Religion vs State: Gospel According to Thomas Jefferson
I heard from a friend in Baltimore that I should check out the National Museum of American History – not only to see the flag that inspired Key to write the national anthem, but it was also recommended to me that I look into an exhibit on Thomas Jefferson – he created his own bible.
Thomas Jefferson: Founding Father, President, Slave Owner, Bible Maker.
Are. You. Kidding me?
I had to see it to believe – especially given all the recent chatter involving the separation of church and state. Thomas Jefferson penned the letter that defined the Wall of Separation, yet meanwhile he was making his own version of a bible?
Well, a few things I learned: He wrote the letter but he did not write his own bible – he cut out passages from other books related to the “life and morals” of Jesus and pasted them onto the blank pages of another. A funny image comes to my head, one of America’s Founding Fathers – a man who was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence – staying up late into the night with his pen knife and glue stick.
He did not create this bible until 1820 (he died in 1826). This was something he did later in life, not at the height of his political career.
Still, a part of me initially felt like it would be naive to believe that Jefferson never let his religious beliefs influence his political thoughts. If the beliefs were strong enough to inspire him to put together his own collection of stories, then it was probably something he spent a lot of time internalizing.
Now having processed it for a few days, I feel it’s a bit unfair to assume he lacked the ability to keep them separate. As a writer/journalist, I feel insulted when people take the stance that freebies (such as accommodations at a hotel) would prevent me from performing an objective review, that my appreciation for the opportunity would affect my honesty.
In that sense, and with taking all the other circumstances into consideration, I think you really do have to give him the benefit of the doubt, that with all he accomplished he was intelligent enough to heed his own advice.
In 1895, Jefferson’s great-granddaughter sold the bible to the Smithsonian Institution, and it was recently restored to avoid further deterioration.
“Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason than that of blindfolded fear.” – Thomas Jefferson, 1787