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Jefferson lecture discusses religion

4 min read
By REGINA WEISS Last Thursday, the department for Classics, Philosophy and Religion recently hosted their annual Thomas Jefferson Lecture celebrating the Statue of Virginia for Religious Freedom, written by Jefferson and enacted into law in 1786 to establish the right to freedom of religion.


Last Thursday, the department for Classics, Philosophy and Religion recently hosted their annual Thomas Jefferson Lecture celebrating the Statue of Virginia for Religious Freedom, written by Jefferson and enacted into law in 1786 to establish the right to freedom of religion.

The lecture, “Nothing Miraculous, All Things Ethical: A President and His Bible,” held on Thursday, Jan. 31, featured retired professor David Holmes from the College of William and Mary, who taught University of Mary Washington religion professor Mary Beth Mathews when she attended the college.

Professor Mathews suggested bringing Holmes to UMW for the lecture that has been held for the past ten years.

“We were thinking that this year it would be good to talk about the Jefferson Bible,” Mathews said.

Mathews said she liked Holmes’ lecture style, commenting, “It kind of reminded me that I need to work a little harder on [mine],” since he does a great job of returning to the main point of the discussion in the middle of a lecture, she said

Mathews introduced Holmes, calling Holmes a speaker, “who makes American religious history come alive.”

Mathews mentioned two of Holmes’ recent books, “The Faiths of the Founding Fathers,” and “The Faiths of the Post-War Presidents.”

Holmes’ lecture focused on Thomas Jefferson’s version of the Bible, first titled “The Life and Morals of Jesus,” by Jefferson, also known as “The Jefferson Bible” for over 100 years, according to Holmes.

In his lifetime, Jefferson never wanted “The Life and Morals of Jesus” to be published, but after his death in 1826, his great-grandson sold it to the Smithsonian Institute in 1895 and they published it as “The Jefferson Bible.”

For 60 years, the Unitarian Universalist church has kept “The Jefferson Bible” in print as well, so it is also known as “The Unitarian Bible.”

Holmes first looked at the ‘background and characteristics’ of Jefferson’s religious faith and then at how “The Jefferson Bible” reflects that image.

Holmes spoke about Arius, an ancient Greek Christian presbyter, who did not believe in the Christian concept of the Holy Trinity.

Arius was a subordinationist, or a Christian who believes “Jesus is the messiah, but that he is not equal to God,” Holmes said.

Subordinationists are also Unitarians, who “believe that God is a unit and not a tri-unit,” said Holmes.

The majority of early Christians accepted Arius’ interpretation that, while “immensely superior to humans, Jesus was still subordinate to God,” according to Holmes.

However, Holmes said that while Arius was building his church, a bishop named Athanasius challenged Arius’ views, issuing the Nicene Creed, a prayer asserting that Jesus is the son of God. Another council declared the Holy Spirit to be divine in the next century.

Trinitarians became the only kind of Christian after the fourth century.

According to Holmes, this history of the Trinity is important for understanding Jefferson’s religion.

“Jefferson concluded that the doctrine of the trinity was a logical impossibility” in the 1760s, according to Holmes, which caused him to question the entirety of the Christian doctrine and led him to reexamine the Christian Bible.

Holmes went on to explain the characteristics of Jefferson’s religion, which included anti-medieval, anti-clerical, anti-Calvinist, reason-centered, monotheistic, restorationistic (the restoration of primitive Christianity) and anti-Trinitarian forms of worship.

Holmes concluded that the answer to whether Jefferson was an Episcopalian or a Unitarian “is easy, he was clearly a Unitarian.”

He went on to speak about the election of 1800 and played 1800 parody election ads to liven the crowd.

“Jefferson was always cautious about revealing his own views,” Holmes said. “For 20 years he attempted to persuade others.”

He wrote “A Syllabus of an Estimate of the Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus,” which he gave to close friends and relatives, and wanted the rest of the population to know that he was a Christian.

Jefferson “was utterly confident that he could separate truth from fiction” in the Bible, Holmes said.

For his own use, Holmes stressed, Jefferson cut pages and verses from the New Testament that he thought worthy, using scissors that he invented himself, to make up his bible, “The Life and the Morals of Jesus.”

The book was seen as a mutilation by many, which is why he had to keep it private, said Holmes.

Jefferson’s bible is “a document of religious freedom. It is, in fact, what very orthodox Christians would’ve considered a mutilation,” said Holmes. He explained that when church and state were united in Europe, “it would have been very dangerous for any person to have compiled such a thing, even in private.”

Holmes ended with a poem, with the line “an orthodox Christian, he was not,” to conclude his speech.

After his lecture, Holmes said he enjoyed researching more about Jefferson’s bible and he reflected, “I never wrote a paper in college or graduate school that once I got started on, after procrastination, I didn’t like.”

Sophomore philosophy major Zakaria Kronemer attended the lecture and found it very “compelling.”

“It turns over our entire perception of the founding fathers,” said Kronemer. “Most people view the founding fathers as a definition of a good Christian, as fundamentalists in the Christian faith.”

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