Thomas Jefferson and Religious Freedom
Thomas Jefferson played it coy when it came to the content of his personal religion. He rarely shared his own views. He believed that every man was responsible to determine his own beliefs and those beliefs were no one’s business. However when it came to the personal rights to practice religion or not to practice it, he held a strong public opinion. He found it loathsome that anyone should be forced to practice or support a religion against his will. It is an inalienable right to worship as one pleases. One should not be forced to contribute to the established church when he does not believe in the established church. In Virginia, the established church was the Episcopal Church. If you were a Baptist, you were forced to pay a church tax to support the Episcopal Church. As a Baptist, you could also lose your property, be thrown in jail, prevented from holding public office, and your children denied an education all because you rejected the established church.
Thomas Jefferson and Baptists held the same idea on matters of religious freedom. It was in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association that Jefferson used those famous words, a wall of separation.
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign 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 & 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 to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.
Jefferson did not agree with Baptists because of the content of faith but because he too held to a religion that was not accepted by the established church. Jefferson was, by his own confession in a private letter, a Unitarian. Thus he often used language that sounds very Christian, held to the same morals and principles as Christians but he was not a Christian. He also had a particular dislike for Calvinists. You will see in the following letter that Jefferson held a high view of Jesus but did not believe that He is as part of the Triune Godhead nor as our sacrifice for sins. This letter is from the book, In God We Trust, by Norman Cousins
Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse was a substantial and energetic professor of medicine at Harvard who introduced the Jenner method of vaccination against smallpox in the United States. Jefferson saw the value of the vaccination and gave Dr. Waterhouse his full backing. The entire household at Monticello, for example, received inoculations. In addition to his campaign against smallpox, Dr. Waterhouse warred against wine and tobacco. It was in connection with these strictures, and also Dr. Waterhouse’s comments on religion, that Thomas Jefferson wrote the following letter.
LETTER TO BENJAMIN WATERHOUSE, JUNE 26, l822
I have received and read with thankfulness and pleasure your denunciation of the abuses of tobacco and wine. Yet, however sound in its principles, I expect it will be but a sermon to the wind. You will find it as difficult to inculcate these sanative precepts on the sensualities of the present day, as to convince an Athanasian that there is but one God. I wish success to both attempts, and am happy to learn from you that the latter, at least, is making progress, and the more rapidly in proportion as our Platonizing Christians make more stir and noise about it. The doctrines of Jesus are simple, and tend all to the happiness of man.
1. That there is one only God, and he all perfect.
2. That there is a future state of rewards and punishments.
3. That to love God with all thy heart and thy neighbor as thyself is the sum of religion. These are the great points on which he endeavored to reform the religion of the Jews. But compare with these the demoralizing dogmas of Calvin.
1. That there are three Gods.
2. That good works, or the love of our neighbor, are nothing.
3. That faith is everything, and the more incomprehensible the proposition, the more merit in its faith.
4. That reason in religion is of unlawful use.
5. That God, from the beginning, elected certain individuals to be saved, and certain others to be damned; and that no crimes of the former can damn them; no virtues of the latter save.
Now which of these is the true and charitable Christian? He who believes and acts on the simple doctrines of Jesus? Or the impious dogmatists as Athanasius and Calvin? Verily I say these are the false shepherds foretold as to enter not by the door into the sheepfold, but to climb up some other way. They are mere usurpers of the Christian name, teaching a counter-religion made up of the deliria of crazy imaginations, as foreign from Christianity as is that of Mahomet. Their blasphemies have driven thinking men into infidelity, who have too hastily rejected the supposed author himself, with the horrors so falsely imputed to him. Had the doctrines of Jesus been preached always as pure as they came from his hips the whole civilized world would now have been Christian. I rejoice that in this blessed country of free inquiry and belief, which has surrendered its creed and conscience to neither Kings nor priests, the genuine doctrine of one only God is reviving, and I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die an Unitarian.
But much I fear, that when this great truth shall be re-established, its votaries will tall into the fatal error of fabricating formulas of creed and confessions of faith, the engines which so soon destroyed the religion of Jesus, and made of Christendom a mere Aceldama; that they will give up morals for mysteries, and Jesus for Plato. How much wiser are the Quakers, who, agreeing in the fundamental doctrines of the gospel, schismatize about no mysteries and, keeping within the pale of common sense, suffer no speculative differences of opinion, any more than of feature, to impair the love of their brethren Be this the wisdom of Unitarians, this the holy mantle which shall cover within its charitable circumference all who believe in one God, and who love their neighbor! I conclude my sermon with sincere assurances of my friendly esteem and respect.