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Jefferson’s Jesus

Jefferson’s Extracts from the Gospels: “The Philosophy of Jesus” and “The Life and Morals of Jesus”

edited by Dickinson W. Adams
Princeton University Press, 438 pp., $30.00

Piety died hard in the eighteenth century, even for rationalists. Franklin’s morning devotions are well known: “Therefore I think it seems required of me, and my duty, as a man, to pay Divine Regards to SOMETHING.” In Paris, Theophilanthropists said their prayers morning and night, while rationalist “Druids” in Newburgh, New York, worshiped the sun as a symbol of Enlightenment. In the November 11, 1793, issue of the Moniteur, worship was directed to the “sans-culotte Jésus,” rescued at last from the lies of priests. When Marat’s heart was hung in an urn from the ceiling of the Cordeliers Club, celebrants sang “O coeur de Jésus, O coeur de Marat.” More surprising than all such tales, for those of us brought up with a picture of Jefferson as the skeptic, is the fact—which Jefferson’s Extracts from the Gospels documents—that the third president, converted to a cult of Jesus while he was in the White House, spent the last years of his life reading himself to sleep over the Gospels.

Before his election as president, Jefferson’s attitude toward Jesus resembled Washington’s. The first president never, so far as the record shows, used the names “Jesus” or “Christ.” Even “God” is less frequent in his writings than “Providence.” In the eighteenth century, Jefferson mentioned Jesus, but only as a man duped by his own followers into making divine claims—“a man, of illegitimate birth, of a benevolent heart, enthusiastic mind, who set out without pretensions to divinity, ended in believing them, and was punished capitally for sedition by being gibbetted according to the Roman law” (letter to Peter Carr, August 10, 1787). Jefferson’s religious teacher, from his youth, had been Lord Bolingbroke, who followed the classical moralists, saying there was little of use to be learned from the life of Jesus. Jefferson entered this passage from Bolingbroke in his “Literary Bible”:

Moral obligations are occasionally recommended and commended in [Jesus’ life], but no where proved from principles of reason, and by clear deductions, unless allusions, parables, and comparisons, and promises and threats are to pass for such. Where [were] all the precepts of this kind, that are scattered about in the whole new-testament, collected, like the short sentences of antient sages in the memorials we have of them, and put together in the very words of the sacred writers, they would compose a very short, as well as unconnected system of ethics. A system thus collected from the writings of antient heathen moralists of Tully, of Seneca, of Epictetus, and others, would be more full, more entire, more coherent, and more clearly deduced from unquestionable principles of knowledge.

Jefferson adhered to Bolingbroke’s view for the first four decades of his adult life. Then, in 1803, in a surprising reversal, he began to do what Bolingbroke had declared impossible—construct a systematic morality out of the Gospels. More than that, he proclaimed this morality superior to every other system, including those of his beloved Epicureans and Stoics. For those of us who live with and teach from books, it is cheering to note that a book was the occasion of Jefferson’s “conversion.” But it is chastening to recognize that the book had no great merit in itself. Joseph Priestley’s Socrates and Jesus Compared, of 1803, is a short (sixty-page) exercise in a genre well worn by the time Priestley took it up. It is a measure of the centrality of the classics in the eighteenth century that even Christian apologists used them as the norm, arguing that Christianity was superior even to the great codes and conduct of antiquity. Richard Steele’s first ambitious work, The Christian Hero (1701), played artfully on the contrast between Christian and classical martyrs. Rousseau had his Savoyard priest use the same preaching device in Book IV of Emile (1762):

The death of Socrates, calmly philosophizing with his friends, was as sweet as one could wish; that of Jesus, dying from torture, hurt, mocked, cursed by all, was as horrible as one could fear. Socrates, taking the poisoned cup, blesses the man who stays with him to weep; Jesus, from the midst of pain, prays for his brutal executioners. Yes, if the life and death of Socrates are those of a sage, the life and death of Jesus are those of a God. Can we maintain that the story of the Gospel was simply made up?

Rousseau does deftly in two pages what Priestley does in sixty. Then how are we to account for Priestley’s impact on Jefferson?

Like most “sudden” conversions, Jefferson’s had been long in preparation—in great part because of Priestley himself. There was, first of all, the example of his person, which proved that a man could be a scientist, a republican, and a rationalist, as well as a clergyman of sincere piety. Some time (probably) before 1803, Jefferson had read Priestley’s An History of the Corruptions of Christianity (1782), which seems to have suggested to him that Jesus’ claim to divinity was foisted on him by a later (lying) tradition, just as all miracles and mumbo-jumbo had been added to the Gospels. (This was taking Priestley farther than he wanted to go—he believed in the divinity of Christ, and in certain of his miracles, especially the resurrection.) After reading Socrates and Jesus Compared, Jefferson acquired from the author Priestley’s A Harmony of the Evangelists in English, and A Harmony of the Evangelists in Greek, which showed him that a humanist interpretation could be put on many sayings of Jesus that Jefferson once would have rejected.

If we look to preparation for conversion in a broader sense, one factor stands out—the attacks on Jefferson for infidelity during the campaign of 1800. This does not mean that Jefferson adopted his new views as a form of protection from such assaults. He took care that his changed attitude not become public; he would never answer charges against his religion. But did the attacks induce some feelings of guilt about his lack of ardor as a deist? Jefferson gave a very straightforward definition to that troublesome term “deist.” For him, it meant monotheism, to be distinguished from the open polytheism some had adopted (including, for a time, Franklin) in their enthusiasm for antiquity, and from the masked polytheism Jefferson attributed to believers in the Trinity.

Eugene Sheridan, in his excellent introduction to this volume, thinks Jefferson was driven to reconsider his religious views by political concerns of a more general sort than those connected with attacks on him.1 His early optimism about the republic had been shaken by the partisan strife of the 1790s. For a believer in progress, the failure of the rule of reason to extend itself demanded some explanation. Jefferson found the explanation, on a superficial level, in his belief that Federalists were actively conspiring to abort the republican effort. But, on a deeper level, Jefferson found the nation susceptible to Federalist plots because of some moral failure. The classical ideal had offered enlightened selfishness as a moral guide. It did not emphasize enough the social morality needed to overcome strife.

Their philosophy went chiefly to the government of our passions, so far as respected ourselves, and the procuring our own tranquility. On our duties to others they were short and deficient. They extended their cares scarcely beyond our kindred and friends individually, and our country in the abstract. Jesus embraced, with charity and philanthropy, our neighbors, our countrymen, and the whole family of mankind. [Letter to Edward Dowse, April 19, 1803]

Jefferson, from his college days, had accepted the Scottish philosophy of moral sense—Sheridan says he received this mainly from Lord Kames. But this faculty for benevolence, present in everyone, needs nourishment; and only Jesus, he now came to believe, taught that it should be exercised on all of mankind. Jefferson’s emphasis on social harmony became so important to him, and so connected with the teaching of Jesus, that he excluded, from his final collection of “authentic” teachings from the Gospels, passages where Jesus speaks of himself as the cause of strife (e.g., Matthew 10.21-22, 10.34-41, 19.29; Luke 2.48, 14. 26-27).

Jefferson’s religious view of social morality replaced one optimism with another. Having first believed in the progressive domination of reason, he now believed that religious benevolence would make itself universal. All men, he said, would be Christians if the lying priests had not “sophisticated” Jesus’ system, which corresponds so well with every person’s moral sense. The man who earlier said he did not care what people believed, so long as they did not pick his pocket, now began to hope (and secretly work) for the spread of Dr. Priestley’s Unitarianism. He was unwilling to proselytize himself—mainly from temperament, but also from a conviction that he would be ineffective (critics would allege that he was just countering attacks on his “atheism”). He urged Priestley, Benjamin Rush, and Francis Adrian Van der Kemp to publish comparative studies of Christian and classical moral theory, proving the former’s superiority.

There is a wonderful irony in all this. Jefferson shocked the pious of his time by his apparent defections from Christianity. But for later Jeffersonians of the libertarian sort, the shock would lie in a knowledge of the social emphases of his later Christianity. To Timothy Pickering, in 1821, he wrote: “If nothing had ever been added to what flowed purely from his [Jesus’] lips, the whole world would at this day have been Christian.” To Thomas Whittemore, in 1822: “Had his doctrines, pure as they came from himself, been never sophisticated for unworthy purposes, the whole civilised world would at this day have formed but a single sect.” To Benjamin Waterhouse, in 1822: “The genuine doctrine of one only God is reviving, and I trust that there is not a young man now living in the US. who will not die an Unitarian.” To James Smith, in 1822: “The pure and simple unity of the creator of the universe is now all but ascendant in the Eastern states; it is dawning in the West, and advancing towards the South; and I confidently expect that the present generation will see Unitarianism become the general religion of the United states.”

Shocking the impious is, ultimately, as silly a game as shocking the pious; but another aspect of Jefferson’s religious convictions may give pause to those who side with Fawn Brodie against (for instance) Douglass Adair on the legends of Jefferson’s affair with the slave Sally Hemings. Jefferson agreed with Priestley that Jesus’ moral code was superior to the ancients’ because of his severer sexual code. Of course, we know many examples of hypocritically lecherous preachers; but it is hard to think of Jefferson as a hypocrite.

The volume under review initiates the Second Series of The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. The chronological First Series has reached Volume XX (and the year 1791). The new series will edit the one published book of this one-book man (Notes on the State of Virginia) along with the private compilations that make up “near books.” It will include, from Jefferson’s early life, the “Commonplace Book” and the “Literary Bible,” with their quotes from Montesquieu and Bolingbroke, to which the late “Life and Morals of Jesus” forms a partial palinode.

The core of this new volume is the “Life and Morals,” along with a reconstruction of the lost “Philosophy of Jesus,” compiled in 1804 as part of Jefferson’s campaign to establish the superiority of Christian to classical morality.2 The fate of these two compilations from the Gospels defies the odds for survival. The “Philosophy” was meant as an aid for trusted friends in their missionary effort—Jefferson told a number of people about its existence, and offered it for use in their own work to Benjamin Rush and Francis Adrian Van der Kemp. Extant in 1826, it has disappeared, beyond all the efforts of the late Dickinson W. Adams, the editor of this volume, to track it down. The “Life and Morals,” by contrast, was not mentioned to anyone, even to Jefferson’s closest family. Never referred to by him, it was kept a close secret for his personal use; but it survives, in its original red binding, at the Smithsonian.

By another reversal of the historical odds, though the 1804 “Philosophy” itself is missing, the two copies of the New Testament from which Jefferson in 1804 neatly clipped the “authentic” verses of Jesus’ teaching still exist. With the help of those books, and with two copies of Jefferson’s own list of verses to be included in his “Philosophy,” reconstruction of the 1804 document should have been easy; but for reasons too intricate to go into here, it was not. Dickinson W. Adams, always aware that the original may turn up to challenge any reconstruction, invented ingenious ways to reproduce Jefferson’s working methods and intellectual assumptions. He corrected his result by using similar methods to “reconstruct” the extant “Life and Morals,” then studying the discrepancies between this reconstruction and the actual text. The result is a tour de force of literary detective work, likely to survive any future challenges.

For the “Life and Morals,” the task was simpler—to produce a facsimile superior to that printed by the government in 1904 (though that volume, bound in a reproduction of its red cover, has its own appeal—my copy has a testimonial to Jefferson’s picture of the true Jesus penned on its opening page by Harry Truman). Unlike the “Philosophy,” which was restricted to the King James English of the Gospels, the “Life and Morals” arranges in parallel columns the Greek original and translations into Latin, French, and English. This compilation has been available in print, in various versions, since 1902; but its meaning for Jefferson was not easily grasped without the introduction and appendixes that make this new volume so valuable.

It has been assumed, for instance, that Jefferson compared the various texts as an intellectual exercise, a form of merely scholarly curiosity. Yet Jefferson showed a strange indifference to the standing of the four texts he used, settling for any two copies, in each language, of similar size. He ended up with a school text of the Greek Bible, marred with philological markings he did not use, and a Latin “trot” of that school text (not Jerome’s Vulgate Latin, which would be the standard for historical study of Bible translations). For the French text, he used the translation of a Swiss Protestant. He penned only one note into the book—a favorite reference to the Roman law of crucifixion for sedition. He made only two changes in the English of the King James, for stylistic elegance, not accuracy. He showed no interest in debate over cruxes famous even in his day, such as the meaning of that odd word translated as “daily” in the Lord’s Prayer. In accord with the misconceptions of his time, he thought the Gospels were composed earlier than the Pauline Epistles, and that Matthew was the earliest Gospel.

But all such scholarly matters were beside the point. Indeed, Jefferson felt that the value of Jesus’ teaching lay in its self-evident quality, the utterances of an unlettered man speaking directly to the moral sense of all men in all cultures. That is why Jefferson felt so confident he could separate the authentic sayings, at a glance, from later accretions—extracting, as he put it, diamonds from the dung heap. He put four versions of the same saying together so that he could turn each diamond around, to catch its different facets. The compilation was meant for meditative use, for the savoring of moral truths in Jefferson’s evening devotions.

In 1819, about a year before the probable completion of the “Life and Morals,” Jefferson wrote to Vine Utley: “I never go to bed without an hour, or half hour’s previous reading of something moral, whereon to ruminate in the intervals of sleep.” In 1813, he had written to John Adams that he read Priestley’s work “over and over again” as “the basis of my own faith.” This must have been in his bedtime meditations on moral matters. The “Life and Morals,” compiled for entirely private use, was the ultimate text for such exercises, the best indication of his “faith” in the human being who, in Jefferson’s final view, best enunciated “the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”

  1. 1

    His best evidence is the sardonic dedication of Jefferson’s 1804 “Philosophy of Jesus” to “Indians” in need of enlightenment—his code term for Federalists.

  2. 2

    Presumably because the First Series has dealt with the matter, the editors of this volume neglect the importance for Jefferson’s early religious views of Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration and Reasonableness of Christianity (First Series, Volume I, pp. 544-550). Also, Jefferson owed some of his satirical ferocity against the clergy to his study of Milton’s polemical works (First Series, Volume I, pp. 551-553).

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