Jefferson’s “Bible” — revising the revision

But while this syllabus is meant to place the character of Jesus in its true
and high light, as no impostor Himself, but a great Reformer of the Hebrew code
of religion, it is not to be understood that I am with Him in all His doctrines.
I am a Materialist; he takes the side of Spiritualism.

“This syllabus” is Jefferson’s revision of scripture, a document that has come to be known as “Jefferson’s Bible,” although he never gave it that name. It’s clear from the passage, from an 1820 letter, that Jefferson was in no sense an orthodox Christian.

But that doesn’t stop some on the Christian right in the United States from recruiting Jefferson to support their false claim that the U. S. was founded as “a Christian nation,” that the separation of church and state was never the intention of the Founding Fathers.

The loudest of these religious revisionists is David Barton, who, according to the Los Angeles Times, is the favourite “historian” of Republican presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. His new book, The Jefferson Lies – Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson, with a forward by former FOXNews personality Glen Beck, will be published in April.

The Times published Craig Fehrman’s “Jefferson’s Bible” on January 8th. Fehrman’s article presents a useful summary of the history of Jefferson’s private Bible journal, a direct and thorough rewriting of the Bible.

Jefferson’s intent was to remove all of the distortions introduced to the life of Jesus by “this band of dupes and impostors,” Jefferson’s characterization of the disciples and “biographers” of the New Testament, in order properly to highlight what Jefferson considered “the innocence of His character, the purity and sublimity of His moral precepts, the eloquence of His inculcations, the beauty of the apologues in which He conveys them.”

Even so, Jefferson, as a man of reason, read the story of Jesus critically, writing that he approached the moral prescriptions attributed to Jesus “as I do those of other ancient and modern moralists, with a mixture of approbation and dissent….”

Jefferson, a rational man and a materialist, excised from his version of the Bible all references to the supernatural, including all of the reports of miracles and the entire story of the resurrection. Jefferson was inspired by the morality Jesus espoused, but he had no patience for superstition and claims of  supernatural powers.

This certainly doesn’t sound like a man suffused with the light of an uncritical faith, yet that is exactly what David Barton wants us to believe.

Why hasn’t the “true” story of Jefferson’s ardent Christianity come to light before now? According to Barton, it’s a liberal conspiracy, an atheist hijacking of America’s most important Founding Father.

This claim comes from the same man who famously explained the well-documented story of Jefferson’s enduring romance with his slave Sally Hemmings as a “liberal plot” designed to protect Bill Clinton (William Jefferson Clinton) from impeachment over his White House philanderings. After all, the Christian hero version of Thomas Jefferson couldn’t include his having been a miscegenating adulterer.

No problem. David Barton will simply change any inconvenient facts. As Fehrman’s Times article puts it:

Today, the facts about “The Jefferson Bible” might seem like an impossible obstacle to anyone who wants to fashion Jefferson as a hero for right-leaning Christians — and America as a “Christian nation.” Instead, the book has been distorted to fit the religious right’s agenda.

Barton’s willingness to distort for his agenda’s sake was most famously evident in a 2010 TV appearance, in which Barton used a sarcastic note Jefferson included on the title page of his manuscript — “an abridgement … for the use of the Indians,” the word “Indians” being a favourite reference to the John Adams faction with whom Jefferson battled politically — to argue that Jefferson intended his “Bible” to assist evangelists in their conversion of the savages.

Of that TV appearance, Fehrman writes:

Barton fixated on Jefferson’s “Indians” title page, mixed in some unrelated material about Jefferson’s Indian policy, then pivoted to an outrageous fabrication: “He then gave it to a missionary,” Barton said of Jefferson and his Bible, “and he said, ‘Here, if you get this printed, and you use this as you evangelize the Indians.'”

There’s absolutely no evidence of Jefferson giving either version of his Bible to anyone other than his bookbinder. Perhaps it’s no surprise that last year, in Iowa, Newt Gingrich said, “I never listen to David Barton without learning a whole lot of new things.” That’s because Barton loves to cherry-pick a phrase and manipulate it to support his side in a partisan, present-day debate.

A large irony in the Christian right’s efforts to dismantle the wall between church and state is that the evangelical churches of Jefferson’s time were his allies in the effort to erect that wall in the first place.

In the early days of the nation, Americans who belonged to minority churches were very worried that the newly-minted United States would adopt an establismentarian constitution, one that favoured one or several of the mainstream churches and thereby threatened their own religious freedom.

The alliance between evangelical churches and a man constantly and loudly accused in the 1800 presidential campaign of outright atheism  — so much for Barton’s assertion Jefferson was a devoted Christian! — was a crucial part of the successful battle to keep the country free of a state religion.

Now, with the evangelicals in a much stronger position, both demographically and politically, they are keen to reinvent Jefferson, to keep the ally part of the story while completely distorting the religious part.

The earth is 6,000 years old. There is no such thing as evolution. There is also no such thing as global warming. Angels watch over us. The Bible is literal truth.

And Thomas Jefferson was a closet Christian evangelist.

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One thought on “Jefferson’s “Bible” — revising the revision

  1. Jefferson himself could be accused of cherry picking if we go by some accounts of what Jesus taught eg Wright and Eagleton

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