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Jefferson: Jefferson religious beliefs Essay

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HIST 1103–PETRIN

Summer 2008

Jefferson essay:  jefferson religious beliefs

100 POINT ESSAY

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Letter to Carr             (1)                               ____

Letter to Priestly        (1)                               ____

Letter to Rush            (1)                               ____

Letter to Waterhouse (1)                               ____

Letter to Adams         (1)                               ____

New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy  (2)      ____

Columbia Encyclopedia                     (3)       ____

Nicene/Apostles’/Athanasian Creeds (3)      ____

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CD NOTES: Deism                           (5)       ____

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Jefferson Essay:

Jefferson Religious Beliefs

Introduction

            The foundation of the present religion is based upon the religious beliefs of the early people who founded many different religious groups and sects mostly opposing the Roman Catholicism. Some became Christian denominations, and some became different religions. People then were distinguished not only for their position in the society or government, but as well as their religious beliefs. Because these people were well known, they were able to influence others through their works and ways. One of the prominent people to be accounted is the third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. He was able to incorporate in his lifework his religious views especially on the US Declaration of Independence and on Notes on the State of Virginia. This paper will be discussing the definition of the religious beliefs such as Christianity and deism that have impacted the life of Jefferson.

According to The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Joseph F. Kett, & James Trefil., 2002), Christian means “A follower of Jesus and his teachings, […] institutions and practices of Christianity.” The Columbia Encyclopedia (2001-2007) claims it is “applied often to members of the Disciples’ church.” Christianity is defined as “The religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ” (Hirsch et al., 2002). The Columbia Encyclopedia (2001-2007) also defines Christianity as “One of the world’s major religions [that] predominates in Europe and the Americas, […] in virtually every country of the world. Christianity is characterized by the following: (1) “Jesus Christ is the Messiah sent by God” (Hirsch et al., 2002); (2) “Jesus […] redeemed the world [through death and resurrection], allowing all who believe in him to enter heaven” (Hirsch et al., 2002); (3) “[…] Jesus is the Son of God, the second person of the Trinity of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; that his life on earth, his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension into heaven are proof of God’s love for humanity and God’s forgiveness of human sins” (The Columbia Encyclopedia, 2001-2007); (4) “This teaching is embodied in the Bible, specifically in the New Testament, but Christians accept also the Old Testament as sacred and authoritative Scripture” (The Columbia Encyclopedia, 2001-2007); (5) “[…] practice of corporate worship and rites […] are usually conducted by trained clergy within organized churches” (The Columbia Encyclopedia, 2001-2007).

Deism is defined as “The belief that God has created the universe but remains apart from it and permits his creation to administer itself through natural laws” (Hirsch et al., 2002), and characterized by the following: (1) “rejects the supernatural aspects of religion, such as belief in revelation in the Bible” (Hirsch et al., 2002); (2) “Stresses the importance of ethical conduct” (Hirsch et al., 2002); (3) [Deists, members of Deism, are] “commonly applied to those thinkers in the 17th and 18th [century] who held that the course of nature sufficiently demonstrates the existence of God” (The Columbia Encyclopedia, 2001-2007); (4) they believe that “Formal religion was superfluous, and they scorned as spurious claims of supernatural revelation” (The Columbia Encyclopedia, 2001-2007.

Body of the Essay

Part One:

Thomas Jefferson’s Religious Views

Thomas Jefferson had expressed his religious views in the five letters he wrote for his nephew Peter Carr, Dr. Joseph Priestly, Dr. Benjamin Rush, John Adams, and Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse. Believing greatly to God as the Supreme Being and creator of all on his letter to Dr. Waterhouse (Jefferson, 1822), apparently he also pointed out his views on Christianity, Deism and Unitarianism. Jefferson did not believe in the divinity of Jesus, but followed his works. He had also regarded the doctrines of Deism, and even admired the Unitarian’s. He also mentioned “The moral sense, or conscience, is as much a part of man as his leg or arm” (Jefferson, 1787). His view on morality as natural as the life of a man since the time he was created by the Supreme Being can be attributed to Jefferson’s religious beliefs as well. In his letter to Adams, Jefferson (1823) had also conveyed his reaction about becoming a Calvinist.

“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 man worshipped a false god, he did. The being described in his 5 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 spirit. 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” (Jefferson, 1823).

Jefferson (1802) was very reflective in his life, that he was able to share his faith with Dr. Rush. With this, Jefferson (1803) even created the “Syllabus of an Estimate of the Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus, Compared with those of Others.” He even cited his belief in the fundamental beliefs of Christianity through his letter to Dr. Waterhouse (Jefferson, 1822) based in the Athanasian Creed (Petrin, 2006). He pointed out that the doctrines of Jesus:

That there is one only God, and he all perfect.
That there is a future state of rewards and punishments
That to love God with all thy heart and thy neighbor as thyself, is the sum of religion.
Compared to the “demoralizing dogmas of Calvin” (Jefferson, 1822), Jefferson was able to justify, as mentioned above, his high regard to the fundamental beliefs of Christianity.

On the other hand, Jefferson (1787) elaborately expressed in his letter to Carr how his religious views had conformed to Deism. He encouraged Carr to decide on his own and define his own faith as to how he himself has freely done. Jefferson advised his nephew to read a lot of religious books, observe that his place of origin was the origin of his religion. “Your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven, and you are answerable not for the rightness but uprightness of the decision” (Jefferson, 1822). Consequently, Jefferson (1823) shared to Dr. Priestly his religious views that have conformed to Deism, and left his argument on the divinity and life of Jesus:

“[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, & 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 & philanthropy, and to inculcate the belief of a future state. This view would purposely omit the question of his divinity, & even his inspiration. To do him justice, it would be necessary to remark the disadvantages his doctrines have to encounter, not having been committed to writing by himself, but by the most unlettered of men, by memory, long after they had heard them from him; when much was forgotten, much misunderstood, & presented in very paradoxical shapes.”

            Much has been said how freely Jefferson was in his religion. He was not contented with what was instilled in him since his early years. Jefferson’s experiences and encounters with colleagues and friends had helped him to be more aware about God. If Jefferson was a Deist or a Christian, it had become controversial as he had weighed both religious beliefs close to his heart. His view of Deism could have served him to join the sect, but he did not. On the other hand, Jefferson had contemplated about the “anti-Christian system” (Jefferson, 1803) attributed to him. He was affected with such reaction from people, and caused him to make a statement to Dr. Rush. However, Jefferson mentioned his wish of secrecy for this statement to avoid any further malicious and misinterpretations from the people who knew nothing much about Jefferson (Jefferson, 1803). Quoting his message to Dr. Rush, “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.” (Jefferson, 1803).

Part Two:

A Comparison Between Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin’s Religious Beliefs

Part Three:

Thomas Jefferson on US Declaration of Independence

            Upon the making of the United States Declaration of Independence, it was believed to have the influence of Deism and Christianity. Mentioning the terms “Creator”, “Nature’s God”, “Naturalization” (Jefferson, 1776) can be attributed to the Deist beliefs based on the “popularly known […] “freethinking” (Petrin, 2007). On the one hand, stating, “But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security” (Jefferson, 1776) can be seen related to the statements of  The Thirty-Nine Articles (Halsall, 1998). However, the part of Preamble stating, “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, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” (Jefferson, 1776) were influenced both by the Deist and Christian beliefs.

            Avery Cardinal Dulles (2005) stated that “Three forms of deism may be distinguished, at least schematically. The first, most friendly to faith, admitted two channels of truth: reason, which gave access to the essential and necessary truths, and revelation, which communicated certain supplementary truths, useful but not essential for salvation. According to the second version, revelation was an aid to reason, but it could do no more than confirm or clarify truths accessible to reason alone. The most radical form held that reason was the sole font of truth and that revelation was nonexistent. Dulles (2005) believed that some the Founding Fathers of US were identified being “strongly influenced by deism,” while some remained as “orthodox Christians opposed to deism”. Being a Jesuit, it is natural that Dulles (2005) thesis stated that “deism [had] failed as a religion” because of its “weakness”, and “lack of any serious foundation in biblical research” that is obviously opposing the Jefferson and Franklin’s regard on deism.

Conclusion

            In conclusion, Thomas Jefferson was a man of freedom. Defining Christianity and deism, and learning the different Creeds manipulated his religious views. It may not be that easy to understand and distinguish Jefferson’s religion because of his various exposures to Christianity, deism, and Unitarianism, but the fact remains that he is by nature a believer of God, who is the Creator and Supreme Being. According to Dulles (2005), “Jefferson was a deist because he believed in one God, in divine providence, in the divine moral law, and in rewards and punishments after death, but did not believe in supernatural revelation. He was a Christian deist because he saw Christianity as the highest expression of natural religion and Jesus as an incomparably great moral teacher. He was not an orthodox Christian because he rejected, among other things, the doctrines that Jesus was the promised Messiah and the incarnate Son of God.”

Notes

Ron Petrin, “Deism,” CD1103Su07:  6.

“Apostles’ Creed,” CD1103Su07:  1.

“Athanasian Creed,” 2006.

Paul Halsall, “The Thirty-Nine Articles, 1998.

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., 2001-07.

The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, 3rd ed., 2002.

Thomas Jefferson, [Letter] “To Peter Carr” (Paris, August 10, 1787), in Ron Petrin, “Five Letters by Thomas Jefferson,” CD1103Su07:  4

Thomas Jefferson, [Letter] “To Dr. Joseph Priestley” (Washington, April 9, 1803), in Ron Petrin, “Five Letters by Thomas Jefferson,” CD1103Su07:  4

Thomas Jefferson, [Letter] “To Dr. Benjamin Rush, with a Syllabus” (Washington, April 21, 1803), in Ron Petrin, “Five Letters by Thomas Jefferson,” CD1103Su07:  4

Thomas Jefferson, [Letter] “To Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse” (Monticello, June 26, 1822), in Ron Petrin, “Five Letters by Thomas Jefferson,” CD1103Su07:  4

Thomas Jefferson, [Letter] ] “To John Adams” (Monticello, April 11, 1823), in Ron Petrin, “Five Letters by Thomas Jefferson,” CD1103Su07:  4

Thomas Jefferson, “United States Declaration of Independence,” 1776.

Avery Dulles, “The Deist Minimum,” 2005.

Reference Works

Petrin, R. (2006). Athanasian Creed. Creeds of Christendom Website. Retrieved May 17, 2008, from http://www.creeds.net/.

“Christians.” The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001–07. www.bartleby.com/65/. May 17, 2008.

“Christianity.” The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001–07. www.bartleby.com/65/. May 17, 2008.

“Deists.” The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001–07. www.bartleby.com/65/. May 17, 2008.

The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, 3rd ed., edited by E. D. Hirsch, Jr., et al. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002. www.bartleby.com/59/. May 17, 2008.

Jefferson, T. (1776). United States Declaration of Independence. United States of America: Congress.

Dulles, A. (2005). The Deist Minimum. First Things. Retrieved May 17, 2008, from http://www.firstthings.com/article.php3?id_article=143&var_recherche=Deism

Jefferson, T. (1803). [Letter] To Dr. Benjamin Rush, with a Syllabus, Washington, April 21, 1803. In Ron Petrin, Five Letters by Thomas Jefferson, CD1103Su07:  4

Jefferson, T. (1822). [Letter] To Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, Monticello, June 26, 1822. In Ron Petrin, Five Letters by Thomas Jefferson, CD1103Su07:  4

Jefferson, T. (1803). [Letter] To Dr. Joseph Priestley, Washington, April 9, 1803. In Ron Petrin, Five Letters by Thomas Jefferson, CD1103Su07:  4

Jefferson, T. (1823). [Letter] To John Adams, Monticello, April 11, 1823. In Ron Petrin, Five Letters by Thomas Jefferson, CD1103Su07:  4

Jefferson, T. (1787). [Letter] To Peter Carr, Paris, August 10, 1787. In Ron Petrin, Five Letters by Thomas Jefferson, CD1103Su07:  4

Petrin, R. (2007). Deism.CD1103Su07:  6.

Halsall, P (1998). The Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church in the United States of America (1979). In Internet Modern History Sourcebook. Retrieved from [email protected]