The Founding Father’s are tirelessly put in a heroic and religious light. Schools and organizations with a more holy influence try to fit these morally superior men into their own spheres of thought, or lack there of – but the Founding Fathers were far from religious. They were agnostic at most – but none were more skeptical, and thoughtful than Thomas Jefferson who, in his work, has done strenuous work to free people from the clutch of the church.
Having had recently suffered from the First Great Awakening in the mid 1700’s the British colonies saw a major move to the church – more specifically, the Anglican Church. Seeing the chance for regional power that was impossible in Europe, the Anglican Church took the opportunity for power. In Thomas Jefferson’s beloved state of Virginia, the church took extreme actions to secure their hold on the land. In short, the state and the religion became intertwined. Public officials in Virginia must swear to the 39 articles of the Anglican church; the general assembly of Virginia made it a crime to violate church doctrine; the 1705 statue required anyone who held office to believe in the christian church in order to, “hold and enjoy any office or employment, ecclesiastical, civil, or military”.
At the time, more loose doctrine started to challenge and take away from the Anglican Church. Churches such as the Baptist and Presbyterian started to take members away from the Anglican hold – sparking more authoritarian action from the ruling religion. Anyone who was not a member of their specific church were labelled “dissenters” – mainly those who were a part of the new realism movement. In response, all ministers must be licensed and registered with the church. If not, they would be considered “street preachers” and were jailed for heresy. This can not go on in any healthy society, but certainly not in Jefferson’s homestead.
In Public Life
Thomas Jefferson, a liberty-loving open-minded man, seems to have never been very religious. And from the very beginning of the creation of the new Union, he had been hard at work to make America a secular, freedom loving nation. There is, of course, the freedom to exercise religion clause in the Declaration of Rights – but Jefferson originally submitted a draft for a more bold stance in religion:
“All persons shall have full and free liberty of religious opinion; nor shall any be compelled to frequent or maintain any religious institution”
This was struck down by the general assembly – but Jefferson’s work did not stop there. When the new Virginian General Assembly met, Jefferson’s first purposeful was to repeal the tax funding of the Anglican Church. Seeing as less than half of all Virginians were Anglican, the tax funding was an insult and an infringement on the rights of his fellow Virginians. The result was that all “dissenters” were exempt from paying any tax to the church – thus the beginning of the end of the Churches hold.
The next step was Jefferson’s prized Act to Establish Religious Freedom. To win support, Jefferson reasoned that “the Almighty God hath created the mind free” so that the “religious opinions and beliefs” must also remain free. Just like that, Jefferson freed the nation as well as the mind of compulsory church devotion. This accomplishment is listed in his epitaph along with his authorship of the Declaration of Independence as well as his founding of the Virginia University who has recently disappointed their founder by banishing any quotes from him. Notice the three accomplishments he wanted to be remembered for and you will see that his leadership in the revolutions in America and France; leadership in the Barbary Wars; and being the 3rd President of the United States was not mentioned. Instead, his voice of reason through the Declaration of Independence, religious freedoms, and his founding of the University is his shining pride.
In Personal Life
It was in Jefferson’s more personal works that we see his real feelings toward religion. Mr. Jefferson even created his own version of the New Testament by taking a knife to it – cutting out anything that is fantastic, or wicked, or mythical, or silly – creating an extremely shorter version. In his view, Christianity was a silly concept of which defiles reason. Any action in the direction of reason, was a good one in his eyes:
“No one sees with greater pleasure than myself the progress of reason in it’s advances towards rational Christianity. when we shall have done away the incomprehensible jargon of the Trinitarian arithmetic, that three are one, and one is three; when we shall have knocked down the artificial scaffolding, reared to mask from view the simple structure of Jesus, when, in short, we shall have unlearned every thing which has been taught since his day, and got back to the pure and simple doctrines he inculcated, we shall then be truly and worthily his disciples: and my opinion is that if nothing had ever been added to what flowed purely from his lips, the whole world would at this day have been Christian. I know that the case you cite, of Dr Drake, has been a common one. the religion-builders have so distorted and deformed the doctrines of Jesus, so muffled them in mysticisms, fancies and falsehoods, have caricatured them into forms so monstrous and inconceivable, as to shock reasonable thinkers, to revolt them against the whole, and drive them rashly to pronounce it’s founder an imposter…”
Many people believe that the founding fathers were agnostic at best, but some like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens think that if certain scientific discoveries were around at the time of the fathers, then they would definitely be atheists. This idea pronounces itself in the discussion of slavery – and on the very Jefferson Memorial itself, he is quoted saying, “Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free. Establish a law for educating the common people. This it is the business of the state and on a general plan.”
Many Americans today would be shocked to hear the Founding Father speaking so. Jefferson, himself, would be shocked to know about certain traditions we have today such as National Day of Prayers, including god in our currency, and god in the pledge of allegiance. What is even more surprising is how comfortable Congress was with secularism at Jefferson’s time. At the end of the Barbary Wars, Jefferson and his Congress wrote and unanimously passed the Peace Treaty stating that “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion”
Rather than turn away from the our Founding Fathers, I would hope respect is kept for them, remembering that they were centuries ahead of their time – the only men capable to fully and successfully create such an amazing Union. Thomas Jefferson, above the rest, stood for reason and thought, especially in the face of religious supremacy. Who today have the balls to stand up against irrational beliefs so fervently? Using Jefferson’s own words, I beg that everyone could find it in them to, “question with boldness even the existence of a god; because if there be one he must approve of the homage of reason more than that of blindfolded fear”