INTRODUCTORY NOTE: I am republishing this brief essay here because it has been copied and quoted dozens of times on the internet -- usually without proper attribution or context -- by people engaged in an argument about the role of Christianity and religion in the founding of the United States. The essay originally appeared in The Hanover Historical Review, published at Hanover College in the spring of 1993. I wrote this essay for the first college-level history course that I took at Hanover, “Foundations of the Modern Age,” with Professor Frank Luttmer (who became an excellent mentor to me). I certainly did not intend for the essay to make a definitive statement about the religious beliefs of Thomas Jefferson or about the role of religion in the early American republic. Rather, as a curious freshman, I was trying to answer the question that appears in the title: who was “Nature’s God,” which Jefferson saw fit to mention when he drafted the Declaration of Independence? After I wrote this essay, I became a history major and eventually pursued graduate study in history; today I am a tenured history professor. Although I think that I drew basically correct conclusions here, I am ambivalent about the widespread presence of this essay on the internet, especially given that I went on to publish more sophisticated essays about religion in the early republic.
The essay is silent on many important and relevant matters, from the broader context of natural religion in the eighteenth century, to Jefferson’s later activism on behalf of religious liberty, to his sympathy for Unitarianism (a Unitarianism, it is important to note, that was distinct from the New England Unitarianism of the 1820s-30s and beyond). The reason for these silences is obvious: this was a short essay written for an introductory history course, and the author was a mere freshman who was, as yet, hardly familiar with the many historical contexts for Jefferson’s words. I have to concede that the online commenter in one internet argument was astute to ask: “Who is David J. Voelker, and what makes him an authority on Jefferson?”
In the years since I wrote this essay, I have come to recognize that Christianity played a complex role in the founding of the United States. To cite a couple of examples: even Jefferson's deism was influenced by Christianity, and the eloquent arguments that he made on behalf of religious freedom were rooted in a concept of conscience that likely derived from Christianity. Nevertheless, I do not believe that the United States had a Christian founding -- that the framers of the Constitution intended to found a specifically Christian nation. The essay that follows, though, can only be one very small part of a historical argument against the myth of the Christian founding, and it is worth noting that this analysis does not support the myth of the godless founding either.
Having said all of this, I stand by my stated thesis: “Although he supported the moral teachings of Jesus, Jefferson believed in a creator similar to the God of deism. In the tradition of deism, Jefferson based his God on reason and rejected revealed religion.” In other words, Jefferson was deistic in his inclinations; he was not writing the Christian God into the Declaration of Independence, but he did firmly root his conception of natural rights in the existence of a creator-God.
If I were to rewrite this essay today, I would significantly expand the historical context and would broaden the scope of the question. For the time being, however, I resist the temptation to re-argue my case. Instead, I'll note that there are a number of excellent scholarly publications that address Jefferson's religious beliefs and the role of Christianity in the founding of the United States. Given that there are dozens of important works, I will cite merely a few that seem most salient here: Daniel L. Dreisbach, Mark David Hall, and Jeffry H. Morrison, eds., The Founders on God and Government (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004); Paul K. Conkin, "The Religious Pilgrimage of Thomas Jefferson," in Jeffersonian Legacies, pp. 19-49, edited by Peter S. Onuf (Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press, 1993); Edwin Scott Gaustad, Neither King Nor Prelate: Religion and the New Nation 1776–1826 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993); Edwin Scott Gaustad, Sworn on the Altar of God: A Religious Biography of Thomas Jefferson (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001); and Peter Onuf, "Jefferson's Religion: Priestcraft, Enlightenment, and the Republican Revolution," in The Mind of Thomas Jefferson, pp. 139-68 (Charlottesville: Univ. of Virginia Press, 2007). As for Jefferson's writings, the best starting place is probably Jefferson's Extracts from the Gospels: "The Philosophy of Jesus" and "The Life and Morals of Jesus," edited by Dickinson W. Adams and Ruth W. Lester, introduction by Eugene R. Sheridan, in The Papers of Thomas Jefferson, Second Series (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1983). My own modest publications on religion and the founding include: "Thomas Paine's Civil Religion of Reason," in The Forgotten Founders on Religion and Public Life, pp. 171-195, edited by Daniel L. Dreisbach, Mark David Hall, and Jeffry H. Morrison (Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 2009) and “Religious Sects and Social Reform,” in Perspectives in American Social History Series: Jacksonian and Antebellum Eras, pp. 95-115, ed. Mark R. Cheathem (Oxford: ABC-CLIO, 2008).
--David J. Voelker, January 15, 2010
When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
In the "Declaration of Independence," the founding document of what would become the United States, Thomas Jefferson mentions "nature's God." Unfortunately, this phrase is unclear. The religious beliefs of Jefferson were much debated in his time and still are over two centuries later. Through the letters and other writings of Jefferson, it is possible to construct an outline of his beliefs. Although he supported the moral teachings of Jesus, Jefferson believed in a creator similar to the God of deism. In the tradition of deism, Jefferson based his God on reason and rejected revealed religion.
Jefferson's parents reared him in the Episcopal Church. Although there is no known record of him being baptized, it is almost certain that an Anglican clergyman baptized him. Records show that both Thomas Jefferson and his father Peter were elected vestrymen. These positions, however, merely reflected the Jeffersons' social status; they were both land-owning and educated men. The positions were given "with small regard to their personal convictions or even their way of life."
That Jefferson participated in the administration of the parish does not reflect his specific beliefs. Despite his social and familial ties to the Episcopal Church, Jefferson came to disbelieve its creeds and rejected most Christian doctrine. In his book The Religion of Thomas Jefferson, Henry Foote says that Jefferson did not believe in the divinity of Jesus but he viewed him as a "human teacher." He believed only what his reason allowed: "His knowledge of science led him to reject all miracles, including the virgin birth and the bodily resurrection of Jesus." By the time he was a young adult, Jefferson had developed his own religious views outside the framework of any sect.
Jefferson believed that the various sects of Christianity had corrupted the original message of Jesus: "They [the teachings of Jesus] have been still more disfigured by the corruptions of schismatizing followers, who have found an interest in sophisticating and perverting the simple doctrines he taught." However, Jefferson did believe that the teachings of Jesus had some merit.
Jefferson felt that religion was a deeply private matter. People did not need to proclaim their beliefs: "I never told my own religion nor scrutinized that of another. I never attempted to make a convert, nor wish to change another's creed." Jefferson saw religion as private and therefore found priests unnecessary. He wrote in the same letter "I have ever thought religion a concern purely between our God and our consciences for which we were accountable to him, and not to the priests." He only spoke about his own religious beliefs when he was asked to, and only in his private letters did he speak clearly of his beliefs.
Without supporting revealed religion, Jefferson subscribed to the moral teachings of Jesus. He stated this belief explicitly in a letter to John Adams in which he wrote that the moral code of Jesus was "the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man." Jefferson even made a collection of Jesus' moral teachings from the Bible which seemed to be in their original simplicity. He used this collection as an ethical guide to his own life.
Jefferson's God was the source of moral values. In a letter to his nephew Peter Carr, he wrote that "He who made us would have been a pitiful bungler, if He had made the rules of our moral conduct a matter of science." Rather, God made man "with a sense of right and wrong." People were responsible for their actions on earth and would be rewarded or punished in some kind of afterlife.
More important than beliefs to Jefferson was the way people lived their lives. "I have ever judged the religion of others by their lives . . . for it is in our lives and not from our words, that our religion must be read." In a letter to Adams, Jefferson concluded about religion: "the result of your 50 or 60 years of religious reading, in four words 'be just and good' is that in which all our inquiries must end." This emphasis on behavior over belief was at the core of Jefferson's creed, although he did think that morality was connected to belief in God.
Jefferson based his belief in God on reason. In a letter to John Adams, Jefferson wrote that he believed in God because of the argument from design:
I hold (without appeal to revelation) that when we take a view of the Universe, in it's [sic] parts general or particular, it is impossible for the human mind not to perceive and feel a conviction of design, consummate skill, and indefinite power in every atom of it's [sic] composition. . . it is impossible, I say, for the human mind not to believe that there is . . . a fabricator of all things.
After applying his faculty of reason, in which he placed much faith, Jefferson found that he had to believe in a creator.
Jefferson believed most aspects of the creator could not be known. He rejected revealed religion because revealed religion suggests a violation of the laws of nature. For revelation or any miracle to occur, the laws of nature would necessarily be broken. Jefferson did not accept this violation of natural laws. He attributed to God only such qualities as reason suggested. "He described God as perfect and good, but otherwise did not attempt an analysis of the nature of God." Also in a letter to Adams, Jefferson said, "Of the nature of this being [God] we know nothing."
Although Jefferson never gave a label to his set of beliefs, they are consistent with the ideas of deism, a general religious orientation developed during the Enlightenment. Jefferson, being a non-sectarian, did not subordinate his beliefs to any label. He once said, "I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any party of men whatever, in religion...or in anything else."
Deism was not actually a formal religion, but rather was a label used loosely to describe certain religious views. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word deist was used negatively during Jefferson's lifetime. The label was often applied to freethinkers like Jefferson as a slander rather than as a precise description. Thus the deist label is not highly specific. Deists were characterized by a belief in God as a creator and "believed only those Christian doctrines that could meet the test of reason." Deists did not believe in miracles, revealed religion, the authority of the clergy, or the divinity of Jesus. Like Jefferson they "regarded ethics, not faith, as the essence of religion."
"Nature's God" was clearly the God of deism in all important ways. That Jefferson included God in the "Declaration of Independence" is very significant because it helped lay the foundation for a civil religion in America. Paul Johnson addressed the civil religion begun by the founders in his article, "The Almost-Chosen People," saying that the United States was unique because all religious beliefs were respected. People were more concerned with "moral conduct rather than dogma." So Jefferson helped create a society in which different religions could coexist peacefully because of the emphasis on morality over specific belief.