(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Thomas Jefferson had long pondered the meaning of the life and teachings of Jesus. Growing up at a time when Christian belief was central to American culture, he was nonetheless heavily influenced by the Age of Reason. The religious beliefs of this intellectual movement found expression in what is known as Deism, a belief in God based strictly on reason that rejected all forms of revelation and belief in supernatural mystery. Over time Jefferson came to see the ethical teachings of Jesus to be based on a rational foundation, while the stories of miracles and other supernatural events found in the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life he saw as fallacious and inaccurate additions made by his followers.

Jefferson first expressed these views in a short work entitled “Syllabus of an Estimate of the Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus, Compared with Those of Others” that he sent to his friend Benjamin Rush in April of 1803. In that work he places Jesus’ teachings within the context of the writings of various classical authors (Pythagoras, Socrates, Epicurus, Cicero, Epictetus, Seneca, and Antoninus) and of the Jews, and it is here that he refers to the ethical system of Jesus as “the most perfect and sublime that has ever been taught by man.” In his letter to Rush that accompanied this work, he made mention of a project that he “wished to see executed by someone of more leisure and information for the task than myself” (he was, after all, in the midst of his first term as president of the United States); this clearly refers to the work that he himself would later undertake, of editing and rearranging the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and teachings.

Despite the demands of the presidency, Jefferson made his first attempt at this project just a year after the writing of the syllabus. In Washington, during a period of two or three nights in February of 1804, “after getting thro’ the evening task of reading the papers and letters of the day,” he completed a work known as “The Philosophy of Jesus,” which sets out to combine the Gospel accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus into a single, integrated whole and to remove all the supernatural material which he...

(The entire section is 896 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Gaustad, Edwin S. Sworn on the Altar of God: A Religious Biography of Thomas Jefferson. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1996. Provides a good overview of the evolution of Jefferson’s religious beliefs and their impact on his life, both public and private.

Holmes, David L. The Faiths of the Founding Fathers. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006. A summary of the spiritual beliefs of the Founding Fathers (among them Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Samuel Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe) as well as other, more orthodox members of their own families and generation. Helps fill out the eighteenth century Deist background in which Jefferson and his contemporaries were so deeply immersed.

The Jefferson Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. Boston: Beacon Press, 1989. Includes, in addition to the English portion of the work itself, an introduction by F. Forrester Church and an afterword by Jaroslav Pelikan, both of which provide useful background information.

The Jefferson Bible, with the Annotated Commentaries on Religion of Thomas Jefferson. New York: Clarkson N. Potter, 1964. Includes a facsimile of Jefferson’s original manuscript, as well as a collection of Jefferson’s other writings on the subject of religion and an introduction by Henry Wilder Foote.