History, Culture and Faith – The ‘Bible’ of Thomas Jefferson (Part 2) 


By Rick Chromey 

Jefferson…wrote his own Bible that excluded all references to miracles, 

wonders, signs, virgin birth, resurrection, the God-head, 

and whatever else conflicted with his own religious thought.1 


Thomas Jefferson was an irreligious Deist. A Founding skeptic. An Enlightenment secularist. Some say his disdain for Christianity drove him to author his own Bible, removing disagreeable doctrines. 

All these claims originate with the nonreligious. 

But surprisingly, many Christians also promote these accusations. Creation scientist Don Landis penned, “Thomas Jefferson…took scissors to the Gospels and cut out all references to anything supernatural.” 2 

Both camps call it “The Jefferson Bible” – an edited Gospel that “rejected the superstitions and mysticism of Christianity” and removed “the miracles…of Jesus.” 3 

But what’s the truth? 

Jefferson and Scripture 

First, Thomas Jefferson was a bibliophile whose personal library, including his collection of Bibles, commentaries and religious works, rivaled the libraries of entire nations. He relished conversations on religion, theology and ethics. His nightly routine included “an hour’s reading of something moral before he went to sleep. 4 

Jefferson also encouraged others to read the Bible. 

In 1814, he made a generous donation to the Virginia Bible Society, with this message: 

“…I had not supposed there was a family in this state not possessing a bible [nor] without having the means to procure one. When, in earlier life I was intimate with every class,…never was…a house [without a Bible]…I therefore [enclose to] you [cheerfully] an order…sincerely agreeing with you that there never was a more pure & sublime system of morality delivered to man than is to be found in the four evangelists.” 5 

Jefferson’s generosity, priorities and intellectual pursuits proved he valued the Bible’s wisdom, ethics and teachings. 

So, is it true he authored his own work? 

The Philosophy of Jesus 

No, Jefferson never penned any “Bible.” Rather, he compiled two extracts titled: “The Philosophy of Jesus” (1804) and “The Life and Morals of Jesus” (1820). 

Due to their private use and secrecy, these documents have always been under a cloak of misunderstanding and confusion. What was their original purpose? Why were they created? What was Jefferson hiding? 

The answers begin with context. 

During the 1790s, Jefferson was concerned with America’s partisan conflicts. The Founding generation was divided over politics and religion. Jefferson’s own Episcopal faith was crumbling, evolving, transforming. Politically, he faced unfair, false accusations from opponents claiming he was “atheist” and hostile to Christianity. 

Jefferson eventually broke from his family/state religion to embrace Unitarianism, a controversial liberal faith that rejected the Trinity. Unitarians preached Jesus was God’s Son, but not God. And the Messiah’s mission was to teach humans to be virtuous. 6 

Jefferson vowed to never speak publicly on his faith again. 

In early 1804, Jefferson was inspired to create a tool for native tribes to understand Jesus. He culled and clipped verses from the four Gospels of Jesus’ teachings, then combined them into a 46-page work “of pure and unsophisticated doctrines” titled: 

“The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth extracted from the account of his life and doctrines as given by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, being an abridgement of the New Testament for the use of the Indians unembarrassed with matters of fact or faith beyond the level of their comprehensions.” 7 

The lengthy title revealed this work was: 1) an abridgement, not a complete “Bible”; 2) drawn from the four Gospels; and 3) intended as a teaching tool for native tribes. 

Jefferson enthusiastically wrote his friend Dr. Benjamin Rush – who was a close friend, correspondent and religious advisor – to share his abridgement. However, the conservative Christian doctor wasn’t interested due to Jefferson’s Unitarianism. Deeply disappointed, Jefferson shelved his work and never mentioned it again. 

The Life and Morals of Jesus 

A year later Jefferson began a new, more ambitious, multi-lingual compilation he titled “The Life and Morals of Jesus.” This ethics text reflected Jefferson’s own search for religious truth, using Gospel lessons translated from English, French, Greek and Latin. 

And then Jefferson stopped working on it…for more than a decade…finally completing it in 1820. 

As before, Jefferson selectively confided in two close friends. He wrote the Rev. Charles Clay how he “had cut out from [the Gospels] every text [the writers] had recorded of the moral precepts of Jesus.” 8 

He proudly confessed to the theologian/author Charles Thomson: 

“I, too, have made a wee-little book from the same materials, which I call the Philosophy of Jesus… a more beautiful or precious morsel of ethics I have never seen; it is a document in proof that I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus… 9 

Years later, Jefferson’s grandson Thomas Jefferson Randolph shared why he created it: 

“[My grandfather] left two codifications of the Morals of Jesus – one for himself, and another for the Indians; the first of which I now possess…His codification of the Morals of Jesus was not known to his family before his death, and they learnt from a letter addressed to a friend that he was in the habit of reading nightly from it before going to bed.” 10 

Like the other work, Jefferson never intended to publish “Life and Morals.” He never mentioned its existence to family, who only discovered it after his death. This unique collection was exclusively for Jefferson’s moral edification. 

So how did “Life and Morals” evolve into the Jefferson Bible? 

It started when a Smithsonian librarian named Cyrus Adler located the text (still with Jefferson’s family) and purchased it for Congress in 1895. A few years later Rep. John Lacey (R-IA) read the work and it stirred his passion. He wanted Jefferson’s text to enjoy a wider readership. In 1902, he led a resolution to print “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth” for every U.S. senator and representative. And for the next half century Jefferson’s “wee little book” was widely distributed. 

As for the name “Jefferson Bible?” That was a post-1903 nickname applied by secularists, skeptics and the irreligious. But eventually Christian critics picked up the label too. 

Today, very few Americans know the work by its original title. And the erroneous, false accusation that Jefferson created a Bible – a cut and paste job – that deleted the miracles and supernatural (because he was a skeptic hostile to Christianity) persists. 

Except it’s not true. 

And now you know. 






1 “The Real Jefferson on Religion” by Robert S. Alley: https://secularhumanism.org/1998/10/the-real-jefferson-on-religion/  Accessed March 15, 2024. 

2 “Jonah and the Great Fish” by Don Landis, Answers in Genesis: https://answersingenesis.org/bible-characters/jonah-and-the-great-fish/?gad_source=1&gclid=CjwKCAjw48-vBhBbEiwAzqrZVAmImjoSE_8u0LjvAW4S0ck-v1aO8UMtqNxMsXM_Hj9JPmHh-ziDohoC4isQAvD_BwE Accessed March 15, 2024. 

3 “Thomas Jefferson on Christianity & Religion” compiled by Jim Walker, Free Republic: https://freerepublic.com/focus/news/745447/posts  Accessed March 15, 2024 

4 Thomas Jefferson Letter to Vine Utley (March 21, 1819): https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/03-14-02-0144  Accessed March 15, 2024. 

5 Bible Society of Virginia: Thomas Jefferson Monticello: https://www.monticello.org/research-education/thomas-jefferson-encyclopedia/bible-society-virginia/  Accessed March 15, 2024 

6 Dickinson W. Adams, Jefferson’s Extracts from the Gospels, (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1983): 14-16. 

7 Ibid., 28. 

8 Andrew A. Lipscomb, ed., The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (Washington, D.C.: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904): 232-233. 

9 Ibid., 385. 

10 Henry S. Randall, The Life of Thomas Jefferson, Volume 3 (New York: Derby & Jackson, 1858): 671-672. 


Dr. Rick Chromey is an historian, author and speaker who helps people interpret history, navigate culture, and explore faith. Since 2022, he’s worked as a Lewis and Clark historian for American Cruise Lines on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. Rick is available to speak to churches, schools and organizations about topics related to history, apologetics, leadership and Christian education. 


Christian Living readers may subscribe to Rick’s inspirational (history, culture, faith) Morning MANNA! (M-F) email at www.mannasolutions.org 



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