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Was Thomas Jefferson a Deist?

History revisionist and professor of constitutional law at Faulkner University, John Eidsmoe, of Alabama, recently submitted a letter to the editor of the Montgomery Advertiser [Aug. 30, 1998] and challenged readers to produce an authentic statement from Thomas Jefferson in which he claimed to be a Deist.

While it must be admitted that the words "I am a Deist" are not recorded, the allegation is: "it was mentioned that you was a Deist" (Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 27:39).

Dumas Malone says the charge most often made against Jefferson was atheist: "it was not only made in the public press, it was hurled from pulpits in various places, most of all probably in Connecticut. ... Actually, he was a deist" (Jefferson and His Time, 3:481).

Funk and Wagnalls New Standard Dictionary (1952) includes in the definition of Deist: "One who believes in God but denies supernatural revelation." There is no question Jefferson rejected the Bible as divine revelation and rejected the divinity of Jesus. In the Declaration of Independence Jefferson's appeal was to the God of the Deist, "Nature's God," not specifically to the God of Christianity (see letter dated Sep. 14, 1813, to Jefferson from John Adams equating "Nature's God" with "the revelation from nature").

As President, Jefferson occasionally attended church services; but, he was not a communing member of any Christian church. Further, he refused to proclaim any national days of prayer or thanksgiving.

Jefferson says he was a "Materialist" (letter to Short, Apr. 13, 1820) and a "Unitarian" (letter to Waterhouse, Jan. 8, 1825). Jefferson rejected the Christian doctrine of the "Trinity" (letter to Derieux, Jul. 25, 1788), as well as the doctrine of an eternal Hell (letter to Van der Kemp, May 1, 1817). Further, Jefferson specifically named Joseph Priestly (English Unitarian who moved to America) and Conyers Middleton (English Deist) and said: "I rest on them ... as the basis of my own faith" (letter to Adams, Aug. 22, 1813). Therefore, without using the actual words, Jefferson issued an authentic statement claiming Deism as his faith. The 1971 (ninth edition) Encyclopedia Britannica, 7:183, states the following: "By the end of the 18th century deism had become a dominant religious attitude among upper-class Americans, and the first three presidents of the United States held this conviction, as is amply evidenced in their correspondence." Therefore, it is appropriate to quote the two following paragraphs from the correspondence of President Thomas Jefferson wherein he wrote specifically about deism, as taught by Jesus.

"In consequence of some conversation with Dr. Rush, in the year 1798-99, I had promised some day to write him a letter giving him my view of the Christian system. I have reflected often on it since, and even sketched the outlines in my own mind. I should first take a general view of the moral doctrines of the most remarkable of the antient [ancient] philosophers, of whose ethics we have sufficient information to make an estimate, . . . . I should then take a view of the deism and ethics of the Jews, and show in what a degraded state they were, and the necessity they presented of a reformation. I should proceed to a view of the life, character, and doctrines of Jesus, who sensible of incorrectness of their ideas of the Deity, and of morality, endeavored to bring them to the principles of a pure deism, and juster notions of the attributes of God, to reform their moral doctrines to the standard of reason, justice and philanthropy, and to inculcate the belief of a future state. This view would purposely omit the question of his divinity, and even his inspiration. To do him justice, it would be necessary to remark . . . that his system of morality was the most benevolent and sublime probably that has been ever taught, and consequently more perfect than those of any of the antient philosophers." (Ltr. to Joseph Priestly, Apr. 9, 1803.)

"I had believed that [Connecticut was] the last retreat of monkish darkness, bigotry, and abhorrence of those advances of the mind which had carried the other States a century ahead of them. ... I join you, therefore, in sincere congratulations that this den of the priesthood is at length broken up, and that a Protestant Popedom is no longer to disgrace the American history and character. If by religion we are to understand [i.e., to mean] sectarian dogmas, in which no two of them agree, then your exclamation on that hypothesis is just, 'that this would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it.' But if the moral precepts, innate in man, and made a part of his physical constitution, as necessary for a social being, if the sublime doctrines of philanthropism and deism taught us by Jesus of Nazareth, in which all agree, constitute true religion, then, without it, this would be, as you again say, 'something not fit to be named even, indeed, a hell.'" (Ltr. to Adams, May 5, 1817,Writings,A.A.Lipscomb,15:108-109.)

Copyright 2001 Gene Garman


To quote the Jefferson Cyclopedia (#2147)

I hold (without appeal to revelation) that when we take a view of the universe, in all its parts, general or particular, it is impossible for the human mind not to perceive and feel a conviction of design, consummate skill, and indefinite power in every atom of its composition...

...it is impossible I say, for the human mind not to believe that there is in all this design, cause and effect up to an ultimate cause, a fabricator of all things from matter and motion, their preserver and regulator while permitted to exist in their present forms, and their regeneration into new and other forms. We see, too evident proofs of the necessity of a superintending power to maintain the universe in its course and order...
For the full text see Existence of Deity/God by Thomas Jefferson

This was written in 1823 to John Adams a year before their deaths on July 4, 1824. This is Nature's God Jefferson wrote about in the Declaration of Independence. Indeed he is correct and rejected by name Spinoza (pantheist not a Deist), Diderot (French deistic atheist) and D'Holbach (atheist) often claimed as "deists" by so many "deism" websites. Jefferson and Adams obviously believe in an active, but non-controlling God, not what passes for the dictionary definition of Deism today.

Here he not only supported intelligent design, but an ongoing and continuous process. The origin of the term "Nature's God" wasn't invented by Jefferson either, but from Blackstone's Commentaries on the Law. Blackstone's was the the main textbook for Law Schools in America until 1920 and Jefferson was a lawyer.

For more on Jefferson's religious views see Thomas Jefferson and a Reasonable Deity.

As a final note Nature and Nature's God was not the God of the deists but was taken from Blackstone's Commentaries on the Law. Blackstone's was the the main textbook for Law Schools in America until 1920 and Jefferson was a lawyer.

To reiterate Nature and Nature's God had nothing to do with Deism as claimed by many "deism" websites. Blackstone was a Christian.

See Blackstone's View of Natural Law


Deism a secular definition

Deism, a European religious and philosophical movement, was influential in eighteenth-century American thought. It described a world order based on human reason rather than divine revelation. God was viewed as the "first cause" who had established an ordered universe controlled by immutable laws that functioned without miracles or other divine intervention. Human beings had to rely on reason to know God's existence and their own moral duties. This radical development in religious thought was prompted by new philosophical methods, frustration with doctrinal controversies, new political and social theories, and a revolution in the empirical sciences led by Isaac Newton.

Although deism appealed to the individualism and optimism of many eighteenth-century American political and social thinkers, it was popular only among upper-class intellectuals. American deists ranged from the moderate anticlericism, rational morality, and political liberalism of Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin to the much less common militant deism of Ethan Allen and Thomas Paine, who called for an abolition of traditional religion. The one unifying factor in the different versions of deism was a readiness to question traditional revealed religion.

The Reader's Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Sponsored by the Society of American Historians. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Company. All Rights Reserved.


Deism in American political philosophy

a defense of God's presence in public life

By Edward Mahaney-Walter
Herald Opinions Columnist

"One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all." The Virginia legislation mandating the recital of the Pledge of Allegiance and a minute for silent prayer or reflection at the beginning of the school day seemed unfair. Wasn't it an introduction of religion into the classroom? What might Muslim or atheist students think? Didn't the Constitution protect me from such top-down piety?

It is the nature of humans to search for a spiritual and moral framework in which to orient themselves. Who is in charge? What is right? Where did I come from, and what is death? The answers are as multitudinous as the questions. Some cherish the moment, some plan for the future, some value loyalty, others prize above all self-determination, but such questions form the foundations of all mythologies, theologies and philosophies.

I have come to realize that my concern over the mention of God in the public forum was misplaced. Our nation is based on a belief in a Deity for reasons deserving continued adherence. The protestations of individuals such as Lisa Lau '03 ("Confessions of an American Atheist," 1/30) are based on a confused understanding of the nature of the belief in God expressed in American government, and of the nature of the First Amendment of the Constitution.

Jefferson and other founders were Deists, believing in a universal God and a scientific universe. Since their writings constitute the legal foundation of the government, it is worth noting what they wrote and from where they derived their principles: Natural Law. Drawing from Locke, the Declaration of Independence grounds its legitimacy in the people; but why are the people the ultimate authority? Because "they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights" and institute governments to secure these rights. While discarding divine right to rule, the founders did not subscribe to the theory that the state is the ultimate power, which fostered its own form of authoritarian government in the USSR.

Thus we come to, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." By the "due process" clause of the fourteenth amendment, this sentence is extended to apply to the states. Your right to worship God in your own way is protected by the second part. The first prohibits establishment of a state religion, but is often seen as a prohibition against recognizing the existence of any power greater than ourselves and our works, which is absurd because the legitimacy of the government is based on the God-given right to representative rule.

To understand the meaning of the establishment clause, one has to know why it was written. The memory of religious wars and the Churches of England and Rome that drove dissenters to America was fresher then, and the clause was intended to protect the citizenry from the establishment of a state church or public sponsorship of such institutions.

This interpretation has been upheld by Supreme Court cases that removed state-written prayers from the books or struck public funding of parochial systems, such as Wallace v. Jaffree and Lemon v. Kurtzman.

Now let us examine the references to God in our government, and determine whether they constitute propagation of religion, or merely refer to faith in the Creator. The national motto is "In God We Trust."

It became the official state motto during the Eisenhower administration, also when "under God" was added to the Pledge of Allegiance. The intent was clearly to remind the citizenry of the presence of God in the character of this nation, not to make him a Catholic God or a Shiite Allah. But this is not the origin of the phrase, which was already present on coinage.

It arose in the dark days of the Civil War, when a Rev. Watkinson of Pennsylvania wrote to the Secretary of the Treasury, "Dear Sir...You are probably a Christian. What if our Republic (were) shattered beyond reconstruction? Would not the antiquaries of succeeding centuries rightly reason ...at we were a heathen nation? What I propose is ... the words GOD, LIBERTY, LAW.

This would make a beautiful coin, to which no possible citizen could object ... This would place us openly under the Divine protection we have personally claimed." The suggestion was incorporated in much its present form by the end of the war by the Treasury Department. While a Christian heritage was assumed by the minister, Watkinson referred back to our founding documents and believed that such broad ideals had universal appeal.

During the Enlightenment, many prominent figures broke not merely with the Church, but with the Bible. Yet Napoleon, a product of the French Revolution, is quoted as gazing at the bright Egyptian night sky and asking his generals who, if not God, formed that starry vastness. Thomas Paine, who wrote "The Age of Reason" as a critique of a literal interpretation of the Bible, nonetheless expounded the glory of a secular belief in God through appreciation of his majestic creations.

To return to the pledge, it is this Deism that is the basis of America and that is reflected by children every morning across six time zones. It draws from the universal basis of the great religions: a transcendent creating (and destroying) force of which gods may be individual aspects, which humans can become closer to through right living.

Although it may be personified, its essence is not found in gender or name. I would have no problem pledging allegiance "under Allah" in school if I was speaking Arabic, if no recourse was made to specific scriptures, because Allah is simply a word expressing a belief in one force guiding the universe. I do not doubt Lau's ability to be moral without subscribing to a specific religion, but she probably believes that men have a right to govern themselves.

However, if we are born deserving life, liberty and happiness, we must get these rights from somewhere beyond ourselves. Even atheists presumably believe that the universe had an origin and is governed by a set of laws, including the natural laws of Locke, although they do not believe in a revealed spiritual framework.


This appeared in The Brown Daily Herald on Friday, February 1, 2002

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