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A Review of Sworn on the Altar of God: A Religious Biography of Thomas Jefferson

Any discussion of the relationship of religion and the state is almost certain to involve the views of Thomas Jefferson at some point.

  • Byron Snapp,
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Any discussion of the relationship of religion and the state is almost certain to involve the views of Thomas Jefferson at some point. In this volume the author provides a thorough presentation of Jefferson’s religious views and Jefferson’s desire to implement those views in America, based on Gaustad’s extensive research.

Jefferson was born into an Anglican family. He died an Anglican. However, Anglican doctrine never gripped Jefferson. He grew up in a time when many colonies adopted one Protestant religion to the exclusion of others. He opposed such practice by civil government. While serving as governor of Virginia, he worked to defeat such laws in the state. He supported James Madison’s successful opposition to Patrick Henry’s attempt to establish Christianity as the religion in Virginia. Jefferson was fearful that such establishment would later lead to one Protestant branch becoming the favored religion.

Jefferson believed all religions taught the same morality. The few that failed in this area could be reasoned with to recognize the validity of such morality. This belief reveals his strong allegiance to reason as being the basic guide in life. Proper conclusions could be reached by examination of the evidence. He was greatly influenced by Enlightenment teaching. Jefferson failed to see that by faith he held this view of the supremacy of reason. He could not prove that everything could be reasoned out. Thus, he held a faith position while constantly opposing the Christian’s faith that was rooted in God’s revelation.

Jefferson opposed Biblical teaching that he could not understand. He did not believe in the Trinity, original sin, or the miracles of Christ. In fact, for his own study he composed a small book entitled “The Life and Morals of Jesus.” These pages were what remained from the gospel accounts after he extracted Christ’s miracles, teachings inconsistent with reason, and the account of Christ’s resurrection. The remaining moral teachings were sufficient for man to use in working his way to heaven.

Jefferson consistently sought to employ this philosophy in his efforts as a statesman and educator. In correspondence with colonial leaders, such as his close friend James Madison and men like Benjamin Franklin and John Adams, he furthered his ideas.

He failed to understand the lordship of Christ in all of life. He desired a high degree of morality but refused to believe the roots, fruits, and antidote for original sin. He had no problem with general morality being a part of educational life. However, he opposed more definitive religious instruction in the state. Ultimately, what Jefferson desired was the establishment of his own religious views within the new nation. His religious views operated within terms of reason, not faith. In reality his view of God was a religious view. It was quite different from the views of many of his opponents who sought to uphold Biblical teaching.

Gaustad has done a superb job in researching and presenting Jefferson’s views. He examines the application of those views as they impacted Jefferson’s life and society as a statesman at home and abroad and as an educator, particularly in his establishment of the University of Virginia. Of additional interest are quotations from letters to and from the men mentioned above as well as the influential Unitarian Joseph Priestley.

The author’s writing is scholarly, yet very interesting reading.

Those desiring to delve into the religious differences in early America and into the anti-Christian views among some colonial leaders will profit from reading this volume. Above all, readers can gain a better understanding of the context and formulation of the term “separation of church and state” that remains a contemporary term used in many political discussions.

  • Byron Snapp

Byron Snapp is a graduate of King College (B.A.) and Reformed Theological Seminary (M.Div.). He was Associate Pastor at Calvary Reformed Presbyterian Church, Hampton, Virginia, from 1994 until his retirement in December 2014. He is a native of Marion, Virginia.  He has had pastorates in Leakesville, Mississippi, and Gaffney, South Carolina.  He served as Assistant Pastor in Cedar Bluff, Virginia prior to his ministry at Calvary Reformed. He has served as editor of the Presbyterian Witness and was a contributor to A Comprehensive Faith and Election Day Sermons. He is currently a member of Westminster Presbytery in the PCA. He and his wife Janey have 3 children and several grandchildren. 

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