Thomas Jefferson's Letters on Liberty and Religion
Thomas Jefferson, April 13, 1743 - July 4, 1826;
Husband & Father, Farmer, Inventor, Architect, Lawyer; Virginia Delegate
to the Continental Congress; Author of the Declaration of Independence; Member
of the Assembly of Virginia, Author, with George Wythe, of the revised
Virginia Laws and Statutes after Independence; Author of the Act for
Establishing Religious Freedom passed in the Assembly of Virginia, 1786;
Father of the University of Virginia;
Governor of Virginia; Minister to France; Secretary of State under Washington; Vice President Under John Adams; Third President of the United States; the Mentor and the Mind behind Madison in the drafting of the Constitution and especially the "Bill of Rights"; Mentor of Presidents James Madison and James Munroe, and Yes, The Architect of the Freedoms of all American People.
I have sworn upon the alter of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. -- Letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush, Sept. 23, 1800
I never will, by any word or act, bow to the shrine of intolerance, or admit the right of inquiry into the religious opinions of others. On the contrary, we are bound, you, I, and everyone, to make common cause, even with error itself, to maintain the common right of freedom of conscience. We ought with one heart and one hand hew down the daring and dangerous efforts of those who would seduce the public opinion to substitute itself into . . . tyranny over religious faith. -- Letter to Edward Dawse, 1803
Still one thing more, fellow-citizens -- A wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities. -- Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address, 1801
----- To S. Kercheval, 1810
But a short time elapsed after the death of the great
reformer of the Jewish religion, before his principles were departed from by
those who professed to be his special servants, and perverted into an engine
for enslaving mankind, and aggrandizing their oppressors in Church and
State: that the purest system of morals ever before preached to man has been
adulterated and sophisticated by artificial constructions, into a mere
contrivance to filch wealth and power to themselves:
that rational men, not being able to swallow their impious heresies, in order to force them down their throats, they raise the hue and cry of infidelity, while themselves are the greatest obstacles to the advancement of the real doctrines of Jesus, and do, in fact, constitute the real Anti-Christ.
----- To John Adams, 1813
It is too late in the day for men of sincerity to pretend
they believe in the Platonic mysticisms that three are one, and one is
three; and yet that the one is not three, and the three are not one . . .
But this constitutes the craft, the power and the profit of the priests.
Sweep away their gossamer fabrics of factitious religion, and they would catch no more flies. We should all then, like the Quakers, live without an order of priests, moralize for ourselves, follow the oracle of conscience, and say nothing about what no man can understand, nor therefore believe.
----- To Dr. Waterhouse, 1815
The priests have so disfigured the simple religion of Jesus that no one who reads the sophistications they have engrafted on it, from the jargon of Plato, of Aristotle and other mystics, would conceive these could have been fathered on the sublime preacher of the Sermon on the Mount. Yet, knowing the importance of names, they have assumed that of Christians, while they are mere Platonists, or anything rather than disciples of Jesus.
----- To Carey, 1816: N. Y. Pub Lib., MS, IV, 409
On the dogmas of religion, as distinguished from moral principles, all mankind, from the beginning of the world to this day, have been quarreling, fighting, burning and torturing one another, for abstractions unintelligible to themselves and to all others, and absolutely beyond the comprehension of the human mind. Were I to enter on that arena, I should only add an unit to the number of Bedlamites.
----- To Van der Kemp, 1816
Altho' I rarely waste time in reading on theological
subjects, as mangled by our Pseudo-Christians, yet I can readily suppose
Basanistos may be amusing. Ridicule is the only weapon which can be used
against unintelligible propositions. Ideas must be distinct before reason
can act upon them; and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is
mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves the priests of Jesus.
If it could be understood it would not answer their purpose. Their security is in their faculty of shedding darkness, like the scuttlefish, thro' the element in which they move, and making it impenetrable to the eye of a pursuing enemy, and there they will skulk.
----- To Van der Kemp, 1820
The genuine and simple religion of Jesus will one day be restored: such as it was preached and practised by himself. Very soon after his death it became muffled up in mysteries, and has been ever since kept in concealment from the vulgar eye. To penetrate and dissipate these clouds of darkness, the general mind must be strengthened by education.
----- To Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, June 26, 1822
Dear Sir,- I have received and read with thankfulness and pleasure your denunciation of the abuses of tobacco and wine. Yet, however sound in its principles, I expect it will be but a sermon to the wind. You will find it as difficult to inculcate these sanative precepts on the sensualities of the present day, as to convince an Athanasian that there is but one God. I wish success to both attempts, and am happy to learn from you that the latter, at least, is making progress, and the more rapidly in proportion as our Platonizing Christians make more stir and noise about it. The doctrines of Jesus are simple, and tend all to the happiness of man.
1. That there is one only God, and he all perfect.
2. That there is a future state of rewards and punishments.
3. That to love God with all thy heart and thy neighbor as thyself, is the sum of religion.
These are the great points on which he endeavored to reform the religion of the Jews. But compare with these the demoralizing dogmas of Calvin.
1. That there are three Gods.
2. That good works, or the love of our neighbor, are nothing.
3 That faith is every thing, and the more incomprehensible the proposition, the more merit in its faith.
4. That reason in religion is of unlawful use.
5. That God, from the beginning, elected certain individuals to be saved, and certain others to be damned; and that no crimes of the former can damn them; no virtues of the latter save.
Now, which of these is the true and charitable Christian?
He who believes and acts on the simple doctrines of Jesus? Or the impious
dogmatists, as Athanasius and Calvin? Verily I say these are the false
shepherds foretold as to enter not by the door into the sheepfold, but to
climb up some other way.
They are mere usurpers of the Christian name, teaching a counter-religion made up of the deliria of crazy imaginations, as foreign from Christianity as is that of Mahomet. Their blasphemies have driven thinking men into infidelity, who have too hastily rejected the supposed author himself, with the horrors so falsely imputed to him.
Had the doctrines of Jesus been preached always as pure as they came from his lips, the whole civilized world would now have been Christian. I rejoice that in this blessed country of free inquiry and belief, which has surrendered its creed and conscience to neither kings nor priests, the genuine doctrine of one only God is reviving, and I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die an Unitarian.
But much I fear, that when this great truth shall be
re-established, its votaries will fall into the fatal error of fabricating
formulas of creed and confessions of faith, the engines which so soon
destroyed the religion of Jesus, and made of Christendom a mere Aceldama;
that they will give up morals for mysteries, and Jesus for Plato. How much
wiser are the Quakers, who, agreeing in the fundamental doctrines of the
gospel, schismatize about no mysteries, and, keeping within the pale of
common sense, suffer no speculative differences of opinion, any more than of
feature, to impair the love of their brethren.
Be this the wisdom of Unitarians, this the holy mantle which shall cover within its charitable circumference all who believe in one God, and who love their neighbor! I conclude my sermon with sincere assurances of my friendly esteem and respect.
----- An additional letter to theologian James Smith -- December 8, 1822 -- further elaborates Jefferson's views on the subject.
"Sir, -- I have to thank you for your pamphlets on the subject of Unitarianism, and to express my gratification with your efforts for the revival of primitive Christianity in your quarter.
No historical fact is better established, than that the
doctrine of one God, pure and uncompounded, was that of the early ages of
Christianity; and was among the efficacious doctrines which gave it triumph
over the polytheism of the ancients, sickened with the absurdities of their
own theology. Nor was the unity of the Supreme Being ousted from the
Christian creed by the force of reason, but by the sword of civil
government, wielded at the will of the fanatic Athanasius.
The hocus-pocus phantasm of a God like another Cerberus, with one body and three heads, had its birth and growth in the blood of thousands and thousands of martyrs. And a strong proof of the solidity of the primitive faith, is its restoration, as soon as a nation arises which vindicates to itself the freedom of religious opinion, and its external divorce from the civil authority.
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. The Eastern presses are giving us many excellent pieces on the subject, and Priestley's learned writings on it are, or should be, in every hand.
In fact, the Athanasian paradox that one is three, and three but one, is so incomprehensible to the human mind, that no candid man can say he has any idea of it, and how can he believe what presents no idea? He who thinks he does, only deceives himself. He proves, also, that man, once surrendering his reason, has no remaining guard against absurdities the most monstrous, and like a ship without a rudder, is the sport of every wind. With such persons gullibility which they call faith, takes the helm from the hand of reason, and the mind becomes a wreck."
"I write with freedom, because while I claim a right to
believe in one God, if so my reason tells me, I yield as freely to others
that of believing in three. Both religions, I find, make honest men, and
that is the only point society has any right to look to. Although this
mutual freedom should produce mutual indulgence, yet I wish not to be
brought in question before the public on this or any other subject, and I
pray you to consider me as writing under that trust.
I take no part in controversies, religious or political. At the age of eighty, tranquility is the greatest good of life, and the strongest of our desires that of dying in the good will of all mankind. And with the assurance of all my good will to Unitarian and Trinitarian, to Whig and Tory, accept for yourself that of my entire respect."
----- To S. Kercheval, 1810
The theory of American Quakerism is a very obvious one. The
mother society is in England. Its members are English by birth and
residence, devoted to their own country as good citizens ought to be. The
Quakers of these States are colonies or filiations from the mother society,
to whom that society sends its yearly lessons. On these, the filiated
societies model their opinions, their conduct, their passions and
attachments. A Quaker is essentially an Englishman, in whatever part of the
earth he is born or lives . . .
The Quakers here have taken side against their own government, not on their profession of peace, for they saw that peace was our object also; but from devotion to the views of the mother society. In 1797-98, when an [English] administration sought war with France, the Quakers were the most clamorous for war.
Their principle of peace, as a secondary one, yielded to the primary one of adherence to the Friends in England, and what was patriotism in the original, became treason in the copy . . . I apply this to the Friends in general, not universally. I know individuals among them as good patriots as we have.
----- To Wm. Canby, 1813
An eloquent [Quaker] preacher . . . is said to have exclaimed aloud to his congregation, that he did not believe there was a Quaker, Presbyterian, Methodist or Baptist in heaven . . . He added, that in heaven God knew no distinctions, but considered all good men as his children, and as brethren of the same family. I believe, with the Quaker preacher, that he who steadily observes those 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 . . . Of all the systems of morality, ancient or modern, which have come under my observation, none appear to me so pure as that of Jesus.
----- To W. Short, 1820
The Presbyterian clergy are loudest; the most intolerant of
all sects, the most tyrannical and ambitious; ready at the word of the
lawgiver, if such a word could be now obtained, to put the torch to the
pile, and to rekindle in this virgin hemisphere, the flames in which their
oracle Calvin consumed the poor Servetus, because he could not find in his
Euclid the proposition which has demonstrated that three are one and one is
three, nor subscribe to that of Calvin, that magistrates have a right to
exterminate all heretics to Calvinistic Creed.
They pant to re-establish, by law that holy inquisition, which they can now only infuse into public opinion. We have most unwisely committed to the hierophants of our particular superstition, the direction of public opinion, that lord of the universe.
We have given them stated and privileged days to collect and catechise us, opportunities of delivering their oracles to the people in mass, and of molding their minds as wax in the hollow of their hands. But in despite of their fuminations against endeavors to enlighten the general mind, to improve the reason of the people, and to encourage them in the use of it, the liberality of this State will support this institution [University of Virginia], and give fair play to the cultivation of reason.
----- To J. Adams, 1823
I can never join Calvin in addressing his God. He
was indeed an atheist, which I can never be; or rather his religion was
daemonism. If ever a man worshiped a false God, he did. The being described
in his five points, is not the God whom you and I acknowledge and adore, the
creator and benevolent governor of the world, but a daemon of malignant
It would be more pardonable to believe in no God at all, than to blaspheme him by the atrocious attributes of Calvin. Indeed, I think that every Christian sect gives a great handle to atheism by their general dogma, that, without a revelation, there would not be sufficient proof of the being of a God. Now one-sixth of mankind only are supposed to be Christians; the other five-sixths then, who do not believe in the Jewish and Christian revelation, are without a knowledge of the existence of a God??
----- To W. Short, 1820
It is not to be understood that I am with him [Jesus] in
all his doctrines. I am a Materialist; he takes the side of Spiritualism; he
preaches the efficacy of repentance towards forgiveness of sin; I require a
counterpoise of good works to redeem it, etc. It is the innocence of his
character, the purity and sublimity of his moral precepts, the eloquences of
his inculcations, the beauty of the apologues in which he conveys them, that
I so much admire; sometimes, indeed, needing indulgence to eastern
My eulogies, too, may be founded on a postulate which all may not be ready to grant. Among the sayings and discourses imputed to him by his biographers, I find many passages of fine imagination, correct morality, and of the most lovely benevolence; and others, again, of so much ignorance, so much absurdity, so much untruth, charlatanism and imposture, as to pronounce it impossible that such contradictions should have proceeded from the same being. I separate, therefore, the gold from the dross; restore to him the former, and leave the latter to the stupidity of some, and roguery of others of his disciples. Of this band of dupes and impostors, Paul was the great Coryphaeus, and first corruptor of the doctrines of Jesus.
----- To W. Short, 1820
The office of reformer of the superstitions of a nation, is
ever dangerous. Jesus had to walk on the perilous confines of reason and
religion; and a step to the right or left might place him within the grasp
of the priests of the superstition, a bloodthirsty race, as cruel and
remorseless as the being whom they represented as the family God of Abraham,
of Isaac and of Jacob, and the local God of Israel.
They were constantly laying snares, too, to entangle him in the web of the law. He was justifiable, therefore, in avoiding these by evasions, by sophisms, by misconstructions and misapplications of scraps of the prophets, and in defending himself with these their own weapons, as sufficient ad homines, at least.
That Jesus did not mean to impose himself on mankind as the son of God, physically speaking, I have been convinced by the writings of men more learned than myself in that lore. But that he might conscientiously believe himself inspired from above, is very possible. The whole religion of the Jew, inculcated in him from his infancy, was founded in the belief of divine inspiration.
The fumes of the most disordered imaginations were recorded in their religious code, as special communications of the Deity . . . Elevated by the enthusiasm of a warm and pure heart, conscious of the high strains of an eloquence which had not been taught him, he might readily mistake the coruscations of his own fine genius for inspirations of an higher order.
This belief carried, therefore, no more personal imputation, than the belief of Socrates, that himself was under the care and admonitions of a guardian Daemon.
----- To Hopkinson, 1789
I am not a federalist, because I never submitted the whole
system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever, in
religion, in philosophy, in politics or in anything else, where I was
capable of thinking for myself.
Such an addiction, is the last degradation of a free and moral agent. If I could not go to heaven but with a party, I would not go there at all.
----- To C. Thompson, 1816
I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus, very different from the Platonists, who call me infidel and themselves Christians and preachers of the gospel, while they draw all their characteristic dogmas from what its author never said nor saw. They have compounded from the heathen mysteries a system beyond the comprehension of man, of which the great reformer of the vicious ethics of deism of the Jews, were he to return on earth, would not recognize one feature.
----- To H. G. 1816
I am not afraid of the priests. They have tried upon me all their various batteries, of pious whining, hypocritical canting, lying and slandering, without being able to give me one moment of pain. I have contemplated their order from the Magi of the East to the Saints of the West, and I have found no difference of character, but of more or less caution, in proportion to their information or ignorance of those on whom their interested duperies were to be plaid off. Their sway in New England is indeed formidable. No mind beyond mediocrity dares there to develop itself.
----- To E. Styles, 1819
I am not [a Calvinist]. I am of a sect by myself, as far as
I know. I am not a Jew, and therefore do not adopt their theology, which
supposes the God of infinite justice to punish the sins of the fathers upon
their children, unto the third and fourth generation; and the benevolent and
sublime reformer of that religion has told us only that God is good and
perfect, but has not defined him.
I am, therefore, of his theology, believing that we have neither words nor ideas adequate to that definition. And if we could all, after this example, leave the subject as undefinable, we should all be of one sect, doers of good, and eschewers of evil. No doctrines of his lead to schism.
It is the speculations of crazy theologists which have made a Babel of a religion the most moral and sublime ever preached to man, and calculated to heal, and not to create differences. These religious animosities I impute to those who call themselves his ministers, and who engraft their casuistries on the stock of his simple precepts. I am sometimes more angry with them than is authorized by the blessed charities which he preaches.
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