When David Barton was clearing the air on the Glenn Beck Show (8/16/12), he muddied the water regarding Jefferson and the so-called Jefferson Bible. Here is the segment:
Barton begins by saying
He [Jefferson] cut out the passages and put them all together and he told his friends this is what we can use with the Indians, cause you can read the life of Christ here.
Glenn Beck lets this claim go without challenge. However, this is an astonishing claim. We have not been able to find any primary source evidence for it, and Barton doesn’t offer any. Jefferson’s only reference to Indians in relationship to the 1804 version is the title page:
The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, extracted from the account of his life and doctrines, as given by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; being an abridgment of the New Testament for the use of the Indians, unembarrassed with matters of fact or faith beyond the level of their comprehension.
While this sounds like Jefferson may have had some interest in getting his book to the Indians, there are no primary source documents that support this conclusion. The only references to the story told by Barton we can find is in Henry Stephens Randall’s 1858 biography of Jefferson and in the introduction to the 1820 version by Cyrus Adler. First, Randall cites a reference to Indians in an undated letter from Jefferson’s grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph:
His moral character was of the highest order founded upon the purest and sternest models of antiquity, softened chastened and developed by the influences of the all pervading benevolence of the doctrines of Christ which he had intensely and admiringly studied. As a proof of this, he left two codifications of the morals of Jesus — one for himself, and another for the Indians; the first of which I now possess, viz., a blank volume red morocco gilt lettered on the back “The Morals of Jesus” — into which he pasted extracts in Greek, Latin, French, and English taken textually from the four Gospels and so arranged that he could run his eye over the readings of the same verse in four languages. (p. 671)
In a footnote on page 452, Randall wrote:
This is sometimes mentioned as Mr Jefferson’s “Collection for the Indians,” it being understood that he conferred with friends on the expediency of having it published in the different Indian dialects as the most appropriate book for the Indians to be instructed to read in.
In The Jefferson Lies, Barton does not cite any source for his contention that Jefferson gave his 1804 version to missionaries, or to anyone to use with the Indians.
In any case, Randolph’s knowledge of the “codifications” was second hand. A little later in his letter to Randall, Randolph said, “His codification of the Morals of Jesus was not known to his family before his death and they learnt from a letter addressed to a friend that he was in the habit of reading nightly from it before going to bed.” It appears that his family did not know he cut up the Gospels. Randolph’s knowledge of the 1804 version did not come from Jefferson directly. The most likely scenario is that Randolph took the title page at face value without knowing what Jefferson had told his friends: the 1804 effort was done for his own use. There is another report from Cyrus Adler by a great granddaughter of Jefferson that the extraction was for the use of the Indians but there is no indication that Jefferson said this to anyone beyond the title page of the 1804 version.
Thus, the Randall and family reports are not based in any direct knowledge of Jefferson’s intent. Barton presents no primary source verification which is consistent with our findings as well. As we noted in Getting Jefferson Right, we searched for evidence regarding this claim, and we asked the same of the Monticello Library research staff as well. Nothing turned up. If Mr. Barton has correspondence or some primary source evidence that Jefferson gave the 1804 to anyone, he should produce it. As it stands the report of the Randolph family members and the footnote in Randall’s biography cannot be verified. The story of Jefferson giving his edited Gospels to missionaries for use with Indians appears to be similar to the story of George Washington and the cherry tree.