2000 Years of Disbelief: Thomas Jefferson

2000 Years of Disbelief: Thomas Jefferson April 6, 2020

By James A. Haught

This is the eighth segment of a series on renowned skeptics throughout history. These profiles are drawn from 2000 Years of Disbelief: Famous People With the Courage to Doubt, Prometheus Books, 1996.

Popular history avoids mentioning that Jefferson, the chief creator of American democracy, was a skeptic who wrote many attacks on the clergy, and who was denounced as a “howling atheist,” a “hardened infidel,” and an “enemy of religion.”

Jefferson was born into the Anglican Church and remained a lifelong member, nominally. Yet he rejected his church’s supernatural dogmas, such as the belief that Jesus was divine. Jefferson concluded that Jesus was simply a human advocate of compassion and forgiveness – the finest such in history. Jefferson even compiled the moral maxims of Jesus into a condensation later called the “Jefferson Bible,” from which he omitted what he called the “superstitions, fanaticisms and fabrications” that perverted the gospels.

As a Virginia legislator and governor, Jefferson led efforts to separate church and state. He succeeded in disestablishing his Anglican denomination as the official state church, and wrote the Virginia Act for Religious Freedom outlawing religious tests for citizens.

Jefferson befriended English Unitarian leaders, deniers of the Christian Trinity, and called himself a Unitarian. He also was ranked among Deists, the Enlightenment-era thinkers who rejected mystical Christianity but felt they perceived God in the vastness and intricacies of nature.

Publicly, Jefferson was reticent about his disbelief, but he expressed it boldly in dozens of private letters to friends. He also revealed hints of doubt in his only full-length book, Notes on the State of Virginia, published in London in 1787. In this work, Jefferson noted that Christian conflicts had killed millions, and that it did no harm for a person “to say there are twenty gods, or no god.”

Jefferson’s colleagues were well aware of his disbelief. President John Quincy Adams wrote of Jefferson in his diary (Jan. 11, 1831): “lf not an absolute atheist, he had no belief in a future existence. All his ideas of obligation or retribution were bounded by the present life.”

Biographer Fawn Brodie concurs: “No other statesman of his time could match Jefferson in his hatred of the established faith…. His distrust of clergymen as factionalists, schismatizers, and imprisoners of the human spirit continued to his death.”

During the presidential campaign of 1800, ministers and Federalist political opponents called Jefferson an atheist. He was denounced so frequently, and with such vehemence, that many historians regard the 1800 campaign as the cruelest in U.S. history.

Although he narrowly won the election, accusations of atheism continued until Jefferson’s death and for decades afterward. Gradually they faded, supplanted by the sanitized popular view that he was a conventional believer.

Today, Jefferson’s immortal vow of “eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man” is engraved upon his memorial in Washington­ but few who read it know that he was speaking of the clergy.

Jefferson’s views on religion

Private letters:

“The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.” – letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823

“On the dogmas of religion, as distinguished from moral principles, all mankind, from the beginning of the world to this day, have been quarreling, fighting, burning and torturing one another, for abstractions unintelligible to themselves and to all others, and absolutely beyond the comprehension of the human mind.” – letter to Archibald Cary, 1816

“In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own.” – letter to Horatio Gates Spafford, March 17, 1814

“I am not afraid of the priests. They have tried upon me all their various batteries, of pious whining, hypocritical canting, lying and slandering, without being able to give me one moment of pain.” – letter to Spafford, 1816

“I promised you a letter on Christianity, which I have not forgotten….The clergy [had) a very favorite hope of obtaining an establishment of a particular form of Christianity throughout the United States; and as every sect believes its own form the true one, every one perhaps hoped for his own, but especially the Episcopalians and Congregationalists. The returning good sense of our country threatens abortion to their hopes, and they believe that any portion of power confided to me will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly: for I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” – letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush, Sept. 23, 1800

“History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance, of which their political as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes.” – letter to Baron Alexander von Humboldt, Dec. 6, 1813

“Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear.” – letter to his nephew, Peter Carr, Aug. 10, 1787

“It is too late in the day for men of sincerity to pretend they believe in the Platonic mysticisms that three are one, and one is three; and yet that the one is not three, and the three are not one…. But this constitutes the craft, the power and the profit of the priests. Sweep away their gossamer fabrics of factitious religion, and they would catch no more flies.” – letter to John Adams, Aug. 22, 1813

“To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial, is to say they are nothings, or that there is no god, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise … without plunging into the fathomless abyss of dreams and phantasms. I am satisfied, and sufficiently occupied with the things which are, without tormenting or troubling myself about those which may indeed be, but of which I have no evidence.” – letter to Adams, Aug. 15, 1820

“In our Richmond there is much fanaticism, but chiefly among the women. They have their night meetings and praying parties, where, attended by their priests, and sometimes by a hen-pecked husband, they pour forth the effusions of their love to Jesus, in terms as amatory and carnal as their modesty would permit them to use to a mere earthly lover.” – letter to Dr. Thomas Cooper, Nov. 2, 1822

“I have ever judged of the religion of others by their lives…. But this does not satisfy the priesthood. They must have a positive, a declared assent to all their interested absurdities. My opinion is that there would never have been an infidel, if there had never been a priest.” – letter to Mrs. M. Harrison Smith, Aug. 6, 1816

“But a short time elapsed after the death of the great reformer of the Jewish religion [Jesus], before his principles were departed from by those who professed to be his special servants, and perverted into an engine for enslaving mankind and aggrandizing their oppressors in church and state….The purest system of morals ever before preached to man has been adulterated and sophisticated by artificial constructions into a mere contrivance to filch wealth and power to themselves.” – letter to Samuel Kercheval, Jan. 19, 1810

“My aim [in compiling Christ’s humanitarian maxims] was to justify the character of Jesus against the fictions of his pseudo-followers … the follies, the falsehoods and the charlatanisms which his biographers father upon him….That Jesus did not mean to impose himself on mankind as the son of God, physically speaking, I have been convinced.” – letter to William Short, Aug. 4, 1820

“The hocus-pocus phantasm of a god like another Cerberus, with one body and three heads, had its birth and growth in the blood of thousands and thousands of martyrs.” – letter to James Smith, Dec. 8, 1822

“What a conspiracy this, between church and state! Sing Tantarara, rogues all, rogues all! Sing Tantarara, rogues all!” – letter to English radical John Cartwright, June 25, 1824

“[Creeds] have been the bane and ruin of the Christian church, its own fatal invention, which, through so many ages, made of Christendom a slaughterhouse, and at this day divides it into castes of inextinguishable hatred to one another.” – letter to Thomas Whittemore, June 5, 1822

“Of publishing a book on religion, my dear sir, I never had an idea. I should as soon think of writing for the reformation of Bedlam, as of the world of religious sects. Of these there must be, at least, ten thousand, every individual of every one of which believes all wrong but his own.” – letter to the Rev. Charles Clay, rector of Jefferson’s parish church in Albemarle County, Va., Jan. 29, 1815

“I am anxious to see the doctrine of one god commenced in our state. But the population of my neighborhood is too slender, and is too much divided into other sects to maintain any one preacher well. I must therefore be contented to be an Unitarian by myself, although I know there are many around me who would become so, if once they could hear the questions fairly stated.” – letter to Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, Jan. 8, 1825

“I trust there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian.” – letter to Waterhouse, June 26, 1822

“I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know.” – letter to the Rev. Ezra Stiles, president of Yale University, June 25, 1819

“I concur with you strictly in your opinion of the comparative merits of atheism and demonism, and really see nothing but the latter in the being worshiped by many who think themselves Christians.” – letter to Richard Price from Paris, Jan. 8, 1789 (He was responding to a letter from Price of October 26, 1788, which said: “… There has been in almost all religions a melancholy separation of religion from morality. Popery teaches a method of pleasing God without forsaking vice, and of getting into heaven by penances, bodily mortifications, pilgrimages, saying masses, believing mysterious doctrines, burning heretics, aggrandizing priests, &c. Mahometans expect a paradise of sensual pleasures. Pagans worship’d lewd, revengeful and cruel deities, and thus sanctify’d to themselves some of the worst passions. The religion likewise of many Protestants is little better than a compromise with the deity for wrong practices.”)

“A professorship of theology should have no place in our institution [the University of Virginia].” – letter to Thomas Cooper, Oct. 7, 1814

“I have recently been examining all the known superstitions of the world, and do not find in our particular superstition [Christianity] one redeeming feature. They are all alike, founded upon fables and mythologies.” – letter to Dr. Woods

“Calvin’s religion was demonism. If ever a man worshiped a false god, he did. The God is a being of terrific character – cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust.” – quoted by Ira Cardiff in What Great Men Think of Religion

“We discover [in the gospels] a groundwork of vulgar ignorance, of things impossible, of superstition, fanaticism and fabrication.” – ibid

“It has been fifty and sixty years since I read the Apocalypse, and I then considered it merely the ravings of a maniac.” – ibid

“Gouverneur Morris had often told me that General Washington believed no more of that system [Christianity] than he did himself.” – in his private journal, February 1800.

“Christianity neither is, nor ever was, a part of the common law.”-letter to Dr. Thomas Cooper, Feb. 10, 1814

“The priests of the different religious sects … dread the advance of science as witches do the approach of daylight, and scowl on the fatal harbinger announcing the subdivision of the duperies on which they live.” – letter to Correa de Serra, April 11, 1820

Public writings

“No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever. ” – Virginia Act for Religious Freedom, 1786

“The impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed do minion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time.” – ibid

“Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch toward uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half of the world fools and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth.” – Notes on the State of Virginia, 1787

“It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” – ibid

“A single zealot may commence persecutor, and better men be his victims.” – ibid

“Every state, says an inquisitor, has established some religion. No two, say I, have established the same. Is this a proof of the infallibility of establishments?” – ibid

“The way to silence religious disputes is to take no notice of them.” – ibid

“No man complains of his neighbor for ill management of his affairs, for an error in sowing his land or marrying his daughter, for consuming his substance in taverns…. In all these he has liberty; but if he does not frequent the church, or then conform in ceremonies, there is an immediate uproar.” – ibid

Image: Isaac Jefferson, one of the enslaved people who worked at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello estate as a skilled artisan. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.


Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!