Getting Jefferson Right: When did Jefferson question the Trinity?

It might seem like a small point, but for David Barton, Jefferson’s religious beliefs are worth an entire chapter in his book The Jefferson Lies. In that book, Barton claims Jefferson did not question the Trinity until 1813. However, we find abundant evidence to the contrary. Here is an excerpt from our book, Getting Jefferson Right.

In The Jefferson Lies, David Barton claims that Jefferson came under the influence of groups in Virginia Barton labels as Primitivists and Restorationists. Specifically, Barton claims:

In fact, it was during his affiliation with Christian Primitivism that he first expressed anti-Trinitarian views in a letter to John Adams in 1813.

As we have seen, this claim is clearly false. Jefferson, in 1788, refused to sponsor a friend’s child as a godfather because he would have to affirm his belief in the Trinity. He told his friend, Derieux, that he held that belief [rejecting the Trinity] from early in his life. Jefferson also confided to a Unitarian friend that he attended Priestley’s Unitarian church before 1800, while he was Vice President. In Jefferson’s 1803 Syllabus, he laid out his belief that Jesus was not part of the Godhead. Barton’s attempt to make Jefferson seem orthodox during the active part of his political engagement is contradicted by Jefferson’ own words.

In Getting Jefferson Right, we go into great detail about Barton’s claims on Jefferson’s religious views. Barton tries to explain Jefferson’s religious statements later in life by an appeal to religious movements in central Virginia  (Primitivism and the Restoration movement). However, we debunk that effort and let Jefferson speak for himself about his religious influences and beliefs.

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  • Stephen

    You do understand that no one cares, don’t you? Those of us who understand Jefferson’s point of view don’t need your exegesis and Barton’s followers don’t care about reality. It’s called preaching to the choir. Good luck with it.

    Let’s talk instead about the avalanche of filth that has been unleashed upon the heads of gay Americans by NC’s evangelical half-wits. Try to explain to them the nuances of Jefferson’s thought.

    What do you say? Let’s discuss Corinthians.

    Meanwhile, when I next go to visit my much loved aunt in Florida I will no longer risk the drive through VA, NC, SC, GA. If anything were to happen, all our carefully planned legal strategies would be meaningless if some mouth breather chose not to allow my husband to supervise my care. This is the end of NARTH and praying away the gay. And you enable it.

    Good luck to you.

  • No, Stephen, you enable it.

  • ken

    Stephen says:

    May 8, 2012 at 11:42 pm

    “You do understand that no one cares, don’t you? Those of us who understand Jefferson’s point of view don’t need your exegesis and Barton’s followers don’t care about reality.”

    I care. Further, your “us vs. them” mentality incorrectly divides people into only 2 camps. It misses the fact there are a lot of other people who don’t fit into these 2 categories of yours. A lot of people who know little about Barton, but would take claims seriously, not because they are religious zealots, but because they are christian, would like to believe that all the founding fathers were christian, AND because no one had given them a reason to doubt Barton’s claims. Warren’s book (and blog posts) gives them reason to doubt Barton and the evidence to discount him.

    (btw, Warren, still having issues with your blog presenting old pages. but have found a bit of a “work around” by going to rather than must Did anything change on May 2, 2012? )

  • “…[Jefferson] first expressed anti-Trinitarian views in a letter to John Adams in 1813.”

    In this case, Barton has a bit of a point about 1813 [although not a very probative one, IMO] that Jefferson’s anti-Trinitarianism is seldom seen before that date.

    Dr. Throckmorton wrirtes:

    He told his friend, Derieux, that he held that belief [rejecting the Trinity] from early in his life.

    This isn’t strictly accurate. The July 25 1788 letter to Derieux does not have Jefferson “rejecting” the Trinity, only having “difficulty” with it.

    “The person who becomes sponsor for a child, according to the church in which I was educated makes a solemn profession, before god & the world, of faith in articles, which I had never sense enough to comprehend and it has always appeared to me that comprehension must precede assent. The difficulty of reconciling the ideas of Unity & Trinity have, from a very early part of my life, excluded me from the office of sponsorship, often proposed to me by friends…”— Thomas Jefferson to J.P.P. Derieux (July 25, 1788)/transcript by JRB of the American Creation blog

    “Anti-trinitarian” or “rejecting” trinitarianism is an overreach based on this text.

    I notice the word “rejected” all over the internet about this letter, but it appears this is one author re-quoting another and so on and so on. This is the same second-hand sourcing that continually gets David Barton in trouble in the first place.


    Related: Ben Franklin on the Trinity, 1790—

    “… I have with most of the present Dissenters in England, some Doubts as to his Divinity: tho’ it is a Question I do not dogmatise upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it now, when I expect soon an Opportunity of knowing the Truth with less Trouble.”

    Franklin dies several months later, and indeed finds out whether Jesus is God with “less trouble.”

    Again, to call Ben Franklin an anti-Trinitarian would be an overreach. He can only be faithfully described as agnostic on the issue, which is only as far as Jefferson’s 1788 letter to Derieux can get us.

    Best regards, Dr. T. As for Jefferson’s 1803 “Syllabus” in his letter to Benjamin Rush, I must read

    “The question of his being a member of the Godhead, or in direct communication with it, claimed for him by some of his followers, and denied by others, is foreign to the present view, which is merely an estimate of the intrinsic merit of his doctrines.”

    as Jefferson tabling the question of Jesus’ Godhead, as “foreign” to the purpose of Jefferson’s inquiry into the “intrinsic merit of his doctrines.” Not a rejection, not an anti-Trinitarianism. There are several other expressions of non-Trinitarianism in the pre-1813 Jefferson canon, but Barton cannot be hanged based on the evidence you present here.

    • Tom – That is about the most charitable reading of Jefferson and the Trinity I have read beyond Barton’s. Both Rush and Priestley wrote Jefferson back with surprise at Jefferson’s views. Rush later in 1803 told Jefferson that he would not agree with a view that had Jesus as less than God and Priestley was surprised that Jefferson did not hold that Jesus had a divine mission. Even Unitarian Priestley believed Jesus had a divine mission. Priestley read Jefferson’s syllabus as excluding it. If Jefferson’s contemporaries thought of him as rejecting the Trinity, then I am not sure why you would disagree. However, Barton is still wrong in his statement in The Jefferson Lies that 1813 is the first expression of anti-Trinitarian views.

      Tom – have you read Getting Jefferson Right?

  • Warren, I’m discussing the evidence you presented here in this post. It doesn’t hold.

    I didn’t say you were wrong on the thesis, I’m saying that your evidence here doesn’t support it.

    The funny thing is, when Barton presents bum evidence, it’s used to impeach his thesis, that he’s all wrong. When his critics present bum evidence, it’s always “read the whole thesis.”

    My objections are formal here, Warren, as they were when i felt you glossed over Jefferson’s inclusion of matthew 25 and Judgment Day, when the SSon of man comes back to judge mankind and separate the “sheep from the goats.” You proved that Barton was half wrong on something he said on Glenn beck’s video, but minimized the part—and a very important part—where he was half right.

    I don’t mean to be adversarial with you; I appreciate your parsing Barton’s work. Since I don’t read Barton, your criticisms usually expose the half he gets right—like donating $50 [a lot of dough back then] to the Virginia Bible Society for the purpose of providing Bibles to the poor.

    The part he got wrong, that Jefferson was some sort of “founder’ of the VBS, means nothing to me because I don’t read Barton in the first place.

    I check you both, via your critiques [and other of his critics]. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? You check Barton’s work, but who checks yours?

    My objections here and elsewhere are formal [and Barton gets his every word parsed to death, so it’s goose and gander time]—the text of the Dirieux letter simply doesn’t support the assertion that Jefferson “rejected” the Trinity as early as 1788. Neither does his Syllabus of 1803, which simply skirts the question of Jesus’ divinity.

    My own studies of Jefferson have never led me to believe that he saw Jesus/the New Testament as spoken with divine authority, the literal will and Word of God. You and I have no fundamental disagreement. But I do think Barton may have stumbled on a truth, that Jefferson does not go over from an agnosticism—heavy doubt, even—in the Trinity to his vociferous anti-Trinitarianism until deeper into his post-presidential days.

    And there remains the possibility that Jefferson left Matthew 25 and the Second Coming in his “Jefferson Bible” because he lacked the theological certainty to cut it out. That’s damn interesting, Warren.

    I look forward to your evidence from his correspondence with Priestley and Rush. I’m sorry I must demur from your analysis of the Dirieux letter and of the Syllabus, but that’s where the text takes me.

  • Tom – This post is an excerpt and I say as much. But even so, Jefferson’s words to his friend who wanted him to be a godfather were expressions of anti-Trinitarian views. They certainly weren’t pro-Trinity, nor even neutral or questioning. He made a decision based on his view of that doctrine and it was not favorable.

    Rejection is in the eye of the beholder I guess. And no Barton didn’t stumble into a truth. You are making way too much out of an excerpt here. We laid it all out in the book. Are you going to read it?

  • Warren, I strongly disagree with your use of “anti-Trinitarian” and “rejected” here for reasons given, although they easily apply to Jefferson’s post-presidential writings—although I think their importance is highly exaggerated, as any ex-President’s babblings are.

    I look forward to reading more excerpts that I find compelling enough to subject myself to reading a book-length rebuttal of David Barton, whose “work” I don’t give a hang about in the first place. So far, I’m not feeling sufficiently compelled, if I may attempt a delicate reply.

    Rest assured, Warren, that I don’t troll your blog looking to start up with you. Your posts here are often linked by my co-blogger Jonathan Rowe over @

    I examine your interesting claims and report my findings in our comments sections. Since the results are in my comptr’s clipboard, I reprint them here as well. I’ve upheld the majority of your objections, but have tended to report only the ones I think should be overruled. I’m sorry if I give the impression I’m highly critical of your work. On balance, I’m highly in agreement with it.

    But I believe Barton’s critics have too free a hand, are received as uncritically by his enemies as he is by his fans, and often do not hold themselves to the same bonecrushing standard they apply to him. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? Moi, I’m afraid. Being me is a dirty job, but somebody’s got to do it. Cheers, my friend.


    • Tom – I leave the rest where it is. My only comment is that the standards I and others use to examine Barton’s work is hardly bonecrushing. For instance, it is not too much to ask for Barton to distinguish between giving a one time donation to a Bible society and being the founder of that bible society, is it?

  • I think it’s a useful correction, Warren, but I also think it’s an argument about the footnotes. It simply doesn’t move my meter much, certainly not as much as Jefferson giving the $50 in the first place, which would come as a surprise to those with the ‘common knowledge’ that Jefferson was a deist.

    Google Jefferson and “deist” and see the world of ignorance out there on the anti-Barton side for yrself!

    Look, Barton’s errors are bizarre. I’ve never seen anything like it. Still, there’s usually a germ of truth in there that’s interesting, and since my own approach to truth is not adversarial, I’m willing to see where these things lead.

    For instance, the thing with the Kaskaskia Indians, if nothing else, seems to be the first “faith-based initiative.” Jefferson’s “Bible” does contain the second Coming. I find all that interesting. In our present discussion, my careful reading of Jefferson’s 1788 letter to Dirieux has him not quite decided that the Trinity is a fiction.

    Whereas by 1823, he’s analysed John 1 and decided that “the word made flesh” of John 1 is a mistranslation of “logos.” Now, this is an anti-Trinitarian tract!

    As always, best regards.