Jefferson Versus the Historians, or Barton Versus the Historians? Thomas Kidd Responds to Arthur Sherr
Monday, April 14th, 2014
By Thomas Kidd
Church History’s Spring issue includes an article by Arthur Sherr, entitled “Thomas Jefferson Versus the Historians: Christianity, Atheistic Morality, and the Afterlife.” When the article appeared, we asked for comment from other historians who have studied the role of religion in Jefferson’s thought. (Last week’s response by John Ragosta is here.)
Thomas S. Kidd is professor of history at Baylor University, and is completing a biography of George Whitefield for Yale University Press.
The topic of Thomas Jefferson’s faith generates an extreme range of opinions. These run from Christian pop history writer David Barton’s insistence that, until late in life, Jefferson was an orthodox Christian, to Arthur Scherr’s contention in his Church History piece that Jefferson lived and died as an “Epicurean deistic pagan,” a pantheist, or perhaps even an atheist.
Barton’s The Jefferson Lies strained credulity by its selective use of evidence, leading Thomas Nelson publishers to pull the book from circulation in 2012. Scherr’s article respects standard historical practices in its use of evidence, and his analysis highlights many important aspects of Jefferson’s faith (or lack thereof). But as with other polemical views on Jefferson’s beliefs, Scherr’s thesis – that Jefferson considered himself no kind of Christian, not even a radically liberal one – outruns the nuances of the evidence.
To take one example, Scherr cites Jefferson’s 1788 letter in which he excused himself from serving as a godparent because the ritual would require him to affirm Trinitarian doctrine. (David Barton’s book neglected to address this letter.) “The difficulty of reconciling the ideas of Unity and Trinity, have, from a very early part of my life, excluded me from the office of sponsorship,” Jefferson confessed. Scherr thinks that the sentences that follow are more important: the prospect of godparenting had often been proposed to him by his friends, Jefferson noted, “who would have trusted, for the faithful discharge of it, to morality alone instead of which the church requires faith.”
Against the conventional reading of this passage, in which Jefferson is simply saying that doubts about the Trinity prevented his service as a godparent, Scherr interprets Jefferson as saying that he “did not believe in Christianity,” and that he was advancing the possibility that “an atheist could be a decent, moral person.” Later, Scherr does not explain the meaning of Jefferson’s famous 1803 statement “I am a Christian, in the only sense in which [Jesus] wished,” other than to note that this letter denied the resurrection.
Scherr’s article pits Jefferson against the “historians,” and it is quite an impressive roster of “scholarly adherents” whom Scherr regards as standing implicitly with the Religious Right in its co-opting of Jefferson. Thomas Buckley, Andrew Burstein, Peter Onuf, the late Edwin Gaustad, and others all seem to be part of those serving the interests of the Christian Right by “fecklessly attempt[ing] to depict [Jefferson] as a man of devout Christian faith.”
The worst offender, for Scherr, is Daniel Dreisbach. But I see little evidence in Scherr’s article that any of these historians, including Dreisbach, have tried to paint Jefferson (a la Barton) as a person of orthodox, Trinitarian faith. Instead, they have tried to account for Jefferson’s occasional comfort with government entanglement with religion, his fascination with the historical (though non-divine) Jesus of Nazareth, and his political alliance with many evangelicals, especially Baptists.
I covered many conservative and Christian historians’ rejection of Barton for the evangelical periodical WORLD Magazine in 2012. For one of those articles, I interviewed Dreisbach, who told me that he had a “‘very hard time’ accepting the notion,” advanced by Barton, “that Jefferson was ever an orthodox Christian, or that Jefferson ever embraced Christianity’s ‘transcendent claims.’” According to Scherr, Dreisbach is “closer to Barton than Barton’s opponents.” But in fact, across the ideological and faith spectrum Barton found virtually no scholarly supporters for The Jefferson Lies.
As an article on Jefferson’s faith, then, Scherr adds value to the scholarly discussion. The notion of Dreisbach and other historians bolstering David Barton’s caricature of Jefferson, however, is not reflected in what those scholars have actually written.