Thomas Jefferson was a staunch supporter of religious liberty, but his quest to make sure church and state stayed separate in American politics earned him plenty of enemies.
The mudslinging came to a head during the bitter presidential campaign of 1800. Jefferson’s Federalist opponents accused him of being an atheist and a libertine — a philanderer without morals or sense of responsibility. Jefferson won the election.
Although Jefferson was reluctant to talk about his personal beliefs in public, his private letters reveal that he was a deeply spiritual man who spent a considerable amount of time thinking about God.
In honor of Jefferson’s 272nd birthday, here are five facts about this Founding Father’s faith.
1. ‘Of A Sect By Myself.’
In a letter dated June 25, 1819, Jefferson summarized his religious beliefs this way: “I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know.”
It was an honest reflection on his unique sense of spirituality. Jefferson was raised as an Anglican, but like other Founding Fathers, was influenced by deism. This school of thought believed in the presence of a supreme being, but prioritized reason and rationality over religious dogma and tradition. Jefferson may have supported orthodox Christianity in his public life, but he privately rejected traditional Christian teachings — including the virgin birth, the concept of original sin, and the resurrection.
But unlike others deists of his time, Jefferson was enamored by the example set by Jesus Christ. While he may not have accepted Jesus’ divinity, he admired his teachings on morality. In a letter written in 1819, Jefferson told a friend that the teachings of Jesus were the “outlines of a system of the most sublime morality which has ever fallen from the lips of man.”
In another letter, he wrote, “I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.”
2. Jefferson Wrote His Own Bible.
Jefferson blamed the Gospel writers, the apostle Paul, and other church leaders for corrupting Jesus’ message over the centuries. In an effort to get rid of what he believed to be excess, Jefferson used a knife to cut away portions of the Gospels that talked about Jesus’ miracles — like the feeding of 5,000 with two fish and five loaves of bread. He then pasted together the remaining verses, which contained Jesus’ ethical teachings and parables. The resulting book The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, was organized by topic.
In 1820, Jefferson made another attempt to recreate the Bible. He pasted Greek, Latin, French, and English versions of the New Testament together, to present a comprehensive view of the text. His book, officially titled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, eventually came to be called the Jefferson Bible.
3. Jefferson Was An Avid Churchgoer.
Jefferson was involved in local churches throughout his life, offering donations and staking out seats in the pews for him and his private secretary. Henry S. Randall, a Jefferson biographer, wrote that Jefferson “attended church with as much regularity as most of the members of the congregation — sometimes going alone on horseback, when his family remained at home.”
4. Jefferson Partnered With Dissident Preachers.
In his fight for the separation of church and state, Jefferson befriended Baptist minister John Leland. As a Baptist in predominantly Anglican New England, Leland had often witnessed the persecution of his fellow clergymen. Like Jefferson, Leland was vehemently opposed to any state support of religion.
In 1802, Leland presented Jefferson with a pungent gift — a giant wheel of cheese. The minister placed Jefferson’s favorite quote on its red crust: “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”
Jefferson must have liked the outlandish gift. On Jan. 1, 1802, Jefferson — then the president — invited Leland and his wheel of “mammoth cheese” to the White House.
5. Jefferson Held The First White House Iftar.
The iftar is the evening meal eaten by Muslims to break the fast during the holy month of Ramadan. On Dec. 9, 1805, Jefferson invited Sidi Soliman Mellimelli, a Tunisian representative, to the White House. Meal time was usually set at 3:30 p.m., but Jefferson moved it back to “precisely at sunset,” to accommodate the religious beliefs of his guest.
According to the State Department, Jefferson’s knowledge about Islam “likely came from his legal studies of natural law.” The State Department continued:
In 1765, Jefferson purchased a two-volume English translation of the Quran for his personal library, a collection that became, in 1815, the basis of the modern Library of Congress.