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…

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