David Barton Promotes Debunked Jefferson Claims

One might think David Barton would reconsider some of his claims in light of his problems with his book on Jefferson, The Jefferson Lies.  The book was voted “least credible history book in print”  by readers of the History News Network, the subject of multiple negative reviews in major publications (e.g., Wall Street Journal), and then pulled from publication by Christian publisher Thomas Nelson. Some authors might allow such negative reactions to generate some reflection and moves to correct obvious errors.

Not so with Mr. Barton. On his Wallbuilders website, Barton features links to claims about Jefferson that have been thoroughly debunked. First, Barton is promoting the claim that Jefferson used the phrase “in the year of our Lord Christ”  to close his presidential documents. Barton has a partial image of a sea letter and says the reference to Christ “is the explicitly Christian language that President Thomas Jefferson chose to use in official public presidential documents.”

The problem is that Jefferson did not choose to construct the form of the sea letters he signed. As Jefferson once said, “sea-letters are the creatures of treaties.” The treaties with Holland and other European countries specified the exact language to be used in the sea letter. If Barton knows this, he ignores it to make his claim about Jefferson and his signatures. To date, Barton has produced no other Jefferson document with a closing using the word Christ. For more on this claim, see this post.

The second claim demonstrates where Barton derived some of the material for The Jefferson Lies.  In a 2009 article co-authored with Mark Beliles, Barton claims that Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia to be a “trans-denominational” college. Barton constructs a narrative which does violence to the chronology of events leading up to the opening of Virginia’s public university. Barton makes much of the fact that the UVA Board of Visitors offered to allow denominations to form theological schools in the vicinity of UVA but he fails to mention that UVA and theological schools created would be independent of each other.

In a letter dated November 2, 1822, Jefferson described the plan to Thomas Cooper.

In our university you know there is no Professorship of Divinity. A handle has been made of this, to disseminate an idea that this is an institution, not merely of no religion, but against all religion. Occasion was taken at the last meeting of the Visitors, to bring forward an idea that might silence this calumny, which weighed on the minds of some honest friends to the institution. In our annual report to the legislature, after stating the constitutional reasons against a public establishment of any religious instruction, we suggest the expediency of encouraging the different religious sects to establish, each for itself, a professorship of their own tenets, on the confines of the university, so near as that their students may attend the lectures there, and have the free use of our library, and every other accommodation we can give them; preserving, however, their independence of us and of each other. This fills the chasm objected to ours, as a defect in an institution professing to give instruction in all useful sciences. I think the invitation will be accepted, by some sects from candid intentions, and by others from jealousy and rivalship. And by bringing the sects together, and mixing them with the mass of other students, we shall soften their asperities, liberalize and neutralize their prejudices, and make the general religion a religion of peace, reason, and morality.[i]

Note the order of events. The decision was made to have no professor of divinity, then observers criticized the decision, and then the idea for allowing denominations to establish schools, independent of UVA, was hatched.  Barton’s article makes it seem as though the decision to have no divinity professors was a result of the plan to make UVA “trans-denominational.” In fact, Jefferson was prodded into accepting the idea of religious schools in order to preserve support and funding. Even with this accommodation, no denominations took advantage of the offer and no theological schools were established there.

Barton also says the reason chaplains were not appointed in the beginning few years of the university was to solidify the reputation of UVA as a trans-denominational school. This is Barton’s invented reason. Although Jefferson did not want to prevent religious worship, he had nothing to do with the eventual policies regarding chaplains. There is nothing in his correspondence or reports which cite any of the reasons Barton gives. Madison, also on the  board of visitors, said he hoped that students and parents would take care of religious worship. Note also, that the school did not have a chapel until the late 1800s. Building a college with no chapel seems like an odd way to begin a trans-denominational school.

We cover this and other claims about UVA in Getting Jefferson Right.

[i] The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 10:242.

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  • Bill Fortenberry

    Warren, you should read my discussion with Gregg Frazer on the the topic of Jefferson’s references to Jesus as the Christ. I pointed out to him that Jefferson included seven references to Christ in his Life and Morals of Jesus, and I also provided two letters in which Jefferson referred to Jesus as the Christ. Frazer’s eventual response was “to be fair and open to proper criticism, I have to acknowledge that you are right about Jefferson using the word “Christ” a couple of times.”

    You can read the entire conversation on the American Creation blog at: http://americancreation.blogspot.com/2013/02/frazer-on-barton-jefferson-christianity.html

  • Warren

    Bill – I read through it but none of it makes any difference regarding Barton’s claim. Jefferson using the word Christ in his private notes or correspondence does not equate to deliberately choosing to use explicitly Christian language in presidential documents. Straining at gnats…

  • Bill Fortenberry

    You’re right, Warren. The evidence which I presented does not prove that Jefferson deliberately chose to use the name of Christ in presidential documents. It actually proves something much stronger. This evidence proves that Jefferson had no personal objection to calling Jesus the Christ. This is perfectly consistent with the reference to Christ in the treaty, but more importantly, it is consistent with the fact that Jefferson thought of himself as a Christian.

  • Warren

    The treaty and Jefferson’s rare references to Jesus in connection to the word Christ are not connected. Yes, Jefferson thought of himself as a Christian but not in the evangelical sense. To B. Rush:

    I am a Christian, in the only sense he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; & believing he never claimed any other.

    Claiming one is the Son of God would certainly be beyond what Jefferson believed Jesus did. Jefferson did believe Jesus was a reformer of the Jews religion and in that sense he might be considered a Christ but unless you are willing to ignore mountains of other evidence, then you can make Jefferson into an evangelical with the molehill you promote.

  • Bill Fortenberry

    I have never attempted to make Jefferson into an evangelical. In fact, I expressly stated that I do not believe him to have been a Christian. My point is only that he thought himself to be one and therefore had no objection to the attribution of the title of Christ to Jesus. This does bring up an interesting question, however. You seem to also beof the opinion that Jefferson was not a Christian, and I am curious as to how you arrived at that conclusion. What criteria do you use to determine who is and who is not a Christian?

  • Jon Rowe

    I’m not sure if Jefferson thought too much when he used the term “Christ” as ordinary folks think that was Jesus’ last name.

    Though Jefferson might have thought Jesus as the Christ like fellow Socinians did: just a man, not divine at all in his nature, but on a divine mission and saved man through his perfect moral example.

  • Warren

    Jon – I think a case can be made that Jefferson went back and forth on that question but at least during his presidency, he was at odds with Priestley over it (in a friendly manner). Priestley believed Jesus was a man but on a divine mission, Jefferson believed he never claim any other excellence but human traits.

  • Patrocles

    Judging from the 1822 letter, Jefferson seems to have been genuinely adversary to the idea of an atheist university. I can’t see if he was “prodded into accepting” the transdenomational solution, but he obviously took a fancy to it – hoping that it would lead to a common religion which would be more Jeffersonian.

    • Pat – You can’t just judge based on one letter. You need to read all of the correspondence from Jefferson to Joseph Cabell and others about the school. The offer of theological schools was a compromise, and one that was never acted on.