"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,
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.