God Blessed America: Jefferson
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
Psalm 33:12a Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord.
Baptists heroically led the fight for religious liberty in the colonies, but were not its only champions. Lord Baltimore chartered “Mary-land” in 1632 as a haven for Catholics persecuted in England, and for nonconformist Protestants. Lord Berkeley and George Carteret granted religious freedom when they founded the colony of New Jersey in 1664.
No discussion of religious freedom in the USA is complete without mentioning the extraordinary efforts of William Penn. King Charles II owed the Penn family $80,000. Penn, hoping to establish a haven for the persecuted, asked the King to pay him with wilderness land in America.
In 1681 King Charles II gave William Penn the largest territory ever granted a British subject and named it Pennsylvania, Penn’s Woods, in honor of William’s father, Admiral Sir William Penn. Later William Penn the son received Delaware from the Duke of York.
Penn gave his life to what he called the “holy experiment”, granting absolute religious freedom, and proactively pursuing and recruiting immigrants. He invited the persecuted everywhere to come to his colony.
My family and I owe a personal debt to Penn. My Wilcox ancestors (through Grandma Hill) were on his ship on his last trip to Penn’s Woods. The bulk of our Wilcox’s remained Quakers for nearly two centuries.
When discussing non-Baptists who influenced religious freedom, Thomas Jefferson has to be mentioned. He was without doubt the Baptists’ unparalleled, most loved political figure. To them, he was a pantheon of one.
A persistent story about Jefferson involves the influence Baptists had on him in the years before the Revolution. Dolly Madison, late in life, supposedly confirmed that Baptists influenced Jefferson. She remembered him saying it was a Baptist church from which his views were gathered.
Familiar with a Baptist church near his home, he let its democracy influence his thinking of a pattern for the colonies. He allegedly said Baptist church government is the only form of pure democracy existing in the world. He concluded it would be the best plan of government for the colonies.
Andrew Tribble served as Pastor of the small Baptist church. It met monthly. Jefferson attended its meetings for several consecutive months, and had Tribble in his home to discuss Baptist philosophy of self-governing.
The Baptist/Jefferson love affair is complicated to unravel. Jefferson’s opponents accused him of being an atheist. He refuted these claims, and through it all, Baptists stayed true to him. They considered him their ideal statesman, though his religious views were diametrically opposed to theirs.
In my studying for these sermons on religious liberty, I encountered two extremely bizarre stories. One is that visitors can go to Roger Williams’ home and see the root of an apple tree that invaded his body and took on its shape. Macabre. The other story is about the Baptist Mammoth Cheese.
The ultimate tangible expression of appreciation from Baptists to Jefferson was shown in a weird gesture made by the Virginia Baptist religious-liberty-hero John Leland. Before Jefferson was elected President, Pastor John Leland had moved from Virginia to Cheshire, Massachusetts.
Leland had known Jefferson well in Virginia, and campaigned vigorously for him in Massachusetts. Leland, convinced he and other Baptists had helped Jefferson win the Presidency, decided a unique gesture of love and appreciation was needed. He had his church members bring all the milk their cows gave on a given day in order to make a mammoth cheese. No cow of a Federalist, Jefferson’s opponents, was allowed to offer milk, “lest it should leaven the whole lump with a distasteful savour.”
The townspeople made a special cheese press, sang a hymn over it, and put the ingredients in it. Leland said it was the largest cheese ever put to press in the New World or Old. It weighed 1235 pounds, was four feet wide, and fifteen inches thick. Since it was too heavy to be delivered on a wheeled vehicle, the townspeople hired a sleigh to bring it to President Jefferson during the winter. Leland himself made the 500-mile trip. The news media made him a national super star. His cheese was the talk of the country.
Jefferson cut off a piece of the cheese, thanked Leland and the people of Cheshire, and kept the cheese at the White House for two years, until it was replaced by the “mammoth loaf” presented to him by the US Navy.
Leland delivered the mammoth cheese on New Years Day 1802. On Sunday January 3 Jefferson attended church in the USA Capitol building and heard John Leland preach on the text, “A greater than Solomon is here.” I wonder; was the preacher thinking more about Jesus or about Jefferson?
Some speculate this uncanny incident is the basis of our expression “The big cheese”. But, as is the case in most idioms, accurately discovering its origens is hard to do because its roots are shrouded in foggy shadows.
Few peoples’ religious beliefs stir up a more raucous debate than Thomas Jefferson’s. He is usually said to have been a Deist, a person who believes God created the world, wound it up like a clock, and then left it alone. We know for sure Jefferson was not a Deist because he believed in miracles. He was convinced God did intervene in human affairs.
Jefferson adored the teachings of Jesus. He believed they were the best source of moral material in all of history. Jefferson felt Christian morals were absolutely essential to having a happy society. He would buy nice Bibles, and give them as presents to his children and grandchildren.
Jefferson called himself a Christian, but we have to be careful here. He defined the term very narrowly. He said he was a Christian in the sense of following Jesus’ “genuine precepts”. Jefferson believed the text of the New Testament had been corrupted and mistranslated, which had resulted in Jesus being reported to have said things he never said.
Concluding Jesus was not the Son of God, Jefferson rejected huge portions of the four Gospels. His “scissor and paste” Bible is on display at the Smithsonian in Washington DC.
When seeking to accurately discern people’s religious beliefs, we must let them speak for themselves. The best, most succinct, understanding of his religious beliefs was clearly spelled out in a letter he wrote at Monticello in his older years (June 26, 1822) to Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse.
In the letter, Jefferson was very candid. He said the true, reliable doctrines of Jesus were: 1) There is only one God; He is all perfect; 2) There is a future state of rewards and punishments; 3) To love God with all thy heart, and thy neighbor as thyself, is the sum of religion.
To make double sure he was clearly expressing his beliefs, Jefferson in the same letter absolutely rejected Calvinism, saying it wrongly taught: 1) There are three Gods; 2) Good works are nothing; 3) Faith is everything; 4) Reason in religion is unlawful; 5) God elected certain individuals to be saved, and certain others to be damned.
In this letter, Jefferson called himself a Unitarian, and wrote, “I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die an Unitarian.” I think this designation of himself as a Unitarian is, in modern parlance, the most accurate description of his religious beliefs.
In concise form, Jefferson believed there was no Trinity, salvation was by works not grace, human reasoning superseded any notion of divine revelation (thus the Bible was not trustworthy or authoritative), and only free will existed in determining people’s dealings with God.
Jefferson moved away from orthodoxy under the tutelage of a college professor at Williamsburg. Dr. William Small was a Scott who introduced the Enlightenment worldview to Jefferson. Its key insight was; reason, not revelation or unquestioned tradition or superstition, deserved first place in human thinking. With this premise accepted, his mind was closed to any argument favoring Holy Writ or the presence of the Divine in a person’s life.
Reason wants everything explained and rationalized. To live by faith requires accepting what lies beyond our ability to fully comprehend. Only by a divine miracle of conviction and conversion can this position be embraced.