Writing into the Light…

Finding my way with words…

Thomas Jefferson and The Jefferson Bible ~ Rim Walkers 3

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Smithsonian Institution

To consider the life of Thomas Jefferson, we think about a heroic statesman, patriot and intellectual.  We visualize a man who knows what he wants and does not stop until he has manifested his dreams of how things should be.  We consider a man who, by all appearances, is known for “doing the right thing.”  To use my terminology from former posts, Thomas Jefferson was a “Rim Walker.”

I just returned from a trip to Washington, D.C. to visit family, attend a Women’s History Month Symposium  at the Capitol (more on that later) and go in search of the last of the premature cherry blossoms who could not wait to celebrate their 100th anniversary year.  A stop at the Smithsonian Museum of American History held an adventure that was unanticipated.  I noted that the “Jefferson Bible” was on display.  I battled my way through the crowds of American schoolchildren on spring field trips and headed in that direction expecting to view the small Bible that Jefferson held at his inauguration and consulted frequently.  I left the museum later wondering, “What rock  have I been hiding under?”

Thomas Jefferson, I found out, was more of a spiritual man than a “religious” man.  His views on religion were, at the very least, complex.  Those views he held private.  He rarely publicly wrote of religion, nor did he speak of religion.  He shared his views, and this ultimate creation, with only his closest friends in confidence. Jefferson was, as we know, the author of the Declaration of Independence.  He was one of the champions of Religious Freedom.

Thomas Jefferson was a devoted student of the teachings of Jesus.  That being said, the intellectual Rim Walker in him, intellectually challenged the validity of the writings of the Apostles in the New Testament.  He considered their interpretation, as published, to be untrustworthy.  Thomas Jefferson was considered to be a religious renegade, and in the 1800 presidential election he was declared an “atheist” by his opponents.

At the age of 77 Thomas Jefferson embarked on a project that settled his confused feelings about the life of Christ  and his own belief system.  He purchased six Bibles published in English, French, Greek and Italian.  He set  them side by side, and took knife to page in what many who define the Bible as the undeniable Word of God consider a blasphemous act.  Jefferson began cutting passages that accurately expressed his belief system, passing over the rest. These passages were then pasted into a new volume he titled “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.”  This was Jefferson’s second attempt to “edit” the Bible.  His first attempt was 16 years earlier, and lost.

Hugh Talman/NMAH-SI

Jefferson was a product of the intellectuals of “Age of Enlightenment.”  The same world view that created the Declaration of Independence also created “The Jefferson Bible.”  Jefferson once wrote that he was “a sect by himself.”  He was born into the Church of England (Anglican).  The Church of England was the official religion of the State of Virginia.  He studied under Anglican clergy from elementary school through college.  He attended Anglican services all his life.  That being said, Thomas Jefferson was a brilliant intellectually curious man.  That trait caused him to question everything (hence his ability to visualize and script The Declaration of Independence).  He consistently defended his right to make his own judgements in regard to religion and encouraged others to “question with boldness even the existence of God” and to form their own judgements.  As outrageous as that sounds, especially on this Good Friday, one of the characteristics of creative people who have historically changed the world for the better is that they continually challenge assumptions about the world and commonly held beliefs.

Jefferson’s belief system was based on rational thought.  He believed that nature itself proved the existence of God.  Biblical stories of miracles such as the story of feeding the multitudes with only two fishes and five loaves of barley bread will not be found among the passages in the Jefferson Bible.  The Jefferson Bible ends with the entombment of Jesus following the Crucifixion.  There is no Resurrection in Jefferson’s rational thinking Bible.

Was Thomas Jefferson truly an atheist and an “enemy of God” as described by John Adams and the Federalist party in the 1800 presidential election?  Despite repeated attacks Jefferson won the election.  Jefferson wrote, “I am a real Christian, that is to say a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.”  He described the teachings of Jesus “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.”

In 1895 The Jefferson Bible was purchased by the Smithsonian from Jefferson’s granddaughter.  In 2011 it was completely restored and repaired.  The “new” Jefferson Bible is currently on display at the Smithsonian Museum of American History until July 15, 2012.  A copy of the Jefferson Bible can be purchased in numerous forms, including one from the Smithsonian Institution itself.

On this Good Friday it is an appropriate time to ask ourselves what role, if any, religion should be taking in the upcoming presidential election.  We, are a society that rewards creative thinkers who challenge everything and provide us with a new perspective on the world.  Is it just, then, that we then turn around and delve into personal and private belief systems involving religious beliefs to evaluate and chastise whether a particular candidate should be running/elected in the presidential race based on those very private and personal beliefs?

Would we elect Thomas Jefferson in 2012?  Unfortunately, probably not.  What a loss it would be to lose his intellect and well defined belief system.  I, for one, welcome a candidate who challenges everything before making a plan of action.  That behavior, after all, is what brings about change which we say we desperately want.  That plan of action would then need to be clearly defined and concisely publicly presented based on thorough research of all aspects of the issue and designed to anticipate success with a plan A, B, C… to manifest that solution.

Do you challenge commonly held beliefs or accept them (because they come from an “authority” you are taught you should not question)?

Do you question everything and create your own world perspective?

Would you vote for Thomas Jefferson today?

Is it possible to be a believer, yet question?

Some thoughts to ponder this weekend.  I wish you a blessed weekend.

Additional Resource: “The Bible According to Thomas Jefferson” ~ http://thehumanist.org/march-april-2012/the-bible-according-to-thomas-jefferson/

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Author: Carol R Craley

I am a former Philadelphia suburbanite who moved to Maine in 2002 ~ a former art educator ~ former school administrator ~former college and graduate school instructor ~ a writer ~an artist ~ and a photographer. I am currently mom to two Cavalier King Charles Spaniels named Emma and Sara and a rescued kitty from Georgia ~ so that is her name. I am inspired by nature, great music, art and writing that makes me ponder the world...

6 thoughts on “Thomas Jefferson and The Jefferson Bible ~ Rim Walkers 3

  1. Very interesting commentary, Carol . I have just read about this, also for the first time, in the current issue of Newsweek. I find myself in my older years more deeply spiritual and less religious; my faith stronger, while really questioning some of the bible as well as “religious” people. Thanks for the thoughts to ponder!

    • Thanks Karen! Thank you also for the reference to the Newsweek article which I had not seen, but also read since you mentioned it. Interesting article. I also am more spiritual than religious…I totally understand where Jefferson was coming from. I have questioned everything over the years, much to the chagrin of others, especially clergy who are not prone to questioning. The end result, I am a believer and hold my beliefs within my heart with passionate protection because I have constructed that belief system from my questioning. It is a spiritual faith that guides my life every day ~ though not necessarily founded on the structural dogma of others.

  2. Fascinating information that I did not know. Absolutely you can question and still be a believer. My favorite story “San Manuel Bueno, mártir”, about a priest who didn’t believe, by Miguel de Unamuno was my first encounter with such a question. I make it a point to read it again and again over the years. I do believe Miguel de Unamuno and his wife Concha were believers. To doubt that profoundly is to only test a faith profound.

    • Thanks for your thoughts Georgette, I will have to go in search of that story. When I think about what I was reading (besides text books) while a young college student I am taken to stories and parables about young philosophers and mystics who questioned, discarded, then through searching reconstructed beliefs that were more spiritual than dogma-like. It has not diminished my belief system, it has made it stronger and profoundly more personal (like Jefferson?). You are correct Georgette, testing faith either by choice or circumstance usually makes it return more profoundly.

  3. Would I vote for Thomas Jefferson today? Probably not. But I would surely like to sit down and trade ideas with a man who was probably one of the most intelligent men to ever breath the air that God gave us.

    Do I take everything at face value or do I question? Two thousand years ago the smartest men on the planet believed that the earth was flat and the sun revolved about it. What should I do but question?

    It is possible to question and still believe? If my beliefs won’t stand up to the questions I ask, then they are not worth believing.

    Man, you have set my thoughts on fire1

    • Thanks for stopping by and commenting TK40. Truly creative and extremely bright people continually question. While it ultimately produces change (hopefully positive) in the world it is not a comfortable place to be in the process. It takes a strong individual to step forward and see the world through different eyes. We often punish, at least socially, those people. These are my Rim Walkers ~ and they fascinate and inspire me. I agree that our beliefs need to be able to stand the test of questioning.

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