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Quotations

Part 1 of 2

Quotes on various aspects of religion,
by Thomas Jefferson (1743 - 1799)

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About Thomas Jefferson and his religious beliefs:

Thomas Jefferson:

"...served as governor of Virginia, as U.S. minister to France, as secretary of state under George Washington, as vice-president in the administration of John Adams, and as president of the United States from 1801 to 1809. On his tombstone, however, which he designed and for which he wrote the inscription, there is no mention of these offices. Rather, it reads that Thomas Jefferson was 'author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom, and Father of the University of Virginia' and, as he requested, 'not a word more.' Historians might want to add other accomplishments--for example, his distinction as an architect, naturalist, and linguist--but in the main they would concur with his own assessment." 1

Jefferson's religion is a little difficult to pin down. He apparently believed in a supreme being, although not one that resembles the Christian God. He believed in some form of life after death. But he rejected the Christian concept of the Trinity, the virgin birth, and belief in a Hell of eternal punishment. His comments about Christianity were rather vitriolic at times. His beliefs matched those of many current members of the Unitarian Universalist faith group. Some members of the Unitarian Universalist Association claim him as a fellow "UU." However, he never joined any religious denomination during his lifetime. 2

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Author Franklin Steiner wrote:

"Jefferson's most voluminous biographer, Henry J. Randall (Vol. 3, pp. 553-562), insists upon calling him a 'Christian,' a word which is subject to many qualifications. Yet Mr. Randall admits that Jefferson disbelieved in all strictly orthodox dogmas, and was a Unitarian. Unitarians, like Deists, were considered to be as much 'Infidels' in Jefferson's day as an Atheist is now. But in his own day, Jefferson could scarcely have claimed to be a Unitarian, since in the first half of the 19th Century that Church was supernaturalistic and far from being as broad as it is at the present time. 3

Author John Morse wrote:

"To my mind, it is very clear that Jefferson never believed that Christ was other than a human moralist, having no peculiar inspiration or divine connection, and differing from other moralists only as Shakespeare differs from other dramatists, namely, as greatly their superior in ability and fitness for his function. But those admirers of Jefferson, who themselves believe in the divinity of Christ, will probably refuse to accept this view, though they find themselves without sufficient evidence conclusively to confute it." 4

A fairly good case can be made that Jefferson was a Deist -- a religion followed by many of the founding fathers. Deists believe that a supreme being created the universe in the distant past, set up a system of laws governing nature to assure its proper operation and started it up. God then left, and hasn't been seen since. It is probably significant that Jefferson used the Deist term "Nature's God" when he wrote the Declaration of Independence.

According to webmaster Lewis Loflin:

"Jefferson says he was a 'Materialist' (letter to Short, Apr. 13, 1820) and a 'Unitarian' (letter to Waterhouse, Jan. 8, 1825).....Further, Jefferson specifically named Joseph Priestly (English Unitarian who moved to America) and Conyers Middleton (English Deist) and said: 'I rest on them ... as the basis of my own faith' (letter to Adams, Aug. 22, 1813). Therefore, without using the actual words, Jefferson issued an authentic statement claiming Deism as his faith." 5

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Excerpts from his letters during the late 18th century:

Jefferson held a number of posts during this interval: governor of Virginia (1779 to 1781), U.S. minister to France (1784 to 1789), secretary of state (1790 to 1793), and vice-president of the U.S. (1796 to 1801), and the third President (1801-1809). 6

bullet 1782: "The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg." Notes on the State of Virginia.

bullet 1781 to 1785: Additional material from "Notes on the State of Virginia:"
bullet  "Is uniformity attainable? Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effects of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites."
bullet "Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are a gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever."
 
bullet 1787: The following are excerpts from a letter he wrote to his nephew, Peter Carr:
bullet "He who made us would have been a pitiful bungler, if he had made the rules of our moral conduct a matter of science. For one man of science, there are thousands who are not. What would have become of them? Man was destined for society. His morality, therefore, was to be formed to this object. He was endowed with a sense of right and wrong, merely relative to this."

bullet "The moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of man as his leg or arm. It is given to all human beings in a stronger or weaker degree, as force of members is given them in a greater or less degree. It may be strengthened by exercise, as may any particular limb of the body. This sense is submitted, indeed, in some degree, to the guidance of reason; but it is a small stock which is required for this: even a less one than what we call common sense. State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor. The former will decide it as well, & often better than the latter, because he has not been led astray by artificial rules."

bullet "Above all things, lose no occasion of exercising your dispositions to be grateful, to be generous, to be charitable, to be humane, to be true, just, firm, orderly, courageous, &c. 7 Consider every act of this kind, as an exercise which will strengthen your moral faculties & increase your worth."

bullet "In the first place, divest yourself of all bias in favor of novelty & singularity of opinion. Indulge them in any other subject rather than 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 & servile prejudices, under which weak minds are servilely 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 the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear."

bullet "You will naturally examine first, the religion of your own country. Read the Bible, then as you would read Livy or Tacitus. The facts which are within the ordinary course of nature, you will believe on the authority of the writer, as you do those of the same kind in Livy & Tacitus. The testimony of the writer weighs in their favor, in one scale, and their not being against the laws of nature, does not weigh against them. But those facts in the Bible which contradict the laws of nature, must be examined with more care, and under a variety of faces. Here you must recur to the pretensions of the writer to inspiration from God. Examine upon what evidence his pretensions are founded, and whether that evidence is so strong, as that its falsehood would be more improbable than a change in the laws of nature, in the case he relates."

bullet "Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is no god, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise, and the love of others which it will procure you. If you find reason to believe there is a God, a consciousness that you are acting under his eye, & that he approves you, will be a vast additional incitement; if that there be a future state, the hope of a happy existence in that increases the appetite to deserve it; if that Jesus was also a god, you will be comforted by a belief of his aid and love."

bullet "In fine, I repeat, you must lay aside all prejudice on both sides, and neither believe nor reject anything, because any other persons, or description of persons, 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 the decision."
 

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bullet 1789: "I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else where I was capable of thinking for myself. Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent." Letter to Francis Hopkinson.
 
bullet 1799: "I am for freedom of religion, & against all maneuvers to bring about a legal ascendancy of one sect over another." Letter to Elbridge Gerry.

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Religious quotes from Thomas Jefferson's
writings after 1799 continue in the following list.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Thomas Jefferson," Supercomputing 1994, at: http://sc94.ameslab.gov/ (essay no longer online)
  2. Peg Duthie, "Was Thomas Jefferson really one of us?," UU World, 2004-NOV-01, at: http://www.uuworld.org/
  3. Franklin Steiner, "Religious beliefs of our presidents," (1936). Excerpt on Thomas Jefferson is online at: http://www.positiveatheism.org/
  4. John T. Morse, "Jefferson," Chelsea House Publ., (1997), American Statesmen Series, Volume 11, Page 304.
  5. Lewis Loflin, "Was Thomas Jefferson a Deist?" Brown Daily Herald, 2002-FEB-01. Online at: http://www.sullivan-county.com/
  6. "Timeline of Jefferson's Life," Monticello, at: http://www.monticello.org/
  7. "&c" is a less commonly used abbreviation of "et cetera," compared to "etc."

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Copyright © 2006 to 2016 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally posted: 2006-JAN-31
Latest update: 2016-JAN-23
Author: B.A. Robinson

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