Jefferson and the Bible: A Response to David Barton on the Glenn Beck Show, Part Four

During his appearance on the 8/16/12 Glenn Beck show, David Barton addressed two of our critiques of his chapter on Jefferson and the Bible. The first related to verses included in the Jefferson Bible and the second related to Barton’s treatment of the 1798 Thompson Hot-Pressed Bible.

We’ll take the second item first. Barton contends that his depiction of Jefferson’s relationship to the Thompson Bible is correct. We maintain that he misleads readers in the way he described the situation in The Jefferson Lies. Here is what he said about the Thompson Bible in his book:

Furthermore, in 1798 Jefferson personally helped finance the printing of one of America’s groundbreaking editions of the Bible. That Bible was a massive, two-volume folio set that was not only the largest Bible ever published in America to that time, but it was also America’s first hot-pressed Bible. President John Adams, several signers of the Constitution and Declaration, and other major Founders joined with Jefferson to help fund that Bible.

In Kirk Cameron’s movie Monumental, Barton said this:

This Bible was funded by about a dozen signers of the Constitution and signers of the Declaration as well as by President John Adams and Vice President Thomas Jefferson. They’re the guys that put up the financial backing to do this Bible.

Barton added:

When you see this stuff, you go wait a minute. These guys…why would any atheist, agnostic, or deist promote the Word of God, fund it and want it distributed to every family and everyone in America?

He then declares that such actions only make sense if those doing the funding (the Signers) were Christians.

To our eyes and ears, these descriptions taken together sound like Jefferson and a small group of founders went together to financially back the printing of a Bible for some evangelistic purpose.

On the Glenn Beck show, Barton acknowledges that Jefferson was merely a subscriber to receive a copy of this Bible but makes a point to define a subscriber as an investor. Barton defines subscription for Beck and they agree that Jefferson’s subscription to the Bible was analogous to the website Kickstarter, which is a means to fund start up projects.  Watch (between 7:24-11:00):

A very significant problem with this response is that Barton did not say in his book or Monumental that Jefferson subscribed to receive one copy of the Bible. Barton cited the subscriber’s list in a footnote but did not provide an image of the list or describe it any further. He is only now talking about subscription because we provided the details about the Thompson Bible in our book. Barton’s fall back position seems to be that he is technically correct because subscriber really meant investor.

Even in his description of subscription on the Beck show, he does not get the circumstances of the Thompson Hot-Pressed Bible correct. Barton told Beck that the printers “wouldn’t print the book if they couldn’t pay for it all up front” (8:28). That is not true in this case. Printers Thompson and Small printed the first section of the Bible before they advertised it in 1796. There is no question that subscription was a means for printers to anticipate the number of items to print but in this case they did not need all the money up front before they began.

What is even more troubling for Barton’s theory is the way Jefferson paid for his copy. The two ledger entries we can find for this Bible came near the end of the project. He paid $5 in February, 1798 and then $10 in January 1799, several months after the Bible was complete. Recall that the first notice of the project was in 1796.

These facts make the Kickstarter analogy a non-starter. With Kickstarter, all funds requested for a project must come in by a date established by the project designer. If they do not come in, all money is refunded and the project is not started. Take this project by a Grove City College student as an example. If all of the money is not raised by September 15th to fund Asleep in a Storm, then the project will not be funded via this approach. All the money donated will be refunded. Also note that those who give more money get more than just a copy of a product. In the case of the subscriber to the Thompson Bible, subscribers spent their money and got their sections of the Bible. If for some reason, the project was not completed, those who spent their money would still have their sections of the Bible. The analogy to Kickstarter simply doesn’t work.

If Barton had made the argument he is now making in his book or in Monumental, we would still disagree that Jefferson did anything more than buy a Bible. However, what is glossed over in this Beck segment is that Barton did not make that argument or present that information. Rather, the narrative presented was misleading and that point still has not been addressed by Beck or Barton.

Next, we deal with Barton’s claims regarding the Jefferson Bible.

Earlier posts in this series:

Jefferson and Slavery: A Response to David Barton on the Glenn Beck Show, Part One

Jefferson and Slavery: A Response to David Barton on the Glenn Beck Show, Part Two

Jefferson and Slavery: A Response to David Barton on the Glenn Beck Show, Part Three

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  • ken


    Have you and/or Michael contacted the Beck show and offered to either a) be a guest to state your case and/or b) debate Barton directly on the show?

  • Richard Willmer

    Maybe David Barton should read some T.S. Eliot? Perhaps Eliot’s greatest with is his Four Quartets, where he explores the nature of life, love and faith. Here’s a short portion that speaks to me:-

    “With the drawing of this Love and the voice of this Calling

    We shall not cease from exploration

    And the end of all our exploring

    Will be to arrive where we started

    And know the place for the first time.”

    For those who love poetry, here’s the work in full:

  • James Ferguson

    Is it just me, or do others think the “recall” of this book has drawn more attention to it, especially with the press that has been given it? Not this much press was given when the book came out this past Spring. Most leading periodicals took a pass on it, and it seems only his devoted followers bought the book and conservative groups boosted its amazon ranking through block buying. Now here is Barton getting this much wanted attention, basking in it like a martyr.

  • I am certainly not an expert in the field, but my understanding of publishing during the revolutionary and early national periods was that subscriptions were, in effect, a way to determine the feasibility of a proposed project. They represented a financial commitment on the part of the subscriber, and as such, I think can be explained accurately be as an investment to a popular audience today. I think it is reasonable to assume that subscribers endorsed and believed in the proposed book, in this case the Bible. It was quite common for many Founders to not be orthodox Christians themselves, but to be firm believers that Christianity was very important to the new nation to function. There is a great deal of evidence to put Jefferson in that category.

  • Thomas – You are making a lot of assumptions. Subscriptions were not all alike. I have run into several models of paying for things and this is just one. In the case of this Bible, the facts are as I laid them out. Jefferson bought a Bible, and he even finished paying for it after the project was completed. Barton’s semantic fall back is only necessary for him because we pointed out the facts on this blog and in my book. Otherwise, his readers and listeners would not know about subscription or the fact that he bought one Bible and did not do so to get the book to American families.

  • Thomas,

    It helps to ask why Founders who were not orthodox Christians might value Christianity. It’s not because they believe Christianity is true, other religions false or Jesus the only way to God. Rather it’s because of the positive moralizing effect of religions. And as such if the religion has the desired effect, it’s a “valid” religion regardless of whether it’s Christianity. Though Christianity was “better” than other religions in a comparative sense because of the superiority of Jesus (the man’s) moral teachings. I absolutely get this from Jefferson, J. Adams and Franklin. I get it from Washington and Madison too, but with fewer “smoking gun” quotations to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.

  • Charles

    First there was creationism. When that did not work, intelligent design arrived to do the same thing under another name. When that one bit the dust, it was replaced by “Teach the Controversy.” Warren, with the past two posts by Hagedorn and Rowe, I think you are looking at folks desperately trying to find a new “theme” that will somehow transcend Barton’s demise and revive the Christian nation nonsense that dominates the world of Christian reconstructionism, dominionism, theonomy, and the 7 Mountains movement—all heresies against Jesus in my mind. The new theme being planted is:

    “Well, the founding fathers may not have been evangelcal Christians, but they believed in a nation overtaken, dominated, and run by Christians.”

    We will soon learn that it should only be overtaken, dominated, and run by a particular type of Christian, which conveniently excludes Catholics, Episcopalians, United Methodists, Northern Baptists, nonPCA Presbyterians, and a long list of others.

    Speaking as a Christian who has had all of this nonsense that I can reasonably take (as a psychologist you know that every man has his breaking point) my advice would be the same as that from Sheriff John Brown in the famous song:

    “Kill it before it can grow.”

    With Barton on the ropes and about to draw his last breath, I think the time has come to focus publicly on exposing Christian reconstructionism, dominionism, theonomy, and the 7 Mountains Movement for being the heresies that they actually are. Just sayin’

  • oft


    The amount of evidence only a handful of framers were not orthodox is slim at best. First, because it was taboo to come out. Second, there were few heterodox churches. Washington (Communion), Jefferson (his letter to the danbury baptists), and Madison (prayer book, and letter from Samuel Stanhope Smith), give evidence of their orthodoxy in word and actions. Referring to the Great Spirit is not enough. The Deity was the same, but not the details.

    Even the God of Ben Franklin was Jehovah:

    “I have lived, Sir, a long time and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth — that God governs in the affairs of men..We have been assured in the Sacred Writings that except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it. I firmly believe this. I also believe that, without His concurring aid, we shall succeed in this political building no better than the builders of Babel.”

    –Const. Convention

    The public understood Franklin believed in a specific God, Yahweh. Franklin believed in the Flood, Sodom and Gommorrah, and the parting of the Red Sea:

    “By the argument [Age of Reason] it contains against a particular Providence, though you allow a general Providence, you strike at the foundations of all religion. For without the belief of a Providence, that takes cognizance of, guards, and guides, and may favor particular persons, there is no motive to worship a Deity, to fear his displeasure, or to pray for his protection.”

    –To Thomas Paine, in 1790. The Works of Franklin. Sparks.

  • Jon, I basically agree with your point of view.

    Wayne, hopefully I will get time someday to check out this difference that you have with Barton. I am in the middle of my own work right now, which interestingly enough has to do with legal publishing in the same time period. A chapter in a book I am reading is “Risk, Subscriptions, and Status.” Books at the time were very expensive, so publishers used subscriptions to make sure they did not have a lot of unsold books sitting around.

    • Thomas – Inventory control is different than the buyer being an investor.

  • TxHistoryProf


    You are on to something here. Organized religion is a mode of crowd control and the founders knew that Christianity would keep the masses in check as the country was built.

  • Erp

    How does Barton handle Jefferson’s purchase of a Koran in apparently 1765? If purchasing a Bible shows he is an orthodox Christian….

  • Charles :

    “Kill it before it can grow.”

    A bit late when Barton’s one of the framers of the GOP policy platform.

    “Family Research Council president Tony Perkins continued to brag about his role in shaping the Republican Party platform, as he along with Religious Right activists like David Barton and James Bopp heavily influenced the document dubbed the “most conservative platform in modern history.”

    “. Barton is serving on the platform committee’s subcommittee on the Constitution, where Tony Perkins assures us Barton led efforts that “fended off liberal attacks that would have watered down the wording” on marriage and “life.”

  • Wayne, I don’t understand your reference to “inventory control.” If you look at Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language (1828), “subscribe” and its other forms all seem to imply the act of committing to an investment. It is important not to apply the most common use of the word in the 20th and 21st century (say, newspaper and magazine subscriptions) back to the 18th and 19th century. Of course, the word is still used sometimes in the context of an investment today. Common stock investors still “subscribe” (make a financial commitment) to buy new shares of a company. My understanding is that publishers at the time generally (whether of books or periodicals) got people to commit (subscribe) to paying for a copy or copies. They may not have had to pay up front, but they still had made a financial commitment that the publisher could rely upon to go ahead with his project. Publishing was very expensive and publishers could not take the risk of printing copies a lot of copies that went unsold.

  • Thomas – My name is Warren.

    Put aside the word a minute. When you read what Barton said about Jefferson’s involvement with the hot-pressed Bible, do you get the sense that he did anything more than pay for his copy of the Bible? It certainly sounds to me that Jefferson and a small group of signers went together to put up money so that Bible could be printed.

    That is just not what happened, call it what you will.

    I have additional evidence that is going in another post that Jefferson did not make his first payment until Feb, 1798, when the Bible was nearly completed. Argue over the word subscribe if you feel better, but the witness one bears can be false or it can be true. What witness about Jefferson and the hot-pressed Bible did Barton bear?

  • Krista Vessell

    So if Thomas Jefferson subscribing to receive a copy of this Bible is evidence that he was a staunch evangelical Christian who believed in the Christian ministry and spreading Christianity throughout the world, then, likewise, Thomas Jefferson purchasing a Qu’ran means he was a staunch Muslim who believed in the teachings of Mohammed and believed in spreading Islam, right? LOL

    Maybe he just wanted a copy of that particular Bible for himself because of his love of knowledge?

  • Krista Vessell

    Erp, Barton wrote a WHOLE article on that on Wallbuilders. Just look up “Keith Ellison.” He tries to say Jefferson only bought the Qu’ran to “know his enemies.”

  • Erp

    Ah so he was the source of that particular bit about the Jefferson Qur’an wandering around the Internet. I did find a different piece on it at which seems on the face to be accurate and indicates that Jefferson bought it back in 1765 as part of his legal studies. In the 1770s he went on to acquire other books about the Islamic world and to study Arabic (this is from “How Thomas Jefferson Read the Qur’?n” by Kevin Hayes, Early American Literature 39(2): 247-261.

  • Krista Vessell

    Yeah, but an interesting point is this: not only was Morocco (an Islamic nation) the FIRST nation to recognize the United States as a country in 1777, but the Moroccan-American Treaty of Friendship (1786) is also our longest unbroken treaty. The treaty happened to be signed by Thomas Jefferson.

    Also, according to the Virginia Gazette’s purchase records, Jefferson bought the George Sale’s English translation of the Quran, called “The Koran, Commonly Called the Alcoran of Mohammed,” in 1765. At this time, Jefferson was apparently working as a law clerk for George Wythe. The Revolutionary War hadn’t even taken place yet, and Jefferson purchased a Qu’ran? Hm… So when Barton writes: “Why did Jefferson own a Koran? A simple answer is: To learn the beliefs of the enemies he was fighting.”, he’s neglecting to mention the FULL story; that Jefferson had owned and read from this Qu’ran PRIOR to dealing with “Muslim terrorists,” as Barton called the Barbary Pirates. Definitely a loaded, anti-Islamist article that Barton wrote…

  • Krista Vessell

    Haha, sorry, I totally read your comment wrong, Erp! Yeah, we both came to the same conclusion! 🙂

    Did you read through Barton’s “Ellison” article at all?