Albert G. Salter: Jefferson's own words on religion

July 11, 2012|By ALBERT G. SALTER

Poor Allan Powell. He seems to have shaken the foundation of Christianity with a column founded on fact and acute observation. Professor Powell is an asset to The Herald-Mail and we readers value his insights. The letters of Roger Stone and Phillip Snyder attack him for his knowledge of American history and religion.

Thomas Jefferson, our most brilliant and thoughtful president on the subject of religious freedom, has been  pulled this way and that way in a tug of war by libertarians, humanists, fundamentalists and agnostics since the founding of our nation. He fathered our acceptance of the principle of separation of church and state. There is no question about it.

He believed in the teachings of Christ, but was repelled by what he called the “corruption of Christianity.” In 1803 he wrote to Benjamin Rush, a fellow signer of the Declaration of Independence, “I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished anyone to be sincerely attached to his doctrine.”

In a letter to William Short in April of 1820, he remarked on the corruption of Christianity by Christ’s “biographers.”

“I find many passages of fine imagination, correct morality, and of the most lovely benevolence, but others, again of so much ignorance, so much absurdity, so much untruth, charlatanism and imposture as to pronounce it impossible that such contradictions should have proceeded from the same Being.” He went on to say that “Paul was the first Coryphaeus, and the first corrupter of the doctrines of Jesus.”

Jefferson believed in the philosophy Jesus presented, but rejected the mythology in Christianity, such as the virgin birth and the claim that Jesus was a godhead. His letter of April 11, 1823 to John Adams, is quite revealing wherein he writes, “And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as the father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. But may we hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with this scaffolding.”

The freedom of thought and expression that Jefferson lived to see as reality, accepts whatever Robert Stone and Phillip Snyder express. Certainly, Jefferson believed in supporting different religious efforts for all those he could reach, but he tore out pages of his Bible that he considers a damaging corruption of what Jesus taught. And certainly, Robert Stone’s assertion that Noah collected and saved couples in every form of life, based on oral histories is left for generations to deliberate.

Oral histories are particularly valuable if you have primary sources to support them. When there is no independent source, the story can be accepted or rejected as one pleases. Illiterate cultures had no other way to communicate.

Consequently, the oral history source is always subject to change from generation to generation. The thought of God can be injected anywhere along the line. Those who wrote the Bible were not eyewitnesses. The Bible is based on faith, not archaeology.

Some of Jefferson’s contemporaries railed against him for being a Deist and others considered him an early Unitarian as he knew Jared Sparks, the Harvard president who was one of the first Unitarian Christian ministers. It is unfortunate that many Christians who hear the word “God” assume it means a Christian God to everybody. That’s not so easy an assumption with Thomas Jefferson.

Albert G. Salter is a resident of Hagerstown.

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