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.
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/