Monday, April 21st, 2014
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 Frank Cogliano for his comments. We also asked John Ragosta, whose response is here, and Thomas Kidd, whose response is here.
Frank Cogliano is a professor of American history and Dean International for North America at the University of Edinburgh. He has authored or edited nine books on revolutionary and early national America, including Thomas Jefferson: Reputation and Legacy (2006) and Emperor of Liberty: Thomas Jefferson’s Foreign Policy (2014).
In “Thomas Jefferson Versus the Historians” Arthur Scherr challenges the view that Jefferson’s “wall of separation” between church and state was permeable and that the Sage of Monticello was a devout Christian. The view of a Christian Jefferson who accepted a blurring of the boundary between church and state, supported fast days and attended church services in public buildings, has gained traction in recent years particularly among those who advocate for a “Christian Founding” of the American Republic. If Jefferson, so long portrayed as deistic skeptic who believed a wall should separate church and state, the president who excised miracles from the New Testament, can be shown to be a devout Christian, then there can be no question that the United States was founded as a Christian nation and (by implication) should be a Christian nation today. This view has most prominently, and controversially, been promulgated by David Barton – whose work has been discredited even on the Christian Right. (Barton makes a cameo appearance in this essay but, thankfully in my view, isn’t its main focus.)
Arthur Scherr challenges and seeks to refute the Christian Jefferson, arguing that Jefferson believed in a strict separation of church and state and denying that he was a Christian, at least in the sense recognized by Americans at the turn of the nineteenth century. Scherr’s Jefferson was comfortable with atheism and, while he believed in the moral teachings of Jesus, denied Jesus’s divinity, rejecting the afterlife and organized Christianity in old age. Scherr does so through a close reading of some of the scholars who have written recently on the issue of Jefferson and religion, notably Daniel Dreisbach, James Hutson and Edwin Gaustad. He provides a detailed point-by-point refutation of their main arguments. His analysis of Dreisbach’s main argument is excellent. On balance his analysis is persuasive. I find Scherr’s Jefferson more compatible with my own understanding of Jefferson’s religion than I do Dreisbach’s (despite Scherr’s characterization of my own treatment of Dreisbach and Hutson as sympathetic, p. 67 n. 17).
Despite this, I respectfully disagree with certain aspects of Scherr’s analysis. For example when he discusses Jefferson’s reluctant acceptance of wartime fast days during his tenure as governor of Virginia, Scherr asserts that Jefferson was “merely following orders from the House of Delegates” (63) and Congress. In 1779, Scherr argues, Jefferson followed the orders of Congress for fear “he would have been suspected of treason or loyalism if he did not.” (66) I think this is a misreading of the situation. While the Virginia constitution of 1776 created a very weak executive, the House of Delegates couldn’t issue orders to the governor. Students of the War of Independence will know that Congress similarly lacked the authority to order state governors to act. While a small matter, I think Scherr has overstated his case somewhat to explain away Jefferson’s support for, or at least his failure to oppose, wartime fast days.
While close reading of the sources, both primary and secondary is the key to Scherr’s analysis, I think he sometimes misreads Jefferson. He suggests that Jefferson’s failure to capitalize “god” “unconsciously” implies “irreverence” (93). Perhaps. Perhaps not. Anyone who’s spent time perusing Jefferson’s writings in manuscript, as Scherr surely has, will know that Jefferson was inconsistent in his use of capital letters. Similarly I don’t think Jefferson actually feared that Presbyterians would introduce an inquisition in Virginia in 1820. (103) His rhetorical excesses when writing about his political opponents are well-documented and this seems to be such a case.
My most serious observation concerns the eponymous “historians” who have misread Jefferson’s religion, according to Scherr. While these include leading figures in the field such as Dreisbach, Hutson and Gaustad, Scherr fails to discuss the work of the likes of John Ragosta and Johann Neem which generally support his view. This may seem curious, except this literature somewhat undermines the premise the article—that there is a “trendy” (106, n. 106) historiographical consensus in favor of a Christian Jefferson which needs to be refuted. As the scholarship of Ragosta and Neem demonstrates this is something of an historiographical straw man.
I was a little bit dismayed by Dr. Scherr’s treatment of some of his fellow scholars. He castigates Andrew Burstein, unfairly in my view, as “vapid” and “perfunctory” (104) for his treatment of Jefferson’s late-in-life views on immortality. He is especially critical that Burstein bases his argument on one letter that Jefferson wrote to Francis Van Der Kemp on January 11. 1825. Burstein’s reading of the Van Der Kemp letter is considerably more persuasive, I believe, than attempting to divine Jefferson’s unconscious thoughts from his orthography. At any rate, Burstein’s scholarship warrants more temperate and measured consideration than it receives here.
Arthur Scherr has written a fascinating analysis of Jefferson’s religious thought. He has taken on some of the most influential writing on the subject in a persuasive manner. I’m largely sympathetic with his portrait of Jefferson. Perhaps more historians share his view than Scherr realizes. This article isn’t so much about Jefferson versus the historians as Jefferson versus some historians.