History, Culture and Faith – The Church of Thomas Jefferson (Part 3)


By Dr. Rick Chromey

Thomas Jefferson was always a believer.

Being Virginian, Jefferson was baptized, married and buried Anglican, as were his children. His early writings, including the Declaration of Independence, reflected his faith.

Then his wife Martha died. And the depressed Jefferson moved to France, where he indulged to salve his loss.

When Jefferson returned to America, he was different. His “French sensibilities” were evident, allowing critics to pounce. Had he become another “infidel” like Thomas Paine? Did the secular French Revolution turn Jefferson agnostic?

The Persecuted Man

The 1800 presidential election between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson proved a bitter battle of rank partisanship. Political adversaries harshly called Jefferson an “atheist” (suggesting disloyalty to God and America). Fearful clergy targeted Jefferson as a tyrant who’d steal Bibles, close churches and abolish “freedom of religion” in America.

None of it proved true, but the allegations crushed Jefferson.

When he couldn’t silence the critics, Jefferson vowed to never speak openly about religion again. And except for occasional correspondence with trusted friends, Jefferson kept that promise (providing critics additional ammunition).

Jefferson’s Church

Jefferson regularly attended church throughout his life. Prior to his wife’s death and subsequent disillusionment with his ecclesiastical Anglican heritage, Jefferson and his family were faithful congregants at their Episcopal church.

In 1801, President Jefferson attended church services in the new U.S. Capitol church. At that time, Washington, D.C. was young and without churches. One of Congress’s first acts in the “people’s house” was to permit [non-denominational] services in the Capitol, employing Congressional chaplains. American author and political commentator, Margaret Bayard Smith, wrote:

“During the first winter, Mr. Jefferson regularly attended service on the sabbath-day in the humble church. The congregation seldom exceeded 50 or 60, but generally consisted of about a score of hearers. He could have had no motive for this regular attendance, but that of respect for public worship…” 1

Multiple congregants recounted how Jefferson rode his horse to church, no matter the weather. 2 Jefferson and his secretary (Meriwether Lewis) even enjoyed reserved seats. 3

The U.S. Capitol church services continued throughout the 19th century. It was a church to presidents, congressmen, federal judges, D.C. aristocrats and influential clergy. By 1857, weekly attendance reached 2,000.4

Arguably, it was America’s first non-denominational “megachurch”.

The Unitarian Man

In the early 1800s, British Unitarianism arrived in America and many Founding Fathers favored it, including Jefferson. Primitive Unitarianism questioned the Triune Nature of God and Jesus’ Pre-Existence. Naturally, such divisive doctrines riled the Catholics, Presbyterians and congregationalist churches.

The Unitarian view carried enough baggage that Jefferson eventually distanced himself from it. He never placed membership nor converted to Unitarianism. According to one early Jefferson biography, in 1803, he issued a paper to help his family handle “the libels published against him.” 5 Historian Henry Randle noted:

“…towards the close of [Jefferson’s] life he occasionally cut short all further inquiries or remarks tending towards discussion on the subject of religion… [particularly] saying he was Unitarian… [rather his grandchildren] heard him habitually speak reverently of God, the Saviour, and the great truths of Christianity.” 6

It’s true that Jefferson briefly corresponded with Unitarians (like Joseph Priestley) and attended occasionally a Unitarian church (in Philadelphia). He also spoke enthusiastically about Unitarianism to one Christian friend. But the evidence remains scant. Jefferson’s later religious activities and statements imply he’d moved on. Unfortunately, with few letters and family testimony, it’s difficult to know with certainty Jefferson’s religious convictions.

Nevertheless, his family and friends provide clues.

The Ideal Church

Remember those church services Jefferson attended at the U.S Capitol in 1801? Evidently this small gathering exploded into a “sabbath-day resort” for anyone of all classes and creeds to attend. This church boasted:

“Preachers of every sect and denomination of christians (sic), were there admitted – Catholics, Unitarians, Quakers with every intervening diversity of sect. Even women were allowed to display their pulpit eloquence…” 7

Was this Jefferson’s ideal church? Perhaps. It’s the type of church he seemingly attended post-retirement. While Jefferson maintained certain Anglican, and possibly Unitarian, convictions, he was spiritually eclectic. Refusing membership to any church, Jefferson claimed to be a “sect of himself” 8 …a “disciple” of Jesus’ doctrines who affiliated with all in the Church of Christ. 9

Ironically, a new type of church was birthed in the Second Great Awakening (1790-1840) that spread like wildfire. It was a nondenominational fellowship of congregations known as “Christian churches” seeking to restore “primitive Christianity.”

These “restoration churches” – like Thomas and Alexander Campbell’s Pennsylvania “disciples” or Barton Stone’s Kentucky “Christians” – sparked a sea change in American Christianity. For Jefferson, it was probably an ex-Methodist-Episcopalian preacher named James O’Kelly who introduced him to “primitive” Christianity. Jefferson was certainly aware of this movement. And liked what he saw.

Jefferson’s America

After retirement, Jefferson favored nondenominational congregations. He wrote about one church he visited that met at a local courthouse. The service attracted Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists and Baptists, among others. According to Jefferson, they “[joined] in hymning their Maker, [listened] with attention and devotion to each other’s preachers and all mix in society in perfect harmony.” 10

These “restoration” churches – from Virginia and Pennsylvania to Ohio and Tennessee – were rooted to unity like the early church. And that was attractive to Jefferson. In an 1822 letter, he wrote:

“I am looking with anxiety to see the dawn of primitive Christianity…where, if it once appears, it will soon beam like the rising sun, and restore to reason her day. ‘Thy kingdom come’ is therefore my prayer; and my confidence is that it will come.” 11

Consequently, the “church” for Jefferson wasn’t a priest-driven denomination but rather the “primitive” Christianity preached through a unifying principle: “In matters of faith, unity; in matters of opinion, liberty; in all things, love.”

This theology blended with Jefferson’s philosophical view for America – a people E pluribus unum (out of many, one); a unified nation which honored individual “liberties” that seeded “life” and “happiness.”

It was a church of the people, by the people, for the people.

And seemed to be the “church” Jefferson found in his final years.



1 Mrs. Samuel Harrison Smith (Margaret Bayard), The First Forty Years of Washington Society, Galliard Hunt, editor (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1906), 13.

2 One congressman recorded: “It was very rainy, but his ardent zeal brought [Jefferson] through the rain and on horseback to the Hall.” William Parker Cutler and Julia Perkins Cutler, Life, Journal, and Correspondence of Rev. Manasseh Cutler (Cincinnati: Colin Robert Clarke & Co., 1888), II:119, letter to Joseph Torrey, January 4, 1802.

3 Harrison Smith (Margaret Bayard), First Forty Years of Washington Society, 13.

 4 James Hutson (Chief of the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress), Religion and the Founding of the American Republic (Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1998), 91.

5 Henry S. Randle, The Life of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 3: 561.

6 Ibid.

7 Harrison Smith (Margaret Bayard), First Forty Years of Washington Society, 15.

8 “Thomas Jefferson to Ezra Stiles Ely, 25 June 1819,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/03-14-02-0428.

 9 Jefferson wrote Charles Thomson: “I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus, very different from the Platonists, who call me infidel, and themselves Christians and preachers of the gospel, while they draw all their characteristic dogmas from what it’s Author never said nor saw…” “Thomas Jefferson to Charles Thomson, 9 January 1816,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/03-09-02-0216. One of the key teachings of early “Christian Churches” and “Churches of Christ” (primitivist “restorationalists”) was a dissolution of their denominations into the Universal Body of Believers. The name was never viewed as a limiting name for a local church body.

10 Sanford, Religious Life of Jefferson: 5.

11 “From Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Waterhouse, 15 October 1822,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/98-01-02-3095.


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. He is available to speak to churches, schools and organizations about topics related to history, apologetics, leadership and Christian education. www.mannasolutions.org

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