Jefferson bible (Photo credit: naypinya)
Thomas Jefferson has been upheld as a leading founding father who was liberal and secular, advocated the strict separation of church and state, questioned the Bible, wrote his own version of the Bible, slept with his slave and fathered illegitimate children. David Barton’s new book The Jefferson Lies brings these reports about Jefferson to the table and examines them in light of Jefferson’s own writings and historical evidence. The results are eye-opening. I would like to share a brief description of these here in my blog if you would like a more detailed description I recommend purchasing the book The Jefferson Lies. You can also catch Barton’s discussion of his new book on WallBuilders Live! from the second week of May (2012).
I remember I was a teenager at church camp the first time I heard that Thomas Jefferson had created his own version of the Bible by cutting out certain parts of Scripture. This has been a little gnawing factoid in the back of my mind for three decades. Are these reports true? What did he cut out? How can Jefferson be a Christian or even have a respect for the Bible if he would cut out part of the Scripture? This kind of concern has put Jefferson in the place of the most secular founding father. But let’s look at the facts.
Jefferson created two works which are both referred to as “the Jefferson Bible”, one in 1804, the other in 1820. The first work in 1804 Jefferson created in response to a suggestion from a missionary that said in order to evangelize the Native American tribes a short work embodying the key teachings of the Gospel should be assembled. This work would be much more likely to be read by someone who is interested in the Christian faith but not ready to work their way through a 2 1/2 inch thick book. Jefferson took two copies of the Bible and went through the four Gospels Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John and cut and pasted together a chronological version of Jesus’ life. He took the accounts from all four Gospels and put them in timeline order and eliminated accounts that were told more than once by the different gospel narratives. Jefferson called this work An Abridgment of the Life and Teachings of Jesus Christ. He did not call it the Jefferson Bible. He created it solely as a tool for sharing Christian teachings with Native American tribes. While some Christians might object to abridging the Scriptures, we cannot say that this was an act of offense against scriptural teaching. Rather it affirms that Jefferson believed the life and teachings of Jesus Christ to be worthy of spreading in teaching to others. This can also be supported by the fact that Jefferson on a number of occasions contributed money toward Bible societies: groups whose purpose and mission was to distribute copies of the Bible, the full Bible.
The 1820 work of Thomas Jefferson often referred to as the Jefferson Bible is actually the more common of the two. This collection of passages from the Bible distills the moral teachings of Jesus Christ into one short work that Jefferson put together based on his belief that of all the moral teachings through the centuries, the morals of Jesus Christ where the highest, best, and most likely to bring about a peaceful and prosperous society when properly adhered to. If only we would learn this lesson today.
All told, this way of treating the Bible is quite a bit different than what I was led to believe about Jefferson. I’m still inclined to believe that he was one of the more secular founding fathers. However, he seems to have had a great deal more respect for scripture than many Christians do today.
I’ll try to follow up on some of the other points about Jefferson in later posts. In regard to the Jefferson “Bible”: When did you first hear about it/them and what effect did it have on your opinion of Thomas Jefferson?