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The Blue & Gray Press | August 19, 2019

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Jefferson lecture discusses 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.”


  1. Jefferson might have been well advised to read St. Augustine, but he still understood and included the concept of religious freedom in this country’s documents.
    We might be well advised to read some of the early history of this concept that influenced his writings.

    To do so briefly you might choose to read this great article on the “Wall of Separation”
    of Church and State (with maps and illustrations at the original website):

    Guilty of preaching religious liberty in England, separatist leader Roger Williams fled to Boston on FEBRUARY 5, 1631.

    He pastored briefly before being banished in 1636 by Puritan leader John Cotton, who himself had been persecuted by Anglicans in England.

    Befriended by the Indians of Narragansett, Williams founded Providence Plantation, Rhode Island – the first place where church government was not controlled by state government.

    In 1639, Williams organized the first Baptist Church in America.

    His “notorious disagreements” with Puritan leader John Cotton over the Massachusetts General Court censoring his religious speech led Roger Williams to publish The Bloody Tenet of Persecution for Conscience Sake and Mr. Cotton’s Letter Lately Printed, Examined and Answered in 1644.

    In it, Roger Williams first mentioned his now famous phrase, “WALL OF SEPARATION”:

    “Mr. Cotton…hath not duly considered these following particulars.

    First, the faithful labors of many witnesses of Jesus Christ, existing in the world, abundantly proving,
    that the Church of the Jews under the Old Testament in the type and the Church of the Christians under the New Testament in the anti-type, were both SEPARATE from the world;
    and that when they have opened a gap in the HEDGE, or WALL OF SEPARATION, between the garden of the Church and the wilderness of the world, God hath ever broken down the WALL itself, removed the candlestick, &c. and made his garden a wilderness, as at this day.
    And that therefore if He will ever please to restore His garden and paradise again, it must of necessity be WALLED in peculiarly unto Himself from the world,
    and that all that shall be saved out of the world are to be transplanted out of the wilderness of the world and added unto His Church or garden…a SEPARATION of Holy from unHoly, penitent from impenitent, Godly from unGodly.”

    Rev. Roger Williams was alluding to Isaiah 5:1-7, that when God’s people sin, He judges them by allowing his vineyard to be trampled by an ungodly government:

    “My well-beloved hath a vineyard…And he fenced it, and gathered out the stones thereof, and planted it with the choicest vine… and he looked that it should bring forth grapes, and it brought forth wild grapes.

    And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem…judge, I pray you, betwixt me and my vineyard…When I looked that it should bring forth grapes, brought it forth wild grapes?…

    I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard: I WILL TAKE AWAY THE HEDGE thereof, and it shall be eaten up; and BREAK DOWN THE WALL thereof, and it shall be trodden down…

    For the vineyard…is house of Israel…and he looked for judgment, but found oppression.”

    Roger Williams’ understanding – if God’s people sin, government will trample their rights, but if God’s people repent “He will restore His garden” having it “walled in peculiarly unto Himself from the world” – led to the foundational Baptist tenet to keep government out of the church.

    Baptist churches began in other colonies, such as Virginia.

    James Madison wrote to Robert Walsh, March 2, 1819:

    “The English church was originally the established religion;…Of other sects there were but few adherents, except the Presbyterians who predominated on the west side of the Blue Mountains.

    A little time previous to the Revolutionary struggle, the Baptists sprang up, and made very rapid progress…

    At present the population is divided…among the Protestant Episcopalians, the Presbyterians, the Baptists and the Methodists.”

    Baptist churches began in Connecticut, which had established the Congregational Christian denomination as the official State Church from 1639 to 1818.

    With religion under each individual States’ jurisdiction until 1947, the Danbury Baptists in Connecticut complained of their second-class status in letter to Jefferson, October 7, 1801:

    “Religion is at all times and places a matter between God and Individuals – That no man ought to suffer in name, person or effects on account of his religious opinions

    – That the legitimate power of civil Government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor:

    But Sir…what religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the State) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights…

    Sir, we are sensible that the President of the united States is not the national Legislator & also sensible that the national government cannot destroy the Laws of each State;

    but our hopes are strong that the sentiments of our beloved President, which have had such genial effect already, like the radiant beams of the sun, will shine & prevail through all these States…

    We have reason to believe that America’s God has raised you up to fill the chair of State…

    May the Lord preserve you safe from every evil and bring you at last to his Heavenly Kingdom through Jesus Christ our Glorious Mediator.”

    Jefferson replied, January 1, 1802:

    “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for faith or his worship,
    that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions,
    I contemplate with solemn reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.

    Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore man to all his natural rights…
    I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection and blessing of the common Father and Creator of man.”

    In his 2nd Inaugural Address, March 4, 1805, President Thomas Jefferson stated:

    “In matters of religion I have considered that its free exercise is placed by the Constitution independent of the powers of the General Government.

    I have therefore undertaken, on no occasion, to prescribe the religious exercise suited to it; but have left them, as the Constitution found them, under the direction and discipline of state and church authorities by the several religious societies.”

    Jefferson wrote to Samuel Miller, January 23, 1808:

    “I consider the government of the United States as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises.

    This results not only from the provision that no law shall be made respecting the establishment or free exercise of religion, but from that also which reserves to the states the powers not delegated to the United States.

    Certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the General government.It must then rest with the States as far as it can be in any human authority….

    I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct its exercises, its discipline, or its doctrines….

    Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, and the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets.”

    Learn more, get the book, BACKFIRED-A Nation Born for Religious Tolerance
    No Longer Tolerates the Religion of Its Founders

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