Kirk Cameron’s Monumental Revision of Thomas Jefferson

Kirk Cameron is giving some in the media advanced looks at Monumental (which premieres tonight), including Christianity Today. In a follow up interview, Cameron extends his revision of Thomas Jefferson to a discussion of Jefferson’s faith and the Jefferson Bible.

Interviewer Andrew Thompson gets credit for asking a couple of hard questions about Jefferson’s faith. Cameron dodges them with historical fiction. Thompson asked:

The documentary mentions that the founding fathers were Christians, even implying that Jefferson was a Christian. But most scholarship would say he was a deist who hardly held evangelical views.

Cameron directs Thompson to someone who Cameron says has studied Jefferson’s life and faith, Stephen McDowell, who is involved i the Providence Foundation, another revisionist history organization. It is no wonder that he then spins a yarn about Jefferson’s extraction of miracles and the deity of Christ twice, first in his 1804 Philosophy of Jesus and then again sometime between 1820 and 1824, in order to form what Jefferson considered to be Jesus’ real moral teachings. Cameron answered:

For that, I would direct you to other people who have studied his life and his faith for thirty years—like Stephen McDowell [author of America’s Providential History], who’s at the end of the film. We’ve all heard about The Jefferson Bible that Jefferson edited by taking scissors and cutting out the parts didn’t like—removing the miracles, and only keeping the moral teachings of Jesus. Well, that actually is not true. The story is that Jefferson was so enamored with the teachings of Jesus that he wanted to have a personal devotional book. And he cut those sections out of several of his Bibles and glued them into a personal handbook that he could keep in his back pocket for his own devotional reading. He was opposed to the idea of calling it a Jefferson Bible.

Thompson is ready with a pretty good reply (although with an incorrect quote) to that story:

In a 1787 letter to Peter Carr, Jefferson wrote that “trying to find the truth in the Bible is like picking diamonds out of dunghills.” Sounds like a pretty low view of Scripture, doesn’t it?

In fact, the phrase — diamonds from a dunghill — although quoted incorrectly here by Thompson, is very relevant to what Jefferson said he did with the Gospels. In 1813, Jefferson told Adams that he had edited the Gospels with this description:

I have performed this operation for my own use, by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and arranging the matter which is evidently his, and which is as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill.

Jefferson extracted the diamonds from the Gospels and left in the dunghill. For Jefferson, diamonds included the Golden Rule, and the Sermon on the Mount, and dunghill included the virgin birth, John 3:16 and the resurrection. Viewers of Monumental might find that surprising. Sounds like Cameron might find that surprising. Cameron’s answer to Thompson dodges the central problem with what I have seen of Monumental:

Yeah, it sure does. I’m not running around waving the Thomas Jefferson flag. Even if Jefferson is a complete infidel—and I’m not saying that he is—he certainly promoted the basic principles of Christianity and funded major Christian efforts to get the principles of Christianity deep into the hearts and minds of people. He understood that it was only those principles that could provide the basis and foundation for a free and just society.

What are the basic principles of Christianity? This is a pretty important question since he said Jefferson promoted these principles. Jefferson believes you get to heaven by doing good works, and sure did many of them. He believed in treating others the way you want to be treated. He also believed that one’s life of virtue is proof enough that one’s religion is personally valuable, no matter what that religion was. Are those the basic principles of Christianity?

Jefferson is a fascinating figure who remains at the center of conversation after all these years. Pity for viewers that Monumental does not appear to get Jefferson right.

**Regarding the quote attributed to Peter Carr, I cannot find that exact quote. Jefferson did tell young Carr to “Read the Bible, then, as you would read Livy, or Tacitus. The facts which are within ordinary course of nature you will believe on the authority of the writer, as you do those of the same kind in Livy and Tacitus. But those facts in the bible which contradict the laws of nature, must be examined with more care, and under a variety of faces.” He added that Carr should question Joshua’s story of the sun standing still because it violates the laws of nature. Regarding the New Testament, Jefferson advised reading extra-biblical literature to contrast with the canon of Scripture. However, I think CT’s Thompson has blended a couple of quotes together incorrectly.

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  • Jo

    You clearly state your a opinion. good job thats why “Whitewingwatch” is nothing more than a shrill machine that doesnt care about a conversation rather a good ol’ cheap shot or a million cheap shots to be exact. I’d rather listen to known historians that Kirk looks up to rather than a bunch of people who just may of gotten their college dagree or even less. Thats more logical than say take the word of people who listen and defend Rachel Maddow a known progressive for a progressive network where she had a fill in who said “there is nothing wrong with socialism” and never recanted. So in the words of the socialist Rachel Maddow “If only we could make this up…and we would…we didn’t have to tonight.”

    • Jo – In the lists of people Cameron consulted that are available, there are no known historians. To whom are you referring?

  • Lynn David

    Another article on Cameron’s Monumental.

  • Richard

    Jo, I am not sure what your point is. Your comments don’t make any sense. FYI–Cameron is a naive rube who is getting his history lessons from David Barton: a pseudo-historian who has no credibility among real historians.

    Oh and by the way, you might want to brush up on your spelling and grammar, For example, it’s “degree” not “dagree”. And you started out by saying, “You clearly stated your a opinion.” Huh? “Your a opinion?” I assume you slept through english class.

  • Richard Willmer

    Jefferson’s stated view of the Bible is – while perhaps ‘overdrawn’ – not without merit. It is the case that the collection of writings, written by different people for different people and, at the time of writing, often for very particular purposes in very particular contexts, that make up the Canon of Scripture does need to be studied with great care in order to ‘distil’ from it the underlying themes and true meanings. There is, IMHO, actually nothing unChristian about recognizing this; after all, it is not the Bible that Christians are called to worship.

  • David M.

    Christians had long ago developed a pocket-sized version of the faith in the Nicene Creed. That is the most important distillation that I believe separates Christian orthodoxy from heterodoxy. If we jetison that, we have to reinvent it somehow, since, as Richard Willmer suggests, the Bible doesn’t give us its own interpretive key. But I know by saying this I’ll be offending some evangelical sensibilities.

  • Patrocles

    As said before, it’s not so much a problem of historical facts (which Dr. Throckmorton laudibly tries to get correct). It’s a problem of concept formation, “in-grouping” and “out-grouping”.

    At the moment, evangelical “Christians” like Cameron are prepared to look at Jefferson (and similar Jesus-followers) as “one of us – in spite of his deficits”. And in reverse, liberal “Christians” tend to stress their difference to Evangelicals (them being not “one of us”, but “the other”)..

    But that’s a fight which can’t be won. Liberal “Christians” can hardly make plausible that Evangelicals are no Christians at all. So, if they want to disassociate themselves from Evangelicals, they must tell us (at least implicitly) that “Christianity” as the common denominator isn’t much relevant. But if Christianity is not much relevant for them, why do they call themselves Christians?

    That’s why liberal Christianism tends to be transitory and to dissolve itself in universalism or transcendentalism etc.

  • Patrocles

    As I don’t want to incite the sin of incorrect spelling, please, read “laudably” instead of “laudibly”.

  • Patrocles

    Did Jefferson ever see the connection between the sermon on the mount and the atonement? If sin is as universal and nearly inevitable as Jesus tells on the mount, then there’s the urgent question: How can we – as a community of sinners – be saved from the consequences of our sins?

    That’s the problem which the doctrine of atonement tried to solve.

    • Good works. Virtue. Jefferson believed good works would give one an advantage in the afterlife. He did not accept the doctrine of original sin.

  • Richard Willmer

    Interesting. Obviously ‘virtue’ might be well advantageous when it comes to the ‘next stage’ (less time in purgatory?); as for the Doctrine of Original Sin – I think that many Christians, and not just evangelicals, would regard this as an essential Christian dogma (it’s also generally accepted in popular culture: “nobody’s perfect” as the saying goes!).

  • gail

    Most people can only go back to such a point in time to deal with the truth so far as it does not mess with their perception of things.

    The “truth” is: This Nation was NOT founded on Christian principles. Those who would have us believe it was like to cite that it has “prospered as long as it was guided by Bible believing principles.” NOTHING could be further from the truth.

    This “nation” has prospered for the simple fact that it was sooooo teeming with natural resources that it took 500 years to deplete them. The abundance that nature had to offer on this continent was here for the simple reason that it was not as over-populated as Europe was. Period. This was indeed the land of plenty. Not so much anymore.

    Further, citing the “Founding Fathers” and holding them up as ones to emulate is completely unreasonable when you consider the ‘true’ meaning of just a few excerpts from only one document in this nation’s history: The Declaration of Independence.

    “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that ALL MEN are CREATED EQUAL, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

    *IF* the term ALL MEN referred to all HUMANS, then it would be a correct premise – but it does not. It refers to all white men who owned property. Women, or People of Color were denied equal rights by these very white men who considered themselves superior enough over all other “humans” to place themselves in the lofty position of deciding that they alone – white men – were created “equal.” Women or People of Color were denied “equal rights” by self-righteous white dudes who basically made themselves ‘lord’ over others. Do you not realize that they put themselves in “God’s” position when they decided who could or could NOT have “equal rights”? That act, in and of itself is NOT Christian by any means. Not at all.

    But there is even more incriminating evidence from this very same document!

    “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

    “… the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages …”

    the inhabitants of WHOSE FRONTIERS? …


    Who was inhabiting whose frontiers? ‘White man’ was inhabiting the land of the Native People with red skin – the people that God gave this continent to. The people that “white man” stole it from by decimating the Native population via warfare and biological warfare (ie., terrorism) — white men introduced Small Pox virus to people without any immunity. Yep. Sounds like biological warfare to me.