Jefferson and Christianity

Religion | A history and political science professor at The Master’s College offers a brief review of David Barton’s claims in <em>The Jefferson Lies</em>—and Barton responds, and Frazer rebuts
by Gregg Frazer
Posted 2/15/13, 09:38 am

Our online debate between history writer David Barton and his critics demanded a lot of attention from readers: thousands of words, numerous footnotes, complicated argumentation. That many of you read, pondered, and commented is a good indication that poor history teaching in many colleges hasn’t killed among many of us the desire to learn what really happened.

The debate isn’t over yet. One of Barton’s critics, Gregg Frazer, a history and political science professor at The Master's College, had 1,200 words he wanted to get off his chest, and we said yes. Frazer is the author of The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders: Reason, Revelation, and Revolution, published last year by The University Press of Kansas.

After Frazer's message comes a brief response from David Barton. —Marvin Olasky

David Barton’s fundamental claim in chapter 7 of The Jefferson Lies is that Jefferson was orthodox for the first 70 years of his life and only rejected the fundamental doctrines of Christianity in the final 15 years of his life. In support of this claim, Barton said that in his 1776 Notes on Religion, Jefferson “affirmed that Jesus was the Savior, the Scriptures were inspired, and that the Apostles’ Creed ‘contain[ed] all things necessary to salvation’” (p. 168). That is simply not true.

In his Notes on Religion, Jefferson wrote, “The Apostles creed was by them taken to contain all things necessary to salvation [emphasis mine].”[i] In the context, “by them” refers to “the people they were written to” (i.e., the early church). Jefferson did not say that he believed this. Of the original, Barton only quoted “contain[ed] all things necessary to salvation.” Barton did not offer any other direct statement by Jefferson—doctored or not—in support of the fundamental doctrines of Christianity because there are none.

Jefferson never affirmed the core doctrines of Christianity, whether in his first 70 years or the last 15. For him, Christianity was simply the moral teachings of Jesus—not all of Jesus’ teaching, only the morality. That, along with Jefferson’s opinion of the Apostle Paul, is why Jefferson repeatedly dismissed the rest of the New Testament as a “dunghill.”[ii]

It is also important to understand that Jefferson, in his Notes on Religion, noted for his own reference in encyclopedic fashion what various religious groups and individuals believed—not giving his own beliefs!

Notes starts with: “Sabellians,” and then describes what they believed. The next paragraph starts “Socinians,” and then describes what they believed. The section Barton quoted as being Jefferson’s own view begins with: “Locke’s system of Christianity is this:” and then goes on for a lengthy description of what Locke said about Christianity. The particular quote about the Apostles’ Creed is a nearly verbatim transcription from Locke’s A Vindication of the Reasonableness of Christianity. There, Locke wrote, “The Apostles Creed was taken, in the first Ages of the Church, to contain all things necessary to Salvation.”[iii] Barton’s other claims about the Notes on Religion are also in the section on Locke’s Christianity—not personal affirmations by Jefferson.

In support of his thesis that Jefferson was orthodox until sometime around 1810, Barton claimed that Jefferson “first expressed Anti-Trinitarian views in a letter to John Adams in 1813” (185). At another point, he quoted a letter that Jefferson wrote to Benjamin Rush “well before the Restoration movement” (1803, to be precise). As he regularly does, Barton omitted a critical part of the quote. In Barton’s version, Jefferson said:

“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 He wished any one to be; sincerely attached to His doctrines, in preference to all others” (189).

But in the actual letter, the sentence did not end there. Jefferson continued:

ascribing to himself every human excellence; & believing he never claimed any other” [italics original; bold mine].[iv]

So, in a letter that Barton identified as being written before Jefferson’s supposed change of heart, Jefferson clearly indicated that he did not believe in the deity of Christ and, by extension, the Trinity. It is also worth mentioning that the pronouns for Jesus are not capitalized in Jefferson’s original, as he, unlike Barton, did not consider them to be pronouns for God.

Furthermore, Jefferson’s reference to “the corruptions of Christianity” was a reference to Joseph Priestley’s A History of the Corruptions of Christianity, as he indicated in a letter to Priestley 12 days before the Rush letter and to his daughters in letters four days after the Rush letter. He recommended it to them for “attentive perusal, because it establishes the groundwork of my view of this subject [‘my religious creed’].”[v]

In Priestley’s book, the very first “corruption of Christianity” is the deity of Christ—there is a whole section devoted to debunking that doctrine. So, in stating that he was opposed to the corruptions of Christianity, he stated that he did not believe in the deity of Christ. The second section of Priestley’s Corruptions attacks the atonement, and the third grace and original sin. In the aforementioned letter to Priestley, Jefferson urged Priestley to write a book on the character and doctrines of Jesus, saying, “You are the person who of all others would do it best.”[vi]

So, according to Jefferson, a man who did not believe in the deity of Christ or the fundamental doctrines of Christianity would do the best job of writing about the character and doctrines of Jesus. That does not sound very orthodox. But it is not surprising because Jefferson identified the two primary influences on his religious views as Conyers Middleton and Joseph Priestley[vii]—not the Restorationists that Barton insisted were the cause of his spiritual demise. One should note that Barton never actually established a connection between them and Jefferson. On his part, Jefferson never reported a change in his own thinking.

To further understand what Jefferson meant by the “corruptions” of Christianity, one need only look at a statement by Jefferson that Barton included: that the Apostle Paul was the “first corruptor of the doctrines of Jesus” (180) and ask oneself: What doctrines did Paul teach?

Jefferson actually denied the inspiration of Scripture and the deity of Christ much earlier than these examples. As early as 1787, he told his nephew to “[r]ead the Bible, then, as you would read Livy or Tacitus” and to be wary of “the pretensions of the writer to inspiration from God” and that “these Pseudo-evangelists pretended to inspiration … you are to judge their pretensions by your own reason” (emphasis mine)—hardly affirmations of the inspiration of Scripture. He also described Jesus as one “who set out without pretensions to divinity, ended in believing them.”

Jefferson concluded with the best concise summary of his approach to religious belief: “Your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven.”

A response to Gregg Frazer

Gregg Frazer disagrees with my interpretation of one document in one of The Jefferson Lies’ nine chapters. I appreciate his position but remain convinced that, as I wrote in my response to Warren Throckmorton:

“Early in life Jefferson apparently was a typical Anglican gentleman, but later in life he embraced unorthodox beliefs. [In fact, I devoted 16 pages in my book to documenting Jefferson’s heterodox beliefs.] But throughout all phases of his life he maintained an open respect and admiration for Jesus Christ and Christian values and morality, and he regularly promoted Christianity in ways that make today’s secularists and separationists uncomfortable.”  

Throckmorton’s original assault on my book managed to avoid its major points and instead criticize minor and even obscure facts, and this new attack by Frazer seems to suggest that this “debate” may become a never-ending discussion over less and less. With so many important cultural battles that desperately need our focused attention, it seems a misuse of time and energy to continue arguing over relatively inconsequential points with those who profess to hold the same common Christian values, so I will now resume my efforts attempting to beat back the secularist progressive movement that wrongly invokes Jefferson in their efforts to expunge any presence of faith from the public square.

I am grateful to WORLD for allowing this “debate” to occur, and consistent with my regular practice, if errors in my work are called to my attention I will continue to address them in subsequent editions.  

I encourage those interested in this debate to read the revised version of The Jefferson Lies (available later this year from Mercury Ink and Simon & Schuster) and determine for themselves who is correct.

Frazer rebuts Barton's response

Those who read my short piece above will recognize that I disagreed with far more than David Barton’s interpretation of one document. I did not even interpret documents; I simply recorded them accurately and in context, thereby eliminating the “evidence” for his thesis in one chapter. Furthermore, I disagree with much of Barton’s book, but was limited by WORLD to just 1,000 words, so I focused on the core issue: Jefferson’s religious beliefs

Besides, what has been in question all along is not Barton's standing as a cultural battler, but his standing as a historian. That is determined by how accurately one writes history, not how well one stems the progressive tide.



[i] Thomas Jefferson, The Works of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Paul Leicester Ford (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904-1905), II:255.

[ii] E.g. October 12, 1813 letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Adams and January 24, 1814 letter from Jefferson to Adams, in The Adams-Jefferson Letters, ed. Lester J. Cappon (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959), 2:384 & 2:421; April 25, 1816 letter from Jefferson to F.A. Van der Kemp, in The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. H.A. Washington (Washington, D.C.: Taylor & Maury, 1853-1854), 6:594; October 31, 1819 letter from Jefferson to William Short, in The Works of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Paul Leicester Ford (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904-1905), XII:141.

[iii] John Locke, “A Vindication of the Reasonableness of Christianity,” in John Locke Writings on Religion, ed. Victor Nuovo (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), 217.

[iv] April 21, 1803 letter from Jefferson to Benjamin Rush in The Works of Thomas Jefferson, ed. H.A. Washington (Townsend Mac Coun, 1884), IV:479.

[v] April 9, 1803 letter from Jefferson to Joseph Priestley in Jefferson’s Extracts from the Gospels, ed. Dickinson W. Adams (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983), 327; April 25 letter from Thomas Jefferson to Martha Jefferson Randolph in Jefferson’s Extracts, 335.

[vi] April 9, 1803 letter from Jefferson to Joseph Priestley in Jefferson’s Extracts, 328.

[vii] August 22, 1813 letter from Jefferson to John Adams, in The Adams-Jefferson Letters, ed. Lester J. Cappon (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1959), 2:369.

Gregg Frazer

Gregg is a history and political science professor at The Master's College in Santa Clarita, Calif.

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