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Category Archives: Religion

Let us remain where all religions agree.

at an earlier period of life I pursued enquiries of that kind with industry & care. reading, reflection & time have convinced me that the interests of society require the observation of those moral precepts only in which all religions agree, (for all forbid us to murder, steal, plunder, or bear false witness.) and that we should not intermeddle with the particular dogmas in which all religions differ, and which are totally unconnected with morality.
To James Fishback, September 27, 1809

April 13 is Mr. Jefferson’s 274th Birthday!

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders seek common ground between opponents.
Fishback (1776-1845) was a Kentucky lawyer, physician, editor, active Presbyterian and later a Baptist minister. The 30 page pamphlet he sent Jefferson was entitled, in part, “The Philosophy of the Human Mind in Respect to Religion … Also, an Inquiry Into the Production, Nature, and Effects of the Christian Faith, According to the Expositions of Christ …”

Jefferson’s lifelong study of religion had convinced him that people of varying faiths, in their public engagements, should restrict their interaction to areas where all religions agreed, primarily regarding moral conduct. Where those faiths disagreed (and where their proponents liked to argue!) involved their “particular dogmas” which had nothing to morality.

Jefferson regarded Jesus as the world’s greatest teacher, though not divine. Here he could find common ground with the evangelical Fishback, whose basis for analyzing Christianity was “According to the Expositions of Christ.” Both men could look at Jesus’ own words and regard them (and him) as extraordinary, even if they disagreed on his divine nature.

“Each year we have a guest speaker,
and none has ever been so widely praised.”
Secretary, Missouri Emergency Preparedness Association
Mr. Jefferson will earn the praise of your members.
Invite him to speak. Call 573-657-2739
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I accept THEIR opinion, but I trust in YOURS.

I gladly lay down the distressing burthen of power…the part which I have acted on the theatre of public life, has been before them [the citizens of the nation]; & to their sentence I submit it: but the testimony of my native county, of the individuals who have known me in private life, to my conduct in it’s various duties, & relations, is the more grateful as proceeding from eye witnesses & observers … of you then, my neighbors, I may ask, in the face of the world, ‘whose ox have I taken, or whom have I defrauded? whom have I oppressed, or of whose hand have I recieved a bribe to blind mine eyes therewith’? on your verdict I rest with conscious security
To the Inhabitants of Albemarle County, April 3, 1809

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Honest leaders have no fear of going home to stay.
Albemarle County, Virginia was Jefferson’s home county. Its citizens had welcomed his return to Monticello after his retirement, and he prepared this acknowledgement.

He was glad to be done with power! He believed he had acted honorably in office and was willing to accept whatever verdict came from the nation. He was far more concerned with the verdict of his neighbors and friends, people who had known him for decades.

In addressing his friends, he also made his response to distant observers who questioned his judgment, morals and faith. To these who knew him well, he quoted the prophet Samuel from the Old Testament (1 Sam. 12:3), asking whom had he cheated, oppressed or deprived of justice? He would live out his remaining years among those friends and neighbors in the confidence (“conscious security”) of their judgment.

“Mr. Lee has presented as Thomas Jefferson …
on two different occasions and in two very different formats.
In both instances, the presentations were of exceedingly high quality …”

Executive Director, Missouri Humanities Council
Whatever your meeting, Mr. Jefferson will bring a relevant message.
Invite him to speak. Call 573-657-2739
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We need divine help, too.

… I shall need too the favour of that being in whose hands we are: who led our fathers, as Israel of old, from their native land; and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries & comforts of life; who has covered our infancy with his providence, & our riper years with his wisdom & power: & to whose goodness I ask you to join in supplications with me, that he will so enlighten the minds of your servants, guide their councils, & prosper their measures, that whatsoever they do shall result in your good, & shall secure to you the peace, friendship, & approbation of all nations.
Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1805

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders know man’s help is not enough.
I excerpted several of the opening paragraphs of this major address and skipped ones that followed. The omitted ones dealt with native Americans and the challenges of their assimilation, the abuses printed by some newspapers, a reiteration of the limited, essential purposes of American government, and a plea for forgiveness for errors in his judgment.

This is the conclusion to Jefferson’s address, a plea for divine help. Jefferson rarely refers to that source as God and never as Jesus, yet he recognized and petitioned “that being” who had:
– Led us to a land blessed with abundant resources
– Protected us in “our infancy”
– Gave us wisdom and power as we matured
Jefferson asked his fellow citizens to join him in “supplications” (earnest or humble requests) for wisdom for America’s leaders, that their actions would result in “your good” at home, and peace, friendship and approval abroad.

“Thank you for a very excellent presentation.”
Executive Director, Associated General Contractors of Missouri
Mr. Jefferson will bring an excellent presentation to your audience.
Invite him to speak. Call 573-657-2739
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Religion is none of our business.

In matters of Religion, I have considered that it’s free exercise is placed by the constitution independant of the powers of the general government. I have therefore undertaken, on no occasion, to prescribe the religious exercises suited to it: but have left them, as the constitution found them, under the direction & discipline of the state or church authorities acknoleged by the several religious societies.
Second Inaugural Address, March 5, 1805

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Principled leaders respect firm boundaries on their authority.
Jefferson reiterated a familiar theme, that the Constitution prohibited the federal government’s involvement in religion, either to promote or inhibit its exercise. That authority was left to the states and the churches within them. For that reason, as President, he had proclaimed no national days of prayer, fasting or thanksgiving.

Twenty years before, Jefferson’s ban on state involvement in religion was adopted in Virginia. He claimed that as one of three accomplishments for which he wished to be remembered and had it recorded on his tombstone. He held that government authority extended only to an individual’s actions, not his thoughts or beliefs. That left religious practice entirely to the individual.

“You gave us an excellent program!
… and would highly recommend your presentation to others.”
Executive Director, New Mexico Federal Executive Board
Mr. Jefferson comes well-recommended!
Invite him to speak. Call 573-657-2739
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Go for it! vs. Tread very carefully here!

… He [I, Granger writing in third person] cannot therefore wish a Sentence changed, or a Sentiment expressed equivocally—A more fortunate time can never be expected.—
Gideon Granger to Thomas Jefferson, December 31, 1801

… The people of the five N England Governments … have always been in the habit of observing fasts and thanksgivings in “pursuance of proclamations from their respective Executives.” This custom is venerable being handed down from our ancestors. The Republicans of those States generally have a respect for it … I think the religious sentiment expressed in your proposed answer of importance to be communicated, but that it would be best to have it so guarded, as to be incapable of having it construed into an implied censure of the usages of any of the States.
Levi Lincoln to Thomas Jefferson, January 1, 1802

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders know when to stifle their own strongly-held opinions.
Jefferson hoped to use a letter from the Danbury Baptists for a purpose of his own. Although they hadn’t asked, he wanted in reply to explain why he had not proclaimed national days of prayer or thanksgiving as Washington and Adams had done.

He usually sought the opinions of his top advisors, so he sent his draft reply to two New Englanders, to assess the reaction of Republicans to what could be a sensitive issue. Granger, of Connecticut, was Postmaster General. Lincoln, of Massachusetts, was Attorney General.

Granger acknowldeged their would be backlash but advised Jefferson to go ahead with his response exactly as written. Lincoln was more guarded. He didn’t disagree with Jefferson’s position but suggested the wording could be softened so as to give no offense to their New England supporters. He even suggested how Jefferson might do that.

What did Jefferson do in response to conflicting opinions from two top lieutenants on an issue he felt very strongly about? He omitted the matter entirely from his now famous “wall of separation” response.

“Your performances during our annual summer conference
were exactly what our conference needed to take it over the top.”
Minnesota Rural Electric Association
Thomas Jefferson will take your audience over the top.
Invite him to speak. Call 573-657-2739
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Will my opposition to national religious observances upset our allies?

…the [Danbury]Baptist address now inclosed … furnishes an occasion too, which I have long wished to find, of saying why I do not proclaim fastings & thanksgivings, as my predecessors did. the address to be sure does not point at this, and it’s introduction is awkward, but I foresee no opportunity of doing it more pertinently. I know it will give great offence to the New England clergy. but the advocate for religious freedom is to expect neither peace nor forgiveness from them…
To Levi Lincoln, January 1, 1802

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders are careful not to offend the sensibilities of loyal supporters.
The President sent a draft of his reply to the Danbury Baptists to his Massachusetts-born Attorney General. In particular, he wanted to know how Republican New Englanders would react.

In the last post, also taken from this letter, Jefferson said he used his responses to citizen addresses to teach the people “useful truths & principles.” In this excerpt, he found an opportunity he had long sought, to explain why he did not declare national days of religious expression as Washington and Adams had done.

Curiously, Jefferson noted that the Danbury Baptists had not raised that issue, but he would use their address about religious rights to discuss it. This might be the best shot he would get.

He knew this would displease “the New England clergy,” whose traditions he opposed. Still, he was intent on equal religious freedom for all, knowing his opponents would neither accept nor forgive what he had done.

“The authenticity of your portrayal of Thomas Jefferson …
provided a sense of 18th Century reality for all …”
Great Rivers Council, Boy Scouts of America
If Thomas Jefferson impressed pre-adolescent boys, he will really impress your adult audience!
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Since I have to do it, I will make it count!

Averse to recieve addresses, yet unable to prevent them, I have generally endeavored to turn them to some account, by making them the occasion by way of answer, of sowing useful truths & principles among the people, which might germinate and become rooted among their political tenets.
To Levi Lincoln, January 1, 1802

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Astute leaders turn duties they don’t like into opportunities to teach.
Jefferson had just received on the same day a 700 pound cheese from the Cheshire Baptists of Massachusetts and an address (a written declaration, often stating a position or making a request) from the Danbury Baptists of Connecticut and New York. The latter protested that their religious practices were given as privileges, not rights, by their state government, whose official church was Congregational.

Jefferson’s reply has been embraced by opposing camps as support for their position on religion and government. It contained those famous words, “a wall of separation between Church & State.”

Jefferson disliked addresses in general but felt duty-bound to respond. Thus, he would use the unwished-for task as a opportunity to “sow useful truths & principles among the people …” The point he wanted to make will be the subject of the next post.

The President included a draft of his response to the Danbury folks with this letter and asked Lincoln’s comments.

“I have now hired you three times to present your characters to my annual conference …
Each brought value and a unique, inspiring message to our group.”
Executive Director, National Coal Transportation Association
For a valuable, unique and inspiring message, Thomas Jefferson is your man!
Invite him to speak. Call 573-657-2739
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Who cut the cheese?

I concur with you … that the constitution of the United States is a Charter of authorities and duties, not a Charter of rights to it’s officers; and that among it’s most precious provisions are the right of suffrage, the prohibition of religious tests, and it’s means of peaceable amendment. nothing ensures the duration of this fair fabric of government so effectually as the due sense entertained, by the body of our citizens, of the value of these principles, & their care to preserve them.
To the Committee of Cheshire, Massachusetts, January 1, 1802

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Astute leaders recognize the value of symbolism.
The President confirmed the assertons of Cheshire Baptists in their addresses to him, namely:
1. The Constitution confers duties on its officers, not rights.
2. Rights were conferred, instead, on the citizens. These included the right to vote, of freedom from a religious requirement, and to peacefully amend that Constitution.

What, more than anything else, protects the government and the rights it confers? It is the belief of its citizens that these rights are valuable and must be preserved.

What was the occasion of these high-minded remarks? It was the presentation by the Cheshire Baptists of a 1,200 pound cheese, four feet in dimater, descibed in a 2012 post. (Thus, the title of this post …)

The editors of the Thomas Jefferson letters provide a lengthy (!) explanation of the “mammoth cheese” and its symbolism. Buried in that account is that Jefferson, who wrote out his response, may have read it aloud to his gathered guests. If so, it would have been one of his very few public addresses. Jefferson dealt in written words, not spoken ones.

“My franchisees thoroughly enjoyed your portrayal of Thomas Jefferson …
Keep up the good work …”
Franchisor, Mail Boxes, Etc.
Your audience will enjoy Thomas Jefferson!
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Your church is welcome here!

I have recieved … [your] application [for] the purchase of a site for a Roman Catholic church … I have referred the paper to them [the Commissioners of Washington City, now D.C.] , recommending to them all the favor which the object of the purchase would urge, the advantages of every kind which it would promise, and their duties permit. I shall be happy on this and on every other occasion of shewing my respect & concern for the religious society over which you preside in these states …
To [Bishop] John Carroll, September 3, 1801

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders encourage moral influences.
The Bishop in Baltimore along with others applied to buy public land for a Catholic church in the nation’s capital. Neither the approval nor the price were Jefferson’s to decide. Those choices were up to the city’s commissioners.

Jefferson was no particular friend to the Catholic church or any faith which dictated what its members must believe or subjected non-believers to their creed. Yet, he was a friend to churches in general and encouraged their proliferation. He appreciated the moral codes practiced by their members, believing society as a whole benefitted from them. Thus, he added his recommendation to the Catholics’ application.

“He was willing on all accounts
to go beyond the requested action and do more.”
Executive Director, Greater St. Louis Federal Executive Board
Mr. Jefferson will exceed your expectations.
Invite him to speak. Call 573-657-2739
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Let us observe Thanksgiving on December 9.

Whereas the Honourable the General Congress, impressed with a grateful sense of the goodness of Almighty God … hath thought proper … to recommend to the several states that Thursday the 9th of December next be appointed a day of publick and solemn thanksgiving and prayer …

I do therefore by authority from the General Assembly issue this my proclamation, hereby appointing Thursday the 9th day of December next, a day of publick and solemn thanksgiving and prayer to Almighty God, earnestly recommending to all the good people of this commonwealth, to set apart the said day for those purposes, and to the several Ministers of religion to meet their respective societies thereon, to assist them in their prayers, edify them with their discourses, and generally to perform the sacred duties of their function, proper for the occasion.
Thomas Jefferson’s Proclamation as Governor, November 11, 1779

Patrick Lee’s Explanation

The Continental Congress requested the States to issue their individual proclamations for a day of thanksgiving and prayer on December 9. America’s war for independence was continuing, and its successful conclusion was far from guaranteed. Jefferson was Governor of Virginia at the time, and he issued the summons.

The bulk of Jefferson’s proclamation contains the language offered by the Congress. While he would have agreed with the great majority of sentiments expressed, he would have taken exception to some, particularly with regard to Christianity. Because this proclamation was issued over his name, some might claim all of those sentiments were his. Not so. Jefferson was thankful and encouraged gratitude in others, but he issued this proclamation in his official capacity, not as an individual.

The closing paragraph above was Jefferson’s own words. He recommended the day as a religious one, for thanksgiving and prayer, and for ministers to assist their congregants toward that end. Jefferson was not anti-religion. He very much supported the moral influence religion offered to its adherents and to society, but he drew a hard line against any creed (or individual) dictating what people must think or do.

In some unpublished drafts written as President, he specifically declined to make such proclamations, believing them to be religious in nature. As head of the national government, he believed the Constitution forbade his making those recommendations. Those expressions were the province of the states and religious leaders only.

Thomas Jefferson, personally, would not hesitate at all
to wish you a happy and grateful Thanksgiving Day!
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