“But [John] Adams and [Thomas] Jefferson were unmistakable vestiges of the vanished Age of Enlightenment, nurturer of revolution, victim of war. Jefferson, always reticent about his own religion, observed that ‘if thinking men would have the courage to think for themselves, and to speak what they think, it would be found they do not differ in religious opinions, as much as is supposed.’ ‘The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth’ were his guide. And belief he supposed ‘to be the assent of the mind to an intelligible proposition.’ For Adams, whose testimony derived strength from its spontaneity, ‘The love of God and his Creation, delight, Joy, Triumph, Exultation in my own existence,..are my religion.’ ‘Ask me not, the, whether I am a Catholic or Protestant, Calvinist or Arminian. As far as they are Christians, I wish to be a fellow-disciple with them all.’ Lester J. Cappon, editor, The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams, The University of North Carolina Press, p. 344, 345
“I remember to have heard Dr. Priestly say that if all England would candidly examine themselves, and confess, they would find that Unitarianism was really the religion of all…It is too late in the day for men of sincerity to pretend they believe in the Platonic mysticism that three are one, and one is three, and yet the one is not three, and the three are not one.” Thomas Jefferson, Ibid., p. 368
“What does Priestly mean, by an Unbeliever? When he applies it to you [Jefferson]? How much did he ‘unbelieve,’ himself? Gibbon had him right, when he denominated his Creed, ‘Scanty.’ We are to understand, no doubt, that he believed The Resurrection of Jesus, some of his Miracles. His Inspiration, but in what degree? He did not believe in the Inspiration of the Writings that contain his History. Yet he believed in the Apocalyptic [Book of Revelation] Beast, and he believed as much as he pleased in the Writings of Daniel and John. This great, excellent and extraordinary Man, whom I sincerely loved, esteemed and respected, was really a Phenomenon; a Comet in the System, like Voltaire, Bolingbroke and Hume. Had Bolingbroke or Voltaire taken him in hand, what would they have made of him and his Creed?” John Adams, Ibid., p. 361
Beck wrote the foreword to The Jefferson Lies, and Mercury Ink’s announced goal is to “publish and promote books and authors that Glenn is passionate about.” Mercury Ink partners with Simon & Schuster. Publishers Weekly reported that Barton in the new edition “will rephrase some things to remove any potential confusion.”
Meanwhile, let’s look at one of the key points in contention. Most historians prior to Barton described Thomas Jefferson as a life-long religious skeptic, but Barton writes in The Jefferson Lies that there “never was a time when [Jefferson] was anti-Jesus or when he rejected Christianity.” Barton states that for much of Jefferson’s adult life his faith was “nothing less than orthodox.”
The Jefferson Lies commends Daniel Dreisbach, an American University professor, calling him one of the few Jefferson scholars who employs a “sound historical approach,” so I asked Dreisbach whether he agreed with Barton. Dreisbach replied that he has a “very hard time” accepting the notion that Jefferson was ever an orthodox Christian, or that Jefferson ever embraced Christianity’s “transcendent claims.”
Barton told me that he does not necessarily disagree with Dreisbach. The Jefferson Lies states that by 1813, when Jefferson was 70, he had rejected the doctrine of the Trinity. Barton said he mainly wants to emphasize that Jefferson was no atheist or secularist.
That’s not sufficient for Barton critics Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter, authors of Getting Jefferson Right, who state that Barton misinterprets historical evidence in portraying Jefferson as consistently orthodox before 1813, and leaves out essential points that would contradict that portrayal.
For example, in a 1788 letter Jefferson declined to become a child’s godfather because he thought doing so would have required him to affirm publicly a belief in the Trinity. Jefferson wrote that the “difficulty of reconciling the ideas of Unity and Trinity, have, from a very early part of my life,” kept him making such an affirmation. The Jefferson Lies does not address this statement.
Similarly, in Jefferson’s 1803 unpublished “Syllabus,” he commended Jesus’ philosophy as “the most perfect and sublime” taught by man, but also characterized Jesus’ teachings as “defective.” Jefferson argued that only “fragments” of Jesus’ actual life have survived, and have “come to us mutilated, misstated, and often unintelligible” in the New Testament.
Barton cites another part of the “Syllabus” in The Jefferson Lies, but not these passages. He does quote at length from a 1787 letter from Jefferson to his nephew, in which Jefferson tells him simply to read the Bible as you would other ancient documents, and to “question with boldness even the existence of a god.” Barton argues that Jefferson was merely instructing his nephew in Christian “apologetics.”
Barton says his critics are exaggerating The Jefferson Lies‘ claims about Jefferson’s faith. Barton insists he never called Jefferson a “robust Christian,” and says Thomas Nelson editors cut out sections of the book that might have answered some objections.
Barton also offers evidence that Jefferson affirmed traditional beliefs prior to age 70. In a 1776 document, Barton writes, Jefferson “affirmed that Jesus was the Savior, the Scriptures were inspired, and that the Apostles’ Creed ‘contain[ed] all things necessary to salvation.'” (According to The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, this statement is in Jefferson’s notes on John Locke’s religious writings.)
Who is right-Barton, or Throckmorton and Coulter? Louisiana State University professor James Stoner, one of Glenn Beck’s “Beck University” lecturers, says Throckmorton and Coulter’s book seems “entirely in line” with what he knows about Jefferson’s faith. Stoner describes Jefferson as a “rationalist skeptic.”
Professor Kevin Gutzman, who has appeared both on WallBuilders radio and the Glenn Beck program, argues that “Jefferson was not a Christian, if the word ‘Christian’ has any meaning,” because he rejected the Bible’s “supernatural content.” Gutzman thinks Jefferson’s skepticism certainly predated 1813.
Does all this matter? To those who want to understand more about the founding of the United States, it does.
See “A message to WORLD readers on the David Barton controversy,” by Marvin Olasky, Aug. 16.