USA’s Founders Had Christianity in Mind (Part II: Jefferson)

By Steve Williams


February 8, 2017

While we were milling around prior to the Richard Dawkins speech I wrote about in part one, I spotted the notorious Mitch Kahle, probably Oahu’s most publicity-seeking atheist (some will remember him being marched/dragged out of the Hawaii State Capital after interrupting opening prayers in 2010). Mitch has an intolerant organization called “Hawaii Citizens for The Separation of Church and State”. I view him as Oahu’s Madelyn Murray O Hair.

The Jefferson Memorial

I had already challenged him to debate the existence of God online, but he never responded. I asked him if he’d like to have a friendly debate whether or not God existed — he didn’t care for the idea. “How about Darwinism” I asked him. He said that’s “not his specialty” either. I was surprised; he never seems this timid on either subject when he has a monologue, but I guess the idea of equal time for an opposing viewpoint is frightening to him. He eventually suggested “separation of church and state”. “Sounds good” I answered, then gave him my card and asked him to let me know when is a good time (it’s now been years, so I’m not exactly “on the edge of my seat”).

To be clear, I’m not representing any organization in any debate; just the truth. Nor is my goal to grandstand or be argumentative. I’ve done my homework on this, and in my eyes, arguing that America’s founders were secular is like arguing that the sun is cold — it ought to be resisted (even by those who like the idea) because it’s false.

Another point of clarity: nobody is talking about Christianity in our heritage being enforced as a belief system (nobody can be forced to believe something apart from evidence and reason). Nor does it refer to Theocracy, in which everyone must be nominally a member of one denomination or another. Our founders were opposed to Theocracies, which had wreaked havoc on Europe. Religious freedom — including the freedom to democratically influence government in ways that favor Christianity — was the focus.

The phrase “separation of church and state” is not in the founding documents of the United States, and was not intended as the likes of Dawkins and Kahle wish it had been. Context shows that what Jefferson meant by “wall of separation” in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists (long after America’s founding) was roughly the same thing as Roger Williams meant by it in his sermon “The Garden and the Wilderness” (which is where Jefferson got the quote) – our gov’t was to be walled off from oppressing the church (it’s a one-way wall).

Our founders saw no problem with using the force and favor of the Federal government to honor what they called “The Sabbath” (Sunday) and other holy days, calling for days of thanksgiving, fasting and prayer, providing funds for Christian missionaries, funds for building churches, encouraging teachers to teach from the Bible, incorporating God into our nation’s symbols, referring to God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit in our Treaties, Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, Constitution, and many other similar accommodations. They clearly believed that our Federal government could accommodate mere non-denominational Christianity without any conflict with The First Amendment.

Individual states retained the sovereignty to go even further than the Federal government, and many had official denominations. Membership was required for incentives ranging from tax benefits to, in some cases, voting or serving in the legislature (Virginia: Anglican; Massachusetts: Congregational, etc.). This was uncontroversial at the time (it was referenced in Jefferson’s famous letter to the Danbury Baptists), so obviously it was only the Federal government that was prohibited from establishing a favored denomination.

The question I’ll address in the remainder of this article is “what did Jefferson believe in 1776, the only time he was involved in our founding (he was in Europe during the Constitutional Convention)?” Yes, it’s true that he did flake out on essential Christian doctrines way later in life, but he was a confessing Christian when he wrote the Declaration of Independence, and unless we want to promote historical revisionism, we need to make peace with this fact.

Look at the following excerpts from his notes on religion, which historians believe were written in October of 1776 in preparation for the dis-establishment of Church of England in the U.S. There are some shorthand abbreviations within it; “X” for “Christ”, “Xty” for “Christianity”, “Xn” for Christian”, etc. The questions I ask after each segment will expose how impossible it is for these to be the words of a secular man or a Deist:

“The Epistles were written to persons already Christians. A person might be a Xn [Christian] then before they were written. Consequently the fundamentals of Xty [Christianity] were to be found in the preaching of our Saviour, which is related in the gospels.”

Why “OUR Saviour”, and not “THEIR Saviour”?!

The next two sentences:

“These fundamentals are to be found in the epistles dropped here & there, & promiscuously mixed with other truths. But these other truths are not to be made fundamentals. They serve for edification indeed & explaining to us matters in worship & morality, but being written occasionally it will readily be seen that their explanations are adapted to the notions & customs of the people they were written to.”

Why “US” and not “THEM”?

The next two sentences:

“But yet every sentence in them (tho the writers were inspired) must not be taken up & made a fundamental, without assent to which a man is not to be admitted a member of the Xn [Christian] church here, or to his kingdom hereafter. The Apostles creed was by them taken to contain all things necessary to salvation, & consequently to a communion.”

The writers of the Bible were inspired?! Who believes this except Christians?! Or are the secularists now going to tell us that the Deists of the 1700’s believed that the Bible was inspired too, LOL!

A little further down:

“Nothing but free argument, raillery & even ridicule will preserve the purity of religion. 2 Cor. 1. 24. the apostles declare they had no dominion over the faith.”

Wow – not just looking to preserve the purity of religion, he’s even dropping a scripture on us! By the way, that’s one of the reasons I ridicule secularists…I’m trying to preserve their purity. 😉

Last sentence of the next paragraph:

“The Council of Antioch ann [ ] expressly affirms of our Saviour οὐϰ ἐστιν ὁμουσιοϛ that he was not consubstantial to the father. The Council of Nice affirmed the direct contrary. Dhist. Prim. Xty. [Christianity] Pref. CXXV.”

I’ll be darned; “OUR Saviour” again. If Jefferson didn’t consider himself a Christian at this time, he sure had a funny way of disclaiming it!

Next paragraph:

“Episcopy. Gr. Επισϰοποϛ. Lat. Episcopus. Ital. Vescovo. Fr. Evesque. Saxon, Byscop. Bishop (overseer). The epistles of Paul to Timothy & Titus are relied on (together with Tradition) for the Apostolic institution of bishops.
As to tradition, if we are Protestants we reject all tradition, & rely on the scripture alone, for that is the essence & common principle of all the protestant churches. As to Scripture 1. Tim. 3. 2. ‘a bishop must be blameless &c.”

Why “WE” and not “THEY”? Jefferson grammatically presupposes his own Protestantism here. Not very secular, nor is it very Deist.

Next paragraph:

“Another plea for Episcopal government in Religion in England is it’s similarity to the political governmt by a king. No bishop, no king. This then with us is a plea for government by a presbytery which resembles republican government.”

“US” again. A secular guy who wants his church governed by a Presbytery? I don’t think so.

Seventh paragraph further, in support of the right to choose bishops/prebytery:

“From the dissensions among sects themselves arises necessarily a right of chusing & necessity of deliberating to which we will conform, but if we chuse for ourselves, we must allow others to chuse also, & to reciprocally. This establishes religious liberty.”

“WE” again, three times, as well as “OURSELVES” and “OTHERS” mentioned in a context indicating Christian sect membership. This becomes even more obvious as we see the next sentence:

“Why require those things in order to eccliastical communion which Christ does not require in order to life eternal? How can that be the church of Christ which excludes such persons from its communion as he will one day receive into the kingdom of heaven.”

After the next sentence, there is this:

“How far does the duty of toleration extend?
• 1. No church is bound by the duty of toleration to retain within her bosom obstinate offenders against her laws.
• 2. We have no right to prejudice another in his civil enjoiments because he is of another church. If any man err from the right way, it is his own misfortune, no injury to thee; nor therefore art thou to punish him in the things of this life because thou supposeth he will be miserable in that which is to come—on the contrary accdg to the spirit of the gospel, charity, bounty, liberality is due to him.”

“ANOTHER CHURCH”? Why not just “A CHURCH” which would be easier to write and more accurate if T.J. was a Deist or secular? And what’s this: “ACCORDING TO THE SPIRIT OF THE GOSPEL, CHARITY, BOUNTY, LIBERALITY IS DUE TO HIM”? I think the only honest inference possible here is that Jefferson considered himself to be a member of a Christian church.

The third paragraph later:

“The care of every man’s soul belongs to himself. But what if he neglect the care of it? Well what if he neglect the care of his health or estate, which more nearly relate to the state. Will the magistrate make a law that he shall not be poor or sick? Laws provide against injury from others; but not from ourselves. God himself will not save men against their wills.”

“GOD HIMSELF WILL NOT SAVE MEN AGAINST THEIR WILLS” – a Deist couldn’t possibly know this; this is a Biblical doctrine. Obviously it’s not secular.

He makes his point in the next sentence incorporating imagery from 1 Cor. 4:

“If I be marching on with my utmost vigour in that way which according to the sacred geography leads to Jerusalem straight, why am I beaten & ill used by others because my hair is not of the right cut; because I have not been dresst right, bec. I eat flesh on the road, bec. I avoid certain by-ways which seem to lead into briars, bec. among several paths I take that which seems shortest & cleanest, bec. I avoid travellers less grave & keep company with others who are more sour & austere, or bec. I follow a guide crowned with a mitre & cloathed in white, yet these are the frivolous things which keep Xns [Christians] at war.”

Would it make sense for a secular or Deist individual who doesn’t believe in the Bible and is trying to escape its influence to bring in Christian imagery superfluously? I don’t think Jefferson was that dumb.

A little further down:

“These moral vices all men acknowledge to be diametrically against X. [Christ] & obstructive of salvation of souls, but the fantastical points for which we generally persecute are often very questionable; as we may be assured by the very different conclusions of people. Our Savior chose not to propagate his religion by temporal punmts or civil incapacitation, if he had, it was in his almighty power. But he chose to extend it by it’s influence on reason, there by shewing to others how they should proceed.”

Here Jefferson states that that which is against [Christ] is obstructive of salvation of souls. Blimey! He goes on to identify himself as one of those who is saved by Christ (“…OUR SAVIOUR…”), and describes Christ’s power as “ALMIGHTY”, thereby affirming his belief that Christ is God, and that He has shown us the way to proceed. Also note the assumption of Christian ubiquity in his culture (“…ALL men…”) in the first sentence. That would be an indescribably odd thing to say in a culture of Deists or seculars.

About the 5th paragraph further:

“No man has power to let another prescribe his faith. Faith is not faith without believing. No man can conform his faith to the dictates of another. The life & essence of religion consists in the internal persuasion or belief of the mind. External forms of worship, when against our belief are hypocrisy & impiety. Rom. 14. 23. ‘he that doubteth is damned, if he eat, because he eateth not of faith: for whatsoever is not of faith, is sin?’”

Here affirms his trust in the biblical doctrine of salvation through faith/damnation by doubt rather than salvation through external worship forms, citing Romans 14: 23 as his proof text. The perceptive reader will also notice that he is not a Presuppositionalist, nor Calvinist, as he affirms free choice and internal persuasion as prerequisites for faith.

4th paragraph further:

“Christ has said ‘wheresoever 2 or 3 are gatherd. togeth in his name he will be in the midst of them.’ This is his definition of a society. He does not make it essential that a bishop or presbyter govern them. Without them it suffices for the salvation of souls.”

Anybody who could read the previous paragraph and think it was written by a Deist or secular is really kidding themself.

Next up: Benjamin Franklin.

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About the Author

By Steve Williams

Steve Williams is the author of What Your Atheist Professor Doesn’t know (But Should), and a Reasonable Faith chapter director in Hawaii.