Jefferson's Religious Beliefs

From Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia

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Descent from the Cross, by Frans Floris; photo by Edward Owen
Descent from the Cross, by Frans Floris; photo by Edward Owen

Thomas Jefferson was always reluctant to reveal his religious beliefs[1] to the public, but at times he would speak to and reflect upon the public dimension of religion. He was raised as an Anglican, but was influenced by English deists such as Bolingbroke and Shaftesbury. Thus in the spirit of the Enlightenment, he made the following recommendation to his nephew Peter Carr in 1787: "Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear."[2] In Query XVII of Notes on the State of Virginia, he clearly outlines the views which led him to play a leading role in the campaign to separate church and state and which culminated in the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom: "The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. ... Reason and free enquiry are the only effectual agents against error."[3] Jefferson's religious views became a major public issue during the bitter party conflict between Federalists and Republicans in the late 1790s when Jefferson was often accused of being an atheist.

Herodias Bearing the Head of Saint John, copy after c. 1631 original by Guido Reni; photo by Edward Owen
Herodias Bearing the Head of Saint John, copy after c. 1631 original by Guido Reni; photo by Edward Owen

With the help of Richard Price, a Unitarian minister in London, and Joseph Priestly, an English scientist-clergyman who emigrated to America in 1794, Jefferson eventually arrived at some positive assertions of his private religion. His ideas are nowhere better expressed than in his compilations of extracts from the New Testament "The Philosophy of Jesus" (1804) and "The Life and Morals of Jesus" (1819-20?). The former stems from his concern with the problem of maintaining social harmony in a republican nation. The latter is a multilingual collection of verses that was a product of his private search for religious truth. Jefferson believed in the existence of a Supreme Being who was the creator and sustainer of the universe and the ultimate ground of being, but this was not the triune deity of orthodox Christianity. He also rejected the idea of the divinity of Christ, but as he writes to William Short on October 31, 1819, he was convinced that the fragmentary teachings of Jesus constituted the "outlines of a system of the most sublime morality which has ever fallen from the lips of man." In correspondence, he sometimes expressed confidence that the whole country would be Unitarian[4], but he recognized the novelty of his own religious beliefs. On June 25, 1819, he wrote to Ezra Stiles Ely, "I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know."


Church Attendance

We do not have complete records of Thomas Jefferson's church-going habits. Jefferson himself did not keep such records, and church records from Virginia during that time are irregular. Jefferson did serve as a vestryman in Fredericksville Parish as a young man.[5] As President, Jefferson attended church services in the House of Representatives.[6] After his retirement to Monticello, Jefferson continued to attend church services, riding into Charlottesville to the court-house on horseback carrying a small folding chair.[7]

Primary Source References

1787 August 10. (Jefferson to Peter Carr). "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 the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear."[8]

1803 April 21. (Jefferson to Benjamin Rush). "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; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other."[9]

1814 September 26. (Jefferson to Miles King). "I must ever believe that religion substantially good which produces an honest life, and we have been authorized by One whom you and I equally respect, to judge of the tree by its fruit. Our particular principles of religion are a subject of accountability to our God alone. I inquire after no man's, and trouble none with mine; nor is it given to us in this life ti know whether your or mine, our friends or our foes, are exactly the right."[10]

1823 April 11. (Jefferson to John Adams). "The truth is that the greatest enemies to the doctrines of Jesus are those calling themselves the expositors of them, who have perverted them for the structure of a system of fancy absolutely incomprehensible, and without any foundation in his genuine words. And 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. But we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away all this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this the most venerated reformer of human errors."[11]


  1. This section is based on Rebecca Bowman, Monticello Research Report, August 1997.
  2. Thomas Jefferson to Peter Carr, 10 August 1787. PTJ 12:15.
  3. Notes, ed. Peden 159.
  4. For more information on Jefferson as a Unitarian and his personal beliefs, see David Holmes' talk as streaming video:
  5. Rosalie Edith Davis, trans. and ed., Fredericksville Parish Vestry book, 1742-1787 (Manchester, Mo.: Rosalie Edith Davis, 1978-1981).
  6. Charles B. Sanford, The Religious Life of Thomas Jefferson: The Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press), 5 and James H. Hutson, Religion and the Founding of the American Republic (Washingon D.C.: Library of Congress, 1998), 84.
  7. Bishop Meade, Old Churches, Ministers and Families of Virginia (Philadelphia: J.B. Lipincott & Co., 1857), 2: 52.
  8. PTJ, 12:15. Letterpress copy at the Library of Congress.
  9. L&B, 10:380.
  10. Ibid, 14:198.
  11. EG, 412-3. Recipient copy at the Library of Congress.

Further Sources