On April 21, 2016, Annette Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf appeared at the Free Library of Philadelphia to talk about their new book , Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination. It is a great book. One of the best books on Jefferson I have ever read. (If you want to learn more check out our interview with Gordon-Reed and Onuf at The Way of Improvement Leads Home podcast–Episode 8).
During the conversation in Philadelphia, the authors spend some time talking about Jefferson’s religion. You can watch the video here. The discussion of religion begins at about the 29:00 minute mark. (C-SPAN does not allow me to embed the video on the blog).
During the discussion, Gordon-Reed and Onuf claim that Thomas Jefferson believed he was a Christian. You can see how they unpack this on the video, but I want to go on record and say that their claim is correct. (I also noted this in my post this morning on historical thinking). Jefferson did believe that he was a Christian. As Onuf notes, his view of Christianity was grounded solely in the moral teachings of Jesus. He did not believe in miracles, the deity of Christ, the resurrection (perhaps the ultimate miracle), the inspiration of the Bible, etc. Jefferson believed he could reject these beliefs and doctrines and still call himself a Christian.
Onuf even suggests (and he realizes he is being controversial and provocative here) that Jefferson wanted to forge a Christian nation. For many who read this blog, or have read my book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: Historical Introduction, this claim will set off red flags. Yet, I think Onuf’s point is a logical extension of his view of Jefferson’s religion. Jefferson did believe that the American republic would be stronger, more virtuous, if everyone followed the teachings of Jesus. He wanted America to be a Christian nation as he understood the true meaning of Christianity. As I say in my book, the answer to the “Christian nation” question really depends on how the terms are defined.
I think there is a lesson in historical thinking here. Gordon-Reed and Onuf do not seem to be claiming that Jefferson was right or wrong about whether he was a Christian or whether America should be a Christian nation, although I must admit that Onuf seems to come very close to doing this when he talks about his own Unitarian faith.
A few more reflections:
- Onuf suggests that Jefferson’s belief in a creator and an intelligent universe was an act of worship and a “leap of faith.” That’s true. But one does not have to be a Christian (at least how I define the term) to worship God and believe in an intelligent creator. By Onuf’s standard, Abraham Lincoln was a Christian as well. (Although I am guessing Onuf would have no problem calling him one, contra Allen Guelzo’s Gettysburg Prize-winning biography). But I wonder, can one argue historically that Christians have always believed in certain non-negotiable doctrines and that the rejection of those doctrines means that you are not a Christian?
- And this leads to another observation. It seems Onuf thinks the term “Christian” is important. What is at stake if Jefferson is not a Christian? (Or if a Unitarian is not a Christian?) Why is this important? (I guess I could ask myself the same question).
- For me the most fascinating part of this discussion is that both Gordon-Reed and Peter Onuf seem to believe that the personal religious faith of the historian–Methodism in Gordon-Reed’s case and Unitarian in Onuf’s case–might have some influence or provide some insight into how the historian works. Now it’s my turn to be provocative: Perhaps we should sign them up to write essays for the second edition of Confessing History.
Again, there are more questions here than definitive answers, but this whole discussion has really peaked my interest.