David Barton and the Jefferson Lies or “Just read Jefferson instead.”

Posted: 22/10/2012 in American Civic Religion, book review
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

A particular book contained a copy of a personal letter from a high-up LDS official.  The writer said that he did not believe that there was enough historical evidence to believe the Book of Mormon, that he and others had been duped by Joseph Smith’s great story, and that he was going to stick around in the “good ship” of Mormonism anyway.  You read that correctly.  This story illustrates our willingness to believe a good-sounding story, even in the face of evidence (or lack thereof).  If the story sounds nice, if it inspires morality,  then that is all that matters -even if you admit you were lied to.  This tendency can only be stronger when you hear the story from a clever speaker.

Most evangelicals shake their heads in dismay at this story.  However, there is a large wing of Evangelicalism that is equally willing to believe myths.  No, I am not talking about the Bible of course.  I am talking about the founding fathers myths.  The recently maligned David Barton and his book “The Jefferson Lies” is a perfect example.  Thomas Nelson -a Christian Publishing house- pulled its publication due to a loss of confidence.  Christians, not atheists, came out to criticize this latest tome from the religious right.

Despite that, many people persist in ignoring criticism of this book.  This has less to do with its merits, and more to do with rhetorical cunning.  David Barton asserted at the beginning of his book that detractors of his views are evil secularists, modernists, and minimalists and a host of a derogatory names.  These people, according to Barton, are the enemies of our country and have deliberately published lies when interpreting Jefferson.  This helps the reader understand that David Barton is here to give the truth to them.  Any one smell a con?

Furthermore, did you know you can just read Jefferson’s letters for yourself?

My interest, as a Christian, is really only in one section of this book: the final chapter which argues that Jefferson was not an atheist, but was a Christian.  This is something Barton has a serious burden of on.  Put very specifically, Barton must submit that Jefferson was a Christian.  Thomas Jefferson is known for the voluminous, meticulously cataloged collection of letters, writings, and essays that he left us.  So there is bound to be something.  So is Barton’s evidence sufficient?  In this blog, we can look at a few points.

Jefferson affirmed the Apostles’ Creed?

One of the most important claims that he makes is that Thomas Jefferson said certain Christian sounding things.  For instance Barton writes:

In 1776… he [Jefferson] penned his Notes on Religion in which he affirmed that Jesus was the Savior, the Scriptures were inspired and that the Apostles’ Creed “contain[ed] all things necessary to Salvation.”

Here then, it appears that Jefferson affirmed the Apostles’ Creed.  Unfortunately though, the notes on religion are just that: Notes on religion.  This collection of short notes surveys several Christian groups, several heretical group, and summarizes the views of John Locke -espeically when it comes to religious toleration/freedom.  The complete paragraph reads as follows:

The Epistles were written to persons already Christians. A person might be a Xn then before they were written. Consequently the fundamentals of Xty were to be found in the preaching of our Saviour, which is related in the gospels. 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 adpated to the notions & customs of the people they were written to. 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 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.

So why did Jefferson mention the Apostles’ Creed here?  Is it because he believed it himself, or because he’s taking short-hand notes on what other people believed?  In another section of Notes on Religion Jefferson wrote:

A heretic is an impugner of fundamentals. What are fundamentals? The protestants will say those doctrines which are clearly & precisely delivered in the holy Scriptures. Dr. Vaterland would say the Trinity. But how far this character of being clearly delivered will suit the doctrine of the trinity I leave others to determine. It is nowhere expressly declared by any of the earliest fathers, & was never affirmed or taught by the Church before the Council of Nice.

Here is another quote:

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.

The clergy have ever seen this. The bishops were alwais mere tools of the crown.

The Presbyterian spirit is known to be so congenial with friendly liberty, that the patriots after the restoration finding that the humour of people was running too strongly to exalt the prerogative of the crown promoted the dissenting interest as a check a and balance, & thus was produced the Toleration Act

If there is anything in “Notes on Religion” that indicates that Thomas Jefferson made serious commitment to one Christian group or the other, all the while personally affirming the doctrines of the Apostles’ Creed, I did not find it.  It doesn’t look like Barton did either.

Jefferson said “I am a Christian.”

Barton makes a bold claim based on two letters: one to Charles Thomson and another famous one to Benjamin Rush.  Both of these letters are nearly as famous as Google itself.  In the letter to Charles Thomson Jefferson said (and is quoted by Barton) “I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.”  However, we read the complete letter, we find that Jefferson is separating himself from the “Platonists.”  Here again is the quote in context:

I, too, have made a wee-little book from the same
materials, which I call the Philosophy of Jesus ; it is
a paradigma of his doctrines, made by cutting the
texts out of the book, and arranging them on the
pages of a blank book, in a certain order of time or
subject. A more beautiful or precious morsel of
ethics I have never seen ; it is a document in proof
that / am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple
of tha 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 its author
never said nor saw.

In this letter, -which can be found here– Jefferson refers to his “Jefferson Bible.”  This was the Bible in which he cut out the parts of the Gospels he belied were not authentic.  Jefferson is not affirming, “Christian” in any sense that your average Texas fundamentalist would recognize.

Barton makes a larger quote of the letter to Benjamin rush.  From Barton’s book:

To the corruptions of Christian I am indeed opposed; but no the genuine precepts of Jesus Himself.  I am a Christian in the only sense in which He wished any one to be: sincerely attached to His doctrines in preference to all others…

Of course, Barton leaves what follows in that letter.  Jefferson ended that phrase with, “in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; & believing he never claimed any other.”  Furthermore, Jefferson later refers to the influence of Joseph Priestly.  Joseph Priestly was an enlightenment thinker who authored “the Corruptions of Christianity.”  There, he denied both the Trinity and the atonement.  I cannot emphasize enough that Jefferson himself mentions Priestly favorably.

Thomas Jefferson didn’t really mean to deny the Trinity

Barton makes a great deal about Jefferson and the Trinity.  If he can prove that Jefferson affirmed the Trinity, than that is a big point in his favor, but Barton has some background work to do first.  He explains that around 1810 in Virgina a movement called “the primitivists” had gained a lot of popularity.  These primitivists rejected nearly every traditional Christian doctrine in favor of an extremely minimalized adherence to the Bible.  This excluded an affirmation of the Trinity.  Barton than actually quotes Jefferson when he explicitly denies the Trinity, the Eucharist, original sin, atonement.  Barton then acknowledges that these denials are heretical.  On the other hand Barton did say that “Jefferson had openly embraced doctrinal beliefs he was no rejecting,” yet he offered none of Jefferson’s letters to support that here.  So what does David Barton do?

Barton appears to assert that the influence of the primitivists made Jefferson deny the Trinity.  He asserts “it was during his affiliation with Christian Primitivism. that he first expressed Anti-Trinitarian views in a letter to John Adams in 1813.”  So we are to believe that Jefferson denied a core Christian doctrine late in his life, and it wasn’t really his fault.

The are two problems here.  First, Jefferson had already read Joseph Priestly by at least 1803.  He had sent Joseph Priestly a letter praising the author for his work.  Jefferson mentioned that he agreed with some of Priestly’s views and that he himself had hoped to do similar work.  Jefferson here wrote that he the doctrines of Jesus had been corrupted by people who pretended to be his disciples, that the question of Jesus’ divinity and inspiration were unimportant to him, and that the Jesus belong in the lines of the great moral teachers like Socrates, Cicero, and Seneca.  Therefore, Jefferson expressed these pretty non-Christian thoughts before 1810, when Barton asserts primitivism became popular.  The second problem is this: even if Jefferson denied the Trinity because of the primitivists, I don’t see how that means that Jefferson did not deny the Trinity.  At one point Barton thought that Jefferson “might have changed his position on the Trinity” had he lived a bit longer.  Does this vain speculation count as an argument?

David Barton closes the chapter with this:

Perhaps Jefferson, having once ha d a strong early Christian faith, which later became contaminated and weak, fits the category of 1 Corinthians 3:15 that “if anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved but only through fire.”

When I read this, I get the feeling that Barton doesn’t even really believe what he is writing anymore.  It is if he is begging the reader to imagine ways with him that Thomas Jefferson was a dye-ed in the wool evangelical.  These statements are sad for any scholar.  It speaks volumes of how far Barton is willing to stretch things.


David Barton really wants readers to believe that Jefferson was a Christian.  So how did he argue for it?  As you can see by the quotes, David Barton is good at lifting statements out of their context to suit his preconceived conclusion.  If he was doing this to the Bible we would call it poof-texting.  Additionally, he demands a sense of special pleading when it comes to Jefferson’s overt denial of the Trinity.  No contemporary figure would get this “free pass” if they did the same.  Finally, Barton ignored that Jefferson admired Joseph Priestly in this chapter.  By his own words, Jefferson tells us that he was the fan of a scholar who denied the incarnation, resurrection, atonement and the Trinity.  Yes, there were other “Christian” things that Jefferson did that I did cover here, but the very best conclusion you can get from that evidence is that Jefferson believed in a deity, that Jesus was a great moral teacher, and that religious toleration and cooperation ought to be promoted.  None of that is sufficient to make someone a Christian.

Ladies and gentlemen, David Barton thinks he can con you.

This leaves really only one stone unturned.  David Barton, wants you to imagine ways that Jefferson might have been a Christian.  Maybe he would have changed his mind.  Maybe his denial of the Trinity was because of his failing mind.  Maybe all his support of religious cooperation meant more than Unitarianism.  Let me remind the reader this: it is all a nice sounding story, exactly like the good ship of Mormonism.  But the evidence against Barton’s myth is there.  I hope  that members of the religious right have the courage to confront it.

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