Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson (1743-1826) was born and raised an Anglican, and he never formally renounced that connection. But as a boy, he began to question fundamental Anglican tenets, including the doctrine of the Trinity. After immersing himself in theological works by Enlightenment rationalists, he considered jettisoning religion altogether in his late teens. But works by the British Unitarian Joseph Priestley, particularly An History of the Corruptions of Christianity (1782), An History of Early Opinions Concerning Jesus Christ (1786), and Socrates and Jesus Compared (1803), convinced him that he did not have to choose between religion and reason, faith and common sense.

Priestley, whom Jefferson befriended after the scientist-turned-theologian came to the United States from Engalnd in 1794, prided himself on approaching religious questions in the light of reason and common sense. He built his theological system, however, on what can only be described as a myth. According to that myth, the religion of Jesus was as simple as it was sublime. It affirmed one God, taught the afterlife, and insisted on moral living. But beginning with Paul and the writers of the Gospels, later Christians hijacked his simple religion, overlaying it with complex dogmas and empty rites. The solution to this problem was to get up a new coup. In the distant past, Christianity had overthrown Jesus; now it was time for partisans of Jesus to overthrow Christianity.

In his private writings on religion, Jefferson followed Priestley closely. He praised Jesus as "meek, benevolent, patient, firm, disinterested, and of the sublimest eloquence," and his system of morals as "the most perfect and sublime that has ever been taught by man." Then he blasted "the corruptions of schismatising 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 rejecct the whole in disgust, and to view Jesus himself as an imposter." Jefferson's list of these corruptions was long, extending to dogmas such as original sin, the virgin birth, the atonement, predestination, salvation by faith, transubstantiation, bodily resurrection, and above all the Trinity. ... The only interests such Trinitarian sophistries served were the interests of entrenched priests and ministers, who played the same villainous role in Jefferson's spiritual world that kings occupied in his republican politics. In an effort "to filch wealth and power to themselves," Jefferson wrote, these tyrants had perverted the pure morals of Jesus into "an engine for enslaving mankind."

The antidote to this illness, Jefferson argued, was a religious revolution as radical as the events of 1776: a repudiation of the spiritual slavery of creeds and rites and a return to the pure, primitive teachings of Jesus. So far this was pure Priestley. But in at least one important respect, Jefferson was more radical than his Unitarian friend. He rejected Priestley's Socinian position that God had empowered Jesus to perform miracles and even to rise from the dead. Miracles, Jefferson insisted, were an affront to the demands of reason and the laws of nature, and Jesus had performed not a one. ... Jesus was, in Jefferson's words, "the first of human Sages." ...

Though remembered today as a champion of the separation of church and state, Jefferson shared with virtually all of his contemporaries the view that no society could survive without a shared system of morality, and that "no System of morality however pure it might be" could survive "without the sanction of divine authority stampt upon it." ...

[John] Adams wrote wryly of his wish that Jefferson might live until he became a Calvinist, and Jefferson responded that, if granted, such a wish would make him immortal. Calvin, Jefferson added, "was indeed an Atheist, which I can never be; or rather his religion was Daemonism. If ever man worshipped a false god, he did."

Adams worshipped no such God. Like Priestley, he was a Unitarian, and he corresponded with Jefferson while the Unitarian Controversy of the early nineteenth century was at its height. That controversy, which ran from 1804 until the establishment of the American Unitarian Association in 1825, touched on the doctrine of the Trinity, but centered on human nature. While traditionalists affirmed Calvin's dogma of the total depravity of human beings, unitarians defended the more optimistic view that human beings were essentially good. Jefferson followed this controversy closely, and he was solidly in the anti-Calvinist camp.