David Barton is wrong

Religion | Two conservative college professors critique Barton’s claims about Thomas Jefferson
by Michael Coulter & Warren Throckmorton
Posted 1/22/13, 07:59 am

Lots of people indict the internet as a haven of superficiality, but with the following article and a response by David Barton we’re providing an opportunity to delve deeper: You can read the this thorough critique of Barton’s work about Thomas Jefferson, and then Barton’s defense (see “No, I’m not wrong”).

Why invest the time? Why should you care? Because Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and coiner of the “wall of separation” phrase, was and is enormously influential in his defining of America and the role of Christianity with it. What we think about the past (and future?) of “Christian America” depends heavily on what we think about Jefferson. Some evangelicals talk about “taking back America”—but did Christians ever have it?

David Barton, in essence, says yes. He has achieved enormous popularity among evangelicals for his writing about American history, and enormous scorn from the secular left. Last year a new set of critics emerged, with professors Warren Throckmorton and Michael Coulter of Grove City College, a conservative school, prominent among them. Their book, Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims about Our Third President, takes aim at many of Barton’s contentions.

The Bible tells us that “iron sharpens iron,” and that was our goal in reporting on this controversy last summer and fall (read WORLD’s complete coverage): We now hope for more sharpening as we make these extensive points and counterpoints readily readable by all. As the great Puritan poet John Milton wrote concerning Truth, “Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?” I hope you’ll take the time to understand this grappling, because the stakes are high. Please read this critique and then Barton’s response. —Marvin Olasky


Introduction: Christians, scholarship, and getting American history wrong

Our book, Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims about Our Third President, is primarily about properly understanding some claims about Thomas Jefferson, but it does not attempt to consider all of the contested questions about Jefferson’s actions and beliefs as that would be a monumental task. This work is particularly aimed at understanding Jefferson in light of claims made about him by some religious conservatives, especially those by David Barton. Barton, named by Time magazine in 2005 as one of the top 25 most influential evangelicals, is often called upon by prominent members of the Republican Party for information about the early history of the United States. We focus on his work because so many religious conservatives rely on him as a source and because he recently published a book of claims about Thomas Jefferson, The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed about Thomas Jefferson.

gettingjeffersonrightsmall.jpgWhy focus on claims made by those who offer arguments for the Christian commitments and practices of Jefferson? This question raises the general issue of Christians and scholarship. The authors of this book are both Christians who believe Christian ethics and Christian theology inform our scholarly pursuits. In that sense, we are speaking to audiences that are familiar to us. Thus, our aim is not to diminish the value of conservative religious traditions. Although we believe this book will be interesting to anyone who wants to get Jefferson right, we hope to make a contribution to our own communities.

George Marsden, a committed Christian and the author of important works of history such as Jonathan Edwards: A Life (Yale University Press, 2003) and The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Non-Belief (Oxford University Press, 1994), has provided a short but excellent guide for Christians engaged in scholarship in his The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship (Oxford University Press, 1997).

There is no need to restate all of the arguments of this thoughtful book, but some portions are relevant as we consider historical sources related to Jefferson. The duty of Christians as scholars is first to get the facts correct. As Marsden puts it, “Christians and non-Christians can readily share the basic standards of evidence and argument.”[1] In this sense, the Christian scholar can be compared to a detective who seeks evidence and builds knowledge. It seems rather elementary that a Christian or a non-Christian could be an equally good detective.

In the process of gathering evidence and making arguments, Marsden asserts that “Christians, just as other scholars, must employ the requisite degree of detachment in order to weigh evidence judiciously.”[2] He adds that Christian scholars “may be passionately motivated to do the best job of truth-seeking,” but “they must be duly dispassionate in order to think clearly and to present their results effectively, without tendentiousness.”[3] To be dispassionate and detached is difficult, but necessary. The ardent fan of a team or a political candidate is not the person best suited to make predictions about future contests. For the passionate and attached fan or partisan, his team or party always looks good and is always poised to win. Engaging in scholarship as a Christian is not about who is on our team. Activity in this domain should have at least two objectives. First, scholars labor to uncover the facts about a subject, whether they relate to a historical figure or an aspect of social science. Second, scholars follow the data where they lead. To achieve these objectives, Marsden counsels the Christian scholar to avoid tendentiousness. Tendentiousness might best be described as the kind of argumentation made by lawyers in support of a client where every fact is turned and twisted to be in support of the client. Scholars cannot look like lawyers finding any fact to support their case and excluding or distorting those facts which undermine the case.

There is more to Christian scholarship for Marsden, but the beginning of all scholarship, both Christian and non-Christian, should be a dispassionate search for the proper understanding of facts and events. One might characterize this as a commitment to integrity in scholarship. Marsden further argues that Christians engaged in scholarship are best suited to understand and be sensitive to the religious context of events. We believe that we have better considered some claims about Jefferson because we give attention to the theological and cultural context of the actions and statements of Jefferson and his contemporaries.

The aims of this work are quite simple: to be dispassionate in the analysis of the claims about Jefferson and to understand the events in question in their proper theological and cultural context. In this sense, evaluation of the claims put forward by religious conservatives is not a criticism of Christian scholarship or the rejection of Christian scholarship. Instead, a right consideration of the data flows from a Christian commitment to getting the facts and knowing the truth. The aim then is not merely to find mistakes, but the aim is to get Jefferson right.

The plan of the book is to take church and state claims first followed by a focus on Jefferson’s personal views of the Bible and religion (these chapters are excerpted in this article). Then (in other chapters found in the book), we briefly examine claims relating to the University of Virginia and close with an examination of Jefferson’s views of race and his actions as a slave owner. Finally (also in the book), we provide a list of suggested resources for additional study about Jefferson. We invite readers to fact check us and let us know if you think we have failed to live up to the standards we set. To support the book, we have created a website at www.gettingjeffersonright.com where we will update claims about Jefferson and blog on other related matters.

On getting American history wrong

In this introduction we also want to address briefly Barton’s claims about what leads people to misunderstand United States history.

jeffersonliessmall.jpgIn his introduction to The Jefferson Lies, Barton asserts that there are “five practices that dominate the study of American history and its heroes.” Without citation, he calls these five practices “Deconstructionism, Poststructuralism, Modernism, Minimalism, and Academic Collectivism.”[4] Barton uses these terms in ways that are peculiar at best and generally misrepresent the general practices employed in the academic study of history. Our critique of Barton and religious conservatives in general does not represent or utilize any of these alleged approaches, but a brief discussion of these terms is appropriate before considering the historical claims of Barton.

Barton says that “deconstructionism is a steady flow of belittling and negative portrayals of Western heroes, beliefs, values and institutions.”[5] Here, Barton is referring to deconstruction, which has long been associated with the French literary critic Jacques Derrida and was proposed as an “activity of reading” rather than a system of beliefs. One can say that as an activity of reading, deconstruction is concerned with uncovering the full meaning of a term or concept and discovering what has been disregarded or covered over in the standard use of a term. As Jack Balkin, who is cited by Barton, states, “Deconstruction does not show that all texts are meaningless, but rather that they are overflowing with multiple and conflicting meanings.”[6]

Barton seems to characterize deconstructionism as the kind of historical presentation of the United States as found in the work of Howard Zinn, wherein figures and events traditionally respected are criticized and exculpatory evidence is not cited. This is, most certainly, an idiosyncratic usage of deconstructionism. The Christian scholar should seek a proper reading of the facts, without regard for reputation, even if that activity places traditionally important figures in a negative light. In our view, Barton engages in the process he criticizes, except he obscures facts to make Jefferson look good.

With the term post-structuralism, Barton again takes a complex concept and simplifies it to mean the active criticism of traditional figures. More accurately, post-structuralism is a term used to characterize the work of some late 20th century European intellectuals, such as Michel Foucault, who argued that determining any type of foundational knowledge is vain. Barton reduces the complex concept of post-structuralism to the simple critique of traditional historical narratives.

Barton then argues that the “joint influence of Deconstructionism and Poststructuralism” has undermined “American Exceptionalism.”[7] One problem with this brief reference to American exceptionalism is that Barton uses the term as if it has a single and agreed upon meaning. Barton’s definition, without citation, is “the belief that America is blessed and enjoys unprecedented stability, prosperity and liberty as a result of the institutions and policies produced by unique ideas such as God-given inalienable rights, individualism, limited government, full republicanism, and an educated and virtuous citizenry.”[8]

The problem with this characterization is that the phrase, American exceptionalism, lacks a single, canonical definition. There is no one author who can be said indisputably to have originated the idea. Raymond Smith says that it is a “school of thought that views U.S. politics and society as a distinctive product of unique circumstances.”[9] The components of American exceptionalism, according to Smith, include social mobility, a distinctive national creed, and unique institutional development. Smith also asserts that American exceptionalism sometimes “carries a connotation of superiority” with respect to democratic practices. Smith further argues that the exceptionalist perspective has been used to justify expansionist or aggressive military policies undertaken by the U.S. government. Some, like Smith, see the term used in a variety of ways. Others, such as Michael Ignatieff, see the term as mostly negative asserting that it refers to “human rights narcissism,” which refers to the embrace of negative rights at exclusion of positive rights; “judicial exceptionalism,” which refers to the position that foreign court practices and rulings are irrelevant in the United States; and to American exemptionalism, which is the view that the United States can and should be exempt from some multilateral treaties and institutions (such as the International Criminal Court).[10] Harold Koh, a Yale professor of international law, argues that American exceptionalism includes a favorable element such as “a distinctive rights culture” but also a “problematic face … when the United States actually uses its exceptional power and wealth to create a double standard.”[11]

In his use of deconstruction, post-structuralism, and American exceptionalism, Barton takes complex terms and uses them in a way that nearly all scholars would not recognize. Further, Barton says that the errors of those who study the Founders are caused by “Modernism, Minimalism and Academic Collectivism.” Barton adds that Modernism is when “one severs history from its context and setting, misrepresenting historical beliefs and events.”[12] Modernism usually means an inordinate attachment to new ideas and practices and was generally connected to movements in art and literature.[13] Sometimes modernism is understood as seeking to understand traditional religious ideas in light of developments in science and technology. Barton does not identify individuals who practice modernism in the sense in which he uses the term.

Barton also accuses contemporary scholars of practicing minimalism, which is “an unreasonable insistence on oversimplification—on reducing everything to monolithic causes and linear effects.”[14] This is, once again, a term used in a way that is peculiar to Barton. Furthermore, there is no one who would endorse such a practice. Ironically, we believe that Barton himself is guilty of taking statements and actions out of context and simplifying historical circumstances.

Finally, Barton identifies “academic collectivism,” another invented term, as the practice of only citing other scholars and not citing original sources.[15] Certainly some academic writings have been guilty of this practice, and Barton should be commended for encouraging the analysis of primary sources. But no reputable scholar or professor of research methods would endorse what Barton calls academic collectivism. We have used and referred to secondary sources because those works have been produced and reviewed by reputable scholars, but we have also given significant attention to original sources, sources which Barton can and should have examined when he made claims about Jefferson.

As the title of our book suggests, we examine some key claims about Jefferson often made to attack various interpretations of the separation of church and state. While we think discussions of the proper relationship of church, religious belief, and state actions are crucial, we believe the values of the historian and committed Christian align to require accurate rendering of the facts within the context of their occurrence. In the present case, we try to get Jefferson right.

Jefferson on Church and State

Thomas Jefferson left clear instructions for his gravestone. In an undated note, with a diagram of the obelisk, Jefferson wrote that he wanted the following epitaph on the stone, and “not a word more:”

Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom & Father of the University of Virginia.[16]

Despite Jefferson’s admonition not to add words to his grave marker, even a child could add a longer list of his accomplishments—governor of Virginia, president, secretary of state. Nevertheless, for reasons known only by him, Jefferson chose three accomplishments that represent freedom of action, conscience, and mind. Jefferson’s many efforts to secure these freedoms make him an attractive figure for those concerned with the proper role of church and state in a free society.

Proponents of strong and clear separation of religious institutions and civil government tend to accentuate Jefferson’s ridicule of his clergy critics, his Enlightenment influences, his anti-Trinitarian views, his denial of the core doctrines of orthodox Christianity, and his vigorous statements against a state-supported church. Those who believe the civil government should privilege Christianity, or religion in some general sense, have cited some statements and actions by Jefferson when he was president that could be interpreted as political actions to support Christianity.

Jefferson wrote and said many things about the relationship between religion and political life, but never offered a definitive and complete statement on the matter. Because of Jefferson’s many statements and because of the historical contexts of those statements, it is difficult to offer a simple view of Jefferson on church-state disputes that could apply now. Despite the effort of people on many sides of contemporary issues to take on the mantle of Jefferson, asking WWJD (what would Jefferson do?) cannot settle those disputes.

It is important to remember that Jefferson was a masterful politician, not primarily a philosopher or theologian. As such, his actions must be considered within the context of his era and the political demands of the times. For instance, when Jefferson attended church in the Capitol, was it because he wanted to identify with or promote a set of theological beliefs, or was the purpose to counter his political opponents who accused him of atheism and anti-Christian morality during the 1800 presidential campaign? Or was some measure of both political and personal factors involved in his decision? Or were other factors involved? Those who want Jefferson to provide a narrative for use in today’s culture wars may accentuate different aspects of Jefferson’s actions. Those who want more religion in politics often point to church in the Capitol building as a piece of evidence. Others who want a clear separation between church and state could assert that Jefferson’s choice to attend church in the Capitol was driven more by politics than theology.

Even though we are skeptical that knowledge of the specific actions of a given Founder tells us much definitively about today’s issues, we are aware that many conservatives, religious and otherwise, engage in a kind of WWJD mentality when it comes to Jefferson and other Founders. Thus, as we asserted in the Introduction, we believe all such discussions should be informed by the complete context and an accurate presentation of the facts. Our objective, then, in this chapter is to examine some specific claims surrounding the issue of church, religion, and civil law. Many of those claims are advanced to detract from Jefferson’s reference to a “wall of separation between church and state” in his letter to the Danbury Baptists.

For instance, Kirk Cameron’s recent documentary Monumental features attorney Herb Titus, who asserts that the separation of church and state is a myth. Furthermore, the late D. James Kennedy preached a similar theme in his book, What if America Were a Christian Nation Again?

The “separation of church and state” has never been and is not now a part of the Constitution of the United States. It is, indeed, a myth that has been imported into that Constitution by others. Besides, as we shall see later, when the Constitution and the First Amendment were written, Jefferson was thousands of miles away in France. So he should not be viewed as the authority on what the writers meant.[17]

Despite this minimization of Jefferson’s importance to the First Amendment, all sides, religious right included, want the mantle of Jefferson for their views.

Grounds for disestablishment

All agree that Jefferson opposed state establishment of religion. In his Notes on the State of Virginia (written in the early 1780s and published in the United States in February 1787), Jefferson pointed to the experience of the first settlers in New England, where those who gained political power persecuted other religious practices, as a caution:

The first settlers in this country were emigrants from England, of the English church, just at a point of time when it was flushed with complete victory over the religious of all other persuasions. Possessed, as they became, of the powers of making, administering, and executing the laws, they showed equal intolerance in this country with their Presbyterian brethren, who had emigrated to the northern government. The poor Quakers were flying from persecution in England. They cast their eyes on these new countries as asylums of civil and religious freedom; but they found them free only for the reigning sect.[18]

Also in his Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson observed that attempts to coerce religious uniformity have led to disastrous consequences.

Difference of opinion is advantageous in religion. The several sects perform the office of a Censor morum over each other. Is uniformity attainable? Millions of innocent men, women, and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined, imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity. What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth.[19]

The historical context is worth stating. In England during the late 1600s there was a debate over whether the state should require uniform religious practices and beliefs. Many writers of the period, such as Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan (1651), argued that the state needed the power to enforce religious uniformity or the alternative would be social chaos. Even John Locke in some early unpublished essays written in the early 1660s agreed with the side arguing for religious uniformity.[20] Locke later became a great defender of religious pluralism, as seen in his Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), in which he argued that the state and the church should tolerate diverse religious sects, as long as those sects were not a danger to public order. The Lockean position in defense of toleration eventually came to win the day, and Jefferson can be seen as an intellectual descendent of Locke’s defense of toleration. Jefferson, like Locke, believed that differences regarding speculative religious beliefs were not a matter of civil concern. Also in Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson said that “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”[21]

In numerous letters, Jefferson affirmed his commitment to freedom of conscience and the corrosive effects of state involvement in religious matters. Thus, claims that Jefferson used the powers of the state to enforce or promote religious beliefs should arouse suspicion. When examining some specific claims about Jefferson and the state promotion of religion, we find that the reality is often much different than the claim.

Did Jefferson sign legislation that provided federal funds for evangelizing Indians?

On May 5, 2011, Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) introduced House Resolution 253, which calls for the creation of a week to celebrate “America’s spiritual heritage.”[22] In it, Forbes claims “Thomas Jefferson … provided Federal funding for missionary work among Indian Tribes.” It seems likely that Rep. Forbes took this claim from a pair of claims often advanced by David Barton.

For instance, on April 21, 2011, during an appearance on the Paul Edwards radio show Barton claimed that Thomas Jefferson signed an act three times “to propagate the gospel among the heathen.” Barton said:

The actual quote out of all three acts was “to propagate the gospel among the heathen.” Now, when you take the context of those three federal acts, and you know, you can check the acts, March 3rd, 1803, March 19, 1805, I can give you the dates, you can look them all up and read it. It says, ‘for propagating the gospel among the heathen.’[23]

In this interview, Barton refers to a statute passed by Congress as a belated response to one of the worst atrocities committed by the fledgling American nation against the Indians, the Gnadenhutten massacre. Also referred to as the “Massacre on the Muskingum,” the murder of 96 Delaware Indian converts to Christianity is the apex of a long, sad story. First we will describe the situation and then demonstrate why this claim from David Barton is false.

The early history of the Delaware converts is available in Loskiel’s History of the Mission of the United Brethren among the Indians in North America: In Three Parts.[24] Another authoritative account was submitted to Congress in 1822 by the United Brethren. Essentially, the United Brethren church had a long history of mission work among various tribes in Pennsylvania, much of it conducted by David Zeisberger. The first Moravian missionaries, Frederick Post and John Heckewelder, came to Eastern Ohio in the 1740s. Following them, and facing a need to move his work westward, Zeisberger and some of his converts traveled to what is now eastern Ohio, near New Philadelphia in 1772. With no help from any government, the Brethren mission was successful in that three settlements of native converts were established in Schoenbrun, Gnadenhutten, and Salem.

Although they were a peaceful people, the converts soon became entangled in disputes during the Revolutionary War between the Americans in southern Ohio and other Indian tribes to the north near Sandusky, loyal to the British. While the mission communities wanted to remain neutral, both the British and American forces, along with other Indian tribes, distrusted the “Christian Indians” as they came to be called. The situation was so volatile that by the fall of 1781, the Christian Indians and missionaries were forced to relocate to Sandusky, Ohio.

fig1.jpgIn early 1782, facing inhospitable winter conditions in Sandusky, a group of the Christian Indians returned to Gnadenhutten to try to salvage anything left of their crops from the fall harvest. Then, on March 7, a group of Pennsylvania militiamen, under the command of David Williamson from Fort Pitt, arrived at the mission, first tricking the weary and unsuspecting Indians into accompanying them from the other two settlements to a central location near Gnadenhutten. The Indians were herded into two buildings, men in one, and women and children in the other. According to the account, Capt. Williamson put the fate of the captives to a vote of the militia. The soldiers voted to kill all of the Christian Indians. When informed of their fate, the captives asked for time overnight to prepare for death. The militia granted their request and the captives spent the night before their murder singing hymns and praying. The next day, on March 8, the Christian Indians were brutally murdered. According to the Ohio Historical Society, the militia “murdered twenty-eight men, twenty-nine women, and thirty-nine children.”[25] Two teen captives escaped and returned to the settlement near Sandusky with the brutal story. The current burial site at Gnadenhutten, Ohio, is marked and memorialized with a monument (see Figure 1).[26]

News of the atrocity came quickly to Congress. A month after the massacre, an attempt by Congress to investigate the event was disclosed by Charles Thomson in an April 9, 1782, letter to Pennsylvania President (i.e., Gov.) William Moore.

Thomson wrote:

The enclosed intelligence was communicated to Congress on Monday last. For your farther information respecting the channel of Intelligence I beg leave to send you a letter I received on Sunday from Mr L Weiss. It is the desire of Congress that your excellency and the honble. Council would be pleased to cause enquiry to be made into this matter. I have the honor to be, with great respect, Your Excellency’s Most obedient & most humble Servt, Cha[rles] Thomson[27]

According to notes on this letter found on the Library of Congress website, Thomson’s letter to Moore included an April 7 letter to him from a Lewis Weiss and a report “by one Mr [Frederick] Leimbach titled, ‘Intelligence respecting the Murder of Indians at Muskingum,’ dated April 8, 1782.” Even though Thomson wrote to the governors of both Pennsylvania and Virginia telling them that Congress had ordered the distribution of this report to them, nothing else shows up in the records of Congress about the investigation.

Although it took months, the events on the Muskingum were reported in Europe. Ambassador to France, Benjamin Franklin, wrote Secretary for Foreign Affairs Robert Livingston on Aug. 12, 1782, about the incident, citing a local account of the massacre.[28]

Not long after the Revolutionary War formally ended in 1783, Brethren minister John Ettwein wrote Congress on Oct. 28 asking for an investigation into the massacre and for assistance in securing the rights of Indian survivors to their land near Gnadenhutten. This was one of many letters Ettwein wrote to Congress about the Christian Indians. Although it took far too long, eventually Congress acted on some of Ettwein’s requests.

On March 31, 1784, a congressional committee recommended reserving the former settlements near Gnadenhutten for the Christian Indians. The following April 7, 1784, letter from Thomson to Ettwein broke the good news to Ettwein:

I received by last post your letter of the 4 of March, and have to inform you that agreeably to my promise I laid your Memorial before Congress on the first of November last. It was then read and referred to a Committee, who reported thereon the 31 of March. I presume the unsettled state of Congress and the want of a full representation rendered it in their opinion unnecessary to report sooner. The report is favourable. It has been read and now lies before Congress for their determination but at what time they will take it up I cannot say. It might not be amiss to write to some of the delegates of Pensylvania or of any other state you may be acquainted with and engage them to bring it forward. You may rest assured I shall as far as in my power favour the cause of those unhappy people and most heartily wish your laudable endeavours to promote their spiritual and temporal Welfare may be crowned with success. I am, Sir, Your obedt humble Servt.

Cha[rles] Thomson, Secretary of Congress[29]

Charles Thomson hoped for a positive result and indeed, there was one, albeit much delayed. Congress eventually followed the committee’s recommendation and set aside some land in the Land Ordinance of May 20, 1785, for the Christian Indians. Using the language recommended by the committee, the ordinance resolved:

And be it further ordained, That the towns of Gnadenhutten, Schoenbrun and Salem, on the Muskingum, and so much of the lands adjoining to the said towns, with the buildings and improvements thereon, shall be reserved for the sole use of the Christian Indians, who were formerly settled there, or the remains of that society, as may, in the judgment of the geographer, be sufficient for them to cultivate.[30]

Although the land was not deeded to anyone by the Land Ordinance, the settlements and adjoining land were reserved for the “sole use of the Christian Indians.” Because of the ordinance, the land was taken off the market. At that point, someone needed to step up and take possession of the land because the remainder of the Christian Indians, those who did not make the fatal return to Gnadenhutten in 1782, had been given shelter by the British in settlements on the Huron River near Detroit.

Although Congress set aside the land for the use of the victimized group of Indians, getting them back in the settlements proved to be difficult. When the Indians heard of the action of Congress, the Christian Indians moved back to northern Ohio, arriving near the Cuyahoga River in the spring of 1786. Once there, however, they heard reports that white settlers near their former settlements threatened to kill them if they returned. Even though Congress assured them in August 1786 of protection, supplies, and food for the winter months if they returned to Gnadenhutten, the traumatized remnant remained near Cuyahoga. When spring 1787 arrived, the Christian Indians were warned again not to return to their lands, this time by whites and other Indian tribes who forced them to move to nearby Sandusky.

In July 1787, Brethren Bishop Ettwein again wrote Congress to alert them that the Christian Indians had not returned to eastern Ohio. Ettwein and the Brethren believed that white settlers wanted the land and hoped to keep the Christians Indians far away. In response, on July 27, 1787, Congress resolved to set aside 10,000 acres along the Muskingum River for them and named the Brethren as those who would hold the trust.[31] In August, Charles Thomson wrote to Bishop Ettwein to let him know that the land was still available, but that the Brethren would need to form a society to act as a trustee. Thomson wrote:

On the 27 of last Month I received your letter giving an Account of the situation & present circumstances of the Indian congregation. I communicated it [to] Congress who have been pleased to order a quantity of land around & adjoining the towns of Gnadenhutten, Schoenbrun and Salem on the Muskingum to the amount of ten thousand acres in the whole to be set apart and the property thereof vested in the Moravian Brethren at Bethlehem in Pensylvania or a society of the said Brethren for civilizing the Indians & promoting Christianity, in trust and for the uses expressed in the Ordinance passed the 20th May 1785, including Kilbuck & his descendants and the Nephew & Descendants of the late Capt White Eyes, Delaware chiefs who distinguished themselves as friends to the cause of America.[32]

Although the Brethren were given the authority to take possession of the land, a problem remained. In July of 1787, the Brethren had not organized legally in such a way that they could manage the trust. Thus, the letter and congressional resolution referred to a society that had been engaged in promoting Christianity among the natives, but had not been officially organized and named. The congressional resolution stated:

Whereas the United States in Congress Assembled have by their ordinance passed the 20th May 1785 among other things Ordained “that the Towns Gnadenhutten, Schoenbrun and Salem on the Muskingum and so much of the lands adjoining to the said Towns with the buildings and improvements thereon shall be reserved for the sole use of the Christian Indians who were formerly settled there, or the remains of that society, as may in the judgement of the Geographer be sufficient for them to cultivate”.

Resolved That the board of treasury except and reserve out of any Contract they may make for the tract described in the report of the Committee which on the 23d instant was referred to the said board to take order, a quantity of land around and adjoining each of the before mentioned Towns amounting in the whole to ten thousand acres, and that the property of the said reserved land be vested in the Moravian Brethern at Bethlehem in Pennsylvania, or a society of the said Brethern for civilizing the Indians and promoting Christianity, in trust, and for the uses expressed as above in the said Ordinance, including Killbuck and his descendants, and the Nephew and descendants of the late Captain white Eyes, Delaware Chiefs who have distinguished themselves as friends to the cause of America. (emphasis added)

While this resolution, taken out of the historical context, seems to depict congressional support for “civilizing the Indians and promoting Christianity,” it does not have that effect. The 1787 congressional action points back to the 1785 Land Ordinance that simply provides the land for the “sole use of the Christian Indians, who were formerly settled there.” The Brethren had already promoted Christianity to the Indians. Now they were empowered to act as trustees for this land.

The Brethren missionaries recognized their role and, later that same year, in September, organized The Society of the United Brethren for propagating the Gospel among the Heathen (emphasis added, hereafter society). Subsequent to their founding, federal action referred to this entity as an entity and not as a description of an activity. Loskiel described the beginning of the organization:

In the year 1787 an event took place, which seems to promise much for the future service of the mission among the Indians. A society called The Society of the United Brethren for propagating the Gospel among the Heathen, in imitation of the Society for the furtherance of the Gospel established by the Brethren in England forty-six years ago. This society consists of all the elders and ministers of the congregations of the United Brethren in North America and many other members chosen at their request and with the consent of the Society. They held their first meeting on the 21st of September 1787 at Bethlehem in Pennsylvania, and February 27,1788, this society was declared and constituted a body politic and corporate by the state of Pennsylvania.[33]

Then, on Sept. 3, 1788, Congress again affirmed the rights of the Christian Indians to their lands and provided for surveys of 12,000 acres of land, divided in thirds for use by the three original communities, Gnadenhutten, Schoenbrun, and Salem. In this ordinance, the newly organized society, as trustees, were responsible for the costs of surveying. Congress promised to repay them in money or land.

Despite the best efforts of the society to resettle the land, the Christian Indians did not return to eastern Ohio at that time. From 1786 until 1790, they remained in peace near Sandusky. According to Brethren missionaries, the Christian Indians were afraid to return due to various threats and rumors, perpetrated by both white settlers and other Indian tribes. After the murder of some of their community in Sandusky, the Indians fled back to the Detroit area, eventually accepting a British offer of protection in Canada, north of Lake Erie.[34]

In sum, the Delaware Indian converts had been evangelized before any actions were taken toward them by the national government. The Land Ordinance of 1785 and the acts of 1787 and 1788 were efforts to make right the damage done to the Christian Indians by the Pennsylvania militia in 1782. Congress provided the land in the trust of the United Brethren society organized for this purpose in September of 1787. Due to mortal threats, the Christian Indians fled northern Ohio for Canada and the protection of the British. The Society did not give up, but the promise of return was never fully realized.

What about Jefferson and the evangelization of Indians?

On Nov. 8, 1791, then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson issued a report to President George Washington and Congress regarding the current status of “lands not claimed by the Indians, nor granted to, nor claimed by, any citizens of the United States. …”[35] Although Jefferson told Washington the claims had not been investigated “minutely,” Jefferson’s report provided details on millions of acres of land. One of those claims related to the “Christian Indians.” Jefferson wrote:

The same Ordinance of May 20, 1785, appropriated the three towns of Gnadenhutten, Schoenbrun, and Salem on the Muskingum, for the Christian Indians formerly settled there, or the remains of that society, with the grounds round about them, and the quantity of the said circumjacent grounds, for each of the said towns was determined by the resolution of Congress of September 3d. 1788, to be so much as, with the plat of it’s respective town, should make up 4,000 Acres; so that the three towns and their circumjacent lands were to amount to twelve thousand Acres. This reservation was accordingly made out of the larger purchase of Cutler and Sargent, which comprehended them. The Indians, however, for whom the reservation was made, have chosen to emigrate beyond the limits of the United States, so that the lands reserved for them still remain to the United States. [36]

At the time of this report, Jefferson assumed that the Christian Indians had left the country and were not going to return. He did not anticipate their return, nor did he advocate any efforts to “propagate the gospel” among them. He simply recommended that the lands “remain to the United States.”

That might have been the end of the saga if not for the vigilance of Bishop John Ettwein. In a letter dated Nov. 19, 1791, Ettwein wrote to Jefferson to explain that the flight of the Christian Indians beyond the borders of the United States “was not by choice but the most urgent necessity.”[37] Ettwein then related to Jefferson “the Situation of these Christian Indians since the Year 1785.” Ettwein described the recurrent death threats, the fear and hardships they endured and the eventual flight to Canada. Ettwein also made a case that the Indians wanted to return to Muskingum. He wrote:

By the Last Accounts from the Missionaries, their [the Christian Indians] present Situation is not agreable to those Christian Indians, the Land and everything else is displeasing to them, and as soon as they can return without the Risque of their Lives, at least the greatest Part will return.[38]

Ettwein then informed Secretary of State Jefferson that the society had spent a lot of money on this effort and hoped to be able to recoup some of their investment via rent from some of the land in their trust unoccupied by the Indians. In other words, the society had a stake in the outcome as well, and Congress had promised to make them trustees of that land.

In reviewing the letter, it is obvious that Ettwein considered Jefferson ignorant of their efforts. The bishop sent Jefferson a copy of their rules and information about their methods because their work “cannot perhaps be known to Your Honor, so as it is known to many worthy Gentlemen of this State.”[39] Remarkably, even though his records show he received it, Jefferson did not reply to the bishop’s letter.

After more years of delay, Congress, on June 1, 1796, made all of the prior promises and resolutions into law. See Figure 2 below for an image of the codified title of the bill.


The 1796 bill, enacted when George Washington was president, was titled, “An Act regulating the grants of land appropriated for Military services, and for the Society of the United Brethren, for propagating the Gospel among the Heathen.”[40] Note that the act had two purposes, one relating to regulations of land grants for those in the military and the other to give effect to the Land Ordinance of 1785 and the congressional ordinance of 1788 on behalf of the Christian Indians. Note also that the language of the act clearly identifies the phrase “propagating the gospel among the heathen” as a part of the legal name of the responsible organization. These are crucial facts for understanding the claim that Jefferson signed laws three times to provide federal funds to evangelize Indians.

Figure 3 below has the relevant aspect of the bill for our purposes:


Everything here points back to the 1785 Land Ordinance. In the 1785 ordinance the purpose was to provide land for the sole use of the Christian Indians. There is nothing in any of the actions we have reviewed that provided federal money to propagate the gospel. Rather, the action of the federal government was to respond to an atrocity perpetrated on the Christian Indians.

Once the original act was signed by President Washington, the Brethren went to work trying to rebuild the mission in eastern Ohio. However, the missionaries again had difficulty getting the Indians to move back by the deadline for occupation, which was specified in the statute as Jan. 1, 1800. Because the resistance to return was great, the original act was continued to allow more time for the Indians to reoccupy their land. Thus, the act was reauthorized on March 2, 1799, and Feb. 4, 1800, under President John Adams, and then Jefferson reauthorized this act three times, on April 26, 1802, March 3, 1803, and March 19, 1804.[41]

Note that the 1799 act (see Figure 4) simply extended the time for the Indians to return to the land until Jan. 1, 1802. Thus, when Jefferson was presented with the reauthorization bill of 1802, Congress had already committed the nation to a policy of reparations toward the remnants of the Gnadenhutten massacre victims. Jefferson did not authorize the propagation of the gospel; he simply maintained existing policy.


Barton and others who refer to this claim make much of the title of the act, simply repeating the name of the society as if the designation of the full name meant the bill authorized the activity of “propagating the gospel to the heathen.” Maintaining the full title of the bill was necessary since the bill reauthorized military services in addition to the trust of the society.

A review of the three bills that Jefferson signed reveals nothing new in them about Indians or religion. The first bill accomplished two purposes, one relating to military land, and the other relating to the Delaware tribe. Once the reparations were accomplished, the bill retained the same name, but the content pertained to the military land tracts. The title of the bill retained the reference to the society, but no funds were authorized for religious purposes.

Eventually, the society ceded the land back to the federal government because the converts did not return in sufficient numbers to make the mission viable. In fact, the largest settlement of about 60 Christian Indians was in the Schoenbrun location (renamed Goshen). With so few Indians living in the area, the society rented the rest of the land to white settlers. Eventually, the Goshen settlement dwindled to a few families before the land was given back to the federal government in 1823. In 1822, the Brethren society had to answer to Congress about their use of the lands and issued a report of their activities. In the report, the society representatives told Congress that they had built roads and made the area inhabitable at great expense to their society. In other words, the federal government never provided money to missionaries to evangelize the Indians. Instead, the government attempted to right a wrong by protecting land claims by missionaries on behalf of their native converts.[42]

So the claim made by the Forbes resolution and Barton about federal funds authorizing evangelism and/or the “propagation of the gospel to the heathen” is simply false. While some might dismiss this as a minor point, we find the claim tendentious and troubling. Those who make the claim about government-sponsored evangelism obscure the whole story of the Gnadenhutten massacre and the real purpose of the involvement of the federal government with the United Brethren and the Christian Indians. By making these bills about Jefferson and his alleged support for religion, Barton minimizes an atrocity committed against native people. When one examines this episode in context, it is clear that the federal government did not simply decide to give money to the United Brethren in order for them to “propagate the gospel among the heathen.” The federal government gave a trust to a group of people who organized as “The Society of the United Brethren for propagating the Gospel among the Heathen” for the purpose of helping the brutalized Indians return and keep rights to their lands. If there had not been an atrocity and subsequent displacement of the Christian Indians, there would have been no need for federal legislation in this case.

The narrative developed by Barton and others is misleading and obscures the situation. All Jefferson did was approve bills that had a religious society’s name attached to the title. Barton’s appropriation of the story hides a cruel irony. It was the propagation of the gospel among the Indians that led to their conversion and pacifism. They would not protect themselves or fight back against their aggressors because of the gospel they believed. Barton wants to make this story about a government outreach to teach Indians the gospel when it was the actions of a state militia that led to the deaths of some members of their community.

As noted, Barton complained on the Paul Edwards program that liberals would protest if the federal government today used funds for religious purposes with Native Americans, apparently oblivious to the fact that the federal government pushed Christianity on Native American tribes until early in the 20th century. Native children were removed from their families in elementary school and sent away to boarding schools, sometimes run by church groups. They were forbidden to speak their language or follow native customs. Some recall harsh punishments if the rules were violated.[43] Christian Native Americans agree that the treatment was demeaning and offensive.[44] By using the mistreatment of native people as evidence for his vision of Christian America, Barton inadvertently demonstrates at least one peril of that historical misconstruction.

Did Jefferson sign a treaty to fund missionaries to the Kaskaskia Indians?

Another key claim related to spreading the gospel to Indians in The Jefferson Lies is Barton’s assertion that Jefferson negotiated and signed “a treaty with the Kaskaskia Indians that directly funded Christian missionaries, and provided federal funding to help erect a church building in which they might worship.”[45]

On March 3, 1791, when land grants were authorized for soldiers, Congress also protected land for the Kaskaskia Indian tribe. Due to various conflicts between 1791 and 1803, the Kaskaskia had been reduced to “a very small number” of people. Because they were so few in number, they negotiated a treaty in 1803 with William Henry Harrison, then governor of Indiana.[46] In that treaty, eventually ratified by the Senate, the tribe traded away most of Illinois for small tracts of land near present day Kaskaskia, Illinois. In relocating, the Indians had some requests from the government.

Article 1 sets the stage:

Whereas from a variety of unfortunate circumstances the several tribes of Illinois Indians are reduced to a very small number, the remains of which have been long consolidated and known by the name of the Kaskaskia tribe, and finding themselves unable to occupy the extensive tract of country which of right belongs to them and which was possessed by their ancestors for many generations, the chiefs and warriors of the said tribe being also desirous of procuring the means of improvement in the arts of civilized life, and a more certain and effectual support for their women and children, have, for the considerations hereinafter mentioned, relinquished and by these presents do relinquish and cede to the United States all the lands in the Illinois country, which the said tribe has heretofore possessed, or which they may rightfully claim, reserving to themselves however the tract of about three hundred and fifty acres near the town of Kaskaskia, which they have always held and which was secured to them by the act of Congress of the third day of March, one thousand seven hundred and ninety-one, and also the right of locating one other tract of twelve hundred and eighty acres within the bounds of that now ceded, which two tracts of land shall remain to them forever.[47]

The aspect of the treaty that Barton (and probably Rep. Randy Forbes in H.R. 253) calls evangelizing follows in Article 3.


The annuity heretofore given by the United States to the said tribe shall be increased to one thousand dollars, which is to be paid to them either in money, merchandise, provisions or domestic animals, at the option of the said tribe: and when the said annuity or any part thereof is paid in merchandise, it is to be delivered to them either at Vincennes, Fort Massac or Kaskaskia, and the first cost of the goods in the sea-port where they may be procured is alone to be charged to the said tribe free from the cost of transportation, or any other contingent expense. Whenever the said tribe may choose to receive money, provisions or domestic animals for the whole or in part of the said annuity, the same shall be delivered at the town of Kaskaskia. The United States will also cause to be built a house suitable for the accommodation of the chief of the said tribe, and will enclose for their use a field not exceeding one hundred acres with a good and sufficient fence. And whereas, The greater part of the said tribe have been baptised and received into the Catholic church to which they are much attached, the United States will give annually for seven years one hundred dollars towards the support of a priest of that religion, who will engage to perform for the said tribe the duties of his office and also to instruct as many of their children as possible in the rudiments of literature. And the United States will further give the sum of three hundred dollars to assist the said tribe in the erection of a church. The stipulations made in this and the preceding article, together with the sum of five hundred and eighty dollars, which is now paid or assured to be paid for the said tribe for the purpose of procuring some necessary articles, and to relieve them from debts which they have heretofore contracted, is considered as a full and ample compensation for the relinquishment made to the United States in the first article.[48] (emphasis added)

The United States gave money toward a church building and provided a stipend for a priest to continue work already begun, which included both religious and non-religious duties. The Kaskaskia were already Catholic converts. It is inaccurate to say the federal government sent missionaries to the Kaskaskia Indians; the federal government provided minimal financial resources for a limited time for the support of a priest already working with this group.

To get to the point of negotiating a treaty with the Kaskaskia nation, some preliminary work had been done. Jefferson’s plan to get lands from the Indians was to get them into debt by encouraging them to shop at government trading houses.[49] In fact, Jefferson promoted a plan to sell goods to the Indians at cost in order to cut private traders out of the market. When the leaders of the tribes could not pay their debts, Jefferson encouraged exchanges of land as a means of satisfaction.

It is extremely important to remember that the Indian tribes were generally considered sovereign nations (Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution of 1787 speaks of Congress’s power to regulate commerce with Indian tribes). This treaty provided money for a very small nation of people to pursue religious ends of their choosing. This is not the same as awarding money to a state government for the purpose of paying missionaries. This and other treaties with various Indian tribes were made with sovereign nations and thus should not be construed as the establishment of religion or the interference with the free exercise of religion among citizens of the United States.

Jefferson and the Bible

There are a variety of claims made about Jefferson and the Bible. We take up some that are frequently made by those who lean toward seeing Jefferson as an orthodox Christian. Because Jefferson purchased and studied many Bibles while at the same time criticizing much of the Bible’s substance, it is conceivable that a case could be made that Jefferson both revered and disrespected the book. We think David Barton and others who promote an orthodox Jefferson improperly emphasize selected citations and actions while ignoring much of what Jefferson wrote about the Bible.

In this section we consider, at length, the two works of Jefferson where he extracted texts from the Gospels. Some of the greatest distortions of Jefferson’s views in The Jefferson Lies can be found in the chapter on Jefferson and the Bible. We also consider other claims about Jefferson’s involvement with Bible-related projects.

Did Jefferson found the Virginia Bible Society?

For the lead article in the July 2010 American Family Association Journal, Teddy James interviewed David Barton regarding Thomas Jefferson. In the article titled “Deism and the Declaration: Fact Checking Jefferson’s Theology,” James asked Barton if Jefferson believed in a personal God. Barton answered

Absolutely. He wrote David Rush (sic),[50] signer of the Declaration, a letter stating, “I am a Christian.” He was one of the founders of the Virginia Bible Society.[51]

Previously, Barton made this claim about Jefferson in his 2009 American Heritage DVD series. On May 17, 2010, a ministry called Mission Harvest posted a video clip on YouTube from the series where Barton discusses the views of the Founders toward the Bible. In the clip, Barton said that in the early 1800s, Bible societies were forming around the new nation and then singled out the Virginia Bible Society. Barton again claimed that Jefferson was one of the founders of the Virginia Bible Society.[52]

In The Jefferson Lies, Barton changes the claim and says Jefferson was “an active member of the Virginia Bible Society.”[53] So what is true?

While Jefferson made a one-time contribution to the Bible Society of Virginia, he did not found it. Correspondence from the treasurer of the society makes this clear. In addition, Jefferson is not listed anywhere as one of the founding managers of the group.

Those founding managers of the Bible Society of Virginia are listed in William Asbury Christian’s 1912 book on the history of Richmond, and Jefferson is not listed. Asbury inserted news of the founding among other Richmond happenings:

March 16, 1813, the Marine Insurance Company of Richmond was organized, and it was needed now, especially for war ships. The following May The Daily Compiler, Anderson & DuVal, proprietors, made its appearance. This was Richmond’s first daily paper, but it did not last long, and in July The Virginia Bible Society was organized with the following managers: John Buchanan, John D. Blair, Jacob Gregg, J. H. Rice, William Munford, Samuel Greenhow, Archibald Blair, William Mayo, Robert Quarles, George Watt, John Bryce, William Fenwick, and Alexander Malone. This society has continued from that time until now doing its good work.[54]

According to the Monticello website, John Buchanan was elected president, Archibald Blair was vice president, Samuel Greenhow was the treasurer, with J.H. Rice as the corresponding secretary, and William Munford as the recording secretary.[55] There is no mention of Thomas Jefferson in any records or accounts of the founding of the organization.

Jefferson learned about the society several months after it formed in a Nov. 11, 1813, letter from the society’s treasurer, Samuel Greenhow. Jefferson knew Greenhow from prior business dealings. Here is a portion of Greenhow’s letter to Jefferson:

Sir, I[am] very unwilling to be considered as impertinent, and have therefore hesitated, before I determined, that, I might, without impertinence, inclose to you a Copy of the Address & Constitution of an Association in Virginia, for the distribution of Bibles gratuitously, to those who are not able to purchase them. —Conscious of the purity of my motive, I have discarded the doubts which at first presented themselves to me as to the propriety of this Act.

This association has no tendency to produce any legal preference of Sects—that, it exists, made up of persons of all the different religious sects known among us, is perhaps (Under God) the result of that perfect toleration secured to us, in all matters relative to religion. —The distribution of Bibles, so far from being calculated to give undue influence to any one sect, will tend to counteract the improper influence of ambitious and worldly men licensed as Preachers & pastors—To me then it seems, that, this Association can not possibly produce evil of a political sort; which, from the devotion of so large a part of your life to the service of our Country, I suppose would be a previous enquiry with you—

If then, no evil will probably result from it, and the possession of the Bible shall, as I am sure it will, add to the Enjoyments of a number of our fellow Citizens who cannot purchase—If, as I imagine is certain, the System of morals inculcated in the new testament, is the most perfect in existence—

If the most correct principles of Civil liberty are presented in that Book—And if the distribution of Bible shall excite Citizens of the poorer class, to make great exertions to teach their children to read, and thus increase the Stock of knowledge in that Class of Society—then without Enquiring whether you or I receive this Book as a work of Inspiration, I shall hope for you patronage of the Association—

We should be much pleased to number you among the members of the Society; But, if you should prefer it, we will thankfully receive any donation that you may be pleased to aid us with—

Should you think this letter worthy of notice, you will please address your reply to me as Treasurer of the Bible Society of Virginia; or to any of the managers, whose names you will find on the last page of the inclosed pamphlett.[56]

It is obvious that Greenhow was introducing the society to Jefferson when he wrote that “[W]e should be much pleased to number you among the members of the Society; But, if you should prefer it, we will thankfully receive any donation that you may be pleased to aid us with.” Jefferson would not need a solicitation to join an organization he founded.

Jefferson’s reply makes it clear he was unaware that a Bible society had formed or was needed. Jefferson’s response was to provide a gift of $50, which could have been used to purchase between 10 and 100 English Bibles, depending on the quality selected by the society managers.[57] In his Jan. 31, 1814, reply to Greenhow, it is clear that Jefferson was in the dark about the aims of the society and hoped that the group would not send Bibles to other nations. Jefferson wrote:

Your letter on the subject of the Bible Society arrived here while I was on a journey to Bedford, which occasioned a long absence from home. Since my return, it has lain, with a mass of others accumulated during my absence, till I could answer them. I presume the views of the society are confined to our own country, for with the religion of other countries my own forbids intermeddling. I had not supposed there was a family in this State not possessing a Bible, and wishing without having the means to procure one. When, in earlier life, I was intimate with every class, I think I never was in a house where that was the case. However, circumstances may have changed, and the society, I presume, have evidence of the fact. I therefore enclose you cheerfully, an order on Messrs. Gibson & Jefferson for fifty dollars, for the purposes of the society, sincerely agreeing with you that there never was a more pure and sublime system of morality delivered to man than is to be found in the four evangelists. Accept the assurance of my esteem and respect.[58]

Jefferson’s donation was apparently a one-time contribution. There is no evidence in Jefferson’s writings that he accepted Greenhow’s invitation to join the organization. However, he may have joined it, according to one of the founders of the society, John H. Rice. In an April 10, 1816, letter to William Maxwell, Rice wrote:

Mr. Wirt is taking a deeper interest than he heretofore appeared to take, in the affairs of religion, and especially in Bible Societies; and he has promised to introduce me to some of the leading men about the city, that I may have an opportunity of ascertaining what regard they will pay to the proposed scheme of establishing a national Bible Society. It has occurred to me that it might on many accounts be well for me to attend to this business as I go on; and as Madison, Monroe, and Jefferson are all members of the Bible Society of Virginia, it is to be presumed that they will not discountenance the proposed measure. This plan however will make it necessary for me to leave home sometime before the meeting of Presbytery. Indeed as the Presbytery meets on the second, and the meeting in New York is on the eighth of May, it would be impossible to attend in Petersburgh and be in New York in proper time.[59]

Although Rice claimed that Jefferson was a member, it might be that the $50 donation was enough to allow the founders to consider him a member; moreover, it would be useful to them have a former president as a member. A later description of Rev. Rice’s mission to Washington, D.C., to solicit support omits Jefferson in the lineup of prominent members. The Princeton theology professor Charles Hodge (1797-1878) lauded John H. Rice’s work on behalf of the Virginia Bible Society with an account of Rice’s pitch to prominent men in Washington, D.C., just prior to representing Virginia at the inaugural convention of the American Bible Society. However, Jefferson’s name was missing in this account. Hodge wrote:

Dr. John H. Rice was one of the first to advocate the formation of a Society which should embrace as its field the entire country, and he was appointed by the Bible Society of Virginia as its delegate to the Convention held in New York for that purpose. He stopped on his way in Washington City to enlist the cooperation of prominent men, especially of William Wirt; Madison and Monroe being already members of our State Society. When the representatives of all the existing societies and other friends of the undertaking met in New York, the result of their deliberations was the formation of the American Bible Society. …[60]

Did Rice engage in puffery by including Jefferson as a member of the Virginia society in his letter to Maxwell, or was he simply mistaken? If he was in error when he wrote Maxwell, perhaps he then corrected himself when he went to Washington and on to New York for the opening convention of the American Bible Society. We may never know for sure. However, given Jefferson’s response to Greenhow, along with the conflicting statements attributed to Rev. Rice, it is quite a stretch for Barton to refer to Jefferson as “an active member.”

As we will demonstrate below, there is also reason to question Rev. Rice’s confidence that Jefferson would “discountenance” the formation of the national Bible Society, mentioned by Rice in his letter. Indeed, Jefferson had an opinion of the national society and it was not positive.

Jefferson’s opinion of Bible societies

Regarding the aims of Bible societies, Jefferson commented in general terms to John Adams. Neither Jefferson nor Adams had high regard for them. Not long after the founding of the American Bible Society on May 11, 1816, Adams wrote to Jefferson on Nov. 4 of the same year and complained:

We have now, it seems a National Bible Society, to propagate King James Bible, through all Nations. Would it not be better, to apply these pious Subscriptions, to purify Christendom from the corruptions of Christianity; than to propagate those Corruptions in Europe, Asia, Africa and America![61]

Adams and Jefferson agreed that the Bible contained corruptions and falsehoods. Jefferson’s attempt to edit the New Testament was driven, in part, by his desire to get back to the essential moral teachings of Jesus, without the miracles and fabrications.

Jefferson wrote back to Adams, on Nov. 25, 1816, and agreed with Adams’ complaint. Describing the value of “our bible-societies” to the Chinese, Jefferson wrote to Adams:

These Incendiaries, finding that the days of fire and faggot are over in the Atlantic hemispheres, are now preparing to put the torch to the Asiatic regions. What would they say were the Pope to send annually to this country, colonies of Jesuit priests with cargoes of their Missal and translations of their Vulgate, to be put gratis into the hands of every one who would accept them? and to act thus nationally on us as a nation?[62]

Adams dismisses the whole enterprise and Jefferson wonders how the Protestants in America would like it if the Vatican made a special effort to bring in the Vulgate and give it away.

Was Jefferson a hypocrite?

Even though the claim that Jefferson had anything to do with the founding of the Virginia Bible Society is false, it is worth noting that Jefferson’s actions in support of the Bible could be viewed as contradicting his clear contempt for the dross and the dunghill that he believed much of the Bible was. Just two years prior to denouncing the concept of taking Bibles to other nations, Jefferson donated $50 to the fledgling Bible Society of Virginia and one of the society’s leaders portrayed him as a member.

The apparent contradiction between Jefferson’s private views and his public actions is even more dramatic when one considers his correspondence with friends on the subject of the Bible. For instance, in a letter written just one week before he made his donation to the Virginia Bible Society, on Jan. 24, 1814, Jefferson responded to a letter from Adams with a scathing criticism of the Bible:

You [Adams] ask me if I ever seen the work of J.W. Goethens Schristen? Never. Nor did the question ever occur to me before Where get we the ten commandments? The book [Bible] indeed gives them to us verbatim, but where did it get them? For itself tells us they were written by the finger of God on tables of stone, which were destroyed by Moses; it specifies those on the second set of tables in different form and substance, but still without saying how the others were recovered. But the whole history of these books is so defective and doubtful, that it seems vain to attempt minute inquiry into it; and such tricks have been played with their text, and with the texts of other books relating to them, that we have a right from that cause to entertain much doubt what parts of them are genuine. In the New Testament there is internal evidence that parts of it have proceeded from an extraordinary man; and that other parts are of the fabric of very inferior minds. It is as easy to separate those parts, as to pick out diamonds from dunghills.[63] (emphasis added)

In addition, in an April 13, 1820, letter to William Short, Jefferson described his Syllabus of the doctrines of Jesus (reproduced below). Writing to Short, Jefferson left no doubt as to what he thought of Paul and the remainder of the New Testament:

But while this Syllabus is meant to place the character of Jesus in it’s true and high light, as no imposter himself but a great Reformer of the Hebrew code of religion, it is not to be understood that I am with him in all his doctrines. I am a Materialist, he takes the side of spiritualism; he preaches the efficacy of repentance toward forgiveness of sin. I require a counterpoise of good works to redeem it &c. &c.

It is the innocence of his character, the purity & sublimity of his moral precepts, the eloquence of his inculcations, the beauty of the apologias in which he conveys them, that I so much admire; sometimes indeed needing indulgence to Eastern hyperbolism. My eulogies too may be founded on a postulate which all may not be ready to grant. Among the sayings & discourses imputed to him by his biographers, I find many passages of fine imagination, correct morality, and of the most lovely benevolence: and others again of so much ignorance, so much absurdity, so much untruth, charlatanism, and imposture, as to pronounce it impossible that such contradictions should have proceeded from the same being. I seperate therefore the gold from the dross; restore to him the former & leave the latter to the stupidity of some, and roguery of others of his disciples. Of this band of dupes and impostors, Paul was the great Coryphaeus, and firm corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus. These palpable interpolations and falsifications of his doctrines led me to try to sift them apart. I found the work obvious and easy, and that his part composed the most beautiful morsel of morality which has been given to us by man. The Syllabus is therefore of his doctrines, not all of mine. I read them as I do those of other antient and modern moralists, with a mixture of approbation and disent.[64] (emphasis added)

To Jefferson, then, much of the New Testament was false, obscuring the true Jesus. Paul, writer of many New Testament books, rendered injury to Jesus by corrupting divine teaching according to Jefferson.

There might be a plausible explanation for Jefferson’s action to donate to a local society while holding such a dim view of the Bible and the aims of the American Bible Society. Jefferson did business with Samuel Greenhow and it is reasonable to suspect that he wanted to maintain cordial relationships with his neighbors and business partners. Jefferson’s donation could be understood as an act of civility, accompanied with a statement of his view that the Bible should not be used to proselytize those of other religions, an opinion quite consistent with his statement to Adams. Jefferson would not be the first or last public figure to donate money to a cause he did not fully support.

Furthermore, Jefferson said on several occasions, including in his letter to Adams a week before giving a donation to the Virginia group, that the moral teaching of Jesus was impressive and was as easy to pick out from the Gospels as picking out “diamonds from dunghills.” Perhaps Jefferson believed that giving a defective Bible with some good in it was better than having no Bible at all.

Was Jefferson a chairman of the American Bible Society?

As should be clear from the preceding sections, the claim that Jefferson chaired the American Bible Society is also false. This claim was made in an article by Bob Unruh on the WorldNetDaily website in 2006 and is still made today on some church websites.[65] Christian author Ray Harker includes the claim in his 2010 book on God and government and a recent Google search found more than 8,000 websites with the false claim.[66]

Sometime around 2003, an email variously titled “Forgotten History or Our Christian Roots” made various claims about the religious views of the Founding Fathers, including this one about Thomas Jefferson. The email wrongly claims that Congress founded the American Bible Society and that Jefferson was its chairman.

A brief history of the American Bible Society can be found on its website and in various books about the society (e.g., William Strickland’s 1849 book titled History of the American Bible Society from Its Organization to the Present Time). Jefferson is nowhere mentioned in these sources.[67]

Was Jefferson’s abridgment of the Gospels (The Jefferson Bible) composed of only the words of Jesus—the red letters?

Did Jefferson omit miraculous and supernatural events and elements from his abridgment of the Gospels?

Was Jefferson’s abridgment of the Bible created to evangelize the Indians?

Did Jefferson ask missionaries to get his work published for use with Indians?

In his 2009 American Heritage series, David Barton told Matthew and Laurie Crouch that the Jefferson Bible was Thomas Jefferson’s attempt to construct a Bible to evangelize the Indians. He said that Jefferson put together the “red letters” or the words of Christ (often printed in red in King James Bibles) for this Bible so he could get across the moral teachings of Jesus to the Indians.

Elsewhere, Barton makes similar claims about Jefferson’s editing of the Gospels (i.e., the New Testament books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). On an appearance on the Andrew Wommack Show, Barton told evangelist Wommack that Jefferson knew the Indians in Virginia and hoped to get them to read the Bible. Barton said Jefferson gave his book of extracted verses from the Gospels to an unnamed missionary and asked the missionary to get the book printed for the Indians.

In The Jefferson Lies, Barton expands on these claims, saying that “the charge that Jefferson clipped the supernatural or miraculous from his work is blatantly false.”[68] In his chapter on what has become known as the Jefferson Bible, Barton defends his claims that Jefferson first edited Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John in order to evangelize the Indians. He also disputes that Jefferson failed to include miraculous events and supernatural themes in his abridgment of the Gospels.

There are then four major claims to address. The first is that what has become known as the Jefferson Bible consists only of the words of Jesus laid out chronologically. The second is that Jefferson did not clip out the supernatural and miraculous from his work. Third, Barton claims Jefferson edited the Gospels to provide a compendium of moral teaching for use of the Indians. Finally, Barton claims that Jefferson gave his edited Gospels to a missionary for publication. In The Jefferson Lies, Barton adds that the second time Jefferson edited the Gospels, he did it for his own devotional use.

The Philosophy of Jesus

Before we proceed, we need to provide some background on what Jefferson did with the Gospels (i.e., the New Testament books of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John). As Barton said on the American Heritage series, Jefferson edited the Gospels twice, once in 1804 and then again around 1820 (as we will see, it is not clear just when the latter edition was completed). The first effort he titled:

The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, extracted from the account of his life and doctrines, as given by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; being an abridgment of the New Testament for the use of the Indians, unembarrassed with matters of fact or faith beyond the level of their comprehension[69]

The original of the 1804 version has been lost, save the title page and a table of the Bible verses to be included.[70] The Smithsonian does have the English Bibles that Jefferson used to snip out the passages to include in the first edits. These Bibles have been used in attempts to reconstruct the 1804 version, most comprehensively by historian Dickinson Adams in 1983.[71]

At first glance, the reference to Indians on the title page of the 1804 version is puzzling and seems to support claims that Jefferson’s work was designed for some kind of outreach to native peoples. Although it is possible that Jefferson entertained this purpose for a brief time, we doubt this for four reasons. One, as we will see below, Jefferson criticized mission work with the Indians for the purpose of civilizing them. He also believed that training in trades and commerce should precede education in religious instruction.

Second, on at least one other occasion, Jefferson used the term Indians to refer to his political opponents. Although Jefferson’s exact meaning cannot be known, we can look at Jefferson’s other actions and words to get a sense of his perspective. As we demonstrate below, there is nothing else besides the 1804 title that supports the idea that he intended his edited Gospels for any missionary or civilizing purpose with the Indians.

Another reason to think that Jefferson did not intend his work to be shared directly with native people is that he initially hoped to do the job using Greek, Latin, and French in addition to English, but time constraints kept him to a more modest effort in 1804. As indicated by his own words and his purchases of Bibles in the four languages, Jefferson had planned this multilingual effort by as early as 1805. Surely, he did not intend the Indians to master Greek, Latin, French, and English in order to comprehend the moral teachings of Jesus.

A fourth reason to believe Jefferson had no abiding intent to share his work with the Indians is that he never did so. Barton claims in The Jefferson Lies that Jefferson’s abridgment was “made up of the ‘red letters’ of Jesus’ teachings cut out of the New Testament and compiled into a short, pithy work to be read by the Indians.”[72] If this claim is true, then why wasn’t the book ever shared with Indians or missionaries to Indians? There is no evidence that Jefferson showed his 1804 moral extractions to anyone. As we shall see, Jefferson offered to share the work with his friend Benjamin Rush. Rush told Jefferson, however, that he would not agree with the work unless it supported the divinity of Christ. There is no record that Jefferson ever sent The Philosophy of Jesus to Rush—or anyone else.

Jefferson surely had the means to have such a work published. Jefferson contributed to many religious causes throughout his life; certainly he could afford to get copies made. However, he did not. Jefferson did not want his work to become known to the public, let alone publish it for missionary use.

The Life and Morals of Jesus

It took Jefferson about a decade and a half to get back to the more ambitious effort he hoped to do earlier. In this later work, Jefferson edited the Gospels in four languages and lined up the verses so one could read the text in all four languages at once. Jefferson called this version:

The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth: Extracted Textually from the Gospels Greek, Latin, French, and English[73]

Although he make a clearer distinction between the two versions in The Jefferson Lies, Barton’s 2009 description of Jefferson’s work is misleading in that he implies that Jefferson’s motivation for both the 1804 and 1820 versions was evangelizing the Indians. The title page for the later version says nothing about Indians. As we will show, nowhere else does Jefferson link Indians to his reasons for cutting up the Gospels. We may never really know why he referred to Indians in the title, but based on his writings and reports from that era, we find no evidence that he never attempted to disseminate the work to missionaries and Indians.

Was the Jefferson Bible just the words of Jesus?

About the Jefferson Bible, Barton specifically says on his American Heritage DVD series that Jefferson “cut out all the red letters of Jesus and pasted them from end to end so he could read the red letters of Jesus without stopping.” He also says that Jefferson “took all the words of Jesus and put them there so you could read the words of Jesus nonstop.”[74]

As noted, Jefferson cut and pasted the Gospels twice. On neither occasion did Jefferson simply arrange all of the words of Jesus ”end to end” or “nonstop” as Barton claims. In both documents, Jefferson cut out miraculous elements as well as those portions that pointed to the divinity of Jesus, presumably because he disagreed with those aspects of the Gospels. Jefferson wrote John Adams in 1813 about his 1804 effort at editing the Gospels:

We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus, paring off the amphibologisms into which they have been led, by forgetting often, or not understanding, what had fallen from him, by giving their own misconceptions as his dicta, and expressing unintelligibly for others what they had not understood themselves. There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man. I have performed this operation for my own use, by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and arranging the matter which is evidently his, and which is as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill.[75]

So Jefferson included some of the words of Jesus but not all of them because some, he asserted, included the disciples’ “misconceptions as his [Jesus’] dicta.” Jefferson here claims that the writers of the Gospels failed to understand what Jesus said (his “dicta”) and wrote their version of His words. Those words, as Jefferson understood them, he omitted.

It is astonishing that David Barton and others would make this claim in the way they do. Anyone who has even a cursory knowledge of the Gospels should be able to tell quickly that many words of Jesus are missing.

For example, John 3:16—perhaps the best known words of Jesus—(“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life”) was not considered a diamond of Jesus’ moral teaching. Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John 3 about being born again was not diamond but dunghill instead. John 14:6 (“Jesus said to him, 'I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.'”) was removed. Matthew 28:19 (“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”) was also excised. In fact, there are no post resurrection words of Jesus because Jefferson ended his Bible with the end of Matthew 27:60: “… and he rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed.” Jefferson cut out the resurrection and the Great Commission.

To further demonstrate the inaccuracy of Barton’s claim, we present several additional portions of the Gospels eliminated by Jefferson. First, let’s look at a selection from Chapter 1 of Jefferson’s version. Figure 5 below is an image from Jefferson’s 1820 manuscript. This portion combines parts of Matthew 12 and Mark 2. Jefferson surgically removed that which he thought was not authentically the words of Jesus. Jefferson’s work is in the left column and our comments are on the right.


Now look at Matthew 12:10-15, unedited:

10 And, behold, there was a man which had his hand withered. And they asked him, saying, Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath days? that they might accuse him.

11 And he said unto them, What man shall there be among you, that shall have one sheep, and if it fall into a pit on the sabbath day, will he not lay hold on it, and lift it out?

12 How much then is a man better than a sheep? Wherefore it is lawful to do well on the sabbath days.

13 Then He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand!” He stretched it out, and it was restored to normal, like the other.

14 Then the Pharisees went out, and held a council against him, how they might destroy him.

15 But when Jesus knew it, he withdrew himself from thence: and great multitudes followed him, and he healed them all;

(The letters in italics designate what was removed by Jefferson in both the 1804 and 1820 versions and the bold words designate words of Jesus he removed as a consequence.)

Barton’s claim that Jefferson “cut out all the red letters of Jesus and pasted them end to end so he could read the red letters of Jesus without stopping” is clearly false. In addition to the passages identified above, there are many other “red letters” that Jefferson omitted. Jefferson included lengthy passages on moral teaching from Matthew 5 and Luke 12 (“diamonds”) but omitted the lengthy sermons of Jesus written down in chapters 14-17 of John (“dunghill”). Most of the words in John 14-17 are words of Jesus. Jefferson omitted them.

Jefferson may have done so because in these passages Jesus speaks of Himself as deity. For instance, in John 14:1-4, Jesus says He is going to prepare a place in heaven and calls God His Father:

John 14:1-4—Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. 2) In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. 3) If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also. 4) And you know the way where I am going.”

Also, according to Jefferson, John 17 proved unreliable as an actual teaching of Jesus. Here Jesus speaks of intimate relationship with the Father and power to grant eternal life.

17:1-3—Jesus spoke these things; and lifting up His eyes to heaven, He said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify Your Son, that the Son may glorify You, 2) even as You gave Him authority over all flesh, that to all whom You have given Him, He may give eternal life. 3) This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent.

Can you imagine the reaction from religious leaders if a modern day president chopped up the New Testament in the way Thomas Jefferson did? That president or any political leader would be excoriated and accused of blasphemous attacks on Christianity. Instead, some current Christian right leaders mislead readers about Jefferson’s actions and lionize his Christianity.

Indeed, if religious leaders of his day knew about Jefferson’s edits, he would have been sharply criticized and he knew it. Jefferson exhorted friends who saw his initial Syllabus of Jesus’ teachings to keep it private. Other motives aside for the moment, it is clear that Jefferson did not simply line up all of Jesus’ words “end to end.”

As we shall see, one of Jefferson’s motives for his editing efforts was to purify Christianity from the corruptions that he believed filled the Bible. Given that Jefferson left out long passages of the words of Jesus, it is clear that David Barton is misleading his audiences when he says Jefferson’s book of teachings of Jesus is all the red letters laid out in order. And when one examines what Jefferson left out (what he considered a “dunghill” from which he extracted “diamonds”), it seems clear that Jefferson believed these passages were not original with Jesus.

Did Jefferson edit out the miraculous and supernatural elements of the Gospels?

At first glance, it seems amazing that anyone would dispute Jefferson’s intent to eliminate supernatural and miraculous elements. He told numerous friends that his edits were to separate what he believed was false from that which he believed to be true. His imagery regarding what he included and left out of his abridgments is clear: gold from dross, genuine from the rubbish in which it is buried, and diamonds from a dunghill.

Furthermore, both of Jefferson’s extractions exclude the virgin birth, the star leading the wise men to the baby Jesus, the first miracle at the wedding of Cana, the healings, the feeding of the multitudes, the resurrection and the ascension into heaven after the resurrection. As we demonstrated earlier, Jefferson took care to clip even a phrase that included a healing. Why would Barton claim that Jefferson included the miraculous and supernatural?

In The Jefferson Lies, Barton assigns himself the role of debunking the claim that Jefferson excised all of the miraculous and supernatural elements from both versions. From the 1804 reconstructed Philosophy of Jesus, Barton lists 15 texts from the Gospels as support. However, four of these texts and events depicted by them cannot be found in either The Philosophy of Jesus or The Life and Morals of Jesus. The remaining texts are either ambiguous or are consistent with doctrines Jefferson endorsed.

Barton claims in The Jefferson Lies that three miracles in Matthew 9 (the raising of Jairus’ daughter in Matthew 9:1; healing a bleeding woman in Matthew 9:18-26, and the healing of two blind men in Matthew 9:27-34) were included by Jefferson in The Philosophy of Jesus. However, a review of Jefferson’s table of texts as found in Henry Randall’s 1858 biography of Jefferson and Dickinson Adams’ definitive work demonstrates that these texts were not included in either of Jefferson’s abridgments.

The fourth false text Barton uses is Matthew 11:4-6 which reads:

4 Jesus answered and said to them, “Go and report to John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. 6 And blessed is he who does not take offense at Me.[76]

Again, a review of the table of texts comes up empty for this passage. Jefferson did not include it in either his 1804 or his 1820 versions.

For these claims, Barton cites Charles Sanford’s book The Religious Life of Thomas Jefferson in a footnote.[77] For some reason, Sanford erroneously included these four texts in his summary of Jefferson’s abridgments. However, these miraculous healings and events were not included by Jefferson.

Three of the texts Barton refers to are not as they first appear. Two of them are cited from a reconstruction of The Philosophy of Jesus by Judd Patton.[78] There, Patton writes that the 1804 version included

Miracles such as the healing on the Sabbath in Luke 14:1-6, and the commission of Jesus to His disciples in Matthew 10 to go and heal the sick and raise the dead.[79]

The part of the Luke passage of interest is Luke 14:3-4, where Jesus heals a man with leprosy:

3 And Jesus answered and spoke to the lawyers and Pharisees, saying, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?” 4 But they kept silent. And He took hold of him and healed him, and sent him away;

The Luke 14:1-6 passage is in the table of texts, but the phrase in Luke 14:4—“And he took him, and healed him, and let him go”—was not included in the 1820 version.[80] In other words, Jefferson excluded the miracle. It is quite possible that Jefferson also clipped the Luke passage for use in the 1804 version but deleted the phrase about the healing just as he did in the later version. Since we do not have the original or any copies of the 1804 version, we simply don’t know. In any case, one cannot say for certain that this reference to healing was in The Philosophy of Jesus.

Patton and Barton also refer to Jesus’ commission to his disciples in Matthew 10:8 to “Heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out devils.” We previously noted that the parallel passage in Matthew 11:4-6 was not included in either the 1804 or 1820 versions. In addition, Matthew 10:8 is not in the 1820 version and could have been omitted by Jefferson in the 1804 version. According to Adams, it is also possible that Jefferson could have used the verse on the reverse page of Matthew 10:8 (Matthew 9:36).[81] Thus, the inclusion of this verse in the 1804 version is in dispute.

The third ambiguous passage is Mark 14:61-62. Barton claims that these verses affirm “Jesus saying He is the Son of God.” Jefferson’s treatment of these verses does not support Barton’s claim. First, look at Mark 14:61-62 as Jefferson edited them for inclusion in the 1804 version:

61 Again the high priest asked him, and said unto him, Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed? 62 And Jesus said, I am:

These two verses do not appear in the table of texts Jefferson developed to guide his work, and he did not use them in his 1820 version. According to historian Adams, Jefferson clipped portions of these verses from the 1799 edition of the New Testament that he cut up to make the 1804 version. Jefferson could have done one of two things with these verses. He could have clipped them and not included them. Since they were not in his written plan for extraction, he may have cut them out as he was editing but then decided not to use them. The other possibility is that he could have included only edited portions of those verses. Either way Barton’s claim is dubious. Look at what Jefferson did not use because he left it in the 1799 New Testament (portions not used by Jefferson in italics):

61 But he held his peace and answered nothing. Again the high priest asked him, and said unto him, Art thou the Christ, the Son of the Blessed? 62 And Jesus said, I am: and ye shall see the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven.”[82]

If Jefferson used Mark 14:61-62 at all, he did not include the portion that has Jesus sitting on God the Father’s right hand and returning in the clouds because that section was left in the Bible Jefferson used for source material. Furthermore, we think Jefferson scholar Dickenson Adams may be correct when he wrote:

At first sight the inclusion of a direct assertion by Jesus that he was the ‘Son of the Blessed’ appear at odds with TJ’s [Jefferson’s] belief that Jesus had ‘every human excellence, and … never claimed any other’ (TJ to Benjamin Rush, 21 Apr. 1803, Appendix). But TJ probably understood this passage, as well as all others like in PJ [Philosophy of Jesus] and LJ [Life and Morals of Jesus], to mean that Jesus was a man specially approved by God, a theme that Priestley had emphasized in Corruptions of Christianity.[83]

Another reason Jefferson may have included the Mark passage was because he believed Jesus could have been wrong about Himself. In other words, even though Jefferson did not believe in the deity of Jesus, Jesus might have possessed some belief in His own divinity. Jefferson developed this theory in an Aug. 4, 1820, letter to William Short. Jefferson wrote:

That Jesus did not mean to impose himself on mankind as the son of god physically speaking I have been convinced by the writings of men more learned than myself in that lore. But that he might conscientiously believe himself inspired from above, is very possible. The whole religion of the Jews, inculcated on him from his infancy, was founded in the belief of divine inspiration. The fumes of the most disordered imaginations were recorded in their religious code, as special communications of the deity; and as it could not but happen that, in the course of ages, events would now and then turn up to which some of these vague rhapsodies might be accommodated by the aid of allegories, figures, types, and other tricks upon words, they have not only preserved their credit with the Jews of all subsequent times, but are the foundation of much of the religions of those who have schismatised from them. Elevated by the enthusiasm of a warm and pure heart, conscious of the high strains of an eloquence which had not been taught him, he might readily mistake the coruscations of his own find genius for inspirations of a higher order. This belief carried therefore no more personal imputation than the belief of Socrates that himself was under the care and admonitions of a guardian daemon. [84]

Jefferson made it clear to Short that he did not believe in the deity of Jesus. However, Jefferson speculated that Jesus might have had some delusions of grandeur. If so, Jefferson blamed Judaism’s emphasis on revelation from God that Jesus inculcated as a youth. Once Jesus started to perform his earthly work, He might have gotten carried away and said some things that Jefferson acknowledged as from Jesus but deluded nonetheless. Jefferson regarded Jesus’ belief in his divinity as being analogous to Socrates’ belief that he had a guardian daemon.

The remaining eight texts[85] that Barton cites to combat the claim that Jefferson cut out all the miracles and supernatural pertain to heaven, hell, and the afterlife. While not miracles per se, they do indicate that Jefferson believed in an afterlife with judgment. This belief was stated in his Syllabus of Christianity (in full below) done in 1803 when Jefferson wrote:

He [Jesus] taught, emphatically, the doctrines of a future state, which was either doubted, or disbelieved by the Jews; and wielded it with efficacy, as an important incentive, supplementary to the other motives to moral conduct.

Much later on June 26, 1822, Jefferson described an even simpler creed to Harvard professor Benjamin Waterhouse:

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.[86]

Jefferson included texts that depicted a future state of rewards and punishments because those matched that belief. In this case, Barton is half-right. Jefferson allowed for an afterlife beyond the end of natural life. However, the references to miracles cited by Barton as being in the 1804 version are either not included or cannot be verified as having been included.

Regarding the 1820 extraction, the same miraculous and supernatural events (e.g., virgin birth, resurrection, and ascension) are missing from Jefferson’s original work (which is in the Smithsonian Institution). Also, as we demonstrated above, Jefferson deleted specific healing passages in the later version that are ambiguous in the first.

In The Jefferson Lies, Barton cites 19 biblical texts that he says verify that Jefferson did not exclude the miraculous and supernatural from his 1820 work. However, as with the earlier version, most of these references are to the afterlife with rewards and punishments (see endnote for the list of references).[87] Of the three that remain, two of the references are not cited properly by Barton (Matthew 12:10-12; Matthew 24:20-44), and one is not a clear, unambiguous reference to miraculous physical healing (John 7:23).

The closest Jefferson comes to the inclusion of a healing in his 1820 work is John 7:23, which reads “If a man on the sabbath day receive circumcision, that the law of Moses should not be broken; are ye angry at me, because I have made a man every whit whole on the sabbath day?”[88] Since this verse could be viewed as being at odds with the rest of the extraction, it seems quite possible that Jefferson understood Jesus to refer to personal wholeness without a connotation of miraculous physical healing.

One of Jefferson’s spiritual influences, Joseph Priestley, offered a more figurative understanding of healing in his book Corruptions of Christianity. In it, Priestley wrote:

Now how did Christ bear the diseases of men? Not taking them on himself, and becoming diseased as they had been, but by radically curing them. So also Christ bears that is bears away or removes the sins of men, by healing their distempered minds, and restoring them to a sound and virtuous state, by the power of his gospel.[89] (emphasis in the original)

Since Jefferson excluded the more direct reference to the same healing from the Matthew passage, we believe it is reasonable to think Jefferson had something in mind other than the miraculous when he included John 7:23.

On this point, we now consider Matthew 12:10-12, which Barton references as evidence that Jefferson meant to include the healing of the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath. We considered this passage above (see Figure 5) when addressing the claim about Jefferson using only Jesus’ words. However, look at the passage again (see Figure 6), noting that Jefferson included Matthew 12:10-12, 14, and 15 but excluded the healing in verse 13. Jefferson cut Matthew 12:13 and inserted Mark 2:27. A fair question to ask is: Why did Barton include this passage when Jefferson specifically cut out the miracle?


Barton also obscures Jefferson’s actual edits in another passage involving the end times. As proof that Jefferson wanted to include the second coming of Christ, Barton lists Matthew 24:20-44 in The Jefferson Lies. Jefferson, however, left out verses 22-28, 30-31, 34-35, as well as parts of verses 38, 39, and 44. The passage below is Matthew 24:20-44 with the verses Jefferson left out of his version in italics.

20 But pray ye that your flight be not in the winter, neither on the sabbath day:

21 For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be.

22 And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect’s sake those days shall be shortened.

23 Then if any man shall say unto you, Lo, here is Christ, or there; believe it not.

24 For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.

25 Behold, I have told you before.

26 Wherefore if they shall say unto you, Behold, he is in the desert; go not forth: behold, he is in the secret chambers; believe it not.

27 For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.

28 For wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together.

29 Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken:

30 And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.

31 And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.

32 Now learn a parable of the fig tree; When his branch is yet tender, and putteth forth leaves, ye know that summer is nigh:

33 So likewise ye, when ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors.

34 Verily I say unto you, This generation shall not pass, till all these things be fulfilled.

35 Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.

36 But of that day and hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels of heaven, but my Father only.

37 But as the days of Noah were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.

38 For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noe entered into the ark,

39 And knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.

40 Then shall two be in the field; the one shall be taken, and the other left.

41 Two women shall be grinding at the mill; the one shall be taken, and the other left.

42 Watch therefore: for ye know not what hour your Lord doth come.

43 But know this, that if the goodman of the house had known in what watch the thief would come, he would have watched, and would not have suffered his house to be broken up.

44 Therefore be ye also ready: for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh. (KJV)

By now, it should be clear that Jefferson indeed did remove what he disbelieved and included that which he believed was reasonable. Jefferson believed in an afterlife with judgment but not in the orthodox manner. In fact, Jefferson told William Short in 1820 that he did not agree with Jesus about all of “his doctrines.” About Jesus, Jefferson said:

But while this syllabus is meant to place the character of Jesus in its true and high light, as no impostor Himself, but a great Reformer of the Hebrew code of religion, it is not to be understood that I am with him in all his doctrines. I am a Materialist; he takes the side of Spiritualism; he preaches the efficacy of repentance towards forgiveness of sin; I require counterpoise of good works to redeem it, etc., etc.[90]

Jefferson, trusting in his many good works, looked forward to a final judgment where he would be rewarded.

Did Jefferson edit the Gospels to help evangelize the Indians and then give the book to a missionary to have it printed?

It seems evident that Jefferson did not use his book of edited Gospels to evangelize or civilize the Indians, and, furthermore, we can find no evidence that he ever gave his work to a missionary for printing.

In The Jefferson Lies, Barton claims that “Jefferson repeatedly demonstrated his interest in bringing Christianity to Indians.”[91] To bolster this view, Barton repeats the claim that Jefferson signed a law in 1802 that provided federal funds to the United Brethren to do mission work among the Indians as well as the treaty with the Kaskaskia Indians. We addressed these claims in the first chapter. Neither of those situations demonstrated a deep interest in Christian missions to Indians.

To bolster his claim that Jefferson had an enduring interest in Indian missionary efforts, Barton cites correspondence involving Jefferson and the Rev. William Linn and the Rev. Samuel Miller between 1798 and 1800 “on the subject of promoting Indian missions.”[92] He also refers to an exchange of letters with supporter Edward Dowse in 1803. However, upon examination, these sources do not support Barton’s claim.

During that two-year period, the Rev. Samuel Miller first sent Jefferson “a discourse which I [Miller] lately delivered, on accasion of the death of General Washington” on Feb. 13, 1800.[93] Jefferson wrote back on Feb. 25, 1800, with thanks for the enclosure and an apology for failure to reply to an earlier letter. Miller wrote back on March 4, 1800, to remind Jefferson that Miller asked for information about the Indians who once lived in the New Netherlands area (New York, New Jersey, and parts of Pennsylvania and Delaware) in order to aid him in writing a history of New York. Nothing about mission work is mentioned. In this letter, Miller asked for

Anything, Sir, relating to the Indians before mentioned, even a singled fact, however apparently trivial, which tends either directly or indirectly to throw light on their character, history, or language, will be to me a most acceptable communication, and will be acknowledged with gratitude.[94]

Later, on Aug. 11, 1800, Miller wrote again to Jefferson with thanks for the appendix to Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia. In this letter, he also praised a publication titled Monthly Magazine & American Review but had nothing directly to say about Indians or mission work. Jefferson’s reply of Sept. 14, 1800, likewise was silent about Indians and missions but rather provided information for Miller’s history of New York. In short, the two men corresponded but said nothing that could be construed as interest in “bringing Christianity to the Indians.”

What about Jefferson and William Linn? Stimulated by Jefferson’s notes on Indians in his Notes on the State of Virginia, Linn wrote to Jefferson in 1797 to ask about Jefferson’s collection of Indian vocabularies. Jefferson had an intellectual interest in the origins of the native people and sought answers about their history via a comparative study of their languages. Scholar that he was, Jefferson created a list of English words on a form with space for the equivalent Indian word as a means of studying the different languages.[95]

About his interest in languages, Jefferson told Linn in a Feb. 3, 1798, letter:

I have long wished to make as extensive a collection of vocabularies of Indian languages as possible and after forming a vocabulary of the names of natural objects chiefly, I had a [missing word] and sent out some of [them]. My success however has not been considerable.[96]

There was nothing in this letter about evangelizing the Indians. Then, Jefferson offered to allow Linn’s missionaries to use his vocabulary form to collect samples of language. The motivation was intellectual curiosity about the origins of the Indians. Jefferson wrote in his April 2, 1798, letter:

I could not sooner acknolege the receipt of your favor of Feb. [8]th, because I had to write to Virginia for one of my blank vocabularies, and to await it’s receipt. I now avail myself of your permission to inclose you one, the chief object is that as far as your society may attempt to collect vocabularies of the Indian languages, there may be as much uniformity as they can approach with what has been done before. I have several vocabularies in this form and have many out in the hands of my friends who are in situations to fill them up with the languages of different tribes, the opinion I hazarded on the multiplicity of Indian languages radically different, was not on such foundations as to give me entire reliance on it, much has been collected since that time by myself & some others, and I hope with the aid of your society we are still in time to save most of the languages, and by them to obtain a clue to their origin. My object being the true fact, I do not permit myself to form as yet a decisive opinion, and therefore leave the slight one I had hazarded to the result of fuller enquiry.[97]

On April 4, 1798, Linn wrote to Jefferson about plans to fill in the blanks on the vocabulary form.

The Society here intend to establish a Mission, probably, among either the Western or Southern Indians, as soon as ever they can obtain proper persons. Some have already offered, but we are not yet ready for the execution of our purpose. Your vocabulary will be put into the hands of the Missionaries with directions to fill it up. When these vocabularies are filled by different hands, attention must be paid, I presume, to the spelling, for where the pronunciation may be nearly the same, the spelling may be extremely various. [98]

Although Linn mentions the society’s intent to send missionaries, there is no indication that Jefferson supported that effort. There is no more correspondence between Linn and Jefferson during this period. In this brief exchange, it is clear that Jefferson’s interest in the mission society was the ability of missionaries to get samples of language.

It is surprising that Barton would mention William Linn’s correspondence with Jefferson since Linn, not long after this exchange, became a fierce critic of Jefferson’s campaign for president. During the 1800 presidential campaign, Linn wrote a pamphlet titled Serious Considerations on the Election of a President Addressed to the Citizens of the United States. Linn’s sharp objection to Jefferson was based on religious differences. Linn wrote:

To the declarations of disinterestedness and sincerity already made, I think it proper to add, that I have no personal resentment whatever against Mr. Jefferson, and that it is with pain I oppose him; that I was never in his company, and I would hardly know him; that I honor him in holding a high office in government; that I admire his talents and feel grateful for the services which he has been instrumental in rendering to his country; and that my objection to his being promoted to the Presidency is founded singly upon his disbelief of the Holy Scriptures, or in other words, his rejection of the Christian religion and open professions of Deism.[99]

In The Jefferson Lies, Barton presents Linn and Jefferson as having exchanged correspondence “on the subject of promoting Indian missions.”[100] However, just months later, Linn did not see Jefferson in that light. Instead, Linn perceived Jefferson as someone who rejected Christianity and held heretical views of the origins of the Indians. According to Linn, Jefferson held

… the opinion … that they [Indians] are a different race of men originally created and placed in America; contrary to the sacred history that all mankind have descended from a single pair.[101]

If Jefferson felt betrayed by Linn, it would be understandable. Jefferson had trusted the New York Missionary Society to gather language samples with the result being that Jefferson’s musings on the subject were used against him. In any case, Barton’s assertion that Jefferson was viewed by Linn and contemporaries as a friend to Indian missions is not supported by correspondence between the two men.[102]

Barton’s next exhibit is Edward Dowse. Dowse was a political ally and later served as a representative to Congress from Massachusetts during 1819-1820. On April 5, 1803, Dowse sent Jefferson a sermon preached by a Scottish minister on the morality of Christianity as compared to all other moral views. In The Jefferson Lies, Barton only includes bits of the correspondence, which obscures what took place. Here is the letter from Dowse and Jefferson’s reply in full.

Sir: The extraordinary merit of this little treatise, which I now transmit to you, must be my apology, for the liberty I have taken in sending it. As its design (among other objects) is to promote the extension of civilization and Christian knowledge among the Aborigines of North-America, it seem’d to me to have a claim to your attention: at any rate, the Idea, hath struck me that you will find it of use; and, perhaps, may see fit, to cause some copies of it to be reprinted, at your own charge, to distribute among our Indian Missionaries. —The gratification you find, in whatever is interesting to philanthropy, renders it unnecessary for me to glance at any advantage, which might result from such a measure, in silencing the voice of a calumniating opposition, on the score of your alleged indifference to the cause of religion.

You will please, Sir, to consider this as the private* communication of a private friend, one who is sincerely attach’d to your person and administration, warm in your praises, and who wants nothing in your power to bestow. —I am under the necessity, however, of making one stipulation, in regard to this pamphlet, which is, that you return it to me again, after keeping it as short a time only, as you conveniently can, it being a borrow’d book, and I do not know that there is another copy of it, on this side of the Atlantic, certainly none within my reach.

Amidst the multifarious employment, which is your high station imposes, I do not presume to trouble you to write a line accompanying the return of this book; let it be simply enveloped in a black cover, and directed to me, at this place.

The Appendix to your “Notes on Virginia,” of which you did me the honour, soon after its publication, to inclose me a copy, I take this opportunity to thank you for; and beg you to accept the assurances of my profound respect.

Edward Dowse

*No person whatever is acquainted with it, or ever shall be[103]

In this letter, Dowse asked Jefferson to consider printing a pamphlet to give to missionaries for the purpose of extending “civilization and Christian knowledge” among the Indians. According to Barton and Dickinson Adams, this treatise was written by minister William Bennet and was titled, The Excellence of Christian Morality; a Sermon Preached before the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge.[104]

About Bennet’s sermon, Barton wrote:

The Reverend Bennet advocated teaching Christianity to Indians by using just the simple teachings of Jesus—that is, using only Jesus’ words and avoiding the many doctrines that caused conflict between groups of Christians.[105]

And then later in the book, Barton’s misreading of Bennet’s sermon and the exchange with Edward Dowse sets up his summary of why Barton claims Jefferson edited the Gospels in 1804. Barton claims:

So in 1804, he [Jefferson] prepared a work for them [Indians] using nothing but Jesus’ own words, just as had been recommended in the 1799 sermon that he had earlier read and agreed with. He took two Bibles that he had in the White House, cut from them words of Jesus in the Gospels, and then pasted those words in a separate folio, arranging them so that Indians could read the teachings of Jesus in a non-stop, end-to-end fashion.[106]

After reviewing Bennet’s sermon, we cannot find anything to support these claims. The word Indian (or any other term that would refer to Native Americans) is not used in the sermon. Bennet did not advocate any policy regarding the Indians. In addition, Bennet extols Christian morality, but he refers to those who practice it sincerely as being among the elect—a topic sure to arouse partisan religious conflict.

The letter from Dowse sounds similar to Barton’s story about Jefferson giving his edited Gospels to a missionary. Barton told evangelist Andrew Wommack that Jefferson gave his little book to a missionary and said, “Here, if you’ll get this printed and you use this as you evangelize the Indians, this is just the teachings of Jesus.”[107] In fact, there is no evidence that Jefferson ever said this. Instead, it is Dowse who makes a request of Jefferson, a request that, as we shall see, Jefferson declined to fulfill.

Barton then quotes a brief section of Jefferson’s reply to Dowse in order to make it appear that Jefferson agreed with the sermon. Barton wrote:

Jefferson replied to Dowse, telling him, “I … perused it with attention” and “I concur with the author.” [108]

This selective quotation appears to be deliberately misleading. In fact, Jefferson concurred with one aspect of the sermon but did not concur with another part of it. To get the proper context and meaning, consider the entire April 19, 1803, letter from Jefferson to Dowse below:

DEAR SIR, I now return the Sermon you were so kind as to enclose me, having perused it with attention. The reprinting it by me, as you have proposed, would very readily be ascribed to hypocritical affectation, by those who, when they cannot blame our acts, have recourse to the expedient of imputing them to bad motives. This is a resource which can never fail them, because there is no act, however virtuous, for which ingenuity may not find some bad motive. I must also add that though I concur with the author in considering the moral precepts of Jesus as more pure, correct, and sublime than those of the ancient philosophers, yet I do not concur with him in the mode of proving it. He thinks it necessary to libel and decry the doctrines of the philosophers; but a man must be blinded, indeed, by prejudice, who can deny them a great degree of merit. I give them their just due, and yet maintain that the morality of Jesus, as taught by himself, and freed from the corruptions of latter times, is far superior. Their philosophy went chiefly to the government of our passions, so far as respected ourselves, and the procuring our own tranquillity. In our duties to others they were short and deficient. They extended their cares scarcely beyond our kindred and friends individually, and our country in the abstract. Jesus embraced with charity and philanthropy our neighbors, our countrymen, and the whole family of mankind. They confined themselves to actions; he pressed his sentiments into the region of our thoughts, and called for purity at the fountain head. In a pamphlet lately published in Philadelphia by Dr. Priestley, he has treated, with more justice and skill than Mr. Bennet, a small portion of this subject. His is a comparative view of Socrates only with Jesus. I have urged him to take up the subject on a broader scale.

Every word which goes from me, whether verbally or in writing, becomes the subject of so much malignant distortion, and perverted construction, that I am obliged to caution my friends against admitting the possibility of my letters getting into the public papers, or a copy of them to be taken under any degree of confidence. The present one is perhaps of a tenor to silence some calumniators, but I never will, by any word or act, bow to the shrine of intolerance, or admit a right of inquiry into the religious opinions of others.

On the contrary we are bound you, I, and every one, to make common cause, even with error itself, to maintain the common right of freedom of conscience. We ought with one heart and one hand to hew down the daring and dangerous efforts of those who would seduce the public opinion to substitute itself into that tyranny over religious faith which the laws have so justly abdicated. For this reason, were my opinions up to the standard of those who arrogate the right of questioning them, I would not countenance that arrogance by descending to an explanation. Accept my friendly salutations and high esteem.

TH:Jefferson[109] (emphasis added)

Jefferson did not reprint the pamphlet with Bennet’s sermon. Dowse seemed to offer the pamphlet as a political ploy to shut up Jefferson’s conservative Christian critics. Jefferson declined to take his friend’s suggestion in part because he disagreed with Bennet’s approach to classical philosophers and in part because he did not want his religious views to come under additional public scrutiny. In The Jefferson Lies, Barton does not provide the entire context. His failure to do so obscures the facts and paints a misleading picture. In fact, the sermon in question did not refer to Indians and Jefferson did not fully concur with Bennet’s approach. Furthermore, Jefferson never mentioned this sermon or this letter as having any effect on his approach to the Gospels.

Regarding Indians, the record is clear that Jefferson had great interest in good relations with them and had a general idea about how to achieve that end. He wanted to “civilize” the native people by teaching them English trades and ways. On several occasions, Jefferson laid out his plan for “improvement of their faculties and conditions.” In this letter to Benjamin Smith Barton, Jefferson presents a specimen of the Iroquois language to the American Philosophical Society but asserts that written language is the final step in helping the native people.

Dear Sir:                 Monticello, Apr 3, 1814

At the expense of Jason Chamberlayne of Burlington in Vermont, a professor of the college there, I inclose for the American Philosophical society a pamphlet presenting a specimen of the language of the Iroquois, among whom he informs me there are many who can read. This however is beginning at the wrong end for the improvement of their faculties and conditions.

the care of domestic animals,
the useful household arts,
the acquisition of property,
the use of money
arithmetic to estimate it
writing to note it

then reading printed books, & first those of a popular character, and last of all those of religion as distinguished from morality; seems to mark the order which has best succeeded in developing their faculties, enlarging their understandings, and advancing their physical happiness.

I am gratified by every opportunity of renewing to you the assurances of my great esteem and respect.

TH:Jefferson.[110] (emphasis added)

In this letter, Jefferson says religion is the last aspect of helping the Indians. As noted above, Jefferson edited the Gospels twice; first, in 1804 and then sometime after 1820. It was in the first edit that the title included a mention of the Indians. The second and more complete work was not addressed in any way to the Indians. If Jefferson believed religious instruction came last in the civilization of native people, then why would he edit the Gospels to be used with the Indians?

In the following letter to James Jay, Jefferson makes it clear that he believed mission work was the wrong approach to “civilizing the Indians.” This letter in 1809 was written just five years after Jefferson’s first attempt to edit the Gospels. In his letter to Jefferson, Jay presented a plan for “civilizing the Indians” and Jefferson sent his response on April 7, 1809:

Dear Sir,—Your favor of February 27th came to hand on the 3d of March. The occupations of the moment and of those which have followed must be my apology for this late acknowledgment. The plan of civilizing the Indians is undoubtedly a great improvement on the ancient and totally ineffectual one of beginning with religious missionaries. Our experience has shown that this must be the last step of the process. The following is what has been successful: 1st, to raise cattle, etc., and thereby acquire a knowledge of the value of property; 2d, arithmetic, to calculate that value; 3d, writing, to keep accounts, and here they begin to enclose farms, and the men to labor, the women to spin and weave; 4th, to read “Aesop’s Fables” and “Robinson Crusoe” are their first delight. The Creeks and Cherokees are advanced thus far, and the Cherokees are now instituting a regular government.

An equilibrium of agriculture, manufactures, and commerce, is certainly become essential to our independence. Manufactures, sufficient for our own consumption, of what we raise the raw material (and no more). Commerce sufficient to carry the surplus produce of agriculture, beyond our own consumption, to a market for exchanging it for articles we cannot raise (and no more). These are the true limits of manufactures and commerce. To go beyond them is to increase our dependence on foreign nations, and our liability to war.

These three important branches of human industry will then grow together, and be really handmaids to each other. I salute you with great respect and esteem.[111] (emphasis added)

Instead of an edited Gospel book, Jefferson recommended Aesop’s Fables and Robinson Crusoe. He said mission work was ineffective for civilizing Indians, making it doubtful that he intended to give his work to any missionary. Since Barton provides no source for his claims, we can’t know why he claims Jefferson gave the 1804 version to a missionary.

As an additional check on these claims, we not only read everything we could find from Jefferson regarding missions and Indians, we consulted the Jefferson research library at Monticello. According to research librarian Anna Berkes, there is nothing in the entire corpus of known Jefferson letters that supports Barton’s claims. She told us, “I’ve searched Jefferson’s papers as thoroughly as anyone can, and can find nothing to support Barton’s statement regarding Jefferson’s Bible compilations and American Indians.”

Given what we know about Jefferson’s personal faith, there is reason to doubt that he wanted Indians to become orthodox Christians. If so, his Reader’s Digest version of the New Testament would have been a poor way to do it. Here is how the Jefferson Bible ends:

61 Then took they the body of Jesus, and wound it in linen clothes with the spices, as the manner of the Jews is to bury.

62 Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never man yet laid.

63 There laid they Jesus,

64 And rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed.

Jefferson stops short of the resurrection. It is hard to imagine why he would produce an abridged Bible intended as a tool for evangelism that omits one of the central pillars of the Christian salvation narrative.

What about Jefferson’s title page?

Even though it seems clear that Jefferson did not give his extraction of the Gospels to the missionaries or Indians, there is the issue of the title page to the 1804 Philosophy of Jesus. Jefferson referred to his “wee little book” as being “unembarrassed with matters of fact or faith beyond the level of their comprehension.” If he didn’t mean it to have some use with the Indians, then what did he mean?

In his introduction to Adams’ 1983 book Jefferson’s Extracts from the Gospels, Jefferson scholar Eugene Sheridan suggests that Jefferson’s second inaugural address provides a clue about the meaning of the title page. In this address, given on March 4, 1805, Jefferson referred to Indians at length:

The aboriginal inhabitants of these countries I have regarded with the commiseration their history inspires. Endowed with the faculties and the rights of men, breathing an ardent love of liberty and independence, and occupying a country which left them no desire but to be undisturbed, the stream of overflowing population from other regions directed itself on these shores; without power to divert, or habits to contend against, they have been overwhelmed by the current, or driven before it; now reduced within limits too narrow for the hunter’s state, humanity enjoins us to teach them agriculture and the domestic arts; to encourage them to that industry which alone can enable them to maintain their place in existence, and to prepare them in time for that state of society, which to bodily comforts adds the improvement of mind and morals. We have therefore liberally furnished them with the implements of husbandry and household use; we have placed among them instructors in the arts of first necessity; and they are covered with the ægis of the law against aggressors from among ourselves.

But the endeavors to enlighten them on the fate which awaits their present course of life, to induce them to exercise their reason, follow its dictates, and change their pursuits with the change of circumstances, have powerful obstacles to encounter; they are combated by the habits of their bodies, prejudice of their minds, ignorance, pride, and the influence of interested and crafty individuals among them, who feel themselves something in the present order of things, and fear to become nothing in any other. These persons inculcate a sanctimonious reverence for the customs of their ancestors; that whatsoever they did, must be done through all time; that reason is a false guide, and to advance under its counsel, in their physical, moral, or political condition, is perilous innovation; that their duty is to remain as their Creator made them, ignorance being safety, and knowledge full of danger; in short, my friends, among them is seen the action and counteraction of good sense and bigotry; they, too, have their anti-philosophers, who find an interest in keeping things in their present state, who dread reformation, and exert all their faculties to maintain the ascendency of habit over the duty of improving our reason, and obeying its mandates.[112]

Even at the time, Jefferson’s extensive description of the deficits of the Indians (“prejudice of their minds … dread reformation”) might have seemed excessively demeaning. However, his words may have had other targets. According to Sheridan, Jefferson’s notes made on a draft of the address provide insight into the application he intended by referring to Indians. Jefferson wrote:

The former one was an exposition of the principles on which I thought it my duty to administer the government. The second then should naturally be a conte rendu, or a statement of facts, shewing that I have conformed to those principles. The former was promise: this is performance. Yet the nature of the occasion requires that details should be avoided, that, the most prominent heads only should be selected and these placed in a strong light but in as few words as possible. These heads are Foreign affairs; Domestic do., viz. Taxes, Debts, Louisiana, Religion, Indians, The Press. None of these heads need any commentary but that of the Indians. This is a proper topic not only to promote the work of humanizing our citizens towards these people, but to conciliate to us the good opinion of Europe on the subject of the Indians. This, however, might have been done in half the compass it here occupies. But every respector of science, every friend to political reformation must have observed with indignation the hue & cry raised against philosophy & the rights of man; and it really seems as if they would be overborne & barbarism, bigotry & despotism would recover the ground they have lost by the advance of the public understanding. I have thought the occasion justified some discountenance of these anti-social doctrines, some testimony against them, but not to commit myself in direct warfare on them, I have thought it best to say what is directly applied to the Indians only, but admits by inference a more general extension.[113] (emphasis added)

The phrasing is a bit indirect, but Jefferson seemed to extend the application of his speech when he wrote that his comments on the Indians only required half of the space (“compass”) occupied. He then said that the occasion (his inauguration) justified opposition to those who resisted “political reformation” in order to prevent benefit to “bigotry and despotism.” However, Jefferson did not want to commit himself “to direct warfare on them;” thus, he “thought it best to say what is directly applied to the Indians.” Even though he spoke overtly about Indians, he implied “a more general extension,” according to his notes. Jefferson did not name his political opponents, but he clearly had some, and from his point of view, they sought to roll back the political reformation he sought.

So did Jefferson extract his little book with his religious and political adversaries in mind, perhaps in a tongue-in-cheek manner? Although we cannot know for certain, this is a compelling hypothesis and seems more consistent with the rest of Jefferson’s work than does Barton’s view. We must acknowledge that the clearest thing Jefferson said about both of his extractions is that he performed them for his own use and satisfaction. In this next section, we provide correspondence, presented chronologically, to demonstrate his personal interest in extracting what he believed was the genuine teachings of the man Jesus.

Why, then, did Jefferson edit the Gospels?

The 1804 and 1820 versions are exhaustively compared and laid out in the invaluable 1983 book edited by Dickenson W. Adams, Jefferson’s Extracts from the Gospels.[114] Much of what follows is summarized from that work.

On Aug. 22, 1800, Jefferson’s friend and fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Rush, wrote to Jefferson asking for a clarification of his religious views. At their last meeting, Rush had extracted a promise from Jefferson to read William Paley’s book A View of the Evidences of Christianity. In addition, Jefferson apparently promised to explain his “religious Creed.” As of that writing, Jefferson had not complied with the request. Rush wrote:

You promised me when we parted, to read Paley’s last work, and to send me your religious Creed.--I have always considered Christianity as the strong ground of Republicanism. Its Spirit is opposed, not only to the Splendor, but even to the very forms of monarchy, and many of its precepts have for their Objects, republican liberty and equality, as well as simplicity, integrity and Economy in government. It is only necessary for Republicanism to ally itself to the christian Religion, to overturn all the corrupted political and religious institutions in the world.

I have lately heard that Lord Kaims became so firm a Beleiver in Christianity some years before he died, as to dispute with his former disciples in its favor. Such a mind as Kaims’ could only yield to the strongest evidence, especially as his prejudices were on the other Side of the Question.

Sir John Pringle had lived near 60 years in a State of indifference to the truth of the Christian Religion.--He devoted himself to the Study of the Scriptures in the evening of his life, and became a christian. It was remarkable that he became a decided Republican at the same time. It is said this change in his political principles exposed him to the neglect of the Royal family, to whom he was Physician, and drove him from London, to end his days in his native Country.[115]

Apparently, by telling him of those who converted to Christianity later in life, Rush hoped to convince Jefferson that it was not too late for Jefferson to turn to orthodox Christianity. Jefferson wrote back on Sept. 23, 1800, saying that time constraints had prevented him from honoring his pledge. Jefferson had been thinking about it and wanted to have adequate time to write a complete answer. To Rush, Jefferson wrote:

I promised you a letter on Christianity, which I have not forgotten. On the contrary, it is because I have reflected on it, that I find much more time necessary for it than I can at present dispose of. I have a view of the subject which ought to displease neither the rational Christian nor Diests, and would reconcile many to a character they have too hastily rejected. I do not know that it would reconcile the genus irritabile vatum(2) who are all in arms against me. Their hostility is on too interesting ground to be softened. The delusion into which the X. Y. Z. plot showed it possible to push the people; the successful experiment made under the prevalence of that delusion on the clause of the Constitution, which, while it secured the freedom of the press, covered also the freedom of religion, had given to the clergy a very favorite hope of obtaining an establishment of a particular form of Christianity through the United States; and as every sect believes its own form the true one, every one perhaps hoped for his own, but especially the Episcopalians and Congregationalists. The returning good sense of our country threatens abortion to their hopes, and they believe that any portion of power confided to me, will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly: for I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. But this is all they have to fear from me: & enough too in their opinion, & this is the cause of their printing lying pamphlets against me, forging conversations for me with Mazzei, Bishop Madison, &c., which are absolute falsehoods without a circumstance of truth to rest on; falsehoods, too, of which I acquit Mazzei & Bishop Madison, for they are men of truth.-- But enough of this. It is more than I have before committed to paper on the subject of all the lies which have been preached or printed against me.[116]

Jefferson does not address Rush’s proselytizing but instead described his frustration with his critics. Jefferson also reacted negatively to Rush’s views on aligning Christianity with republicanism. Rush’s Oct. 6, 1800, reply clarified his views on religion and the state. He wrote:

I agree with you likewise in your wishes to keep religion and government independant of each Other. Were it possible for St. Paul to rise from his grave at the present juncture, he would say to the Clergy who are now so active in settling the political Affairs of the World: “Cease from your political labors-your kingdom is not of this World. Read my Epistles. In no part of them will you perceive me aiming to depose a pagan Emperor, or to place a Christian upon a throne. Christianity disdains to receive Support from human Governments.” From this, it derives its preeminence over all the religions that ever have, or ever shall exist in the World. [117]

Although Rush initially sounded as though he favored an alliance of Christianity and republicanism, he directly stated in his reply to Jefferson that religion and government should be independent. Later, Jefferson returned to his promise to inform Rush about his creed.

As noted above, Edward Dowse wanted Jefferson to give to Indians a sermon by William Bennet. Dowse’s letter is dated April 5, 1803, and brought this reply from Jefferson regarding a summary of the moral teachings of Jesus:

In a pamphlet lately published in Philadelphia by Dr. Priestley, he has treated, with more justice and skill than Mr. Bennet, a small portion of this subject. His is a comparative view of Socrates only with Jesus. I have urged him to take up the subject on a broader scale.[118]

Jefferson not only declined to forward the sermon, but touted the theological writings of Joseph Priestley, British chemist and Unitarian theologian. Priestley wrote a book called Socrates and Jesus Compared, which Jefferson enjoyed immensely. In that book, Priestley compared the moral philosophy of Jesus with the teachings of Socrates. Priestley, in addition to being the discoverer of oxygen, was one of the prime intellectual forces behind British Unitarianism. He subjected the New Testament to the analysis of reason and concluded that Jesus was not divine, although Priestley taught that Jesus was on a divine mission.

Jefferson told Dowse that he asked Priestly to take up the subject of the philosophy of Jesus on “a broader scale.” Just one week before this letter to Dowse was written, on April 9, 1803, Jefferson wrote to Priestley with praise for his Socrates book and asked him to consider expanding his scholarly reach to include other philosophers, including one of Jefferson’s personal favorites, Epicurus.

“Dear Sir,—While on a short visit lately to Monticello, I received from you a copy of your comparative view of Socrates & Jesus, and I avail myself of the first moment of leisure after my return to acknolege the pleasure I had in the perusal of it, and the desire it excited to see you take up the subject on a more extensive scale. In consequence of some conversation with Dr. Rush, in the year 1798-99, I had promised some day to write him a letter giving him my view of the Christian system. I have reflected often on it since, & even sketched the outlines in my own mind. I should first take a general view of the moral doctrines of the most remarkable of the antient philosophers, of whose ethics we have sufficient information to make an estimate, say of Pythagoras, Epicurus, Epictetus, Socrates, Cicero, Seneca, Antoninus. I should do justice to the branches of morality they have treated well; but point out the importance of those in which they are deficient. I should then take a view of the deism and ethics of the Jews, and show in what a degraded state they were, and the necessity they presented of a reformation. I should proceed to a view of the life, character, & doctrines of Jesus, who sensible of incorrectness of their ideas of the Deity, and of morality, endeavored to bring them to the principles of a pure deism, and juster notions of the attributes of God, to reform their moral doctrines to the standard of reason, justice & philanthropy, and to inculcate the belief of a future state. This view would purposely omit the question of his divinity, & even his inspiration. To do him justice, it would be necessary to remark the disadvantages his doctrines have to encounter, not having been committed to writing by himself, but by the most unlettered of men, by memory, long after they had heard them from him; when much was forgotten, much misunderstood, & presented in very paradoxical shapes. Yet such are the fragments remaining as to show a master workman, and that his system of morality was the most benevolent & sublime probably that has been ever taught, and consequently more perfect than those of any of the antient philosophers. His character & doctrines have received still greater injury from those who pretend to be his special disciples, and who have disfigured and sophisticated his actions & precepts, from views of personal interest, so as to induce the unthinking part of mankind to throw off the whole system in disgust, and to pass sentence as an impostor on the most innocent, the most benevolent, the most eloquent and sublime character that ever has been exhibited to man. This is the outline; but I have not the time, & still less the information which the subject needs. It will therefore rest with me in contemplation only. You are the person who of all others would do it best, and most promptly. You have all the materials at hand, and you put together with ease. I wish you could be induced to extend your late work to the whole subject.[119] (emphasis added)

Jefferson encouraged Priestley to extend his vision to include the other “antient philosophers.” With zeal, Jefferson offered his thoughts on how the project should go. Jefferson thought the Jewish faith needed the corrections brought by Jesus in order to “bring them to the principles of a pure deism, and juster notions of the attributes of God, to reform their moral doctrines to the standard of reason, justice & philanthropy, and to inculcate the belief of a future state.” He also wanted to omit the deity of Christ. In short, Jefferson wanted Priestley to write the holy book for Jefferson’s syncretistic religion.

On the subject of religion, April of 1803 was a productive time for Jefferson. After giving Priestley his brief outline of his religious and philosophical views, Jefferson returned to his correspondence with Benjamin Rush in order to keep his earlier promise to outline his views on Christianity. In his letter of April 21, 1803, to Rush, Jefferson got right to the point:

Dear Sir,—In some of the delightful conversations with you, in the evenings of 1798-99, and which served as an anodyne to the afflictions of the crisis through which our country was then laboring, the Christian religion was sometimes our topic; and I then promised you, that one day or other, I would give you my views of it. They are the result of a life of inquiry and reflection, and very different from that anti-Christian system imputed to me by those who know nothing of my opinions. To the corruptions of Christianity I am, indeed, opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other. At the short interval since these conversations, when I could justifiably abstract my mind from public affairs, the subject has been under my contemplation. But the more I considered it, the more it expanded beyond the measure of either my time or information. In the moment of my late departure from Monticello, I received from Dr. Priestley, his little treatise of “Socrates and Jesus Compared.” This being a section of the general view I had taken of the field, it became a subject of reflection while on the road, and unoccupied otherwise. The result was, to arrange in my mind a syllabus, or outline of such an estimate of the comparative merits of Christianity, as I wished to see executed by some one of more leisure and information for the task, than myself. This I now send you, as the only discharge of my promise I can probably ever execute. And in confiding it to you, I know it will not be exposed to the malignant perversions of those who make every word from me a text for new misrepresentations and calumnies. I am moreover averse to the communication of my religious tenets to the public; because it would countenance the presumption of those who have endeavored to draw them before that tribunal, and to seduce public opinion to erect itself into that inquisition over the rights of conscience, which the laws have so justly proscribed. It behooves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself, to resist invasions of it in the case of others; or their case may, by change of circumstances, become his own. It behooves him, too, in his own case, to give no example of concession, betraying the common right of independent opinion, by answering questions of faith, which the laws have left between God and himself. Accept my affectionate salutations.[120]

(The Syllabus is reproduced in full below. It is a superb source for understanding Jefferson’s religious views.)

First, note in this letter to Rush that Jefferson was moved to fulfill his promise by reading Priestley’s work on Socrates and Jesus, rather than by a desire to evangelize Indians. Also, note that Jefferson wanted Rush to keep the Syllabus to himself. After Rush’s death, Jefferson wrote to one of Rush’s sons to retrieve the Syllabus. Jefferson, it seems, truly did not want his religious views known. Jefferson’s fear of being castigated by established religious leaders makes it even more unlikely that he ever gave his religious work to a missionary and asked that missionary to get it printed.

This letter to Rush is the source of the famous declaration from Jefferson—“I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other.” Jefferson thought of himself as a Christian but not in the evangelical sense as his Syllabus made clear.

At the same time he sent this Syllabus to Rush, Jefferson also sent it to Attorney General Levi Lincoln and Secretary of War Henry Dearborn and a couple of other friends who were not named. In addition, Jefferson sent copies to his two daughters and Joseph Priestley. To his political friends, on April 23, 1803, he sent the following introduction:

A promise to a friend sometime ago, executed but lately, has placed my religious creed on paper. I am desirous it should perused by three or four particular friends, with whom tho’ I never desired to make a mystery of it, yet no occasion has happened to occur of explaining it to them. It is communicated for their personal satisfaction, and to enable them to judge of the truth or falsehood of the libels published on that subject. When read, the return of the paper with this cover is asked.[121]

To his daughters, he sent a similar note but with an additional document. Jefferson had Joseph Priestley’s book on the corruptions of Christianity sent to them as well, recommending it “to an attentive perusal, because it establishes the groundwork of my view of this subject.”[122] Here is Jefferson’s Syllabus:

Syllabus of an Estimate of the Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus, compared with those of others.

In a comparative view of the Ethics of the enlightened nations of antiquity, of the Jews and of Jesus, no notice should be taken of the corruptions of reason among the ancients, to wit, the idolatry and superstition of the vulgar, nor of the corruptions of Christianity by the learned among its professors.

Let a just view be taken of the moral principles inculcated by the most esteemed of the sects of ancient philosophy, or of their individuals; particularly Pythagoras, Socrates, Epicurus, Cicero, Epictetus, Seneca, Antoninus.

I. Philosophers, i. Their precepts related chiefly to ourselves, and the government of those passions which, unrestrained, would disturb our tranquillity of mind.1 (see note below in italics) In this branch of philosophy they were really great.

2. In developing our duties to others, they were short and defective. They embraced, indeed, the circles of kindred and friends, and inculcated patriotism, or the love of our country in the aggregate, as a primary obligation: towards our neighbors and countrymen they taught justice, but scarcely viewed them as within the circle of benevolence. Still less have they inculcated peace, charity and love to our fellow men, or embraced with benevolence the whole family of mankind.

II. Jews. i. Their system was Deism; that is, the belief in one only God. But their ideas of him and of his attributes were degrading and injurious.

2. Their Ethics were not Only imperfect, but often irreconcilable with the sound dictates of reason and morality, as they respect intercourse with those around us; and repulsive and anti-social, as respecting other nations. They needed reformation, therefore, in an eminent degree.


[note]1 (To explain, I will exhibit the heads of Seneca’s and Cicero’s philosophical works, the most extensive of any we have received from the ancients. Of ten heads in Seneca, seven relate to ourselves, viz. de ira, consolatio, de tranquilitate, de constantia sapientis, de otio sapientis, de vita beata, de brevitate vitae; two relate to others, de dementia, de beneficiis; and one relates to the government of the world, de providentia. Of eleven tracts of Cicero, five respect ourselves, viz. de finibus, Tusculana, acadetnica, paradoxa, de Senectute; one, de offlciis, relates partly to ourselves, partly to others; one, de armcitia, relates to others; and four are on different subjects, to wit, de natura deorum, de divinatione, de fato, and somnium Scipionis.)


III. Jesus. In this state of things among the Jews, Jesus appeared. His parentage was obscure; his condition poor; his education null; his natural endowments great; his life correct and innocent: he was meek, benevolent, patient, firm, disinterested, and of the sublimest eloquence.

The disadvantages under which his doctrines appear are remarkable.

1. Like Socrates and Epictetus, he wrote nothing himself.

2. But he had not, like them, a Xenophon or an Arrian to write for him. I name not Plato, who only used the name of Socrates to cover the whimsies of his own brain. On the contrary, all the learned of his country, entrenched in its power and riches, were opposed to him, lest his labors should undermine their advantages; and the committing to writing his life and doctrines fell on unlettered and ignorant men; who wrote, too, from memory, and not till long after the transactions had passed.

3. According to the ordinary fate of those who attempt to enlighten and reform mankind, he fell an early victim to the jealousy and combination of the altar and the throne, at about thirty-three years of age, his reason having not yet attained the maximum of its energy, nor the course of his preaching, which was but of three years at most, presented occasions for developing a complete system of morals.

4. Hence the doctrines which he really delivered were defective as a whole, and fragments only of what he did deliver have come to us mutilated, misstated, and often unintelligible.

5. They have been still more disfigured by the corruptions of schismatizing followers, who have found an interest in sophisticating and perverting the simple doctrines he taught, by engrafting on them the mysticisms of a Grecian sophist, frittering them into subtleties, and obscuring them with jargon, until they have caused good men to reject the whole in disgust, and to view Jesus himself as an impostor.

Notwithstanding these disadvantages, a system of morals is presented to us, which, if filled up in the style and spirit of the rich fragments he left us, would be the most perfect and sublime that has ever been taught by man.

The question of his being a member of the Godhead, or in direct communication with it, claimed for him by some of his followers, and denied by others, is foreign to the present view, which is merely an estimate of the intrinsic merits of his doctrines.

1. He corrected the Deism of the Jews, confirming them in their belief of one only God, and giving them juster notions of his attributes and government.

2. His moral doctrines, relating to kindred and friends, were more pure and perfect than those of the most correct of the philosophers, and greatly more so than those of the Jews; and they went far beyond both in inculcating universal philanthropy, not only to kindred and friends, to neighbors and countrymen, but to all mankind, gathering all into one family, under the bonds of love, charity, peace, common wants and common aids. A development of this head will evince the peculiar superiority of the system of Jesus over all others.

3. The precepts of philosophy, and of the Hebrew code, laid hold of actions only. He pushed his scrutinies into the heart of man; erected his tribunal in the region of his thoughts, and purified the waters at the fountain head.

4. He taught, emphatically, the doctrines of a future state, which was either doubted, or disbelieved by the Jews; and wielded it with efficacy, as an important incentive, supplementary to the other motives to moral conduct.[123] (emphasis added)

Those who claim Jefferson was an atheist and those who say he was an orthodox Christian are both wrong. Jefferson believed in a God who created and who has some kind of eternal state waiting “as an important incentive” that supplements “other motives to moral conduct.”

However, Jefferson denied the deity of Christ and even called some of Jesus’ doctrines “defective.” Jefferson shows contempt for the New Testament record, calling it “mutilated, misstated, and often unintelligible.” Then, the italicized section in the Syllabus makes it clear that Jefferson did not see Jesus as divine.

Jefferson’s productive April of 1803 slowed as the reaction from Rush and Priestley was cool to his demoting Jesus from God to a great moral teacher. Rush wrote on May 5, 1803, “I do not think with you on your account of the character and mission of the author of our Religion.” On May 7, 1803, Priestly expressed surprise at Jefferson’s views of Jesus and his disciples. He wrote:

… you will allow me to express some surprise … that you should be of the opinion, that Jesus never laid claim to a divine mission. It is an opinion that I do not remember ever to have heard before.[124]

Priestly presented several problems with Jefferson’s theory and then wrote that

… the supposition that Jesus had a divine mission, and that he gave sufficient evidence of it solves every difficulty. It accounts for his superior knowledge and all the authority that he assumed, and makes the whole of the subsequent history consistent and natural, which no other hypothesis does. Without this the question of the people of Nazareth where Jesus was brought up, remains unsolved, Whence has this man this wisdom?[125] (emphasis in original)

Priestley was not arguing in favor of Christ’s deity, rather he was arguing that Christ was a man who was endowed by God the Father with godlike attributes for His “divine mission” on earth. Priestly was not an orthodox Trinitarian, but he did not go as far as Jefferson and see Jesus as a human who was a great moral teacher. In this letter, Priestley also declined to write the syncretistic moral commentary that Jefferson proposed.

Following this letter from Priestly, there is no evidence of correspondence between the two men until Priestley wrote Jefferson on Dec. 12, 1803. In that letter, Priestley announced that he had changed his mind and planned to write a comparative analysis of Jesus and the philosophers, such as suggested by Jefferson.

Jefferson wrote back on Jan. 29, 1804, to express his pleasure at that news. Jefferson said, “I rejoice that you have undertaken the task of comparing the moral doctrines of Jesus with those of the ancient Philosophers. You are so much in possession of the whole subject that you will do it easier and better than any other person living.”[126]

In that Jan. 29 letter, he told Priestley that a necessary component of this effort would be the preparation of “a digest of his moral doctrines.” As far as we can tell, this is the first mention of what would become his Philosophy of Jesus—Jefferson’s first effort to edit the Gospels.

I rejoice that you have undertaken that task of comparing the moral doctrines of Jesus with those of the ancient Philosophers. You are so much in possession of the whole subject, that you will do it easier and better than any other person, living. I think you cannot avoid giving, as preliminary to the comparison, a digest of his moral doctrines, extracted in his own words from the Evangelists, and leaving out everything relative to his personal history and character. It would be short and precious. With a view to do this for my own satisfaction, I had sent to Philadelphia to get two testaments (Greek) of the same edition, and two English, with a design’ to cut out the morsels of morality, and paste them on the leaves of a book, in the manner you describe as having been pursued in forming your Harmony. But I shall now get the thing done by better hands.[127] (emphasis added)

In this letter, Jefferson disclosed the reason why he first wanted to edit the Gospels—for his own satisfaction. The theological criticisms of Jefferson through the campaign for the presidency had left a mark. As his own words and actions demonstrated, Jefferson wanted his close friends and family to understand his religious views in contrast to the “libels published on that subject” against him. Thus, he produced his own outline for the benefit of Priestley. When Priestley initially declined to pursue the project, Jefferson took it upon himself to take up the preliminary task to such an effort—produce a “digest of his moral doctrines, extracted in his own words from the evangelists and leaving out everything relative to his personal history and character.”[128]

From the way Jefferson worded his letter, one might conclude that he had left the task of snipping the Gospels to Priestley. However, as we now know, he went ahead with his edits of the Gospels sometime before August 1804, producing what he called The Philosophy of Jesus. We know he proceeded with the job because he asked Rush to read it in a letter dated Aug. 8, 1804. Jefferson wrote:

I have also a little volume, a mere and faithful compilation which I shall some of these days ask you to read as containing the exemplification of what I advanced in a former letter as to the excellence of ‘the Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth.’[129]

Rush’s reply must have been disappointing, so much so that Jefferson never sent the Philosophy of Jesus to Rush. On Aug. 29, 1804, Rush wrote:

I shall receive with pleasure the publication you have promised me upon the character of the Messiah, but unless it advances it to divinity and renders his death as well as his life necessary for the restoration of mankind, I shall not accord with its author. There is a writer of the name of Abbadie whose opinions are mine upon this subject. He is learned, ingenious, and logical, and perfectly free from enthusiasm. You will probably find it in the library of your parish minister or of some of the clergy in your neighborhood.[130]

Committed to orthodoxy, Rush warned Jefferson that he would not agree with Jefferson’s extractions from the Gospels if they cast doubt on Christ’s deity. Knowing the contents of the Syllabus, Rush dismissed Jefferson’s thoughts on Jesus by referring him to a book by Jacques Abbadie on the divinity of Christ. Apparently, Jefferson dropped the matter, at least with Rush.

However, Jefferson did not give up his desire to more fully edit the Gospels in multiple languages. He had already ordered two English Bibles and two Greek Bibles for his efforts (see the Jan. 29, 1804, letter to Priestley above). As it turned out, the Greek Bibles also had a Latin translation side by side with the Greek. Perhaps for the sake of symmetry, Jefferson decided to include a French column as well. Edgar Goodspeed described the details in a 1947 article in the Harvard Theological Review:

… on January 31, 1805, Mr. Jefferson wrote to Reibelt of Philadelphia ordering two copies of “Le Nouveau Testament corrige sur le Grec. in 12mo Paris 1803,” which he had seen in Reibelt’s catalogue. Reibelt sent him the books on February 2, asking $1.60 for them, which the President paid on March 1. … It is clear that by January 1805, Jefferson was planning a four column arrangement, and ordering the two French copies he would require in carrying it out. [131]

As noted previously, it seems highly unlikely to think that Jefferson wanted to create a multilingual compendium of the morals of Jesus if his primary purpose was to evangelize Indians. Indeed, such a product would be cumbersome and also contradict his stated beliefs about how to work with native people.

Regarding The Philosophy of Jesus, Jefferson revived the subject again in a letter to John Adams dated Oct. 12, 1813. In it, Jefferson told John Adams about his edits of the Gospels. There is no mention in this letter about the creation of a simplified version of the New Testament for Native Americans. Instead, Jefferson told Adams that he picked out from the evangelists “diamonds in a dunghill.” In the letter, Jefferson said to Adams:

In extracting the pure principles which he [Jesus] taught, we should have to strip off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests, who have travestied them into various forms, as instruments of riches and power to themselves. We must dismiss the Platonists and Plotinists, the Stagyrites and Gamalielites, the Eclectics, the Gnostics and Scholastics, their essences and emanations, their logos and demiurgos, aeons and daemons, male and female, with a long train of … or, shall I say at once, of nonsense. We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus, paring off the amphibologisms into which they have been led, by forgetting often, or not understanding, what had fallen from him, by giving their own misconceptions as his dicta, and expressing unintelligibly for others what they had not understood themselves. There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man. I have performed this operation for my own use, by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and arranging the matter which is evidently his, and which is as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill. The result is an octavo of forty-six pages, of pure and unsophisticated doctrines, such as were professed and acted on by the unlettered Apostles, the Apostolic Fathers, and the Christians of the first century. Their Platonizing successors, indeed, in after times, in order to legitimate the corruptions which they had incorporated into the doctrines of Jesus, found it necessary to disavow the primitive Christians, who had taken their principles from the mouth of Jesus himself, of his Apostles, and the Fathers contemporary with them. They excommunicated their followers as heretics, branding them with the opprobrious name of Ebionites or Beggars.[132] (emphasis added)

Jefferson’s intent as expressed to Adams was to craft a document “for his own use” with no mention of Indians or evangelism. In The Jefferson Lies, Barton makes a clear division between the purposes of the 1804 Philosophy of Jesus and the 1820 Life and Morals of Jesus, writing that the 1804 version was for the Indians and the later version was for his own use. However, if we take seriously Jefferson’s words to Adams, Barton’s narrative cannot be correct. Jefferson said in 1813 that he had already cut out the diamonds from the dunghill “for my own use.”

Also note Jefferson’s belief that the church perverted the teachings of Jesus. He closed his description of his editing work by noting that the Ebionites were excommunicated from the early church because they held to the primitive teachings of Jesus. Not much is known about the Ebionites, but apparently they did not hold to the divinity of Jesus and discounted his virgin birth.[133]

As we note in our section on the Virginia Bible Society, Jefferson again told Adams in a letter dated Jan., 24, 1814, that the Bible was easy to sort through and find diamonds in the midst of dung.

You [Adams] ask me if I ever seen the work of J.W. Goethens Schristen? Never. Nor did the question ever occur to me before Where get we the ten commandments? The book [Bible] indeed gives them to us verbatim, but where did it get them? For itself tells us they were written by the finger of God on tables of stone, which were destroyed by Moses; it specifies those on the second set of tables in different form and substance, but still without saying how the others were recovered. But the whole history of these books is so defective and doubtful, that it seems vain to attempt minute inquiry into it; and such tricks have been played with their text, and with the texts of other books relating to them, that we have a right from that cause to entertain much doubt what parts of them are genuine. In the New Testament there is internal evidence that parts of it have proceeded from an extraordinary man; and that other parts are of the fabric of very inferior minds. It is as easy to separate those parts, as to pick out diamonds from dunghills.[134]

The next mention of The Philosophy of Jesus booklet was in an exchange of letters with Charles Clay, a Virginia farmer, Anglican minister, and one of Jefferson’s neighbors. Clay presided over the funeral of Jefferson’s mother and was an old friend. Clay wrote to Jefferson on Dec. 20, 1814, with a recollection of Jefferson’s extraction of the “moral doctrines taught by Jesus of Nazareth” from the Gospels. Clay seemed worried that Jefferson might publish it:

Reflecting on an expression of yours relative to an Idea Sometimes entertained by you of Compressing the Moral doctrines taught by Jesus of Nazareth in the Gospels, divested of all other Matters into a small and regular system of the purest morality ever taught to Mankind, and meritting the highest praise, and most worthy the Strictest attention, &c. &c. however laudable may be your Views and meritorious your intentions in such a nice and critical (delicate) undertaking, I cannot help entertaining doubts and fears for the final issue, how it may effect your future character and reputation on the page of history as a Patriot, legislator and sound Philosopher. …[135]

At some point prior to this letter, Jefferson told the Rev. Clay about his 1804 effort to edit the Gospels. For reasons not mentioned, Clay decided to raise this issue with Jefferson and implored his friend not to publish it. Clay, probably correctly, reckoned that his religious critics would seize on the book and attack Jefferson and his legacy. Clay was not just worried about perceptions; later in the letter, he made a case that the morality of Jesus would be of no effect unless it has “the sanction of divine authority stampt upon it.”

Note that Clay, as a witness to Jefferson’s disclosures did not mention any benefit to the Indians, nor did he, orthodox clergyman that he was, recommend the publication of Jefferson’s work. Jefferson’s Jan. 29, 1815 reply is firm that he never intended to publish it.

Dear Sir,—Your letter of December 20th was four weeks on its way to me. I thank you for it; for although founded on a misconception, it is evidence of that friendly concern for my peace and welfare, which I have ever believed you to feel. Of publishing a book on religion, my dear Sir, I never had an idea. I should as soon think of writing for the reformation of Bedlam, as of the world of religious sects. Of these there must be, at least, ten thousand, every individual of every one of which believes all wrong but his own. To undertake to bring them all right, would be like undertaking, single-handed, to fell the forests of America. Probably you have heard me say I had taken the four Evangelists, had cut out from them every text they had recorded of the moral precepts of Jesus, and arranged them in a certain order, and although they appeared but as fragments, yet fragments of the most sublime edifice of morality which had ever been exhibited to man. This I have probably mentioned to you, because it is true; and the idea of its publication may have suggested itself as an inference of your own mind. I not only write nothing on religion, but rarely permit myself to speak on it, and never but in a reasonable society.[136]

Jefferson said “of publishing a book on religion, my dear sir, I never had an idea.” Jefferson then confirmed that he mentioned his extractions from the Gospels to Clay but declared that the idea of publishing The Philosophy of Jesus was “an inference” of Clay’s mind. Jefferson added, “I not only write nothing on religion, but rarely permit myself to speak on it. …” This exchange is another severe blow to the notion that Jefferson gave an edited version of the Gospels to missionaries for the purpose of evangelizing the Indians.

Several months later, an old friend of Jefferson’s—Charles Thomson—came to mind when a mutual friend reminded Jefferson of a book by Thomson that compared the writers of the four Gospels. Jefferson wrote to Thomson on Jan. 9, 1816:

“My Dear and Antient Friend:—

An acquaintance of 52 years, for I think ours dates from 1764, calls for an interchange of notice now and then that we remain in existence, the monuments of another age, and examples of a friendship unaffected by the jarring elements, by which we have surrounding, by revolutions, of government, of party, and of opinion. I am reminded of this duty by the receipt, through our friend, Dr. Patterson, of your ‘Synopsis of the Four Evangelists.’ I had procured it as soon as I saw it advertised, and had become familiar with it.

This work bears the stamp of that accuracy which marks everything from you, and will be useful to them who, not taking things on trust, read for themselves to the fountain of pure morals. I too have made a wee little book from the same materials which I call the ‘Philosophy of Jesus.’ It is a paradigma of his doctrines, made by cutting the texts out of the book and arranging them on pages of a blank book, in a certain order of time or subject. A more beautiful or precious morsel of this I have never seen. It is a document in proof that I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus, very different from the Platonists who call me infidel and themselves Christians and preachers of the gospel, while they draw all their characteristic dogmas from what its author never said or saw; they have compounded from the heathen mysteries a system beyond the comprehension of man of which the great reformer of the vicious ethics and deism of the Jews, were he to return on the earth, would not recognize one feature. If I had time I would add to my little book the Greek, Latin and French texts, in columns side by side. And I wish I could subjoin a translation of Gosindi’s Syntagma of the doctrines of Epicurus, which, notwithstanding the calumnies of the Stoics and caricatures of Cicero, is the most rational system remaining of the philosophy of the ancients, as frugal of vicious indulgence, and fruitful of virtue as the hyperbolical extravagances of his rival sects.[137]

To his old friend Thomson, Jefferson describes his “wee little book” and added that he would like to add the Greek, Latin, and French languages to his effort. Perhaps fatal to the hypothesis that Jefferson had any enduring desire to evangelize the Indians is his wish to add a translation of the doctrines of the philosopher Epicurus’ to his “little book.” Even if Jefferson entertained for a brief time the belief that his 1804 Philosophy of Jesus could be of use to the Indians, this letter to Thomson makes it clear that he envisioned a different product.

Later in 1816, Jefferson exchanged correspondence with Dutch clergyman, Francis Adrian van der Kemp. Van der Kemp heard of Jefferson’s Syllabus through John Adams and hoped Jefferson would consent to include it in his work. In contrast to his response to earlier request to publish his religious views, Jefferson seemed to consider the Dutchman’s request. In an April 25, 1816, letter, Jefferson wrote to van der Kemp about his Syllabus and his little Gospel book.

I believe it may even do good by producing discussion and finally a true view of the merits of this great reformer, persuing the same idea after writing the Syllabus I made, for my own satisfaction, an Extract from the Evangelists of the texts of his morals, selecting those only whose style and spirit proved them genuine, and his own; and they are as distinguishable from the matter in which they are imbedded as diamonds in dunghills, a more precious morsel of ethics was never seen, it was too hastily done, however, being the work of one or two evenings only, while I lived at Washington, overwhelmed with other business; and it is my intention to go over it again at more leisure, this shall be the work of the ensuing winter. I gave it the title of “the Philosophy of Jesus extracted from the text of the Evangelists.” to this Syllabus and Extract, if a history of his life can be added, written with the same view of the subject, the world will see, after the fogs shall be dispelled, in which for 14 centuries he has been enveloped by Jugglers to make money of him, when the genuine character shall be exhibited, which they have dressed up in the rags of an Imposter, the world, I say, will at length see the immortal merit of this first of human Sages.[138]

Here Jefferson gives part of the 1804 title but excluded the earlier reference to the Indians. This exchange with van der Kemp may have been the prompting Jefferson needed to rekindle his interest in completing the more extensive extraction he had intended by 1805 and later described to Charles Thomson, involving the Greek, Latin, and French languages.

No firm date can be given for the completion of The Life and Morals of Jesus. In the above letter to van der Kemp, Jefferson said he intended to do his edits again “at more leisure, this shall the work of the ensuing winter,” which would have been the winter of 1816. Perhaps he started the work then, or perhaps he spoke figuratively of beginning it in some future time; no one knows.

Probably the reason historians peg the completion of the second version as sometime after 1819 is due to a letter Jefferson wrote to William Short on Oct. 31, 1819. In this letter, Jefferson told Short about his 1804 effort to extract the morals of Jesus from the Gospels.

I have sometimes thought of translating Epictetus (for he has never been tolerable translated into English) by adding the genuine doctrines of Epicurus from the Syntagma of Gassendi, and an abstract from the Evangelists of whatever has the stamp of the eloquence and fine imagination of Jesus. The last I attempted too hastily some twelve or fifteen years ago. It was the work of two or three nights only, at Washington, after getting through the evening task of reading the letters and papers of the day. But with one foot in the grave, these are now idle projects for me. My business is to beguile the wearisomeness of declining life, as I endeavor to do, by the delights of classical reading and of mathematical truths, and by the consolations of a sound philosophy, equally indifferent to hope and fear.[139]

In this letter, Jefferson referred to his earlier effort to extract the teachings of Jesus from the Gospels ”too hastily some twelve or fifteen years ago.” From Jefferson’s words to Short, it appears that Jefferson had not completed, or perhaps even started his second extraction. Short’s reply was possibly the catalyst that prompted Jefferson to return to his project. On Dec. 19, 1819, Short wrote Jefferson with encouragement to finish the project.

I see with real pains that you have no intention of continuing the abstract from the Evangelists which you begun at Washington. The reason you give for confining yourself to classical reading and mathematical truths should not, I should think, operate against this agreeable task—and if agreeable to you, I know nothing which could be more so, and at the same time more useful to others. You observe that what is genuine is easily distinguished from the rubbish in which it is buried—if so, it is an irresistible reason for your continuing the work—for others, it would seem, have not found it thus distinguishable—and I fear I should be of the number if I were to undertake this study. It would cost you but little trouble on a fair edition of this book, if you should by more lines mark off what appeared to you thus manifestly genuine.[140]

Jefferson continued to correspond with Short but gave no clue about when the project was completed. Short and Jefferson also discussed the Syllabus of Jesus teachings that Jefferson made prior to his 1804 extraction from the Gospels. In Jefferson’s April 13, 1820, letter to Short, he gave what might be a clue to the completion of the second effort.

Among the sayings & discourses imputed to him [Jesus] by his biographers, I find many passages of fine imagination, correct morality, and of the most lovely benevolence: and others again of so much ignorance, so much absurdity, so much untruth, charlatanism, and imposture, as to pronounce it impossible that such contradictions should have proceeded from the same being. I seperate therefore the gold from the dross; restore to him the former & leave the latter to the stupidity of some, and roguery of others of his disciples. Of this band of dupes and impostors, Paul was the great Coryphaeus, and firm corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus. These palpable interpolations and falsifications of his doctrines led me to try to sift them apart. I found the work obvious and easy, and that his part composed the most beautiful morsel of morality which has been given to us by man. The Syllabus is therefore of his doctrines, not all of mine. I read them as I do those of other antient and modern moralists, with a mixture of approbation and disent.[141] (emphasis added)

While Jefferson directly mentioned the Syllabus of Jesus’ teachings, perhaps he also referred to progress on his Gospel extraction when he told Short he had sifted the gold from the dross and found the work obvious and easy. He may have completed this work sometime in 1820; Jefferson does not say when it was done. What is known is that Jefferson had the book bound by Richmond book binder Frederick A. Mayo. Although the date of binding is not known for certain, correspondence between Jefferson and Mayo gives a clue. According to Hannah French, who has reviewed the correspondence of Jefferson and Mayo, Jefferson wrote Mayo on Oct. 13, 1824, with a request to bind “a volume … to be bound with as much dispatch as good pressure will admit. Do it in red morocco with gilt leaves, and two or three leaves of good writing paper at the beginning and end blank which will permit writing on.”[142] Although it is speculative to identify this as The Life and Morals of Jesus, French believes that the mysterious instructions conform sufficiently to what we know about the volume to be a reference to it.

As noted earlier, the 1804 effort has been lost, but the 1820 copy was passed down through Jefferson’s family. In their “History of the Jefferson Bible,” Harry Rubenstein and Barbara Clark Smith write that Jefferson’s 1820 effort was publicly mentioned first in Henry S. Randall’s biography of Jefferson published in 1858. Although Randall never saw the book, Jefferson’s oldest grandson, Thomas Jefferson Randolph, provided to Randall the table of texts Jefferson used to make up the extraction.[143]

The Life and Morals of Jesus surfaced in 1895 when Cyrus Adler, the librarian of the Smithsonian Institute, acquired it for $400 from Jefferson’s great-granddaughter, Carolina Randolph. In 1886, Adler found the Bibles Jefferson used as source material for the 1820 version, which sparked his interest in finding the finished product. Once located and acquired, the Smithsonian took charge of displaying and maintaining Jefferson’s work, a task that continues until the present day.[144]

In summary, we find most of the claims we examined were false. The only claim that has any merit is that Jefferson did not cut out all supernatural references. Jefferson believed in life after death with rewards and punishments administered by God. He included many Gospel passages referring to the afterlife.

However, contrary to the claims we examined, Jefferson removed the miracles of Jesus, as well as indications of His divinity. He did not include all the words of Jesus, as many of these were left out. As his correspondence makes clear, that which he considered diamonds, he included; that which he considered dung, he did not include. Jefferson may have had a fleeting interest in using his 1804 work with Indians, but we doubt it. The evidence is overwhelming that he did not share it with anyone and had no abiding interest in sharing it with Indians or missionaries. Instead, he made the extraction for his own use and satisfaction.

Did Jefferson help finance the first hot-pressed Bible?

Evangelical child star Kirk Cameron released a historical documentary, Monumental, on March 27, 2012. Video clips from the movie are online and one features Cameron and David Barton in a brief discussion of late 18th century Bibles. In the clip, Barton makes a claim involving Jefferson about which he elaborates in The Jefferson Lies. In the clip, Barton shows Cameron a folio-sized two-volume Bible and says, “This Bible was funded by about a dozen signers of the Constitution and signers of the Declaration as well as by President John Adams and Vice President Thomas Jefferson. They’re the guys that put up the financial backing to do this Bible.” Barton adds, “When you see this stuff, you go, wait a minute. These guys … why would any atheist, agnostic, or deist promote the Word of God, fund it, and want it distributed to every family and everyone in America?”[145] He then declares that such actions only make sense if those doing the funding (the Signers) were Christians.

Although Barton does not identify the name or publisher of the 1798 Bible in Monumental, he does so in The Jefferson Lies. Therein Barton writes:

Furthermore, in 1798 Jefferson personally helped finance the printing of one of America’s groundbreaking editions of the Bible. That Bible was a massive, two-volume folio set that was not only the largest Bible ever published in America to that time, but it was also America’s first hot-pressed Bible. President John Adams, several signers of the Constitution and Declaration, and other major Founders joined with Jefferson to help fund that Bible.[146]

Thus, the claim is that Jefferson and a dozen or so Signers of the Declaration and Constitution financed this 1798 hot press Bible to give to every family in America. Is this true? As we demonstrate, this claim is not accurate.

Most beautiful production of its nature hitherto seen

The 1798 Thompson Hot-Pressed Bible was the largest Bible printed in the new nation up to that point, and it was the first hot-pressed Bible published.[147] To make this Bible, the ink and type were heated and then seared—hot-pressed—onto the page, making a very clean impression.

The Bible was offered by printers John Thompson and Abraham Small in an advertisement in April 1796. They then issued the printed pages in 40 sections starting in June 1796 at half a dollar a section, totaling $20 in total. They claimed the Bible would be “the most beautiful production of its nature hitherto seen.”[148] The subscribers had to secure the services of a binder to complete the job, and some Bibles were bound in two volumes and some in one large volume.

For a Bible of this time period, $20 was a high price, which makes it even more unlikely that those paying for the Bible had any intent to fund an effort to distribute the product to the masses. Furthermore, the Bibles needed to be bound by the subscriber, which added to the cost and effort.

Jefferson, being interested in Bibles of all sorts, subscribed to receive it. His copy of the Bible is housed in the Library of Congress and was microfilmed by the American Antiquarian Society and is available online via a subscription database called America’s Historical Imprints managed by Readex.[149]

Apparently, those who signed up to receive the Bible could make payments on the account. For instance, according to his ledger, Jefferson paid $5 in February of 1798 as a first payment on his $20 subscription “for a hot press Bible.”[150] It was completed in 1798, but Jefferson didn’t finish paying for it until 1799, hardly a way to provide “financial backing” for a project.[151]

At the completion of the Bible, the printers compiled a list of subscribers for placement at the end of the second volume. As noted above, according to the subscriber’s list, 1,272 people paid to receive one these Bibles, with Jefferson’s name listed among the subscribers (although Adams is not listed). Barton’s narrative of a dozen or so Founders financing the Bible is misleading. Certainly, several Founders subscribed to receive a copy, but they did not finance the entire effort as Barton said. They responded to a printer’s solicitation, just as the other 1,200-plus people did.

Buying a Bible by subscription was common then and was a way to provide the printer with some idea of how many copies to print. An analogy today might be to think of a magazine subscription is a purchase of a year’s volume of issues. You are committing to pay one price but might pay in payments instead. Another analogy would be pre-ordering a book.

Selling by subscription allowed journeymen printers to manage a large project, but the result was that the subscribers got what they paid for. The subscribers were not investors in the project. The investors in the project were printers, John Thompson and Abraham Small. The Bible would have been printed whether or not Jefferson and the other Founders subscribed.

fig7c.jpgAs far as we can determine, Thompson and Small placed their first advertisement for their Bible in the Gazette of the United States on April 25, 1796. The ad is reproduced at right in Figure 7 courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

Barton told Cameron that the 1798 Bible was funded and financed by the Signers so that the Bible could be “distributed to every family and everyone in America.” Barton’s narrative makes it seem as though the Signers mentioned (e.g., Jefferson, Bedford, Dickinson, etc.) put up money over and above the price of a personal copy in order for the printer to distribute them to others. That is not what happened with the 1798 Hot-Pressed Bible.

The ad in Figure 7 above makes it clear that the printers had completed their first section of the Bible and proposed to print 39 additional sections, one every other week, until the Bible had been completely printed.

It is not surprising that Jefferson would order one of these Bibles. Jefferson had an intellectual and personal interest in the Bible as he did with many religious and philosophical books. That several Founders wanted a large pulpit or family Bible is of worthy of note, but we are at a loss to understand why Barton and Cameron embellished the facts related to this Bible. If Barton had spoken accurately on Monumental, he would have answered Cameron’s question about the two-volume set by saying something like: This is the first hot-pressed Bible. About a dozen Founders and more than 1,250 other citizens bought one of these printing masterpieces.

Below, we have included the subscribers’ lists from the Thompson Hot-Pressed Bible in the collection of the American Antiquarian Society (Figures 8 and 9). Again, we thank them for these images.

Although most of the names in these images are not legible, we include them to demonstrate the number of people who purchased this Bible via subscription. Some purchased more than one copy. Some of the 1798 Bibles do not have the subscription list, but many do. In Jefferson’s copy, there are two pages of names totaling 1,272 subscribers. In contrast to what David Barton wrote in The Jefferson Lies and said on Monumental, President John Adams name is not listed here. The second image depicts Jefferson’s name with V.P.U.S (vice president of the United States), near the bottom of the third column from the left (see Figure 9).



In summary, subscribers to the Thompson Hot-Pressed Bible bought a large keepsake edition. Some of those buyers were men who signed the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. According to the subscribers lists we have seen, President John Adams was not one of them. As one can see from the advertisement, John Thompson and Abraham Small financed the printing of the Bible in sections via subscriptions from more than 1,270 people. While some Bibles might have been given away by their owners, the signers of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence did not finance this work to get God’s word to every American family.


The preceding portions of the book Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims about Our Third President are provided with the permission of Salem Grove Press, Warren Throckmorton, and Michael Coulter to WORLD News Group. No other reproduction is permitted. Permission to reprint must be obtained from Warren Throckmorton, Ph.D.



Portions of Chapters 1 and 2 from Getting Jefferson Right: Fact Checking Claims about Our Third President.

1 David Barton, The Jefferson Lies, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2012), 47. Endnotes for this book hereafter referred to as The Jefferson Lies.

2 George Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 47.

3 Ibid.

4 The Jefferson Lies, xvi.

5 Ibid. xx.

6 Jack Balkin, “Deconstruction.” http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/jbalkin/articles/deconessay.pdf Accessed May 1, 2012.

7 The Jefferson Lies, xxiii

8 Ibid. xxiii.

9 Raymond A. Smith, The American Anomaly: U.S. Politics and Government in Comparative Perspective (New York, NY: Routledge, 2011).

10 Harold Hongju Koh, “On American Exceptionalism,” Stanford Law Review, Vol. 55, No. 5 (May 2003): 1482-1483; Michael Kamm (11-12) sees many critiques of American Exceptionalism emerges in the immediate post-Vietnam war era and cites Daniel Bell’s writings as particularly significant critique. See Daniel Bell, “The End of American Exceptionalism,” Public Interest (Fall 1975): 193-224.

11 Koh, “On American Exceptionalism,” 1484-1485.

12 The Jefferson Lies, xxiv.

13 See, for example, this entry on “Modernism” in the Catholic Encyclopedia. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/10415a.htm Accessed May 2, 2012. For an account of modernism as a movement to accommodate religious ideas with modernity, see Anthony Carroll, “Modernism: The Philosophical Foundations.” http://www.thinkingfaith.org/articles/20090724_1.htm Accessed May 2, 2012.

14 The Jefferson Lies, xxv.

15 Ibid, xxvi.

16 See an image of the tombstone at http://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/jeffersons-gravestone.

17 D. James Kennedy, with Jerry Newcombe, What if America were a Christian Nation Again? (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2005), 44.

18 Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, (Richmond: J. Randolph, 1782/1853), 283.

19 Ibid, 286.

20 John Locke, Political Writings, Ed. by David Wootton. (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Co., 1993), 141-166.

21 Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, (Richmond: J. Randolph, 1782/1853), 285.

22 Read the resolution at http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/BILLS-112hres253ih/pdf/BILLS-112hres253ih.pdf.

23 Retrieved from http://wthrockmorton.com/2011/04/21/david-barton-on-thomas-jefferson-united-brethren-and-the-christian-indians.

24 George Loskiel, History of the mission of the United Brethren among the Indians in North America: in three parts. (London: John Stockdale, 1794).

25 Retrieved from http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/entry.php?rec=499&nm=Gnadenhutten-Massacre.

26 Photos used by permission of Jen Collins.

27 Paul H. Smith, ed., Letters of Delegates to Congress (Washington: Library of Congress, 1904-37): Volume 18 March 1, 1781—August 31, 1781, Charles Thomson to William Moore, 448-449; retrieved March 20, 2012 from http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/amlaw/lawhome.html.

28 Francis Wharton, ed. The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence, Volume 5, Letter from Benjamin Franklin to Livingston, August 12, 1782, (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1889), 657. retrieved from http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=lldc&fileName=005/lldc005.db&recNum=656&itemLink=D?hlaw:9:./temp/~ammem_fGaE::%230050657&linkText=1.

29 Paul Smith, ed. Letters of delegates to Congress, 1774-1789, Volume 21, (Washington: Library of Congress), 497. Retrieved from http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/D?hlaw:3:./temp/~ammem_cN8q::.


31 The act would not officially be passed until 1796.

32 Kilbuck and Captain White Eyes were Delaware Indians who had been friendly to the United States and for that reason they were added to this resolution.

33 Loskiel, History of the mission, 227.

34 Ibid.

35 Charles Cullen, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986), 22:307.

36 Ibid., 274-288

37 Ibid., 307.

38 Ibid., 308.

39 Ibid., 309.

40 For the entire act, see http://wthrockmorton.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/04/unitedbrethrenact1796.jpg

 41 All references from Statutes at Large; Act of March 2, 1799, Stat. 3, Ch. 24, p. 724, retrieved from http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=llsl&fileName=001/llsl001.db&recNum=847. Act of February 4, 1800, Stat. 1, Ch. 13, p. 14, retrieved from http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=llsl&fileName=002/llsl002.db&recNum=51. Act of April 26, 1802, Stat. 1, Ch, 30, p. 155, retrieved from http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=llsl&fileName=002/llsl002.db&recNum=192. Act of March 3, 1803, Stat. 2, Ch. 30, p. 236, retrieved from http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=llsl&fileName=002/llsl002.db&recNum=273 and Act of March 19, 1804, Stat. 1, Ch. 26, p. 271, retrieved from http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=llsl&fileName=002/llsl002.db&recNum=308. This last act dropped the name of the Society but included a reference to it in the body of the statute.

42 American State Papers, Senate, 17th Congress, 2nd Session, Indians Affairs: Volume 2, No. 189, p. 372. This report is important because it details the entire saga of the Christian Indians from the Gnadenhutten Massacre to the release of the lands back to the federal government. The federal government did not provide funds for evangelism. In fact, the Brethren missionaries described the funds that they had spent while trustees of the land, without federal help. The report is here: http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=llsp&fileName=008/llsp008.db&recNum=379

 43 Holly Littlefield, Children of the Indian Boarding Schools. (Minneapolis: Lerner Publications, 2001). See also http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=16516865.

44 See http://wthrockmorton.com/2011/03/22/the-american-family-association-should-apologize-to-native-americans/

 45 Jefferson Lies, 135.

46 See http://digital.library.okstate.edu/kappler/vol2/treaties/kas0067.htm#mn6.

47 Treaty with the Kaskaskia, 1803. Aug. 13, 1803. 7 Stat., 78., Proclamation, Dec. 23, 1803., retrieved from http://digital.library.okstate.edu/kappler/vol2/treaties/kas0067.htm#mn6.

48 Ibid.

49 http://wthrockmorton.com/2012/08/06/david-bartons-capitol-tour-did-thomas-jefferson-spend-federal-funds-to-evangelize-the-kaskaskia-indians/- See the letters from Jefferson to Harrison and Dearborn in this post.

50 Here Barton means “Benjamin Rush.”

51 Teddy James, “Deism and the Declaration: Fact Checking Jefferson’s Theology,” AFA Journal, July, 2010.

52 Thomas Jefferson Founds a Bible Society, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y3CXHb-WvJs.

53 The Jefferson Lies, 68.

54 William Asbury Christian, Richmond: Her Past and Present. (Richmond: L.H. Jenkins, 1912), 87.

55 Retrieved from http://www.monticello.org/site/research-and-collections/bible-society-virginia.

56 Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series, ed. J. Jefferson Looney et al (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2010), 6:607-608.

57 History of the American Bible Society from its Organization to the Present Time. (William Strickland, 1849), 69.

58 Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 1854, 2:308.

59 Maxwell, William, A Memoir of the Reverend John H. Rice. (Philadelphia, J. Whetham), 127.

60 Charles Force Deems, Ed., Frank Leslie’s Sunday Magazine, Vol 4, (New York: Frank Leslie’s Publishing House, 1878), 370.

61 The Adams-Jefferson Letters, Edited by Lester Cappon. (Chapel-Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1959), 493-494

62 Ibid., 496

63 Ibid., 421

64 The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 2nd series, Jefferson's Extracts from the Gospels, "The Philosophy of Jesus" and "The Life and Morals of Jesus." Dickinson W. Adams, Editor, Princeton University Press, Princeton, N J, (1983), 391-392. This source will hereafter be referred to as “Extracts”,.

65 Bob Unruh, Christianity Being Wiped from Tales of U.S. History, WorldNetDaily, 11/15/06, http://www.wnd.com/2006/11/38824/; Calvary Apostolic Church of Denver http://www.cacdenver.org/articles/show/148.

66 Ray Harker, God and Government: The Christian's Guide to Civic Responsibility and Political Ideology. (Harrisburg: Dog Ear Publishing, 2010), 54.

67 Retrieved from http://www.americanbible.org/about/history

 68 The Jefferson Lies, 74.

69 Extracts, 55

70 From the Thomas Jefferson Papers, Courtesy of the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, at the University of Virginia. (See Appendix)

71 Extracts

72 The Jefferson Lies, 72.

73 Extracts, 127.

74 David Barton, American Heritage Series, DVD, Bridgestone Multimedia Group, June, 2009.

75The Adams-Jefferson Letters, Edited by Lester Cappon. (Chapel-Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1959). 384.

76 Holy Bible, King James Version, retrieved from http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+11%3A4-6&version=KJV

 77 The Jefferson Lies, 73, 233n

78 The Jefferson Lies, 73.

79 Patton, Judd, cited in David Barton, The Jefferson Lies, 73.

80 Extracts, 114.

81 Ibid., 109.

82 Ibid., 119.

83 Ibid.

84 Ibid., 397.

85 Mt. 10:28; Mt. 13:40-42; Mt. 13: 49-50; Mt. 19:29 (not in the 1820 version); Mt. 22:29-32; Mt.: 31-34, 41, 46; Lk. 14:14; Lk. 15:7, 10.

86 Extracts, 405.

87 The Jefferson Lies, 80. Mt. 5:29-30; Mt. 10:28; Mt. 13:37-41, 49-50; Mt. 18:8-9; Mt. 19:16-26; Mt. 23:33; Mt. 22:28-30; Mt. 25:31-34; Mt. 25:46; Lk. 10:25-28; Lk. 11:13; Lk.12:4-5; Lk. 14:14;Lk. 15:10; Lk. 16:23; Jn. 18:36-37

88 Taken from the Smithsonian Institute’s internet source for the Jefferson Bible, retrieved from http://americanhistory.si.edu/JeffersonBible/the-book/?view=transcription&page=39#dl.

89 Joseph Priestley, A History of the Corruptions of Christianity. (London: British and Foreign Unitarian Association, 1871), 63.

90 Extracts., pp. 391-392.

91 The Jefferson Lies, 70.

92 Ibid.

93 The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 31:370.

94 Ibid., 412

95 The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, 30:81n.

96 Ibid., 81.

97 Ibid., 238.

98 Ibid., 243

99 William Linn, Serious Considerations on the Election of a President Addressed to the Citizens of the United States. 1800.

100 The Jefferson Lies, 70.

101 William Linn, Serious Considerations..., 10.

102 Oddly, Barton, later in The Jefferson Lies on page 146, cites Linn’s pamphlet attacking Jefferson without hint of irony that he earlier said Linn and Jefferson corresponded about Jefferson’s non-existent support for mission work among the Indians.

103 Extracts, 326-327.

104 Ibid., 327n, The full reference is William Bennet, The Excellence of Christian Morality; a Sermon Preached before the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge, at Their Anniversary Meeting, Thursday, 6th June, 1799. (Edinburgh, J. Ritchie, 1800). This is the same sermon referred to by David Barton in The Jefferson Lies, but we can find no references to Indians or abridgements of the Gospels.

105 The Jefferson Lies, 71.

106 Ibid., 72.

107 Retrieved from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RI1JUIB6OlM

108 Ibid., 71

109 Extracts, 329-330.

110 Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Retirement Series, 7:281.

111 Writings of Thomas Jefferson, 9:270.

112 Extracts., 28

113 The Writings of Thomas Jefferson; 8:341-348.

114 Extracts

115 Ibid., 318.

116 Ibid., 319-320.

117 Ibid., 321

118 Ibid., 330.

119 Ibid., 327-329.

120 Ibid., 331.

121 Ibid., 336.

122 Ibid., 335.

123 Ibid., 332-334.

124 Ibid., 339.

125 Ibid., 339-340.

126 Ibid., 340.

127 Ibid.

128 Ibid.

129 Ibid., 341.

130 Ibid., 341-342.

131 Edgar J. Goodspeed, “Thomas Jefferson and the Bible,” The Harvard Theological Review, 40(1) (Jan. 1947), 76.

132 Extracts, 351-353.

133 Arendzen, John. "Ebionites." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 5. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1909. 20 Apr. 2012 http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/05242c.htm.

134 The Adams-Jefferson Letters, 421

135 Extracts, 361-362.

136 Ibid., 363-364.

137 Ibid., 364-365.

138 Ibid., 369.

139 Ibid., 387-391.

140 Ibid., 391n

141 Ibid., 392.

142 Hannah French, Bookbinding in Early America, Worcester, MA: American Antiquarian Society, 1986, 179-180.

143 Harry Rubenstein & Barbara Clark Smith, “History of the Jefferson Bible,” in Thomas Jefferson, The Jefferson Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, Extracted Textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French and English, Smithsonian Edition, (2011), 31-32.

144 To read the 1820 version and learn more about the restoration of Jefferson’s copy, see http://americanhistory.si.edu/jeffersonbible/.

145 Monumental, Produced by Kirk Cameron, 2012. Clip available at http://www.wingclips.com/movie-clips/monumental/congress-bible.

146 The Jefferson Lies, 68-69.

147 John Wright, Early Bibles of America. (New York: T. Whittaker, 1892), 122.

148 Gazette of the United States, April 25, 1796, cited in French, Hannah, Bookbinding in Early America, Worcester, MA: American Antiquarian Society, 1986, 53.

149 Personal communication, Eric Frazier, Reference Librarian at the Library of Congress, March 6, 2012.

150 Edward S. Ellis, Thomas Jefferson: A Character Sketch. (University Association, 1898), 77.

151 Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 30, 644n. He paid $10 on Jan. 5, 1799, several months after the Bible was completed. He did not begin for the Bible until Thompson and Small were nearly finished printing it.

Michael Coulter

Michael is professor of humanities and political science at Grove City College and co-editor of the Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought, Social Science, and Social Policy.

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Warren Throckmorton

Warren is an author, associate professor of psychology at Grove City College, and fellow for psychology and public policy at the school's Center for Vision and Values.

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