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THOMAS JEFFERSON QUOTES
ON CHRISTIANITY AND RELIGIOUS TOLERANCE

At times, the Christian right has sought to rewrite history by posthumously converting Thomas Jefferson into a Christian.  Throughout his life, however, Jefferson strenuously denied that he held orthodox Christian beliefs or that he desired the mixing of politics and religion in government.  Instead, Jefferson's religious philosophy centered on 18th century concepts of natural law.  Jefferson placed significant value on the ability of human beings to use reason to understand their world.  In fact, Jefferson was so opposed to mysticism that he removed from his bible any account of the miracles that Jesus is alleged to have performed.  The resulting Jefferson Bible, contained only those precepts that Jefferson believed were integral to the moral philosophy of Jesus Christ.

The quotes from Jefferson collected on this page do not represent the sum total of all his statements on religion.  They make clear, however, that Jefferson carefully considered and then rejected basing his philosophy of liberty on any combination of religion and politics.  To Jefferson, liberty and democracy could only be maintained via the separation of church and state, even in public education.


INSCRIPTION ON JEFFERSON MEMORIAL • ON RELIGIOUS INTOLERANCE

THE LAW AND RELIGIOUS TOLERANCE • REASON VS. RELIGION • CHRISTIANITY VS. LIBERTY

SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE • ON FREEDOM OF RELIGION

JESUS AND THE GOD OF THE OLD TESTAMENT • SKEPTICISM ABOUT THE BIBLE

THOMAS JEFFERSON'S VIEWS OF THE PURITAN FAITH

 


INSCRIPTION ON JEFFERSON MEMORIAL

Only part of the quote below is on the wall of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, DC.  It was inscribed out of context in 1939.  Jefferson indeed wrote "I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."  Most people think he was referring to George III.   Instead, he was responding to attacks made on him in pamphlets distributed by clergy in Philadelphia during the presidential election of 1800.  These pamphlets accused Jefferson of being unfit to become President because he did not hold Christian beliefs.

"The clergy ... believe that any portion of power confided to me [as President] will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly: for I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. But this is all they have to fear from me: and enough, too, in their opinion."

Source: Letter of Thomas Jefferson to Dr. Benjamin Rush, Sept. 23, 1800.


ON RELIGIOUS INTOLERANCE

"The first settlers in this country were emigrants from England, of the English church, just at a point of time when it was flushed with complete victory over the religious of all other persuasions. Possessed, as they became, of the powers of making, administering, and executing the laws, they showed equal intolerance in this country with their Presbyterian brethren, who had emigrated to the northern government.  The poor Quakers were flying from persecution in England. They cast their eyes on these new countries as asylums of civil and religious freedom; but they found them free only for the reigning sect."

Source: Thomas Jefferson, "Religion" in Notes on the State of Virginia (1782), p. 283.

"Millions of innocent men, women and children, since the introduction of Christianity, have been burnt, tortured, fined and imprisoned; yet we have not advanced one inch towards uniformity.  What has been the effect of coercion? To make one half the world fools, and the other half hypocrites. To support roguery and error all over the earth."

Source: Thomas Jefferson, "Religion" in Notes on the State of Virginia (1782), p. 286.

"In 1769, I became a member of the legislature by the choice of the county in which I live, & continued in that until it was closed by the revolution. I made one effort in that body for the permission of the emancipation of slaves, which was rejected: and indeed, during the regal government, nothing liberal could expect success. Our minds were circumscribed within narrow limits by an habitual belief that it was our duty to be subordinate to the mother country in all matters of government, to direct all our labors in subservience to her interests, and even to observe a bigoted intolerance for all religions but hers."

Source: Thomas Jefferson, Autobiography.

"I have never conceived that having been in public life required me to belie my sentiments, or to conceal them. Opinion and the just maintenance of it shall never be a crime in my view, nor bring injury on the individual. I never will by any word or act, bow to the shrine of intolerance. I never had an opinion in politics or religion which I was afraid to own; a reserve on these subjects might have procured me more esteem from some people, but less from myself."

Source: Thomas Jefferson the Freethinker.

"I had no idea, however, that in Pennsylvania, the cradle of toleration and freedom of religion, it [fanaticism] could have arisen to the height you describe. This must be owing to the growth of Presbyterianism. The blasphemy of the five points of Calvin, and the impossibility of defending them, render their advocates impatient of reasoning, irritable, and prone to denunciation".

Source: Letter of Thomas Jefferson to Dr. Cooper, November 2, 1822 in Works, Vol. IV, p. 358.


THE LAW AND RELIGIOUS TOLERANCE

"The present state of our laws on the subject of religion is this. The convention of May 1776, in their declaration of rights, declared it to be a truth, and a natural right, that the exercise of religion should be free. ... By our own act of assembly of 1705, c. 30, if a person brought up in the Christian religion denies the being of a God, or the Trinity, or asserts there are more Gods than one, or denies the Christian religion to be true, or the scriptures to be of divine authority, he is punishable on the first offence by incapacity to hold any office or employment ecclesiastical, civil, or military; on the second by disability to sue, to take any gift or legacy, to be guardian, executor, or administrator, and by three years imprisonment, without bail. A father's right to the custody of his own children being founded in law on his right of guardianship, this being taken away, they may of course be severed from him, and put, by the authority of a court, into more orthodox hands. This is a summary view of that religious slavery, under which a people have been willing to remain, who have lavished their lives and fortunes for the establishment of their civil freedom."

Source: Thomas Jefferson, "Religion" in Notes on the State of Virginia (1782), pp. 283-284.

"Religion is well supported; of various kinds, indeed, but all good enough; all sufficient to preserve peace and order: or if a sect arises, whose tenets would subvert morals, good sense has fair play, and reasons and laughs it out of doors, without suffering the state to be troubled with it. They do not hang more malefactors than we do. They (i.e. Pennsylvania and New York) are not more disturbed with religious dissensions. On the contrary, their harmony is unparalleled, and can be ascribed to nothing but their unbounded tolerance, because there is no other circumstance in which they differ from every nation on earth. They have made the happy discovery, that the way to silence religious disputes, is to take no notice of them. Let us too give this experiment fair play, and get rid, while we may, of those tyrannical laws."

Source: Thomas Jefferson, "Religion" in Notes on the State of Virginia (1782), p. 287.

"Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed by inserting "Jesus Christ," so that it would read "A departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;" the insertion was rejected by the great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mohammedan, the Hindoo and Infidel of every denomination.

Source: Thomas Jefferson, "The Virginia Legislature, Review and Reform of the Law," in Autobiography.

"Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law."

Source: Letter of Thomas Jefferson to Dr. Thomas Cooper, February 10, 1814.


REASON VS. RELIGION

"Question with boldness even the existence of a god; because if there be one he must approve of the homage of reason more than that of blindfolded fear."

Source: Letter of Thomas Jefferson to Peter Carr, August 10, 1787.

"To talk of immaterial existences is to talk of nothings. To say that the human soul, angels, god, are immaterial, is to say they are nothings, or that there is no god, no angels, no soul. I cannot reason otherwise: but I believe I am supported in my creed of materialism by Locke, Tracy, and Stewart. At what age of the Christian church this heresy of immaterialism, this masked atheism, crept in, I do not know. But heresy it certainly is."

Source: Letter of Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, Aug. 15, 1820.

"Man once surrendering his reason, has no remaining guard against absurdities the most monstrous, and like a ship without rudder, is the sport of every wind."

Source: Letter of Thomas Jefferson to James Smith, 1822.

"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 may we hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this most venerated reformer of human errors."

Source: Letter of Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, April 11, 1823.

"I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else where I was capable of thinking for myself. Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent."

Source: Letter of Thomas Jefferson to Francis Hopkinson, March 13, 1789.

"All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God."

Source: Letter of Thomas Jefferson to Roger C. Weightman, June 24, 1826.  This was the last letter Jefferson ever wrote.


CHRISTIANITY VS. LIBERTY

"In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own."

Source: Letter of Thomas Jefferson to Horatio G. Spafford, March 17, 1814.

"History, I believe, furnishes no example of a priest-ridden people maintaining a free civil government. This marks the lowest grade of ignorance of which their civil as well as religious leaders will always avail themselves for their own purposes."

Source: Letter of Thomas Jefferson to Alexander von Humboldt, Dec. 6, 1813.

"The advocate of religious freedom is to expect neither peace nor forgiveness from [the clergy]."

Source: Letter of Thomas Jefferson to Levi Lincoln, 1802.

"The clergy, by getting themselves established by law and in-grafted into the machine of government, have been a very formidable engine against the civil and religious rights of man."

Source: Letter of Thomas Jefferson to Jeremiah Moor, 1800.


SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE

"Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between church and State."

Source: Letter of Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association, Connecticut, January 1, 1802.

"I consider the government of the United States as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises. This results not only from the provision that no law shall be made respecting the establishment or free exercise of religion, but from that also which reserves to the states the powers not delegated to the United States. Certainly, no power to prescribe any religious exercise or to assume authority in religious discipline has been delegated to the General Government. It must then rest with the states, as far as it can be in any human authority."

Source: Letter of Thomas Jefferson to Samuel Miller, 1808.

"Ministers of the Gospel are excluded [from serving as Visitors of the county Elementary Schools] to avoid jealousy from the other sects, were the public education committed to the ministers of a particular one; and with more reason than in the case of their exclusion from the legislative and executive functions."

Source: Thomas Jefferson, Note to Elementary School Act, 1817.

"No religious reading, instruction or exercise, shall be prescribed or practiced [in the elementary schools] inconsistent with the tenets of any religious sect or denomination."

Source: Thomas Jefferson, Note to Elementary School Act, 1817.


ON FREEDOM OF RELIGION

"I am for freedom of religion, and against all maneuvers to bring about a legal ascendancy of one sect over another."

Source: Letter of Thomas Jefferson to Elbridge Gerry, 1799.

"We have solved, by fair experiment, the great and interesting question whether freedom of religion is compatible with order in government and obedience to the laws. And we have experienced the quiet as well as the comfort which results from leaving every one to profess freely and openly those principles of religion which are the inductions of his own reason and the serious convictions of his own inquiries."

Source: Letter of Thomas Jefferson to Virginia Baptists, 1808.

"In our early struggles for liberty, religious freedom could not fail to become a primary object."

Source: Letter of Thomas Jefferson to Baltimore Baptists, 1808.


JESUS AND THE GOD OF THE OLD TESTAMENT

"There are, I acknowledge, passages [in the Bible] not free from objection, which we may, with probability, ascribe to Jesus himself; but claiming indulgence from the circumstances under which he acted. His 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 either not believed in a future state of existence, or had not thought it essential to be explicitly taught to his people. Jesus inculcated that doctrine with emphasis and precision. 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 (i.e. Moses) 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 reason and religion: and a step to right or left might place him within the grip 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."

Source: Letter of Thomas Jefferson to William Short, August 4, 1820.


SKEPTICISM ABOUT THE BIBLE

"The hocus-pocus phantasm of a God, like another Cerberus, with one body and three heads, had its birth and growth in the blood of thousands and thousands of martyrs".

Source: Thomas Jefferson, Works, Vol. IV, p. 360.

"The whole history of these books (i.e. the Gospels) is so defective and doubtful that it seems vain to attempt minute enquiry into it: and such tricks have been played with their text, and with the texts of other books relating to them, that we have a right, from that cause, to entertain much doubt what parts of them are genuine. In the New Testament there is internal evidence that parts of it have proceeded from an extraordinary man; and that other parts are of the fabric of very inferior minds. It is as easy to separate those parts, as to pick out diamonds from dunghills."

Source: Letter of Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, January 24, 1814.

"Among the sayings and discourses imputed to him (i.e. Jesus) by his biographers, I find many passages of fine imagination, correct morality, and of the most lovely benevolence; and others again of so much ignorance, so much absurdity, so much untruth, charlatanism, and imposture, as to pronounce it impossible that such contradictions should have proceeded from the same being."

Source: Letter of Thomas Jefferson to William Short, April 13, 1820.

"It is between fifty and sixty years since I read it (i.e. the Book of Revelations), and I then considered it merely the ravings of a maniac, no more worthy nor capable of explanation than the incoherence of our own nightly dreams."

Source: Letter of Thomas Jefferson to General Alexander Smyth, Jan. 17, 1825.


THOMAS JEFFERSON'S VIEWS OF THE PURITAN FAITH

"His [Calvin's] religion was demonism. If ever man worshiped a false God, he did. The being described in his five points is ... a demon of malignant spirit. It would be more pardonable to believe in no God at all, than to blaspheme him by the atrocious attributes of Calvin"

Source: Thomas Jefferson, Works, Vol. IV, p. 363.


INSCRIPTION ON JEFFERSON MEMORIAL • ON RELIGIOUS INTOLERANCE

THE LAW AND RELIGIOUS TOLERANCE • REASON VS. RELIGION • CHRISTIANITY VS. LIBERTY

SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE • ON FREEDOM OF RELIGION

JESUS AND THE GOD OF THE OLD TESTAMENT • SKEPTICISM ABOUT THE BIBLE

DISDAIN FOR CALVINISM