Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Jeffersonian Religious Smorgasbord

adherents.com says the following.

Thomas Jefferson, one of the nation's most popular and respected presidents, is claimed by many groups.

You can say that again. (No, I won't.)

Jefferson was born into an Anglican family and was raised as an A[n]glican. He would later be considered an Episcopalian, after the Episcopal Church was officially founded as a separate province within Anglicanism in 1789 (after the Revolution and independence from England).

Later in his adult life Jefferson did not consider himself an Episcopalian, or a member of any other specific denomination. Later in life Jefferson held many clearly Christian, Deist, and Unitarian beliefs, but was not a member of any congregation or denomination. Today, many Unitarians sincerely believe that Jefferson should be "counted as" a Unitarian, just as many Christians point to Jefferson as a Christian, and many of the small number of Americans who identify themselves as Deists believe Jefferson should be classified a Deist.

Jefferson was never a member of the Unitarian denomination nor was he ever active in a Unitarian congregation. However, he did once write that he would have liked to be a member of a Unitarian church, but he was not because there were no Unitarian churches in Virginia. It is not unreasonable to identify Jefferson as a Unitarian (with the caveat that, technically speaking, he was not actually one). However, it is a mistake to extrapolate from Jefferson's stated admiration for Unitarianism the notion that he was somehow "un-Christian" or "non-Christian." It is true that contemporary Unitarian-Universalists now classify their denomination as a distinct religion not confined as a subset of Christianity (although a large proportion of individual Unitarian-Universalists do indeed identify themselves as Christians). However, in Jefferson's day, Unitarianism was considerably different from its present form, and there was no concept that it was a non-Christian religion. Unitarianism in Jefferson's time was regarded as one liberal Protestant denomination among many other Protestant denominations extant in America. Virtually nobody thought of Jefferson as a non-Christian (or even non-Protestant) president....

Adherents of other religious groups, including atheists and agnostics, also point to various writings of Jefferson which are in harmony with their positions. The difficulty in classifying Jefferson using a single word for religious affiliation does not stem from a lack of information, but rather a wealth of writing -- which can be interpreted differently depending on a person's perspective. Jefferson left a considerable amount of writing on political and philosophical issues, as well as writing about religion, including the "Jefferson Bible."

In a practical sense, classifying Jefferson as a "Deist" with regards to religious affiliation is misleading and meaningless. Jefferson was never affiliated with any organized Deist movement.


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