by Bob Schoone-Jongen.
Did you know that Thomas Jefferson, in his spare time, tried to produce an accurate biography of Jesus by literally taking a razor to the four gospels? In fact, he did it twice, once while serving as president, and again in retirement at Monticello.
The church-going “Sage of Monticello” remained publicly mum about his religious beliefs. Silence inspired rumors of skepticism, heterodoxy, and atheism. Some saw his antipathy against state churches as proof of religious infidelity. As an Episcopalian, Jefferson need not fear awkward theological questions from the local parish rector. The only question he would ask for a communicant was, “Do you want to worship with us?”
Privately, Jefferson was convinced that priests and theologians shrouded the gospel truth with “…mystery and charlatanerie….” He compared theologians to barbarians, calling John Calvin an atheist whose Five Points could not possibly have sprung from the spirit of a loving God. They “…call me infidel…while they draw all their…dogmas from what it’s [sic] Author never said or saw.” This anti-clericalism inspired Jefferson’s twin crusades against state religion and for religious freedom. His distaste for professional clerics lay at the heart of his trenchant call for “…building a wall of separation between Church and State,” written, ironically, in a public letter to Baptist ministers.
Jefferson call himself a ‘”real Christian, …a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.” The search for those doctrines prompted him to examine the gospels and assemble “The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth” during his leisure hours in the White House. Using identical copies of the gospels, the President cut out the verses he deemed true, and re-arranged them in chronological order. He told a friend that doing this lifted “…the artificial vestments…” from Christ’s real words, separating myth from fact“…as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill.”
Years later Jefferson again took up his razor to construct the more elaborate “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.” Using two identical copies of the King James Bible and New Testaments in Latin, Greek, and French (presumably Calvin’s translation), the retired president glued his gospel gleanings on the leaves of a blank book. His account commenced with the words of Luke 2:1, “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus,” and concluded with Matthew 27:60, “And rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulcher, and departed.” Gone are the Annunciation and the Resurrection, and every miracle or claim of divinity in between. Jefferson had several copies printed for his trusted friends, but the public never saw the work until 1896, seventy years after his death. It is still available in print and online, often under the title “Thomas Jefferson’s Bible”.
“The day will come, when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as His Father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the Generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.” Thus Jefferson wrote to John Adams. Publicly, at Jefferson’s own instructions, his funeral rite followed the Book of Common Prayer, including the words, “I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord.” Thomas Jefferson was, indeed, a complex and enigmatic man–a theological purist’s nightmare, a historian’s dream.
This post was originally published in the Calvin Courier, the newsletter of the Calvin CRC in Grand Rapids, MI.
Robert Schoone-Jongen is in his eleventh year at Calvin College, working with student teachers who hope to become high school and middle school social studies teachers. His historical interests are immigration, American social history, and the presidency.