Did Thomas Jefferson found the Virginia Bible Society?

David Barton says he did. Watch this clip from the American Heritage series. Barton is speaking to Matthew and Laurie Crouch.

About the Virginia Bible Society, Barton says

You get back here and you find the Virginia Bible Society. Now what makes that one particularly interesting is Thomas Jefferson was one of the founders of the Virginia Bible Society. Oh no, not Jefferson! He’s secular, he wanted…you see Jefferson founded the Bible Society, he gave large contributions to get the Bible out to every American.

Did Jefferson found the Virginia Bible Society?

According to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Jefferson donated money to the society but was not a founder. The founding managers are listed there:

The Bible Society of Virginia was founded in 1813 in Richmond as … “[a] Society for the distribution of the Holy Scriptures to the poor of our country.” Thirteen men were designated to serve as the inaugural managers in 1813: Reverend John Buchanan (president), Reverend John D. Blair (vice-president), Reverend Jacob Grigg (vice-president), Reverend Jacob H. Rice (corresponding secretary), William Munford (recording secretary), Samuel Greenhow (treasurer), Archibald Blair, William Mayo, Robert Quarles, George Watt, Reverend John Bryce, William Fenwick, and Alexander M’Rae.

Jefferson did not seem to be aware that such a society was needed when he wrote to society treasurer, Samuel Greenhow, providing a gift of $50. In this letter, it seems clear that Jefferson was in the dark about the aims of the society and hoped that the group would not send Bibles to other nations.

TO SAMUEL GREENHOW.

Monticello, January 31, 1814. Sir,—Your letter on the subject of the Bible Society arrived here while I was on a journey to Bedford, which occasioned a long absence from home. Since my return, it has lain, with a mass of others accumulated during my absence, till I could answer them. I presume the views of the society are confined to our own country, for with the religion of other countries my own forbids intermeddling. I had not supposed there was a family in this State not possessing a Bible, and wishing without having the means to procure one. When, in earlier life, I was intimate with every class, I think I never was in a house where that was the case. However, circumstances may have changed, and the society, I presume, have evidence of the fact. I therefore enclose you cheerfully, an order on Messrs. Gibson & Jefferson for fifty dollars, for the purposes of the society, sincerely agreeing with you that there never was a more pure and sublime system of morality delivered to man than is to be found in the four evangelists. Accept the assurance of my esteem and respect.

It seems unlikely that Jefferson was a founder given that he did not know the objectives of the group. His donation was apparently a one-time contribution and which would be worth just over $500.00 today, if this calculator is to be trusted. I can find no evidence that Jefferson founded the Virginia Bible Society. If Barton has evidence that is not generally available, he should produce it. If such evidence is offered, then I will retract this post. I seriously doubt that is going to happen.

On point, Jefferson did not seem to think very highly of bible societies when it came to evangelizing outside the United States. John Adams also had a dim view of them. He wrote to Jefferson on November 4, 1816 and complained:

We have now, it seems a National Bible Society, to propagate King James Bible, through all Nations. Would it not be better, to apply these pious Subscriptions, to purify Christendom from the corruptions of Christianity; than to propagate those Corruptions in Europe, Asia, Africa and America! (p. 493-494)*

Both Adams and Jefferson agreed that the New Testament was riddled with corruptions and falsehoods. Jefferson’s attempt to edit the New Testament was driven by his desire to get back to the basic moral teachings of Jesus, sans miracles.

Jefferson wrote back to Adams in response, complaining about the value of the “bible-societies.” Describing those who took the Bibles to Asia, Jefferson wrote to Adams on November 25, 1816:

These Incendiaries, finding that the days of fire and faggot are over in the Atlantic hemispheres, are now preparing to put the torch to the Asiatic regions. What would they say were the Pope to send annually to this country, colonies of Jesuit priests with cargoes of their Missal and translations of their Vulgate, to be put gratis into the hands of every one who would accept them? and to act thus nationally on us as a nation? (p. 496)*

Whereas Adams dismisses the whole enterprise, Jefferson wonders how the Protestants in America would like it if the Vatican made a special effort to bring in the Vulgate and give it away.

In the video above, Barton discusses the Jefferson Bible and makes the claim that the Bible was designed to evangelize the Indians. He also says that Jefferson just included the red letter parts – i.e., the words of Christ. I addressed the Jefferson Bible as an evangelistic tool here (it wasn’t) and in a future post, I will demonstrate that Jefferson left out many red letters and did indeed seek to purge those aspects of the Gospels with which he disagreed.

*The Adams-Jefferson Letters, Edited by Lester Cappon. Published by The University of North Carolina Press, 1959.

 

  • John LeCornu

    Warren, can’t figure out the point here. Is there something important to debunking any idea that Jefferson was a Christian?

    Regards

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/warrenthrockmorton Warren

      Hey John – I would ask a related question. Is there some important reason that David Barton’s distortions and half-truths should remain hidden? The fact is Jefferson was not a Christian in the orthodox sense of the word and for him to be portrayed this way misleads people. Christians have a skewed view of the world anyway often and Barton just creates more fiction.

  • Teresa

    I wondered when someone was going to state that Jefferson was not a Christian. Does believing in Jesus Christ as the best example of a good life, and good morals qualify as being Christian? If so, then I guess, Jefferson can be classified as Christian.

    Jefferson did not believe in the Trinity, did not believe in miracles, did not believe Jesus was the Son of God … none of that.

    So, I for one, think it’s important to keep the legacy of the real Jefferson, intact. He would have wanted it so. It’s a matter of respect, dignity, historical accuracy if nothing else.

  • John LeCornu

    Good explanation. For someone to view Jefferson’s writings and behavior and believe he was a Christian or even called himself a Christian certainly muddies the water. You need only look at the ridiculous fervor over a letter he wrote to a peer mentioning a separation of church and state. The intent of the letter has been skewered and in the 21st century is still a battle cry for those seeking to constrain the 1st amendment and free speech (but only for Christians). Certainly the culture has been allowed to define too many things and the fallout is tragic.

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  • Aquaria

    You need only look at the ridiculous fervor over a letter he wrote to a peer mentioning a separation of church and state.

    A fervor that comes only when theists try to force their superstition into the public square where it’s not constitutional to have it, or to have only their delusion represented, excluding others.

    The intent of the letter has been skewered

    Only by theists who want everything to be about them.

    and in the 21st century is still a battle cry for those seeking to constrain the 1st amendment and free speech (but only for Christians).

    Funny, theists are most often the ones who are trying to constrain everyone else’s First Amendment rights and give their own cult all free speech rights, and everyone else none.

    Certainly the culture has been allowed to define too many things and the fallout is tragic.

    So you’re not supposed to make sure the law is spelled out so that it can be understood and consistent?

    But then, you don’t like for your genocidal manual to be examined too closely, either.

  • Jim51

    John,

    Jefferson actually did call himself a Christian, but it was only in very private communications. For example,

    ” 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 he wished anyone to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others;”

    This from a letter to Benjamin Rush. April 21, 1803.

    He seems to be following quite closely the idea in Teresa’s first paragraph above. The problem of defining that which gets the label is played with rather loosely. Barton doesn’t just get loose with such things, he goes clear off the tracks all too often.

    Jim51

  • Pingback: Was the Jefferson Bible just the words of Jesus? Part 2 — Warren Throckmorton

  • KevinVA

    Are you prepared to retract your post? Or at least give it some thought? I tire of this endless attack on Barton from the left, merely because he continuously presents evidence supporting the Christian heritage of our Founding Fathers… which bothers Leftists for reasons that could only be explained by religious bigotry.

    Why anyone would ignore someone, who has one of (if not THE) greatest/largest collections of original Founder writings, as an authority on the subject of the Founders is beyond me.

    You neglected to mention the verbiage of Greenhow’s letter to Jefferson, which sparked Jefferson’s response. You also neglected to mention Greenhow’s relation to Jefferson. They were actually quite close (close enough to be forthcoming in asking for a donation for the Virginia Bible Society, anyway) and Greenhow served as his agent at the Mutual Assurance Society.

    The letter was written November 11, 1813 (the year of the Society’s founding) and said the following:

    “I [am] very unwilling to be considered as impertinent, and have therefore hesitated, before I determined, that, I might, without impertinence, inclose to you a Copy of the Address & Constitution of an Association in Virginia, for the distribution of Bibles gratuitously, to those who are not able to purchase them. …We should be much pleased to number you among the members of the Society; But, if you should prefer it, we will thankfully receive any donation that you may be pleased to aid us with—”

    They made him an honorary member of the society in the year of its’ founding… with or without a donation. That should tell you two things: 1. they knew Jefferson was a steadfast Christian, and 2. he was a founding member of the Virginia Bible Society.

  • KevinVA

    Aquaria, your view of the Constitution is flawed… for depicting any religious theme in a public square is NOT unconstitutional… but it IS protected by the Constitution that any religion may be depicted in any public square.

    Wherever you’re getting your information… please seek other sources.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/warrenthrockmorton Warren

    KevininVA – In our book Getting Jefferson Right, we provide the entire letters of Greenhow and Jefferson. When Greenhow wrote to Jefferson, it was obvious that he was introducing the society to Jefferson. Jefferson knew nothing of it. You can’t found something you don’t know about.

    By the way, I am not on the left, being an evangelical, teaching at an evangelical college.

    Let’s try your logic another way. You have written me in the same year I started my Getting Jefferson Right Facebook group. I think I will add you to it as an honorary member, whether you want to join or not, whether you buy the book or not. Then when I talk to people about the group, I can say Kevin in VA founded the Getting Jefferson Right Facebook group.

    Being added to a group as an honorary member by the current founders doesn’t make you a Founder, as Barton claims. Jefferson donated money but never acknowledged membership, never went to any meetings, and expressed reservations about what the group did. In Greenhow’s letter back to Jefferson after his courteous donation, he defended the society’s aims to Jefferson but never said he was an honorary member, or spoke to him as one. There are no additional letters from Jefferson on the matter.

    A question for you is why do you need to stretch the truth? Jefferson gave a friend’s charity $50. That is it. That in itself demonstrates that Jefferson was friendly to beliefs he didn’t agree with and that in itself is interesting about the man. Why embellish it?

    If you have an open mind, I invite you to go on over to Amazon or Barnes and Noble and buy Getting Jefferson Right. I promise I won’t consider you a co-author if you do.

  • James Fergson

    “They made him an honorary member of the society in the year of its’ founding… with or without a donation. That should tell you two things: 1. they knew Jefferson was a steadfast Christian, and 2. he was a founding member of the Virginia Bible Society.”

    It tells me that Greenhow wanted Jefferson’s name attached to the society, as it obviously would give them greater influence. Barton cherrypicks references to suit his evangelical purposes. Some rather obscure ones it seems. I suppose this gives him greater leverage within his evangelical community, lending to the appearance of being a “scholar.”

  • ken

    KevinVA says:

    June 3, 2012 at 2:01 am

    “merely because he continuously presents evidence supporting the Christian heritage of our Founding Fathers”

    No, because Barton mis-represents the evidence. And his refusal to answer valid criticisms about his “research” from actual historians indicate these mis-representations are not honest mistakes.

    And I found it pretty amusing that you would suggest that Warren is “leftist”.

  • KevinVA

    Warren, very humorous response. I do appreciate your response. I may purchase your book – we’ll see. You make some valid points, but then you disregard the importance of Jefferson’s same practice of Bible distribution, that the Virginia Bible Society partook in.

    Jefferson specifically wrote a condensed version of the Bible in order to distribute to Indians, for missionary purposes. If he was so out of line with the Virginia Bible Society, then why partake in such an activity?

    Why discount that as evidence of his support for the Bible Society? I admit that this is speculation and I have no evidence to suggest Jefferson’s undying support of the Bible Society, but there’s no evidence to the contrary… There’s also little evidence to suggest that he didn’t accept, with arms wide open, an honorary membership (which I believe was insinuated in the first letter to Jefferson). If you have evidence to the contrary, please provide it… Or just redirect me to your book, as you did previously.

    If you’re not a leftist, then forgive me for lumping you in with the majority of Barton bashers. I was going with a gut feeling, as I’ve never read/followed your work. I found this site in a Google search, saw something I inherently disagreed with and decided to post. Please forgive my brashness.

    Ken, if you can provide factual evidence that Barton “mis-represents the evidence,” then please do so – I do have an open mind. Do you also have access to one of the largest collections of Founders’ writings?

    What determines someone is an “actual historian” anyway? Because they have a Master’s degree or a PhD? I would suggest that the first and most accurate historians did not… nor would the current accurate, but not actual, historians.

    Historians, I would argue, are those who have studied (and continue to study, in great detail) a particular subject about history – using physical evidence in the form of writings, archaeological findings, etc. Barton, therefore, I would suggest is a historian on the Founding Fathers and America’s founding.

  • StraightGrandmother

    I tire of this endless attack on Barton from the left, merely because he continuously presents evidence supporting the Christian heritage of our Founding Fathers… which bothers Leftists for reasons that could only be explained by religious bigotry.

    Ha-ha-ha-ha, he-he-he-he, Excuse me a minute from commenting, as I am rolling on the floor laughing my guts out!

    This is the same David Barton that said AIDS foretold by God, right? That God sent AIDS to punish homosexuals, right? That he warned them but because they didn’t listen this is God’s punishment. This is the same man right? And you have the nerve to talk about religious bigotry???

    Ha-ha-ha-ha, he-he-he-he, ROTFLMFAO

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/warrenthrockmorton Warren

    KevininVA – I really can do nothing better than to refer you to our book (click this link) because we have laid it all out in detail that I need not repeat here. Part of why we wrote the book was to respond to these kinds of questions.

    I can however, also refer you to an article at Crosswalk.com where I blog. http://www.crosswalk.com/blogs/dr-warren-throckmorton/did-virginia-law-prevent-thomas-jefferson-from-freeing-his-slaves.html. This piece illustrates the kind of history done by Barton routinely. He seems like he uses lots of historical sources but when you look at what he does with them, it turns out he obscures the facts frequently.

  • ken

    KevinVA says:

    June 3, 2012 at 11:47 am

    “if you can provide factual evidence that Barton “mis-represents the evidence,” then please do so ”

    Basically, you can just do a search on Warren’s blog for “David Barton”, Warren provides quite a bit of evidence about Barton’s misrepresentations. for example:

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/warrenthrockmorton/2011/04/27/david-barton-on-thomas-jefferson-did-jefferson-approve-church-in-the-capitol/

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/warrenthrockmorton/2011/04/20/david-barton-on-thomas-jefferson-in-the-year-of-our-lord-christ/

    http://www.patheos.com/blogs/warrenthrockmorton/2011/04/18/david-barton-pluralism-not-the-goal-of-the-first-amendment/

    And Warren’s book has a lot more examples.

    “Do you also have access to one of the largest collections of Founders’ writings?”

    Nope. However, I would point out that “access” and “understanding” are very different things.

    “What determines someone is an “actual historian” anyway? Because they have a Master’s degree or a PhD?”

    Exactly. Perhaps a more accurate description would be experts. People who are trained in the study of history. Because it is far more than simply memorizing dates and excerpting a few quotes here and there. And for the record, I don’t consider Warren to be an expert either. Rather he is an amateur historian (but a better one than Barton in my opinion).

    “Why discount that as evidence of his support for the Bible Society?”

    Warren’s main point was that Jefferson wasn’t a founder of the society as Barton claimed (another mis-representation by Barton). As to your question about the bible Jefferson wrote, did the Virgina Bible society distribute that copy to the native americans? Do you have any evidence that Jefferson wanted them to do so? Or any other evidence to discount Warren’s claim that Jefferson’s donation was more to help out a friend rather than an endorsement of the society?

  • James Fergson

    The surest way to see how Barton misrepresents Jefferson is to read Jefferson himself, but it seems some persons prefer to have Jefferson filtered through others. My suggest is that Kevin go look at the collection of Jefferson writings available through UVA,

    http://guides.lib.virginia.edu/TJ

    since he doesn’t appear to trust Warren.

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/warrenthrockmorton Warren

    KevininVA – Let me add that the story of Jefferson writing a condensed gospels for evangelizing the Indians is not true either. Barton combines the two stories in his DVD series but neither are true. They do sound good together though.

    We examine the Jefferson Bible issues in great detail in the book; it probably is the strongest chapter in that we provide everything Jefferson ever said about his 1804 and post 1820 efforts, as well as the tables of texts used for the 1804 version. You will not find an abridgment of the gospels in the way Barton claims. In fact, there are four passages Barton claims are in the book that are simply not there.

  • Joshua Zambrano

    I notice you gave no explanation or proof for the following statements you made: “Both Adams and Jefferson agreed that the New Testament was riddled with corruptions and falsehoods. Jefferson’s attempt to edit the New Testament was driven by his desire to get back to the basic moral teachings of Jesus, sans miracles.”

    Yet nothing you quoted backed this up about Jefferson. Jefferson’s writings in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and his creation of a Sabbath Law requiring mandatory Sunday observance strongly suggest otherwise. Rather, it appears to show he and Adams were critical of Catholicism specifically.

    See for example Jefferson’s remarks to the Danbury Baptists. Jefferson and Madison both endorsed separation of church and state as a way to protect the persecuted Baptists of the area. They disliked the state churches of Europe run by Anglicanism and Catholicism, and supported the Quakers and Baptists who had fled Europe from such anti-Christian persecution.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/warrenthrockmorton Warren

      Joshua – Please check your reference on the Sabbath law. It did not require mandatory Sunday observance. The law read:

      If any person on Sunday shall himself be found labouring at his own or any other trade or calling, or shall employ his apprentices, servants or slaves in labour, or other business, except it be in the ordinary household offices of daily necessity, or other work of necessity or charity, he shall forfeit a sum of ten shillings for every such offense.

      Note the exception. That is a very broad loophole. The effect of the law is prevent disturbances on the Sabbath, rather than to prevent all activity formerly associated with Sabbath keeping in VA. Jefferson’s revision of the Sabbath law was a liberalization of what was before.

  • Richard Willmer

    Warren says: “Christians have a skewed view of the world anyway often and Barton just creates more fiction.”

    We all do, and that is why questioning is so important.

    Essentially what worries me about Barton’s approach is that it is a polemical, and not an equiring, one. This is not an appropriate modus operandi for an historian.

    Another point: a careful look at history strongly suggests that the crystallization of religious dogma, and the accompanying repression and violence, was often driven by political considerations. This is true of all the main western religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Many – myself included – would argue that this process was in many ways detrimental to all three religions, and do not like the new process of ‘crystallization’ that seems to be being promoted by the extreme right. Healthy religion is founded upon relationship, not rigid dogma.

  • Throbert McGee

    Joshua Zambrano: You may want to have a gander at Thomas Jefferson’s famous 1787 letter to his nephew Peter Carr — which is famous partly because one can deduce a lot from it about how Jefferson (then in his early 40s) felt about orthodox Christianity at that time in his life.

    Among other things, Jefferson recommends that Carr should read the Bible with the same dispassionate eye that one reads histories by pagan Roman historians (and thus, if one is inclined to disbelieve pagan accounts of talking statues, one should also be inclined to disbelieve Biblical accounts of talking donkeys, for instance).

    And Jefferson explicitly urges Carr to be fully open-minded about the possibility that Jesus “was a man of illegitimate birth, of a benevolent heart, enthusiastic mind, who set out without pretensions to divinity, ended in believing them, and was punished capitally for sedition.”

    In short, Jefferson writes in this letter like an agnostic of Christian upbringing, or perhaps some variety of Unitarian — but not as a man who actually believes in the divinity of Jesus or the inspiration of the Bible.

  • Krista Vessell

    Joshua, why would Warren need to cite anything when you can read the ENTIRE “Jefferson Bible” right here for yourself?

    http://americanhistory.si.edu/JeffersonBible/the-book/?view=scan&page=1#dl

    Oh, and I did read it, by the way. Not ONE mention of Jesus performing a miracle, including healing or raising the dead, or even forgiving sins. The closest account to Jesus forgiving a sin is this verse regarding the adulteress who was about to be stoned: “And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.” There are so many omissions, but some are particularly interesting:

    These 3 verses are included:

    “And as Jesus passed by, he saw a man which was blind from his birth.

    And his disciples asked him, saying, Master, who did sin, this man, or his parents, that he was born blind?

    Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.”

    But unlike the original Bible, which continues with the account of Jesus healing the blind man’s eyes with clay, there is NO mention of a healing, or even what the “works of God” might be. The entire healing is COMPLETELY ignored.

    Both of these verses are omitted in the account of Jesus’ riding a donkey into Jerusalem:

    Matthew 21:9 “And the multitudes that went before, and that followed, cried, saying, Hosanna to the son of David: Blessed is he that comes in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest.”

    Matthew 21:11 “And the multitude said, This is Jesus the prophet of Nazareth of Galilee.”

    According to the Jefferson Bible, Jesus simply rode a donkey into Jerusalem and the people laid palm branches on the path before Him.

    These verses were omitted from the account of the Last Supper:

    “27 And after the sop Satan entered into him. Then said Jesus unto him, That thou doest, do quickly.”

    “31 Therefore, when he was gone out, Jesus said, Now is the Son of man glorified, and God is glorified in him.”

    “32 If God be glorified in him, God shall also glorify him in himself, and shall straightway glorify him.”

    “33 Little children, yet a little while I am with you. Ye shall seek me: and as I said unto the Jews, Whither I go, ye cannot come; so now I say to you.”

    These verses were omitted from the account of the crucifixion:

    “42 And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.

    43 And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.”

    Again, there’s so much that has been edited out, but I just found these particular omissions very interesting. Also, no mention of the angel Gabriel, the virgin birth, even the traditional Nativity scene with the shepherds, no mention of the wise men and their gifts, the fleeing to Egypt, and the resurrection.

    If you want citations of what he wrote to others about his beliefs and why he created the “Jefferson Bible,” consider these:

    Letter to Dr. Joseph Priestley Washington, Apr. 9, 1803

    To John Adams Monticello, Oct. 12, 1813

  • MaBe

    I find it curious that you are using letters purportedly from Jefferson but were EDITED and PRINTED in 1959 by Lester Cappon. :| If you are going to use letters from Jefferson, why not use the original letters??

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/warrenthrockmorton Warren

      MaBe – Do you have evidence that Cappon did not reproduce the entire original letters? The Cappon book is a standard reference work in the field which David Barton also uses. If you think something is amiss, please provide some documentation.

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