The religious beliefs of Thomas Jefferson, our third president, have been repeatedly called into question, both in Jefferson’s time and today as well.
In several political campaigns Jefferson was savagely and probably unfairly attacked as an avowed atheist. He was also accused of having a sexual affair with his slave woman Sally Hemmings that modern DNA evidence has confirmed as probably true. But Jefferson never commented on the alleged affair or his religious beliefs either. But most available evidence today indicates he was a theist, a believer in a supreme being.
Although he believed in a just and benevolent divine creator, Jefferson was not a subscriber to the blind faith school of theology. He advised his nephew Peter Carr in 1787 to “question with boldness even the existence of a god because if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear.”
Jefferson read widely on religion and believed that religious faith was primarily a private matter between humans and their God. As most informed people, Jefferson’s beliefs changed over time as he gained knowledge and insight. He was also continually beset by nagging uncertainties concerning the authenticity of the Holy Scriptures.
That Jefferson probably believed in an afterlife is evidenced by his comforting of his close friend former president John Adams after the death of Adams’ wife Abigail. His solace and reassurance included the promise of Adams’ reuniting with her in the hereafter. He also wrote to Adams of “the God whom you and I acknowledge and adore.” That’s not atheist talk. Jefferson seems also to have had a faith in heaven or, “at least,” as historian John Neem put it, “he had hope.”
There is consistent evidence that Jefferson prayed, occasionally even publicly. But he rarely entertained the possibility of divine intervention in earthly matters. While he often asked for God’s comfort and guidance, he never prayed for miracles. In fact, in writing his own self-edited version of the New Testament, “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth,” translated from the original Greek, I might add, Jefferson omitted all the miracle accounts contained in earlier editions.
Although he seems to have prayed regularly, Jefferson’s views on prayer itself are rather unclear. But he firmly dismissed all Biblical miracles as pure myth which might also imply serious doubts about the efficacy of prayer. When Jefferson prayed publicly it was usually in very general and broad terms. And he prayed for solace and guidance rather than providential intervention and miracles.
Jefferson’s critics, of which there were, as today, legions, dismissed his references to God and the afterlife as little more than social convention and insincere political posturing.
Although Jefferson was obviously a theist, the supreme power in which he believed was probably not the traditional Christian deity in whom most Americans have faith today. Probably a deist by today’s definition, he was never entirely specific about this. But in various statements Jefferson rejected belief in the Holy Trinity and in Jesus’ divinity. He also denied the Resurrection, substitutionary atonement and the concept of original sin. He simply could not believe a loving God would condemn all humanity for sins somebody else committed.
In the final analysis, by neither the eighteenth century’s nor today’s precepts would Thomas Jefferson be considered a conventional Christian.