History, Culture and Faith – The Religious Views of Thomas Jefferson (Part 1) 


By Dr. Rick Chromey 

Jefferson’s personal history…disgraceful conduct… 

reputation for free thinking and loose morality is admitted. 1 


“An atheist and fanatic.” 2 


“[His] knowledge of and admiration for the teachings of Jesus 

 have never been equaled by any other president.3 


“Jefferson’s religion…was misunderstood…criticisms came from 

 those who knew neither Jefferson nor his religious beliefs.” 4 


It’s been two centuries since Thomas Jefferson lived and died. And his religious views still remain mysterious and murky. 

Historically, his most combative critics? Christians. 

Today, skeptics and Christians alike believe the Monticello man was anti-Christian, agnostic, or atheist, pointing to certain writings, or theological/political positions, or his “Jefferson Bible” – a vapid, empty and self-designed gospel. 

Finding the truth isn’t easy. Thomas Jefferson is a hard nut to crack. 


Jefferson’s religious views were complex, but Christian. 

As a man of the Enlightenment, Thomas studied philosophy, politics, science, history and religion. His private library contained nearly 6,500 books. And yet, on matters of religion, he wrote sparingly. Nevertheless, in every missive Jefferson was never vague, disingenuous, or confused about his theology. 

Jefferson did have strong words for certain churches. He opposed the Anglican (Episcopal) church – the Virginia state religion – for its ecclesiastical hierarchies. As a Protestant, he was anti-Catholic, yet never “anti-Christian” (as certain New England denominations feared and political opponents promoted). 

And there’s no evidence Jefferson denounced, nor ceased practicing Christianity. 


Thomas Jefferson’s religious views demand context. 

Jefferson’s more salient written statements seem to promote skepticism, but wider context offers clarity 

In 1787, Jefferson encouraged his nephew Peter Carr to “question with boldness even the existence of a god; because, if there be one, he must more approve the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.”5 Is Jefferson embracing secular rationalism in this statement? Maybe. But the context also suggests Jefferson simply wanted Peter to view religion with more tolerance. 

Jefferson penned in 1801: “I … reposed my head on that pillow of ignorance which a benevolent creator has made so soft for us, knowing how much we should be forced to use it.” 6 

Is this evidence of Jefferson’s agnosticism? Possibly. However, the context is clear. Jefferson, responding to a query about the soul’s transmigration into eternity, is stating the topic wasn’t worth his time. He preferred “ignorance” or apathy. 


Jefferson’s framing faith was Anglican. 

Thomas Jefferson’s religious views – particularly his Christianity – were founded in his Anglican faith. 

Jefferson was baptized and raised Anglican (Episcopal). Later, for political purposes, he affirmed its denominational creed because all Virginia office holders were required to be Anglican (as it was the state religion). 

Thomas married a devout Anglican (Martha) and they had six children (all baptized Anglican). During his time, Jefferson was a dedicated Episcopalian. In 1776, Jefferson penned an extensive treatise he called “Notes on Religion” that included an affirmation of historic Christian doctrines.7 

It’s why Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence incorporated biblical themes that appealed for Divine Protection, argued for Divine Creation, and reminded readers of Divine Judgment. He also included four clear acknowledgments of God. 

To his dying day, Jefferson seemed to maintain some form of Episcopalian faith. 

Historian Charles B. Sanford argued: “From the evidence of his life, we may safely conclude that Jefferson remained a member in good standing of his local Episcopal church all his life, in outward form at least.”8 


Jefferson flirted with doubt and disbelief. 

Before he turned 40, Thomas Jefferson suffered the horrific loss of three children. Then, his beloved Martha died. These bereavements deeply depressed Jefferson for weeks. 

Eventually he accepted a diplomat role in France. Once in Paris, its secular, hedonistic culture enticed the spiritually wrecked Jefferson to embrace a lifestyle of disbelief and self-indulgence. His reading list now included skeptics, like David Hume. 

But it didn’t stick. Jefferson eventually rejected Hume’s ideas: “I remember well the enthusiasm with which I devoured [Hume’s writings] when young, and the length of time, the research and reflection which were necessary to eradicate the poison it instilled into my mind.” 9 

Nevertheless, the French “ways” did influence Jefferson. He was never the same after 1789. 


A new kind of Christian 

The early 1800s were precarious times. France was at war, and recovering from bloody, secular revolution. Meanwhile, America was test driving its new Constitution while a Second Great Awakening baptized the nation in a religious fervor that framed “Christian” America for over a century. 

This “awakening” birthed new types of non-denominational churches that promoted Christian unity, local church autonomy and a restored or “primitive” faith. Thomas Jefferson, who opposed hierarchical religion and appreciated unity and autonomy was drawn to this type of Christianity. 

In fact, after retirement, he regularly attended religious services at the Albemarle Courthouse that featured preachers from a variety of different denominations.10 

“I am a real Christian,” Jefferson confessed to a friend, a decade before his death, “that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus Christ.” 11 

What he meant by that declaration remains debatable. 

Yet it proves Thomas Jefferson was never fully atheist nor agnostic, despite what critics – then and now – say about him. His Christianity was clearly unorthodox. Historians have described him as either a liberal Episcopalian or conservative Unitarian. Jefferson did reject (again, to what degree) core Christian doctrines, including Jesus’ divinity, resurrection and atonement. 

Jefferson’s refusal to explain his religious views makes determining his precise opinions difficult, save one. In an apologetical letter to the devout Dr. Benjamin Rush, he rejected “state religion” and avowed: “I have sworn, upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.” 12 

Nevertheless, historian Henry Randall, one of Jefferson’s earliest and most partisan biographers, concluded: “Mr. Jefferson never, at any period of life, made himself an aggressive assailant of Christianity; … never, in a solitary instance, sought directly or indirectly to proselyte a human being to unchristian views, or to shake his conviction in Christian ones.” 13 

Agree or disagree, Thomas Jefferson proved a new kind of Christian for a new kind of nation. 

And maybe that’s what he envisioned. 


Next issue: The Bible of Thomas Jefferson 



1 “The Private Character of Thomas Jefferson” from The New Englander, printed in The Living Age, No. 892, July 6, 1861: 515. 

2Alexander Hamilton’s charge against Jefferson, according to Charles B. Sanford, The Religious Life of Thomas Jefferson (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1984): 1. 

3Ibid, 3. 

4Ibid, 6. 

5Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Peter Carr, with Enclosure, 10 August 1787: https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-12-02-0021 

6Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Isaac Story, 5 December 1801: https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-36-02-0025 

7Thomas Jefferson, The Works of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Paul Leicester Ford, Volume 2 (New York: G.P. Putman’s Sons, 1904), 255. Google Book download. 

8Sanford, Religious Life of Jefferson, 1984: 5. 

9Letter from Thomas Jefferson to William Duane, 12 August 1810: https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/03-03-02-0001-0002 

10Thomas Jefferson and Religious Freedom,” The Jefferson Monticello: https://www.monticello.org/research-education/thomas-jefferson-encyclopedia/thomas-jefferson-and-religious-freedom/#fn-13 

11Thomas Jefferson, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, Albert Ellery Bergh, editor (Washington, D.C.: The Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association, 1904), Vol. XIV, p. 385, to Charles Thomson on January 9, 1816. 

12Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Rush, September 23, 1800: https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-32-02-0102 

13Henry S. Randall, The Life of Thomas Jefferson, Vol. 1 (New York: Derby & Jackson, 1858): 495-96. Google Book download. 


Dr. Rick Chromey is a 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. 

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

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