Friday, July 20, 2007

Thomas Jefferson: fundamentalist?

As indicated in my review of Alan Dershowitz's latest book, the Religious Right has been trying to claim the Declartion of Independence as a Christian document while distorting Jefferson's actual views on religion in the process.

I kinda wish I had waited until today to have posted that, because I just came across Ed Brayton's post on the same subject, and it serves as an excellent appendix to the book review. In it, Brayton demonstrates how odd it is for the fundamentalists of today to being Jefferson as one of their own when their intellectual antecedents in Jefferson's day considered Jefferson as anything but a Christian.

I only have one problem with Mr. Brayton's post, and that is this:

"Jefferson believed firmly in one God, benevolent, provident and personal."

While Jefferson did beleive in a benevolent single God that was provident, he did not conceive of this as a personal god. The God of deism was an impersonal Creator who set the universe in motion and who does not interfere with the world now that is exists.

Update: I challenged Ed on the personal God belief of Jefferson and he responded

This is simply false. Time and again in his letters, Jefferson refers to God as being personal, provident and interventionist. Thus his famous statement in his Notes on Virginia that God's justice could not sleep forever and many other similar quotes. Jefferson's god was not the distant, watchmaker god of deism but an active, provident, personal god.
and Jon Rowe adds

We can show you quotations of Jefferson's that demonstrate he believed in a personal God who intervened in man's affairs. However, since Jefferson rejected miracles, his God didn't break the laws of nature or science when He did so.
Both Rowe and Brayton spend a lot of time covering this subject so they probably know what they are talking about. I've asked to be directed to the proper Jefferson papers to see the quotes Rowe alludes to, as I'd be interested in knowing what kind of non-Biblical non-magical personal intervention Jefferson envisioned occurring.

Update 2: Brayton provides the following quote from Notes on Virginia

And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep for ever: that considering numbers, nature and natural means only, a revolution of the wheel of fortune, an exchange of situation, is among possible events: that it may become probable by supernatural interference! The Almighty has no attribute which can take side with us in such a contest. -- But it is impossible to be temperate and to pursue this subject through the various considerations of policy, of morals, of history natural and civil. We must be contented to hope they will force their way into every one's mind. I think a change already perceptible, since the origin of the present revolution. The spirit of the master is abating, that of the slave rising from the dust, his condition mollifying, the way I hope preparing, under the auspices of heaven, for a total emancipation, and that this is disposed, in the order of events, to be with the consent of the masters, rather than by their extirpation.
This passage is consistent with what Dershowitz wrote about Jefferson believing the unalienable rights of man to be divine Laws of Nature, but leaves open the possibility that Jefferson believed his deistic God could intervene through natural process (somehow.) This has piqued my interest so I'll be looking into the subject further, and will withhold further comment until I'm better informed.

Update 3: Jon Rowe offers another quote here, and for those interested in the subject, this is the book I plan to read to brush up on Jefferson's views.


Paul Sunstone said...

I admire the intellectual honesty and integrity you display here.

Hume's Ghost said...


It would be hard not to be open to uncertainty and keep the blog titled the same.

Paul Sunstone said...

"It would be hard not to be open to uncertainty and keep the blog titled the same."

LOL I suppose that's the right way of looking at it. But frankly, it's refreshing to find someone who apparently is what they advertise themselves to be. Just an observation. I searched through a gob of blogs the other day and only came across a few that seemed to me intellectually honest. Thank you for yours!

Alan said...


If you don't know already, Jonathan Rowe has written extensively on the subject of the Founder's religious beliefs. You can find dozens of posts on the topic on his blog Positive Liberty ( I have found them fascinating. He should write a book on the subject.

His term for the beliefs of most of the founders is "Theistic Rationalists" which he defines as a kind of very loose Diesm. It is fairly clear that the primary founders (Jefferson, Madison, Adams and even Washington) were not orthdox Christians, but within varying degrees they did believe in an intervening God.