One of the things that sets our teeth on edge these days is the assumption that we are citizens of a Christian nation – an assumption grounded on the idea that Christianity was the founding religion of America. But we are not and never were a Christian country in any established sense, the way Anglicanism is the state church of England, with the King as its (titular) head. This is perfectly clear in the First Amendment to the Constitution, which proposes freedom to choose your religion while prohibiting “the establishment of (state-sponsored) religion” in the new American democracy.
The principal doctrine influencing both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution was enlightenment Deism, the concept that a “clock-maker God” created the universe but then stepped (way) back to let it run on its own, leaving human beings to reach our own philosophical conclusions and moral decisions through reason and observation.
Although the founding fathers were baptized in various Protestant denominations and most attended church, early presidents like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson were self-declared Deists, or non-Christians. Both were drawn to the concept of Unitarianism’s one God as opposed to Trinitarianism’s divine trio. They believed neither that Jesus was divine nor in miracles or the resurrection.
George Washington attended the Anglican church but rejected its Trinitarian tenets by standing silent during the Apostle’s Creed and refusing to take communion.
The Apostle’s Creed begins
“I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth; And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord: who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary; suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried…” It always startled me that there was nothing in the creed about Jesus’s actual life; just that semicolon between his birth and his death.
It is what that semicolon avoids – the actual life and teachings of Jesus, that motivated Thomas Jefferson, who had also been brought up Anglican, to create his own version of the Bible. Though he was often attacked politically as an atheist, he was a great admirer of Unitarian ideas (Unitarianism didn’t become an official denomination until after this death) and was friends with British Unitarian Joseph Priestley. In an 1803 letter to Priestley, Jefferson proposed a new “Christian System beginning with a review of the morals of the ancient philosophers, moving on to the ethics of the Jews, and concluding with the “principles of a pure deism taught by Jesus, “omitting the question of his deity.”
The first volume, titled The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, was completed in 1804, but no copies exist today. The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, became the Jefferson Bible. which he completed in 1820 by (literally, with a penknife and glue) cutting and pasting from the four Gospels in four languages – Greek, Latin, French, and English versions of each verse together -including Jesus’s sayings and parables but omitting miracles and “the supernatural.” The result was a scrapbook-like red leather folio that Jefferson kept for his personal devotions, being loath to publish it in his lifetime given the notoriety he knew it would stir up.
My friend Brian Schandevel loaned me a biography of the Jefferson Bible which tells the story about how this scrapbook got lost in Jefferson’s personal effects and was not officially published (by the U.S. Government Printing Office) until 1904, when multiple copies were distributed to all of the Senators and Representatives. After that, well into the mid-Twentieth century, every Member of Congress was presented a copy after being sworn in.
So who was Jefferson’s Jesus?
As Jefferson puts it in an 1803 letter to his daughter “To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian in the only sense in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others, ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other.”
Jefferson works his way consecutively through Jesus’s teachings in the Gospels, grouping precepts on one topic from all four together along with the parables, though with very little narration and minus anything he considers “supernatural.”
What struck me about Jefferson’s Bible:
- Jesus is portrayed as a radical religious iconoclast breaking many of the traditional household rules and rituals which formed Jewish religion and society of his time. Theologian Marcus Borg describes this as a “purity system: in which “those who were carefully observant of the purity codes were ‘the pure,’ of course. The worst of the nonobservant were ‘outcasts’ They included occupational groups such as tax collectors and perhaps shepherds. . .’The righteous’ were those who followed the purity system, and sinners’ were those who did not,” The Pharisees, observant Jews who enforced purity norms, became Jesus’s particular enemies. The Jefferson Bible is full of episodes were Jesus stirs up their ire and then has to escape arrest by leaving town in a hurry.
- The precepts and parables that Jefferson presents as Jesus’s basic teaching are startlingly compassionate and inclusive. He welcomes all kinds of social outcasts– tax collectors, Samaritans, women (even loose and menstruating women), Gentiles, the poor and the uninfluential- within an ethic of compassion, inclusion, and diversity that would be utter anathema to today’s “Christian Nationalists.”
- Jesus is not God. He is a devoutly spiritual person in an intimate relationship with a loving deity who dwells within every one of us, an inward wisdom that is part of a transcendent divinity. Borg would understand Jefferson’s Jesus is “The Jesus of History,” in contrast to the “Christ of Faith” who is divine in and of himself, a concept he understands as arising from the spiritual experiences of “Post-Easter” Christians.
There are several editions of The Jefferson Bible available today, including one from the Humanist Press, and another by the Unitarian Beacon Press. The latter has a preface by Unitarian minister Forrester Church, whose Congressman father, Senator Frank Church, gave him his swearing-in copy when he was ten years old.
As a result, Forrester Church became a lifelong fan of that semicolon: In the book “I encountered a savior who was born in the usual way and died in the usual way. By Jefferson’s reading, it was Jesus’ unusual life on earth – made unusual by the simple eloquence of his teachings – that truly mattered.….I define religion as our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die. Resurrection or no resurrection, Jesus triumphed over death: he lived in such a way that his life proved worth dying for.”