[Warning: Statements from Thomas Jefferson’s letters below will strike some readers as anti-Semitic. They do not reflect my views.]
At the end of his Second Inaugural Address, Jefferson appeals to “that Being in whose hands we are, who led our forefathers, as Israel of old.” Thus he draws an explicit parallel between biblical events and the founding of the United States, identifying American Providence with the God of Israel. In light of the use that evangelical Christians have made of this and other of his statements on matters of theology and religion, we want to determine whether the parallel in the Second Inaugural is crafted merely for public consumption or whether Jefferson actually believes what he says there.
According to Jefferson, the Jews entertained ideas of God that
were degrading and injurious. Their Ethics were not only imperfect, but often irreconcilable with the sound dictates of reason & morality, as they respect intercourse with those around us; & repulsive and anti-social, as respecting other nations. They needed reformation, therefore, in an eminent degree. In this state of things among the Jews, Jesus appeared (Syllabus).
In a letter to John Adams, Jefferson briefly surveys the “philosophy of the Hebrews [and the] Repositories of their ethics” and concludes,
What wretched depravity of sentiment and manners must have prevailed before such corrupt maxims could have attained credit!…It was the reformation of this ‘wretched depravity’ of morals which Jesus undertook…the principle of the Hebrew was the fear, of the Gentile the honor, and of the Christian the love of God (October 12, 1813).
Reprising this theme of the rehabilitation of Judaism, he tells William Short that Jesus’
object was the reformation of some articles in the religion of the Jews, as taught by Moses. That sect had presented for the object of their worship, a being of terrific character, cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust. Jesus, taking for his type the best qualities of the human head and heart, wisdom, justice, goodness, and adding to them power, ascribed all of these, but in infinite perfection, to the Supreme Being, and formed him really worthy of their adoration…Moses had bound the Jews to many idle ceremonies, mummeries and observances, of no effect towards producing the social utilities which constitute the essence of virtue; Jesus exposed their futility and insignificance. The one instilled into his people the most anti-social spirit towards other nations; the other preached philanthropy and universal charity and benevolence. The office of reformer of the superstitions of a nation, is ever dangerous. Jesus had to walk on the perilous confines of treason and religion: and a step to the right or left might place him within the gripe [sic] of the priests of the superstition, a blood thirsty race, as cruel and remorseless as the being whom they represented as the family God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob, and the local God of Israel (August, 4, 1820).
While he is not against the notion of the Deity per se, Jefferson deplores the depiction of God “taught by Moses” and by the “blood thirsty” priests. The adjectives Jefferson uses — cruel, vindictive, capricious and unjust — do not reflect his opinion of God, but of the people who formed a conception of such a God. Being a politician, one of Jefferson’s primary concerns is with “producing the social utilities which constitute the essence of virtue.” It is precisely in this that he finds the Jews lacking, going so far as to call them anti-social towards other nations. This supposed hostility of the Jewish people towards other nations is reflected in the Biblical God.
But what to me seems the clincher in understanding Jefferson’s position as regards the God of the Bible is something he writes when he denies the possibility that Jesus could have been divinely inspired:
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 [sic] from them (ibid.).
As one of the religions that “schismatised” from Judaism, Christianity shares a belief in divine inspiration. Needless to say, the conviction that God communicated with his people underpins the entire Judeo-Christian system. If Jefferson denies that such communication ever took place, he negates for himself the entire basis for believing in the Judeo-Christian faith. Therefore, when Perkins writes that “Jefferson believed that God had led ‘our fathers’ and blessed the nation’s birth and growth,” this God cannot be, at least as far as Jefferson is concerned, the God of the Mosaic dispensation, the same God who declared “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased” at Jesus’ baptism. Even when he praises the author of the Psalms as deserving “the palm over all the Hymnists of every language, and of every time,” Jefferson cannot help accusing him of “hyperbolic flights.” These flights, he says, can “often be followed with approbation (To John Adams, October 12, 1813; my emphasis). By adding the word “often,” he implies that they cannot always be approved of. Time and again, Jefferson undercuts the notion that the words of the Bible could be divinely inspired.
At the same time, we have seen how, despite his adherence to rationalism, Jefferson considers himself a theist. Evidently, he regards the God who led the patriarchs to the Promised Land and directed the forefathers to the New World as the same Deity. It is just that he rejects the way this Deity has been depicted in the Bible. To this extent, his public and private declarations are consistent. Nevertheless, the suggestion in the Second Inaugural that God leads, and thus intervenes in history, seems at variance with Jefferson’s appeal to nature and reason. Providence implies a notion of divine care that cuts against the deist belief that God refrains from interceding in nature or in the affairs of humankind. Next time, we will try to fathom this apparent contradiction in Jefferson’s thinking by looking more closely at his Unitarianism.