Jefferson’s Bible Returns, Controversial as Ever

Posted January 20, 2005 at 3:14pm

It is a great irony of American history: Thomas Jefferson, the man credited with coining the term “separation of church and state,” wrote his own version of the Bible — and for decades the views in that Bible were imposed on Congress.

Well, perhaps not imposed, but at least distributed to Members of Congress — to widespread indifference.

In a little-known episode in the personal history of Thomas Jefferson and the public history of Congress, the third president of the United States and sometime President of the Senate ventured into the world of Christian philosophy and ended up writing his own Bible.

He did this by cutting it down and rewriting the New Testament, leaving out the miracles and ignoring the fundamental tenets of the Holy Trinity, among other theological matters. To some devout Christians, “The Life and Work of Jesus of Nazareth,” as it was officially known, offers clear evidence that Jefferson was a heretic.

Although his personal Bible was eventually published, it was originally intended as a deeply introspective exercise in religious thought — writings that would remain at his Monticello bedside for the last six to seven years of his life.

“The Jefferson Bible was an act of personal piety,” said Forrest Church, the senior minister at All Soul’s Church in New York City, who credits Jefferson’s writings with driving his religious studies.

More than 100 years ago, Rep. John Lacey (R-Iowa) discovered Jefferson’s Bible in the archives of the Smithsonian Institution. He proceeded to introduce a House resolution to provide funds for printing more than 9,000 copies of the 82-page Bible.

Lacey “thought that Congress and the nation should know about what Jefferson thought,” said economics professor Judd Patton, a Jefferson Bible scholar from Bellevue University in Nebraska.

In 1904, the Government Printing Office began printing the facsimiles somewhat by accident when the House failed to approve a later resolution introduced by Lacey that would have rescinded the first measure to publicly print the work. (By that time, he had found a commercial printer for Jefferson’s Bible, obviating the need for GPO to do the job.)

Aided by a sudden surplus of Bibles, a Congressional tradition developed. Jefferson’s Bible would be passed out as a welcoming present to all new Members.

In 1957 — thought to be the last year the Bibles were distributed to new Members — newly sworn-in Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) received a copy. His son, Forrest, was just 8 years old at the time. Two years later, Church gave the Bible to his son as a birthday gift.

Forrest Church, who would later attend Harvard Divinity School, began to study Jefferson’s work in high school, where it bolstered his interest in religion. “It had the great advantage of being short,” Church — a noted Unitarian thinker — joked during a recent telephone interview.

Move Over, King James

While the Jefferson Bible is a relatively quick read, it is fortified with pure Christian ethical and moral thought. The writing was begun in 1794 and not completed until 1819, seven years before Jefferson died at Monticello.

In it, Jefferson ignores the miracles and the resurrection of Jesus Christ and instead uses the pure ethical teachings of Jesus, stripped of Christian dogma or doctrine, as a narrative framework.

When Forrest Church first studied it, Jefferson’s Bible was an eye-opening read. “I was able for the first time … to get a different angle on Jesus than I ever had before,” said Church, who has extensively studied the Founding Fathers and the separation of church and state.

Church — who has an upcoming book published by Harcourt Press titled “So Help Me God: Religion in the American Presidency From Washington to Lincoln” — says many people are uncomfortable thinking of Jefferson as a non-Christian.

“The reaction of horror that is elicited from true believers … is very much the reason Jefferson was so careful not to publicize his personal religious views,” Church said. “The greatest irony of all is that the Jefferson Bible was published at all.”

Church noted that throughout Jefferson’s life, his religious views got him into trouble. Some called them blasphemous. Others called him a heretic. Although he was raised an Episcopalian, Jefferson was interested in Unitarianism. Some modern-day Deists — who believe in a universal creator but not one that was revealed to humanity through miracles or other accounts — claim Jefferson, along with Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin, as a spiritual forefather.

But trying to boil down Jefferson’s religious thinking is a tricky task because, as Patton says, the president’s spiritual explorations evolved over time.

“Toward the end of his life, he was quite religious,” said Patton, who has analyzed and republished Jefferson’s work. “He had some difficulties with religion. He didn’t believe in the Trinity. He had difficulties with some of the orthodoxy of the day.”

But in the end, Patton believes, Jefferson was indeed a Christian and the president’s retooled Bible is a principled supplement to — not a replacement for — his Christian faith.

“This is not Christian theology. It is a book of Christian moral principles,” he said. “If you just listen to what he said, you see that Jefferson was very much a Christian.” He adds that the president had a book of Christianity published for American Indians during his presidency.

Rediscovering Jefferson’s Intellectual Reach

The Jefferson Bible, it seems, has been rediscovered in a variety of ways over the years.

Like Lacey — who discovered the work in a Smithsonian collection a century ago — Patton came across the Jefferson Bible by chance at his university library in the collection of former Nebraska Sen. Joseph Millard (R).

“It hadn’t been checked out in 25 years,” the professor said.

Pulling together funding from a number of sources, Patton had Jefferson’s Bible published in 1996 with the intent of not only shedding more light on the religious thinking of the third president but also restarting the tradition of distributing the Jefferson Bible on Capitol Hill.

The Bible is now in its fifth reprinting, and Patton recently sent copies to the 50 new Members of Congress. It’s a tradition that Patton says he intends to maintain.

“I wish our Representatives would read it, and if one or two would, that’d be great,” he said.

While it is unclear whether any current Members have had a chance to probe Jefferson’s deepest thoughts, some Senators and Representatives have written Patton to let him know their appreciation for the resurrection of the Congressional tradition, including a personal note from Florida Rep. Katherine Harris (R), the professor said.

Jefferson’s other, little-known Congressional explorations are equally interesting.

While Jefferson is mainly thought of in his political role in the Continental Congress and as the third commander in chief, his role in the development of the modern-day legislative branch is just as important.

When he was on Capitol Hill, Jefferson may have had too much time on his hands. As John Adams’ vice president, Jefferson served as President of the Senate, and in that role, he drafted arcane guidelines for parliamentary practice to be used in the sometimes-unruly Senate, including a provision that prohibited Senators from hissing at one another.

The result, officially known as “A Manual of Parliamentary Practice for the Use of the Senate of the United States,” was divided into 53 topical sections ordered alphabetically from “Absence” to “Treaties.”

Senate parliamentary procedure is still rooted in Jefferson’s manual. And after elements of Jefferson’s guide were incorporated years later into the operating procedures on the other side of the Capitol, Jefferson’s intellectual prowess lives on in the House.

Now, his Bible may as well.