For Jefferson, Jesus’ “system of morality was the most benevolent and sublime probably that has been ever taught” (To Joseph Priestly, April 9, 1803). The most benevolent and sublime. Very high praise. But if we ask about Jefferson’s view of Jesus’ divinity, it is the adverb that is especially significant.
In a letter to Benjamin Rush (April 21, 1803) in which he defends his own views as “very different from that anti-Christian system imputed to me by those who know nothing of my opinions,” Jefferson nevertheless goes on to declare, “I am a Christian, in the only sense [Jesus] wished any one to be…ascribing to himself every human excellence; & believing he never claimed any other.” Conscious of the unorthodox nature of this view, Jefferson warns Rush not to divulge it: “I know it will not be exposed to the malignant perversions of those who make every word from me a text for new misrepresentations & calumnies.” In his Syllabus of an Estimate of the Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus, Compared with those of Others, however, which he attaches to his letter to Rush, he becomes somewhat evasive:
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 merit of his doctrines.
He is much more direct in a letter to William Short written almost two decades later (October 31, 1819). Here Jefferson complains that “certain sects usurping the name of Christians” have attributed “mysticisms incomprehensible” to Jesus, on whom they “fathered [these mysticisms] blasphemously.” Farther into the letter, he again complains of these “artificial systems, invented by ultra-Christian sects” and hopes for “a quiet euthanasia of the heresies of bigotry and fanaticism which have so long triumphed over human reason and so generally and deeply afflicted mankind.” He lists these artificial systems as
e.g. The immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection and visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity; original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of Hierarchy, &c.
For Jefferson, the propounders of such ultra-Christian beliefs are nothing short of blasphemers. Expounding further, he writes,
I say these are the false shepherds foretold as to enter not by the door into the sheepfold, but to climb up some other way. They are mere usurpers of the Christian name, teaching a counter-religion made up of the deliria of crazy imaginations, as foreign from Christianity as is that of Mahomet. Their blasphemies have driven thinking men into infidelity, who have too hastily rejected the supposed author himself, with the horrors so falsely imputed to him. Had the doctrines of Jesus been preached always as pure as they came from his lips, the whole civilized world would now have been Christian (To Benjamin Waterhouse, June 26, 1822).
If Jefferson did not believe in the divine nature of Jesus, it might at first not be clear how one could be a heretic in relation to the latter. But anybody who understands how Jefferson thinks knows what he means: it is blasphemy against reason. It should be said that he did not consider himself an atheist. For him, blasphemy against reason is blasphemy against the laws of nature and of nature’s God (as he enshrines it in the Declaration of Independence). Still, we sense a confusion here on Jefferson’s part. Not being divinely inspired, how could Jesus have foretold anything? Apparently, it must have been a simple prediction, not prophetic utterance. Personally, I see a fundamental weakness in Jefferson’s complete dependence on reason. The human mind, being limited to what it knows, might not be the best judge as to everything that should be considered rational. The ways of God, and even of nature, might far outstrip our cognition.
If possible, Jefferson is even more blunt about Jesus’ divinity in a letter to John Adams:
[T]he greatest enemies to the doctrines of Jesus are those calling themselves the expositors of them…And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. But we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with all this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this most venerated reformer of human errors (April 11, 1823).
We see, then, that Jefferson left no room to doubt about what he thinks of Jesus’ divinity. Next time, we will consider Jefferson’s verdict on the evangelists, which is quite harsh.