Church and State: The Founding Fathers in their own Words
Church and State: The Founding Fathers in their own Words
What did the Founding Fathers have to say about the separation of church and state?
Did they intend for the United States to be a “Christian nation” based on “Christian (or Judeo-Christian) values”?
Did they even hold religious views compatible with the views that fundamentalists are currently attempting to codify into law?
You be the judge. Included here are many quotes from the founders on the following subjects:
- Religion and the law, especially in terms of the separation of church and state
- Christianity (and its various denominations), Judaism, and even Islam
- Personal views on religion
First of all, misconceptions abound regarding what the Constitution says about Christianity, God, and religion.
The writing of the Constitution took place in 1787 at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. The delegates to the Convention drew upon their experiences with Great Britain, state constitutions, and their study of the history of government. Many of these men were students and advocates of the Enlightenment. They did indeed believe in the virtues of education, general knowledge, scientific advancements, and practicality in government. But did they believe in religion as a guiding principle for government? Here is the entirety of what the original Constitution says about religion:
That’s it. That is the entirety of what the Founders deemed necessary to include in the Constitution regarding religion. There is no mention of any deity, and there is no passage that can be construed to indicate a preference for one religion or type of religion within government. There is no mention of Christianity or any other religion. This is certainly not consistent with many of today’s claims, and much of today’s political rhetoric.
What about the Bill of Rights, and the rest of the amendments? The entire text from the amendments regarding religion can be found at the very beginning of the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights:
The Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause – that’s it. Everything that the Constitution, including the Bill of Rights, has to say about religion is that no public servant can be required to subscribe to any particular religious belief, and that no law can be made establishing one belief as a preferred belief, or prohibiting the free exercise of religion. Nothing exists in the entire document, including all of the amendments, about the United States being a Christian nation – in fact the only things that the Constitution has to say about religion specifically forbid the United States from taking steps to create a Christian nation. The Constitution does not support claims that the United States is, or should become, a Christian nation.
When I point this out, I hear things like, “Yeah, but they put all of that in the Declaration of Independence. That document is loaded with many references to Christianity and makes it clear that we are to be a Christian nation.”
Really? The Declaration of Independence makes exactly four references of appeal to a singular higher power, none of which is in the same context as today’s rhetoric about the United States as a Christian nation. Here they are, word for word:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights”
“appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions”
“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence”
Those four references are the only mentions of God in the Declaration of Independence; nothing that is worded so as to imply Christian beliefs; so much for the notion that it is loaded with proof that they created a Christian nation.
The founding documents and the supreme law of the land make it very clear that the founders did NOT intend to create a Christian nation. What else did the founders have to say on the subject that would indicate their personal, individual beliefs on the subject?
Let’s take a look at other words from the founders on this subject. These quotes have all been verified, and have not been forged at a later date. Beware of forgeries that have been circulating around the internet.
I have collected many different quotes, and you might not want to take the time to read them all. You may prefer to skim through them.
The Declaration of Independence was penned by Thomas Jefferson. He is the most widely quoted of the Founders on the subject of religion and government. I have included quotes from Jefferson on the subject of the separation of church and state, as well as many on the subject of his personal religious beliefs, so that they can be compared to the views of those who want to impose some sort of religious laws on the citizens of the United States.
The quotes begin here:
–Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Elbridge Gerry (1799).
-Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Danbury Baptist Association, CT. (1 January 1802).
This statement is the origin of the often used phrase “separation of Church and State”. I should note that people keep pointing to this 1802 origin of the term as an indication that the “concept of a separation of church and state did not exist at the time of the writing of the Constitution”. That argument is clearly irrational. This quote, along with the meaning of the term itself combined with the historical record, makes it very clear that the concept was around long before the term was coined.
-Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 1 Whether Christianity is Part of the Common Law (1764). Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, p. 459.
-James Madison, Letter to Edward Livingston (1822-07-10).
-Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Albert Gallatin (16 June 1817). Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 12, p. 73.
-James Madison, “Monopolies, Perpetuities, Corporations, Ecclesiastical Endowments” an essay probably written sometime between 1817 and 1832.
The previous quote has sometimes been incorrectly portrayed as having been uncompleted notes written sometime around 1789 while opposing the bill to establish the office of Congressional Chaplain. It was first published as “Aspects of Monopoly One Hundred Years Ago” in 1914 by Harper’s Magazine and later in “Madison’s Detached Memoranda” by Elizabeth Fleet in William and Mary Quarterly (1946).
-George Washington, Letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island (1790).
NOTE: The following is a lengthy quote from James Madison with the citation following:
“The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate.
“Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects? that the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?”
“We hold it for a fundamental and undeniable truth, ‘that Religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the Manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.’ The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right. It is unalienable; because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds, cannot follow the dictates of other men: It is unalienable also; because what is here a right towards men, is a duty towards the Creator. It is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage, and such only, as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent both in order of time and degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society. Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governor of the Universe: And if a member of Civil Society, who enters into any subordinate Association, must always do it with a reservation of his duty to the general authority; much more must every man who becomes a member of any particular Civil Society, do it with a saving of his allegiance to the Universal Sovereign. We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no man’s right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society, and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance. True it is, that no other rule exists, by which any question which may divide a Society, can be ultimately determined, but the will of the majority; but it is also true, that the majority may trespass on the rights of the minority.
“The free men of America did not wait till usurped power had strengthened itself by exercise, and entangled the question in precedents. They saw all the consequences in the principle, and they avoided the consequences by denying the principle. We revere this lesson too much soon to forget it. Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects? that the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?
“It is moreover to weaken in those who profess this Religion a pious confidence in its innate excellence and the patronage of its Author; and to foster in those who still reject it, a suspicion that its friends are too conscious of its fallacies to trust it to its own merits.
“During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.
“What influence in fact have ecclesiastical establishments had on Civil Society? In some instances they have been seen to erect a spiritual tyranny on the ruins of the Civil authority; in many instances they have been seen upholding the thrones of political tyranny: in no instance have they been seen the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers who wished to subvert the public liberty, may have found an established Clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just Government instituted to secure & perpetuate it needs them not.
“Attempts to enforce by legal sanctions, acts obnoxious to go great a proportion of Citizens, tend to enervate the laws in general, and to slacken the bands of Society. If it be difficult to execute any law which is not generally deemed necessary or salutary, what must be the case, where it is deemed invalid and dangerous?
“And what may be the effect of so striking an example of impotency in the Government, on its general authority?
“Because finally, “the equal right of every citizen to the free exercise of his religion according to the dictates of conscience” is held by the same tenure with all his other rights. If we recur to its origin, it is equally the gift of nature; if we weigh its importance, it cannot be less dear to us; if we consider the “Declaration of those rights which pertain to the good people of Virginia, as the basis and foundation of government,” it is enumerated with equal solemnity, or rather studied emphasis. [Often misquoted as “Religion is the basis and foundation of government.”]
“We the Subscribers say, that the General Assembly of this Commonwealth have no such authority: And that no effort may be omitted on our part against so dangerous an usurpation, we oppose to it, this remonstrance; earnestly praying, as we are in duty bound, that the Supreme Lawgiver of the Universe, by illuminating those to whom it is addressed, may on the one hand, turn their Councils from every act which would affront his holy prerogative, or violate the trust committed to them: and on the other, guide them into every measure which may be worthy of his [blessing, may re]dound to their own praise, and may establish more firmly the liberties, the prosperity and the happiness of the Commonwealth.“
-James Madison, “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments” (1785), opposing a “Bill establishing a provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion”.
“Your prayers for my present and future felicity are received with gratitude; and I sincerely wish, Gentlemen, that you may in your social and individual capacities taste those blessings, which a gracious God bestows upon the righteous.”
-George Washington, Letter to the the members of The New Church in Baltimore (22 January 1793), published in The Writings Of George Washington (1835) by Jared Sparks, p. 201.
-George Washington, Farewell Address.
-John Adams, Letter to Thomas Jefferson (23 January 1825), published in Letters: The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams (UNC Press, 1988), p. 607.
-Benjamin Franklin, As quoted in Benjamin Franklin: An Exploration of a Life of Science and Service (1938) by Carl Van Doren, p. 777.
-Samuel Adams, The Rights of the Colonists (1772).
-Thomas Jefferson, Draft Constitution for Virginia (June 1776).
-William Penn, Declaration of Rights.
-Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Religion (October 1776), published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 2, p. 256.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of quotes available from the Founders expressing similar sentiments. Not convinced yet? Or perhaps you would like to see more for reference and study. Here are some more quotes from Thomas Jefferson:
“Locke denies toleration to those who entertain opinions contrary to those moral rules necessary for the preservation of society; as for instance, that faith is not to be kept with those of another persuasion, … that dominion is founded in grace, or who will not own & teach the duty of tolerating all men in matters of religion, or who deny the existence of a god (it was a great thing to go so far—as he himself says of the parliament who framed the act of toleration … He says ‘neither Pagan nor Mahomedan nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the Commonwealth because of his religion.’ Shall we suffer a Pagan to deal with us and not suffer him to pray to his god? Why have Christians been distinguished above all people who have ever lived, for persecutions? Is it because it is the genius of their religion? No, its genius is the reverse. It is the refusing toleration to those of a different opinion which has produced all the bustles and wars on account of religion. It was the misfortune of mankind that during the darker centuries the Christian priests following their ambition and avarice combining with the magistrate to divide the spoils of the people, could establish the notion that schismatics might be ousted of their possessions & destroyed. This notion we have not yet cleared ourselves from.”
-Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Religion (October, 1776). Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 2, pp. 267.
“Difference of opinion is advantageous in religion. The several sects perform the office of a Censor morum over each other. Is uniformity attainable? 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 towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth. Let us reflect that it is inhabited by a thousand millions of people. That these profess probably a thousand different systems of religion. That ours is but one of that thousand. That if there be but one right, and ours that one, we should wish to see the 999 wandering sects gathered into the fold of truth. But against such a majority we cannot effect this by force. Reason and persuasion are the only practicable instruments. To make way for these, free enquiry must be indulged; and how can we wish others to indulge it while we refuse it ourselves?”
-Thomas Jefferson, Query XVII, Notes on the State of Virginia.
“Compulsion in religion is distinguished peculiarly from compulsion in every other thing. I may grow rich by art I am compelled to follow, I may recover health by medicines I am compelled to take against my own judgment, but I cannot be saved by a worship I disbelieve & abhor.”
-Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Religion (October 1776), published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 2, p. 266.
“But those facts in the Bible which contradict the laws of nature, must be examined with more care, and under a variety of faces. Here you must recur to the pretensions of the writer to inspiration from God. Examine upon what evidence his pretensions are founded, and whether that evidence is so strong, as that its falsehood would be more improbable than a change in the laws of nature, in the case he relates. For example in the book of Joshua we are told the sun stood still several hours. Were we to read that fact in Livy or Tacitus we should class it with their showers of blood, speaking of statues, beasts, etc. But it is said that the writer of that book was inspired. Examine therefore candidly what evidence there is of his having been inspired. The pretension is entitled to your inquiry, because millions believe it. On the other hand you are astronomer enough to know how contrary it is to the law of nature that a body revolving on its axis as the earth does, should have stopped, should not by that sudden stoppage have prostrated animals, trees, buildings, and should after a certain time have resumed its revolution, & that without a second general prostration. Is this arrest of the earth’s motion, or the evidence which affirms it, most within the law of probabilities?”
-Thomas Jefferson, Letter to his nephew Peter Carr from Paris, France, (10 August 1787). Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 5, pp. 324-327.
“Truth will do well enough if left to shift for herself. She seldom has received much aid from the power of great men to whom she is rarely known & seldom welcome. She has no need of force to procure entrance into the minds of men. Error indeed has often prevailed by the assistance of power or force. Truth is the proper & sufficient antagonist to error.”
-Thomas Jefferson, Notes on Religion (October 1776), published in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson : 1816-1826 (1899) edited by Paul Leicester Ford, v. 2, p. 102.
“To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense he 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, Letter to Benjamin Rush (12 April 1803).
“I never will, by any word or act, bow to the shrine of intolerance, or admit a right of inquiry into the religious opinions of others.”
-Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Edward Dowse (19 April 1803).
“Yours is one of the few lives precious to mankind, and for the continuance of which every thinking man is solicitous. Bigots may be an exception. What an effort, my dear sir, of bigotry in politics and religion have we gone through! The barbarians really flattered themselves they should be able to bring back the times of Vandalism, when ignorance put everything into the hands of power and priestcraft. All advances in science were proscribed as innovations. They pretended to praise and encourage education, but it was to be the education of our ancestors. We were to look backwards, not forwards, for improvement … This was the real ground of all the attacks on you. Those who live by mystery & charlatanerie, fearing you would render them useless by simplifying the Christian philosophy — the most sublime and benevolent, but most perverted system that ever shone on man — endeavored to crush your well-earned & well-deserved fame.”
-Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Dr. Joseph Priestley (21 March 1801); published in The Life of Thomas Jefferson (1871) by Henry Stephens Randall, Vol. 2, p. 644; this seems to be the source of a misleading abbreviation: “[Christianity is] the most … perverted system that ever shone on man”.
“When the clergy addressed General Washington on his departure from the government, it was observed in their consultation that he had never on any occasion said a word to the public which showed a belief in the Christian religion and they thought they should so pen their address as to force him at length to declare publicly whether he was a Christian or not. They did so. However [Dr. Rush] observed the old fox was too cunning for them. He answered every article of their address particularly except that, which he passed over without notice. Rush observes he never did say a word on the subject in any of his public papers except in his valedictory letter to the Governors of the states when he resigned his commission in the army, wherein he speaks of the benign influence of the Christian religion. I know that Gouverneur Morris, who pretended to be in his secrets & believed himself to be so, has often told me that General Washington believed no more of that system than he himself did.”
-Thomas Jefferson, The Anas (February 1, 1800). Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 1, pp. 352–353.
“My religious reading has long been confined to the moral branch of religion, which is the same in all religions; while in that branch which consists of dogmas, all differ[.]”
-Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Thomas Leiper (11 January 1809). Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 11, pp. 89.
“Religion is a subject on which I have ever been most scrupulously reserved. I have considered it as a matter between every man and his Maker in which no other, and far less the public, had a right to intermeddle.”
-Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Richard Rush (1813).
“It is between fifty and sixty years since I read it, and I then considered it merely the ravings of a maniac, no more worthy nor capable of explanation than the incoherences of our own nightly dreams. … what has no meaning admits no explanation.”
-Thomas Jefferson, Letter to General Alexander Smyth, on the book of Revelation (or The Apocalypse of St. John the Divine) (17 January 1825).
“Well aware that the opinions and belief of men depend not on their own will, but follow involuntarily the evidence proposed to their minds; that Almighty God hath created the mind free, and manifested his supreme will that free it shall remain by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments, or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, who being lord both of body and mind, yet choose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was in his Almighty power to do, but to exalt it by its influence on reason alone; that the impious presumption of legislature and ruler, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion 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: That to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical; … that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry; and therefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust or emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religions opinion, is depriving him injudiciously of those privileges and advantages to which, in common with his fellow-citizens, he has a natural right; that it tends also to corrupt the principles of that very religion it is meant to encourage, by bribing with a monopoly of worldly honours and emolumerits, those who will externally profess and conform to it; that though indeed these are criminals who do not withstand such temptation, yet neither are those innocent who lay the bait in their way; that the opinions of men are not the object of civil government, nor under its jurisdiction; that to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency is a dangerous fallacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty, … and finally, that truth is great and will prevail if left to herself; that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate ; errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them.”
-Thomas Jefferson, A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, Chapter 82 (1779). Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 1, pp. 438–441.
“What an effort, my dear sir, of bigotry in politics and religion have we gone through! The barbarians really flattered themselves they should be able to bring back the times of Vandalism… 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. But this is all they have to fear from me: and enough, too, in their opinion.”
-Thomas Jefferson, On members of the clergy who sought to establish some form of “official” Christianity in the U.S. government. Letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush (23 September 1800).
NOTE: This has commonly been quoted as “I have sworn upon the altar of God Eternal, hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man”, “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man”, and “I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” Neither capitalization of “god” and “eternal”, nor a comma before or after “eternal” are apparent in the original. The first portion of this statement has also been widely paraphrased as “The clergy believe that any power confided in me will be exerted in opposition to their schemes, and they believe rightly.”
“He who steadily observes the moral precepts in which all religions concur, will never be questioned at the gates of heaven as to the dogmas in which they all differ.”
-Thomas Jefferson, Letter to William Canby (18 September 1813).
“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 civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes.”
-Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Alexander von Humboldt (6 December 1813).
“The priests of the different religious sects, who dread the advance of science as witches do the approach of day-light; and scowl on it the fatal harbinger announcing the subversion of the duperies on which they live. In this the Presbyterian clergy take the lead. the tocsin is sounded in all their pulpits, and the first alarm denounced is against the particular creed of Doctr. Cooper; and as impudently denounced as if they really knew what it is.”
-Thomas Jefferson, Letter to José Correia da Serra (11 April 1820).
“Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting “Jesus Christ,” so that it would read “A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;” the insertion was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.”
-Thomas Jefferson, Autobiography (1821), in reference to the Virginia Act for Religious Freedom.
“The truth is, that the greatest enemies of the doctrine of Jesus are those, calling themselves the expositors of them, who have perverted them to the structure of a system of fancy absolutely incomprehensible, and without any foundation in his genuine words. 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.”
-Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Adams (11 April 1823) (Scan at The Library of Congress).
“The whole history of these books is so defective and doubtful that it seems vain to attempt minute enquiry into it: and such tricks have been played with their text, and with the texts of other books relating to them, that we have a right, from that cause, to entertain much doubt what parts of them are genuine. In the New Testament there is internal evidence that parts of it have proceeded from an extraordinary man; and that other parts are of the fabric of very inferior minds. It is as easy to separate those parts, as to pick out diamonds from dunghills.”
-Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Adams, on Christian scriptures (24 January 1814).
NOTE: The following is a lengthy quote from Thomas Jefferson with the citation following:
“His parentage was obscure; his condition poor; his education null; his natural endowments great; his life correct and innocent: he was meek, benevolent, patient, firm, disinterested, & of the sublimest eloquence.
1.The disadvantages under which his doctrines appear are remarkable.Like Socrates & Epictetus, he wrote nothing himself.
2.But he had not, like them, a Xenophon or an Arrian to write for him. On the contrary, all the learned of his country, entrenched in its power and riches, were opposed to him, lest his labors should undermine their advantages; and the committing to writing his life & doctrines fell on the most unlettered & ignorant men; who wrote, too, from memory, & not till long after the transactions had passed.
3.According to the ordinary fate of those who attempt to enlighten and reform mankind, he fell an early victim to the jealousy & combination of the altar and the throne, at about 33. years of age, his reason having not yet attained the maximum of its energy, nor the course of his preaching, which was but of 3. years at most, presented occasions for developing a complete system of morals.
4.Hence the doctrines which he really delivered were defective as a whole, and fragments only of what he did deliver have come to us mutilated, misstated, & often unintelligible.
5.They have been still more disfigured by the corruptions of schismatising followers, who have found an interest in sophisticating & perverting the simple doctrines he taught by engrafting on them the mysticisms of a Grecian sophist, frittering them into subtleties, & obscuring them with jargon, until they have caused good men to reject the whole in disgust, & to view Jesus himself as an impostor.
Notwithstanding these disadvantages, a system of morals is presented to us, which, if filled up in the true style and spirit of the rich fragments he left us, would be the most perfect and sublime that has ever been taught by man. The question of his being a member of the Godhead, or in direct communication with it, claimed for him by some of his followers, and denied by others, is foreign to the present view, which is merely an estimate of the intrinsic merit of his doctrines.
He corrected the Deism of the Jews, confirming them in their belief of one only God, and giving them juster notions of his attributes and government.
His moral doctrines, relating to kindred & friends, were more pure & perfect than those of the most correct of the philosophers, and greatly more so than those of the Jews; and they went far beyond both in inculcating universal philanthropy, not only to kindred and friends, to neighbors and countrymen, but to all mankind, gathering all into one family, under the bonds of love, charity, peace, common wants and common aids. A development of this head will evince the peculiar superiority of the system of Jesus over all others.
The precepts of philosophy, & of the Hebrew code, laid hold of actions only. He pushed his scrutinies into the heart of man; erected his tribunal in the region of his thoughts, and purified the waters at the fountain head.
He taught, emphatically, the doctrines of a future state, which was either doubted, or disbelieved by the Jews; and wielded it with efficacy, as an important incentive, supplementary to the other motives to moral conduct.”
-Thomas Jefferson, “Syllabus of an Estimate of the Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus, Compared with Those of Others” in a letter to Benjamin Rush (12 April 1803). Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 9 Works Vol. 9 (PDF), pp. 462.
“I may say Christianity itself divided into its thousands also, who are disputing, anathematizing and where the laws permit burning and torturing one another for abstractions which no one of them understand, and which are indeed beyond the comprehension of the human mind[.]”
-Thomas Jefferson, Letter to George Logan (12 November 1816). Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 12, pp. 43.
“The result of your fifty or sixty years of religious reading in the four words: ‘Be just and good,’ is that in which all our enquiries must end.”
-Thomas Jefferson, Letter to John Adams (11 January 1817).
Finally, here is one on the Jefferson Bible. If you don’t know what the Jefferson Bible is, it is this. Thomas Jefferson literally cut up the Gospels, deleted the parts that didn’t match his personal beliefs, and re-pasted the ones he believed in. His beliefs in this regard centered on the idea that Jesus’ moral teaching alone was the true gospel; and that the miracles, virgin birth, divinity of Christ, resurrection, etc. were all false teachings added by scribes.
-Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Charles Thomson (9 January 1816), on his The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (the “Jefferson Bible”), which omits all Biblical passages asserting Jesus’ virgin birth, miracles, divinity, and resurrection. Published in The Works of Thomas Jefferson in Twelve Volumes, Federal Edition, Paul Leicester Ford, ed., New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904, Vol. 11, pp. 498–499.
The Founders clearly intended to establish a nation free from government advocacy of any religion. As children of the Enlightenment, they received their “values” from many sources – some Christian, and some not. They believed that religious matters were deeply personal and government had no role to play. They were not unanimous in their personal religious views, and many of these personal views differed widely from those that many people want to impose on us today through legislation.
The Founding Fathers believed that both religion and government would be stronger with a complete separation of the two.
The concept of the separation of church and state has been present in the United States from the very beginning.
A version of this essay is included as a chapter in the book Sanity and Public Policy: Separating Truth from Truisms by Jerry Wyant. This book is available in both paperback and eBook formats.
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