Thomas Jefferson was a Christian in the sense that he believed in Jesus as a great moral teacher, but not as the Son of God. He even created a “Jefferson Bible” in which he reconstructed the book without references to miracles and divinity. In this interview, biographer Thomas S. Kidd places Jefferson’s beliefs and actions in the context of the Founding Fathers and the Bible.
Learn more by reading Thomas Kidd’s biography of Thomas Jefferson.
This post contains Amazon Affiliate links. As an Amazon Affiliate, I earn from qualifying purchases.
Was Thomas Jefferson a Christian?
By the early 1800s, Thomas Jefferson came to consider himself a Christian—but only as a non-supernatural one. In other words, he became convinced that Jesus was the greatest moral teacher ever, but he did not believe that Jesus was the Son of God, or that he rose from the dead.
He was persuaded by Unitarian teachings, especially those of the pastor and scientist Joseph Priestley. Unitarians were best known (as indicated by their name) for rejecting the traditional doctrine of the Trinity in favor of the simple concept of one creator God. They believed that Christianity was essentially a system of morals rather than a set of doctrinal affirmations.
What were his thoughts on the divinity of Jesus?
Some Unitarians did see Jesus as divinely inspired, but Thomas Jefferson just saw him as a uniquely gifted human teacher. In one of his most famous statements on faith, Jefferson said:
I am a Christian, in the only sense in which [Jesus] 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.Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Rush, 21 April 1803
For Jefferson, Jesus was the most excellent human philosopher ever, but he believed that the claims about Jesus’s divinity were attributed to him by his followers after he died.
What do you make of his veneration for Jesus but skepticism about Christianity?
From a traditional Christian perspective, it would be problematic to consider Jefferson a Christian. Jefferson once said he was “of a sect by myself,” which seems to describe well his self-crafted religion.
Jesus’s moral teachings were obviously essential to his identity, but dispensing with the claims about Jesus’s divinity and the resurrection leaves Jefferson with a naturalistic Christian philosophy that is wholly different from what most Christians have believed.
What did he think about the reliability of scripture?
Thomas Jefferson believed that some of the Bible was good and edifying, but that other parts were pernicious and incomprehensible. For example, he told a correspondent that he had only read Revelation as a young man, and he immediately “considered it as merely the ravings of a Maniac, no more worthy, nor capable of explanation than the incoherences of our own nightly dreams.” He certainly did not consider Revelation as “revelations of the supreme being.”
Jefferson never exactly explained how one is to discern the good and bad parts of the Bible, but he presumably believed that the application of unbiased reason could tell the difference.
Also, he did regard the sections of the Gospels focused on Jesus’s ethical philosophy as reliable. Unlike some radical critics of the Bible today, he saw those parts of the Gospels as accurate records of the “historical Jesus.”
When we read the teachings of Jesus, Jefferson believed, we are getting a reliable account of what the Jesus of history actually taught.
How did the King James Bible and the Book of Common Prayer impact him?
Thomas Jefferson’s English Bible, as with virtually all Protestants in his time, was the King James Bible. Like all the Founders, he knew the King James Bible starting from childhood. Jefferson did not know the text quite as well as Benjamin Franklin, however. Franklin grew up in a traditional Puritan family in Boston and who seems to have committed much of the King James to memory by an early age.
Jefferson also knew the Book of Common Prayer well, which was second only to the King James in shaping the religious culture of the English-speaking world. The prayer book was foundational in the liturgy of the Church of England, the church of Jefferson’s family and of most Virginia planters.
Both the Bible and the prayer book pop up regularly in Jefferson’s rhetoric. It’s easy to miss those references, since he often doesn’t tell the reader that he’s citing these texts. The Bible and prayer book were so well known in Revolutionary America that he could assume his audience would pick up the reference.
What is the Jefferson Bible?
The Jefferson Bible was a compilation of selected extracts from the Gospels. Jefferson actually composed two versions of the Jefferson Bible, one in his first term as president, and the second in the late 1810s. Only the second Jefferson Bible survived, so that’s what we usually mean when we talk about it.
As I noted above, Jefferson only considered some of the content in the Gospels to be true and useful, so he prepared a version which contained only the edifying material, and which complemented his naturalistic version of Christianity. He bought copies of the Bible in Latin, Greek, French, and English, and he cut out the sections he liked and pasted them in parallel columns in a blank book.
We sometimes hear that he “cut out” the miracles and the resurrection, but it is more accurate to say that he left those sections behind in the tattered copies of the Bibles he cut up.
The result was an edition of the Gospels that is largely (though not entirely) shorn of miracles. It also deletes the actions of supernatural beings such as angels. He did include some talk about supernatural happenings and beliefs, but they generally came as part of Jesus’s parables, which he typically wanted to include.
Jefferson said that he made the Jefferson Bible for his personal use, though he also described the first version of it as intended for the “use of the Indians.” This may have referred to actual Native Americans, or it could have been a tongue-in-cheek reference to his Federalist political enemies who often called him an atheist.
In either case, Jefferson never published the Bible in his lifetime, so he must have used it mainly for private reading, or as an intellectual exercise to see what a naturalistic rendering of the Gospels would entail.
Why does he use religious ideas in the Declaration of Independence?
Jefferson was skeptical about key Christian beliefs, but he never seems to have doubted the existence of a creator God. I tend to think that he believed all the religious claims in the Declaration of Independence, including the idea of equality and rights by common creation.
Of course, the Declaration was a political document, so there’s always a chance that he was saying things more for motivational purposes more than for their sheer veracity.
But Jefferson always affirmed the idea of a created order, and that people were somehow created by God, even if creation did not happen exactly the way that the Book of Genesis described it.
We have to remember that Jefferson lived in a pre-Darwinian world. There wasn’t really another plausible account of the origins of human life aside from God’s creation. Among intellectual elites of his time, it was not unusual to express doubts about basic Christian doctrines and the reliability of Scripture, while serenely holding to a belief in one creator God.
Did Jefferson’s beliefs align with the way he lived?
Well, to be fair none of us always live up to the principles we say we believe. But Jefferson’s Christian philosophy does seem to have been mostly a theoretical exercise. Christianity as a moral code does not seem to have constrained him to act differently than he was usually inclined.
Benjamin Franklin had somewhat similar religious beliefs to Jefferson’s, but Franklin seems to have been more attuned to the notion that one’s beliefs should influence the way one lives. For a time, Franklin even kept a daily journal tracking his practice of the virtues. Whether this actually helped Franklin live a more ethical life is debatable, but it at least signaled that Franklin knew that he needed to put his beliefs into practice.
Thinking about that should ideally make us humbler.
For Jefferson, there were glaring inconsistencies between his professed attachment to Jesus’s teachings and the way that he lived. Today, the most obvious inconsistency is that he owned slaves and almost certainly carried on a long-term sexual relationship with one of them, Sally Hemings. Jefferson routinely expressed moral opposition to the institution of slavery, but with few exceptions, he took little action against slavery in his personal life or political career.
Less known today is the fact that Jefferson was titanically undisciplined in his spending and debts. Because he was a generally ineffective farmer and businessman, this left him with a crippling load of personal debt that also made it virtually impossible for him to free his slaves.
Why might it be an oversimplification to call him a hypocrite?
Today we hear a lot of denunciations of historical figures for failing to live up to our moral standards. I am all for noting people’s failings and inconsistencies in the past. We need to be honest, even about people in the past that we tend to admire. But I am less keen on moralistic finger-wagging, as if we can establish our own ethical purity by denouncing people in the past.
When we’re tempted to revile people in the past, a good rule of thumb is to think about whether we are sure we would have done better than them. If we were born into their situation, do we know that we would have overcome their temptations to sin?
I suspect that in most cases, we wouldn’t be able to say that for sure. For example, if we were born into a white slave-owning family in colonial or Revolutionary America, we would almost certainly have been proslavery too. Thinking about that should ideally make us humbler in our view of flawed people in the past.
How might Jefferson engage with religion today?
Jefferson would not fit easily into today’s dichotomy between the secular left and religious right. Of course, he doubted basic Christian doctrines, but his political philosophy was deeply dependent on the existence of a fixed, divinely-created order. He was also a close political ally of many evangelical Christians—especially Baptists—whom Jefferson supported in the fight for religious liberty.
Subscribe to be notified when we publish new content!
About the interview participant
Thomas S. Kidd is a research professor of church history at Midwestern. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Notre Dame, and teaches courses on topics such as American religious history and the American Revolution. He is the author of several books, including Thomas Jefferson: A Biography of Spirit and Flesh, Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father, and George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father.
- What Did the Founding Fathers Believe About the Bible?
- What Does N. T. Wright Say About Biblical History?
- How Did George Washington Form the First Cabinet?
- What Were America’s Ideals During the Revolutionary War?
- What Role Did Newspapers Play in Vast Early America?
Thomas Jefferson bible resources
- Thomas Jefferson: A Biography of Spirit and Flesh (Yale University Press)
- Why Thomas Jefferson Created His Own Bible (Smithsonian Magazine)
- What Thomas Jefferson Could Never Understand About Jesus (The New Yorker)
- Jefferson’s Religious Beliefs (Monticello)
- The “Jefferson Bible and a Founder’s Skepticism (The Gospel Coalition)