If America’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, were running for the office today his “Bible-slicing experiments would surely torpedo his candidacy,” The Humanist magazine wrote in a 2012 article a couple of months before Jefferson’s 271st birthday.
The magazine wasn’t being figurative; Jefferson actually did cut up bibles to create his own definitive version — one in which all the supernatural flights of fancy were excised. It was one of U.S. history’s first cut-and-paste operations.
“There is no way Jefferson could get elected president today,” Steven Waldman, author of Founding Faith, a best-selling history of the role of religion in America’s creation, says in the article. “You can practically see the attack ad that would be run about him: You see the Bible and you see a hand with a scissors cutting up the Bible. And that’s not going to play too well in the red states—or the blue states for that matter.”
Jefferson was a Deist, believing in a supreme being in the universe but one that put all of existence in motion and then faded into the background to let nature do what He designed it to do. He was a pure Enlightenment man, impatient with and dismissive of religious superstition, and committed to the primacy of human reason.
‘The Life and Times of Jesus’
Jefferson’s much-truncated pseudo bible, which he titled The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth and which is now commonly referred to as “The Jefferson Bible,” is a secular tome in which, The Humanist writes,
“… he kept the words of Jesus and some of his deeds, but left out the miracles and any suggestion that Jesus is God. The virgin birth is gone. So is Jesus walking on water, multiplying the loaves and fishes, and raising Lazars from the dead. Jefferson’s version ends with Jesus’ burial on Good Friday. There is no resurrection, no Easter Sunday.”
Jefferson’s deep reverence for the teachings of Jesus found in the Bible and disdain for all manner of superstitious thinking is starkly evident in this passage from him in a letter to John Adams, the second U.S. president, in 1823:
“And 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. But may we hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this most venerated reformer of human errors.”
A gift from a reader
I was reminded of Jefferson’s unique book by a reader of my blog — June Vandermark of the Facebook site Secular Politics — who sent me a passage from an introduction to the book by Forrest Church in a modern version. Church is the son of the late Frank Church (1924-1984), the Democratic U.S. senator from Idaho from 1957 to 1981.
“Jefferson sketched the form that the fulfillment of his promise might take,” Church wrote. “‘I should proceed to a view of the life, character, and doctrines of Jesus, who sensible in the incorrectness of his forbears’ ideas of the Deity, and of morality, endeavored to bring them to the principles of pure deism, and juster notions of the attributes of God, to reform their moral doctrines to the standard of reason, justice, and philanthropy, and to inculcate the belief of a future state. This view would purposely omit the question of his divinity, and even his inspiration.”
Church added this passage from The Jefferson Bible:
“[Jesus’] system of morality was the most benevolent and sublime probably that has been ever taught, and consequently more perfect than those of any philosophers. His character and doctrines have received still greater injury from those who pretend to be his special disciples, and who have disfigured and sophisticated his actions and precepts, from views of personal interest, so as to induce the unthinking pare of mankind to throw of the whole system in disgust, and to pass sentence as an imposter on the innocent, and the most eloquent and sublime character that ever has been exhibited to man.”
But the key word here is “man,” not “God.”
Quotes from a deist
To those who insist on contending that Jefferson was a man of supernatural faith, I leave you with these three pithy quotes:
“Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because if there be one he must approve of the homage of reason more than that of blindfolded fear.” (Letter to Peter Carr, 1787)
“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: but I believe I am supported in my creed of materialism by Locke, Tracy, and Stewart. At what age of the Christian church this heresy of immaterialism, this masked atheism, crept in, I do not know. But heresy it certainly is.” (Letter to John Adams, 1820)
“All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.” (The last letter he ever wrote, to Roger C. Weightman, 1826)
(I also wrote about Jefferson fealty to science and reason in a June 17 post, here.)