Monday, November 19, 2007

Jefferson's "Indian" primer

Last year I linked to a post from Dispatches from the Culture Wars about Christian historical revisionist David Barton spreading the lie that the Jefferson Bible was written as an a Christian primer for Indians.

The basis for Barton's claim is an inscription to the JB that dedicates the edited text to Indians. In the comments of Brayton's thread, I guessed that Jefferson was being satirical

Considering Jefferson's view on organized religion and his written comments that his edited edition extracted the pure Christian doctrine from silly superstitions, that inscription comes across as possible satire.

"Indians unembarrassed with matters of fact or faith beyond the level of their comprehensions" can be taken as a jab at the clergy who believes in the portions that Jefferson excised. Otherwise this doesn't really make sense, considering Jefferson himself thought the portions he cut out were ridiculous.

Kind of like an inside joke, the "savages" get it but the clergy doesn't.

But this is just speculation without knowing why and how that inscription got there.

Fast foward to a few days ago when I checked out a copy of Head and Heart: American Christianities by Gary Wills. As it turns out, my guess was pretty close, although not quite accurate. Wills explains the text as such:

The result was a collection of "forty-six pages of pure and unsophisticated doctrines, such as were professed and acted on the unlettered apostles, the Apostolic fathers, and the Christians of the first century" [emphasis in the original]. The emphasized "unlettered," like the title page saying that there was nothing beyond the comprehension of "Indians," is an attack on the supposedly learned Federalists who accepted all the Platonisms of a corrupt Christianity.

Since Jefferson kept this, like all of his religious statements guardedly private, one may ask how he could envisage its being used by Indians. how would they learn of it? Michael Novak, in his attempt to baptize the Founders into a devotion of his own dye, says that this proves the Evangelical religiosity of Jefferson. "He did not plan to send [the Indians] a volume of Locke; he planned to send the moral teachings of the New Testament." Actually, it has been well known to scholars from the time of Henry Adams that, as Adams wrote in 1890, Jefferson's friends understood how he would "use the mask of Indian philanthropy to disguise an attack on conservatism." That is one of the ways he kept his religious views private. "Indian" was a code word for "Federalist."

I've only just begun reading it, but the book is a rich source of fascinating information about the history of Christianity and church/state separation in America. I'm sure I'll be blogging more stuff from it as I go along.

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