I can say without fear of impeachment that many people in our day believe that the founders of our country were Christians. I also can say with some degree of certainty that when the word “Christian” is used to describe our country’s founders, it is thought of in today’s terms as an “evangelical Christian.” The proposition that our founders were Christian is a claim made in defense of what is perceived to be a legislative abandonment of the “Christian values” that were presumably present in the hearts and minds of the men who declared our country’s independence from England, fought that empire to make it a reality and who then authored our Constitution, establishing our first set of laws.
No doubt some of our country’s founders were Christians and their theology would be accurately defined as historic, orthodox Christianity. But to assume that all of the “big names” in early American history were Christians, would not only be inaccurate, but dangerously so.
Thomas Jefferson was one such man. No question, Jefferson’s marks on our country’s history are significant. He was a state legislator, Governor of Virginia, a minister to France, and a Secretary of State. But he is probably most well known for being an author of the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution, as well as Vice President under John Adams and third President of The United States of America. He was by all rights a statesman, well read and a brilliant thinker.
But he was not a Christian. Some adjectives that would describe his faith would be deist, universalist and Unitarian. He denied that Jesus was the Messiah or the incarnate Son of God. He believed in divine providence, a divine moral law and rewards and punishment after death. But he only regarded Jesus as an incomparably great moral teacher.
A product of the Enlightenment, Jefferson was no fan of the Bible. While he held Jesus in high regard as a teacher, he had no appreciation for the account of His life as provided by the four Gospel writers, and Jefferson held the apostle Paul in especially low regard, presumably disagreeing with much of the doctrine that Paul set forth. He acknowledged the fact that there was valuable teaching contained in the four Gospels, but was insistent that the “diamonds must be separated from the dung” using his terms.
It is from this bias against the canon of scripture that Jefferson created his own bible. The process in his own words…”I had sent to Philadelphia to get two (New) testaments Greek of the same edition, and two English with a design to cut out the morsels of morality, and paste them on the leaves of a book.” [emphasis mine] When the Bibles arrived, he found out that he had received the Greek and English, and also a Latin Bible. For some reason, Jefferson also added a French version. After numerous starts and stops, Jefferson finally completed his cut and paste bible in 1820 at the age of 77. He called it “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth”. It is an interesting compilation of scripture verses, jumping from one Gospel account to another, combining and mixing as suited Jefferson to create a flow of Jesus’ life and his moral teachings.
Jefferson’s bible has no mention of Jesus’ virgin birth, no indication of His claims of divinity, no miracles. And perhaps the most striking aspect of Jefferson’s bible is the abrupt way in which it ends.
Then they took the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury. Now, in the place where he was crucified, there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never a man yet laid. There laid they Jesus,
And rolled they a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed.
That’s it. Jesus died. They buried Him. And they left.
While God is his judge, Thomas Jefferson certainly did not regard the hope of a resurrection as being worthy of recording. Can we then assume that represents the hope that Jefferson had for an eternal life? No mention of a required faith in Jesus and His sacrificial atonement. No expectation of embracing His Lordship. Just moral teaching by a man who died and was buried. And His followers departed.