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The last chapter was on Benjamin Franklin.  This chapter I will concentrate on Thomas Jefferson.  Both of these Founders are the ones that the revisionist historians use to claim that the Founders were atheists and deists.  In the last chapter we can see by Franklins own writings that he was not a deist or an atheist.  He wasn’t a perfect Christian, but he did believe, as Jefferson did, that the principles of Christianity were the most important subject to teach youth at the earliest age  which was the belief of most of the Founders.

The belief that the Founders were irreligious  is not documentable at all.  Some have made statements that when taken out of context appear  to make them look atheistic  but when read in full context is far from that conclusion.  In this chapter we will look at some of the comments and writings of Thomas Jefferson that specifically deal with his stand on religion  and how those principles can or even should be commingled with government.

Thomas Jefferson was an author, scientist, architect, educator, Governor of Virginia and served in the Virginia Assembly.  He is the author of the Declaration of Independence.  After drafting the Declaration of Independence, he was on the committee that was appointed to draft a seal for the new nation.  His proposal was: The Children of Israel in the wilderness, led by a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night.1

It is highly unlikely that a person who believed, as the revisionist historians and some courts would like us to believe , that religion and government should be totally separated, would recommend that scenario as our national seal.

In thinking that the federal government has the right to not allow religious expression in community meetings and school functions Jefferson had this to say:

No power over the freedom of religion . . .  [is] delegated to the United States by the Constitution.2 (Emphasis added) How the federal government came up with the notion that they could make it illegal to have a Bible in school, make it illegal to pray in schools or public settings when the Constitution gives them no jurisdiction  in the matter is amazing.

Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address included these statements:

Let us, then, with courage and confidence pursue our own federal and republican principles. . . . enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them including honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter.

And may the Infinite Power which rules the destinies of the universe, lead our councils to what is best, and give them a favorable issue for your peace and prosperity.3

Jefferson, in this speech, was calling on the guidance of God in the affairs of the government.  That isn’t exactly the picture painted by the U.S. Supreme Court in Everson v. Board of Education, 1947.  That decision was made not on an official historical document ascribing the boundaries of government, but on a personal letter written to the Danbury Baptist Association in response to their concern about the government establishing a national religions as had been done in England which taxed the people to support the church as well as governed the doctrines of the church.  The establishment of a national religion also created a hostile environment for other denominations and it was this situation that the Danbury Baptist Association was concerned about.  In Jefferson’s response to them he stated his beliefs concerning in the actual meaning of the First Amendment:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God. That he owes account to none other for faith or his worship, that that legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with solemn 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.4

In looking at Jefferson’s actions and those of the rest of the Founders in seemingly ignoring today’s Courts definition of the First Amendment and thinking that today’s Courts understand what Jefferson wrote better that Jefferson himself is unbelievable arrogance.  It is obvious that it was an institutional separation that Jefferson was talking about concerning the separation, because that is what the Danbury Baptist Association was concerned about.  They were not and neither was Jefferson or any other Founder concerned about an influential influence of Christianity within the government.  If they were that concerned, why were there so many calls for days of prayer and fasting, calls to seek God’s face, calls to teach Christian principles in all public schools including universities?  This letter was designed to assure the churches of America that the government’s hands were tied when it came to interfering or controlling the affairs of the church.  Today, however, government does interfere with the affairs of the church by not allowing prayer in schools, which had been done for 342 years, Bibles could no longer be in schools even though they were the primary book used for learning for almost 300 years.

To the claims that Jefferson was not a Christian, Jefferson himself commented on that subject in a letter to Benjamin Rush on April 23, 1803:

My view. . . are the result of a life of inquiry and reflection, and very different from the anti-Christian system imputed to me by those who know nothing of my opinions.  To the corruptions  of Christianity I am, indeed, opposed;  but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself.  I am a Christian in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines in preference to all others.5

In December of 1803 Jefferson called for a treaty to be passed by Congress with the Kaskaskia Indians.  In that treaty there was included an annual support for a Catholic missionary priest of $100.00, paid out of the Federal treasury.  In later years, 1806 and 1807, two similar treaties were made with the Wyandotte and Cherokee tribes.6  Jefferson also extended three different times a 1787 act of Congress in which special lands were designated:

For the sole use of Christian Indians and the Moravian Brethren missionaries for civilizing the Indians and promoting Christianity.7 (Emphasis added)

Again we see Jefferson supposedly violating his own belief in keeping the influence of Christianity out of government by actually having the government fund Christian teachings and promoting Christianity to the Indian nations.

Jefferson saw no right of the federal government to curtail religious activities as the Court today has determined they do.  In his Second Inaugural Address Jefferson stated:

In matters of religion I have considered that the free exercise is placed by the Constitution independent of the powers of the General Government.  I have therefore undertaken, on no occasion, to prescribe the religious exercise suited to it; but have left them, as the Constitution found them, under the direction  and discipline of state and church authorities by the several religious societies.8 (Emphasis added)

Jefferson saw no need to regulate religious speech in the public arena as he found that religious speech in the public arena as part of religious freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment.  This is verified by a letter he wrote to Samuel Miller on January 23, 1808:

I consider the government of the U.S. as interdicted [prohibited] by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises.  This not only results from the provision that no law shall be made respecting the establishment, or free exercise, of religion, but from that also which reserves to the states the powers not delegated to the U.S. government. (Emphasis added)

Certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the general [federal] government. It must then rest with the states as far as it can be in any human authority.9 (Emphasis added)

Again, Jefferson states that the general [federal] government has no authority in the matter of religion.  Yet today the Court has given authority to the federal government to control what religious activities can be exercised in the public arena.

When Jefferson established the University of Virginia he encouraged the teaching of religion and set aside a place in the university for chapel services.10  While President he opened all public buildings for religious services.

While in Philadelphia he attended services with George Washington, Robert Morris, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, and others.  While in Virginia Jefferson attended services at the church where George and Martha Washington were members, Bruton Parish Church (Episcopalian).  Most revisionist historians claim that Washington was never a member of any church and was not on record attending a church.  We will learn more about Washington in the next chapter.

Even though Jefferson is invoked by the revisionists as the example of the Founders wanting religion out of politics, they ignore most of what he did while in political office.  Jefferson wrote several bills that were very protective of religious practice.  He wrote A Bill for Punishing Disturbers of Religious Worship and Sabbath Breakers; A Bill for Appointing Days of Public Fasting and Thanksgiving.11

At the University of Virginia he expected students to participate in the various religious schools which he had personally invited to locate close to the university and even on the university’s property.12  He praised the use of the Charlottesville courthouse for religious services,13 and even made the statement “that religion is deemed in other countries incompatible with good government and yet proved by our experience to be its best support.”14

Jefferson thought that Christianity so important that he wrote The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth to be used in teaching the American Indians the Gospels if Jesus Christ.15

We have seen the modern Court redefine parts of our Constitution; redefine the Bill of Rights so that our Founders would not even recognize them.  Jefferson was not in favor of allowing the Court to be the sole decision maker in defining our laws and our Constitution.  He believed that little by little we would see a power shift from the Executive and Legislative to the Judiciary.  We have seen that happen in an exponential way since the 1930’s.  Jefferson clarified his feelings in a statement on September 16, 1819:

The Constitution is a mere thing of wax in the hands of the judiciary, which they may twist and shape into any form they please.16

We are there.

End Notes 

  • Thomas Jefferson. July 3, 1776, in a proposition for a national seal Journals of the Continental Congress, 1776, Vol. V, p. 530.
  • Thomas Jefferson. November 16, 1798, in the Kentucky Resolutions of 1798, Article III.
  • Thomas Jefferson. March 4, 1801, Wednesday, in his First Inaugural Address, James D. Richardson, (U.S. Representative from Tennessee), ed., A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents 1789-1897, 10 Vols. (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, published by Authority of Congress, 1897, 1899
  • Thomas Jefferson. January 1, 1802, in a personal letter to Nehemiah Dodge, Ephrain Robbins, and Stephen Nelson of the Danbury Baptist Association, Danbury, Connecticut.
  • Thomas Jefferson. April 21, 1803, in a letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush. The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, X, p. 379.
  • Thomas Jefferson. December 3, 1803, treaty with the Kaskaskia Indians, 1806 with the Wyandotte Indians, 1807 with the Cherokee Indians.
  • Thomas Jefferson. December 3, 1803, treaty with the Kaskaskia Indians, 1806 with the Wyandotte Indians, 1807 with the Cherokee Indians.
  • Thomas Jefferson. March 4, 1805, Monday, in his Second Inaugural Address, James D. Richardson (U.S. Representative from Tenneessee), ed., A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents 1789-1897, 10 Vols. (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, published by Authority of Congress, 1897, 1899.
  • Thomas Jefferson. January 23, 1808, in a letter to Samuel Miller. Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson Writings, Merril D. Peterson, ed., (NY: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc. 1984), pp. 1186-1187.
  • Thomas Jefferson. 1813, in his regulation for the University of Virginia.  Saul K. Padover, ed.,  The Complete Jefferson, Containing His Major Writings, Published and Unpublished, Except His Letters. (KY: Duell, Sloan & Pierce, 1943), p. 111.
  • James Madison, The Papers of James Madison,  Robert A. Rutland, editor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1973), Vol. VIII, p. 396.
  • Jefferson, Writings, XIX, pp. 449-450, at a Meeting of the Visitors of the University of Virginia. . . . on Monday the 4th of October, 1824.
  • Jefferson, Memoir, IV pp. 358-359, to Dr. Thomas Cooper on November 2, 1822.
  • Jefferson, Writings, XVI, p. 259, to Captain John Thomas, November 18, 1807.
  • American State Papers, Walter Lowrie and Matthew St, Claire Clarke, editors. (Washington, D.C.: Gales and Seaton, 1832), Vol. IV, p. 687.
  • September 16, 1819, Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson Writings, Merril D. Peterson, ed., (NY: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc. 1984), p. 1426.

iPatriot Contributers


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