27 Jul Thomas Jefferson on Jesus, Religion & Reason
This week in our special series on the Founding Fathers Religion, we return to Thomas Jefferson, who likely wrote more on the subjects of God, Christianity, and Religion than any of the other Americans we attribute “founding father” status. Indeed Jefferson went so far as to famously write The Jefferson Bible (The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth) in an attempt to clear up many of the misconceptions he felt surrounded the Nazarene and were being promulgated by the Church. As such, Thomas Jefferson might genuinely be considered the most important figure of Progressive Christianity in early America.
The following passage is not taken from “The Jefferson Bible,” but rather a letter written to a young man named Peter Carr, studying in Paris. In this letter (dated Aug. 10, 1787) Jefferson offers his advice on Carr’s ongoing education, and in the excerpt below, on the subjects of religion, reason, and the person known as Jesus of Nazareth.
Religion. Your reason is now mature enough to examine this object. First thing, rid yourself of all bias that favors novelty and singularity of opinion. Indulge them in any other subject except that of religion. It is too important, and the consequences of error may be too serious. On the other hand, shake off all the fears and servile prejudices under which weak minds are submissively crouched. Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve of a homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear.
You will naturally want to examine first the religion of your own country. Read the old testament bible then, as you would read the books of the great philosophers. The facts which are within the ordinary course of nature you will believe on the authority of the writer, as you would with the writers of other great works. The testimony of the writer weighs in their favor when the laws of nature do not contradict them. But those facts in the bible which contradict the laws of nature must be examined with more care, and under a variety of perspectives.
You will next want to read the new testament. It is the history of a personage called Jesus. Keep in your eye the pretensions of those who say he was begotten by God, born of a virgin, suspended and reversed the laws of nature at will, and ascended bodily into heaven: and of those who say he was a man of illegitimate birth, of a benevolent heart, enthusiastic mind, who set out without pretensions to divinity, ended up believing them, and was punished capitally for sedition by being crucified according to the Roman law.
Regarding books that discuss these matters, keep your reason firmly on the watch when reading them all. Do not be frightened from your inquiry by any fear of it’s consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is no God, you will still find incitements to virtue and the love of others. If you find reason to believe there is a God, a consciousness that you are acting under his eye, and that he approves you, will be a vast additional incitement; for if there be a future state, the hope of a happy existence in that increases the appetite to deserve it. And if it turns out that you believe Jesus was also a God, you will be comforted by a belief in his aid and love.
But I repeat that you must lay aside all prejudice on both sides, and neither believe nor reject anything because any other people or institutions have rejected or believed it. Your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven, and you are answerable not for the rightness but uprightness of your decisions.1
Read the next article in our series on the Founding Fathers: John Adams, Knowledge, & The Character of Literary Men.
- The above passage by Jefferson was slightly edited to make it easier to read by the modern reader [↩]