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Rationalism, Natural Religion and Tolerance
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
A review of the book by Eugene R Sheridan
Jefferson and Religion (Monticello:  Thomas Jefferson Foundation (Monticello Monograph Series), 1998.  83p.)

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Sheridan documents the well-known opposition of Jefferson to traditional forms of Christian faith, notably his rejection of the divinity of Jesus and the concept of the Trinity.  Sheridan confirms Jefferson's general focus as a Deist from the earliest years, but details the progress and development of Jefferson's thought over the decades of his productive life.

In this monograph, this Jefferson scholar highlights the main points of Jefferson's safari of reflection through his life, the great influence Unitarianism had on him, and his movement to a demythologized and rationalized idea of Jesus as a moral teacher.  He developed a well-reasoned concept of natural religion and morality, which he detailed clearly.

Jefferson developed a great friendship with Unitarian minister Joseph Priestly, who enabled Jefferson to become more positive about Jesus himself, while rejecting the orthodox practices and beliefs that Jefferson and Priestly believed were later accretions and perversions of the original focus and teachings of Jesus.

Jefferson had very early rejected as myth the divinity of Jesus, and considered the Trinity irrational and contradictory to the revealed Jewish idea of One God.  Under Priestly's earnest influence, he became less opposed to the idea of divine revelation, as opposed to his baseline concept of natural revelation and religion.  His naturalistic views were clearly referenced in the Declaration of Independence, where he refers to "Nature and Nature's God," terms from Enlightenment Rationalism.

Demystified Christianity
This rationalist statesman developed a "demythologized" or demystified version of Christian faith, feeling that "human reason, not supernatural revelation or ecclesiastical authority," was "the sole arbiter of truth."  He felt his reason was up to the task.  Jefferson embarked on an ambitious project to extract from the Gospels the teachings he thought we added by the later church and Gospel compilers.

He gradually realized how detailed this would become and abandoned the project.  Even in his opposition to the orthodox beliefs of Christianity, he maintained and advocated a tolerance that enabled anyone, no matter how irrational Jefferson thought they might be, to maintain their own opinions and promulgate them publicly.

Moral Agreemnt
He came to see that for many, a very moral life resulted form the orthodox beliefs and practices, and applauded that.  He noted at one point to a correspondent that, since the moral results matched the high standards he himself held to based on natural religion, he could commend the result without judging the belief that caused it.

He grew into this tolerance, having been very anti-Christian in early years, especially opposing the church-state alliances in Virginia and New England.  Jefferson was strongly opposed by the Calvinist churchmen of what had been the established churches in the New England states, only gradually coming out on top in the election on 1800 due to his extreme popularity among the popular voters at large.

Philosophy of Jesus
His compilation of the "Philosophy of Jesus" likewise was abandoned after he had worked for some years.  Some pages of Jefferson's handwritten notes are included in the monograph, a very interesting insight into the scholarship, discipline and vigour of this great Enlightenment scholar that formulated so many of the principled and guiding documents of the American Republic.

Sheridan also, as expected, discusses Jefferson's famous and fervent advocacy for the separation of Church and State.  Notable in that struggle was Jefferson's vigorous fight against the Episcopal Church's status as the official religion of Virginia.

It was on similar grounds that Jefferson and the new party developed around him for the 1800 Presidential race, the Democratic Republicans, opposed the centralizing and elitist preferences of the New-England-based Federalist Party.  Other than Rhode Island, which was established with no state-supported church under Baptist influence, New England states were slow to disestablish their state churches, some persisting into the nineteenth century.

The more populist and liberarian Jeffersonians won the 1800 election, confirming the pattern of a free church in a free society, with safeguards for individual religious choice and self-expression.

See related reviews and articles on this site:
[reviews] Enlightment in and out of the American Churches
[review] John Adams:  Meeting a Founding Father
[review] Naivite and Intellectual Poverty in Modern America:  The Ethical Challenges
[reviews] One Continent, Three Siblings
[review] Religion and the State
[review] See this book with my review on GoodReads

Related on the Internet:
Jefferson and the Baptist congregation in Danbury, Connecticut
The Jefferson Bible
Jefferson's Draft of Letter to the Baptists of Danbury
Jefferson's Jesus Without the Miracles
Jefferson's Letter to the Baptists of Danbury
When Baptists voted for a heretic [Jefferson]

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Written and posted on Amazon and OJTR 30 August 2010
Revised 24 January 2012
Last edited 15 May 2014
Reviewed on GoodReads 15 May 2014

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2010 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

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