Thomas Jefferson was not a Christian. Wait, what?

Thomas Jefferson, the celebrated author of the Declaration of Independence, would not be overly surprised to hear that his portrait is on the nickel, but he would certainly be rolling in his grave if he knew the words “IN GOD WE TRUST” were printed along side of his face. Why? Because Jefferson was not a Christian, he was a Deist. He was, in Christian terms, a “non believer.”

There is a common misconception that all of the Founding Fathers were Christians. They were not, and Jefferson is one example.

Deism is something nearly all of my students are unaware of until they take my world religion course. Most students understand atheism and they might even know an atheist, but not many students know about deism, let alone know a deist.

Unlike an atheist a deist does believe in a higher power as the creator of the world, but unlike a Christian, a deist does not believe in miracles. Deism holds firmly to the idea that natural law runs the world – always has and always will. In other words, Jefferson rejected miracle stories. He did not believe in the divinity of Jesus nor the claim that Jesus walked on water and rose from the grave. Not only did he reject these ideas he literally,using a razor blade,cut them out of the Bible; he removed the “diamonds from the dunghill” (Jefferson’s own words). The Bibles he cut up are on display in the Smithsonian in Washington D.C..

To many Christians the act of cutting up the New Testament and throwing portions of it away as garbage is nothing short of sacrilege, and the claim that Jesus was not the only son of God, blasphemy. At first glance one might be tempted to see Jefferson as a “Christ hater,” but he was far from that. Ironically, Jefferson greatly admired Jesus as a counter cultural sage and teacher of wisdom and social justice. His intention in cutting up the Bible was to remove those elements of the story that defied reason and natural law so a more accurate and “reasonable” picture of the historical Jesus could surface.

For patriotic conservative Christians Jefferson is a bit of an embarrassment, and his views on religion a bit problematic for those who try to argue that America was created by Bible-believing Christians. Jefferson viewed the supernatural aspects of religion as nothing more than superstitions propping up useless and dangerous dogma. Jefferson, in today’s terminology, was a “free-thinker,” but he was NOT an atheist and he was not a Christian.

In 1904 Congress published Jefferson’s “cut version” of Jesus’ story, commonly known as The Jefferson Bible, and gave a copy to each new member of Congress. This practice continued for the next fifty years.

Jefferson’s Bible is an example of how many people separate and celebrate the wisdom of great teachers like Jesus from the dogma of religion. As Americans we should be proud to claim Jefferson as one of our own, and the memorializing of Jefferson is a shining example of how America can embrace and celebrate those who are free-thinkers and non religious, but obviously not all agree

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