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"Scandalous" Writings of a Founding Father

by Ed Buckner, Ph.D.
Executive Director, Council for Secular Humanism

Two hundred years ago, Thomas Jefferson sent a letter to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut that is remarkable still for its exuberant declaration regarding the separation of church and state. The letter, dated January 1, 1802, said that the "whole American people" had erected a "wall of separation between Church and State" by adopting the First Amendment.

Jefferson sent his letter as the third President of the United States after having the U.S. Attorney General and others review it. Jefferson intended to explain and reaffirm his views on religious liberty and the Constitution. Those views firmly supported a strict separation of church and state.

Jefferson, of course, is one of the founding fathers that the religious right likes to refer to as a Christian, giving some much hoped for credence to the notion that this is a Christian nation. Were they more conversant with Jefferson's writings they might not be so eager to embrace him.

Jefferson also wrote in a letter to William Short on October 31, 1819 that he did not believe in "The immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity; original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of the Hierarchy, etc."

As if that was not scandalous enough, Jefferson added a bit more about what he did not believe about Jesus in one of his famous letters to John Adams: "And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter."

While Jefferson never sought to establish the new government as in any sense anti-religious or anti-clerical, his private letters demonstrate repeatedly that he had little personal respect for the clergy and churches of the day. He wrote, "The clergy, by getting themselves established by law and ingrafted into the machine of government, have been a very formidable engine against the civil and religious rights of man." He also wrote, "In every country and every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own. It is easier to acquire wealth and power by this combination than by deserving themů" (letter to Horatio Spofford, 1814).

Jefferson declared of the French, though he could well have been forecasting the tax exempt status of churches in America, "The clergy and nobles, by their privileges and influence, have kept their property in a great measure untaxed hitherto." (Letter to Richard Price from Paris, January 8, 1789.)

Some historical revisionists like Charles Colson, the Nixon aide who became famous in the Watergate scandal and then launched a career with Prison Ministries, like to claim that Jefferson was only concerned about entangling the federal government and religion, while approving of aid to religion from state government. The Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, that Jefferson wrote and James Madison guided through the Virginia legislature, conclusively proves otherwise. Included in that state law are these words of Jefferson's: " no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burdened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge or affect their civil capacities." Jefferson's bill became law on January 16, 1786.
Jefferson was prouder of having written this bill than of being the third
President or of such history-making accomplishments as the Louisiana Purchase. He wrote, as his own full epitaph, "Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, And Father of the University of Virginia."

Those who want to pretend that Jefferson's commitment to liberty is pro-religious, pro-Christian, or pro-states' rights are clearly mistaken. But anyone, of whatever religious or irreligious view, who wants religious liberty protected, will join in celebrating in 2002 the bicentennial of Thomas Jefferson's famous, or infamous, letter to the Danbury Baptists.


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