Henry‘s attempts to again assess taxes in Virginia to support churches. Instead, in 1786, the Virginia General Assembly passed Jefferson’s Bill for Religious Freedom, which he had first submitted in 1779 and was one of only three accomplishments he put in his own epitaph. The law read:

No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer, on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.