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Category Archives: Religion

We agree on three essential principles!

The satisfaction which you express …  with the substitution of economy for taxation, & the progress and prospect exhibited of the discharge of our public debt within a convenient period, is a proof of that soundness of [your] political principle … the preference you give to the late acquisition of territory by just & peaceable means, rather than by rapine & bloodshed, is in the genuine spirit of that primitive Christianity, which so peculiarly inculcated the doctrines of peace, justice, and good will to all mankind.
To the Portsmouth, Virginia Baptist Society, January 20, 1804

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
All leaders appreciate an atta-boy!
In a November 1803 letter to the President, the Society expressed their appreciation for the direction of the new government. Jefferson acknowledged their thank-you and reiterated three areas of agreement:
1. Better for government to do less rather than tax more.
2. Prudent to have a specific plan for paying off the national debt.
3. Acquiring Louisiana by diplomacy and not war demonstrated “that primitive Christianity” characterized by “peace, justice and good will to all mankind.”

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I will tell close friends only and no one else.

A promise to a friend sometime ago, executed but lately, has placed my religious creed on paper. I am desirous it should be perused by three or four particular friends, with whom tho’ I never desired to make a mystery of it, yet no occasion has happened to occur of explaining it to them. it is communicated for their personal satisfaction, & to enable them to judge of the truth or falsehood of the libels published on that subject. when read, the return of the paper with this cover is asked.
To Henry Dearborn and Levi Lincoln, April 23, 1803

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders trust close associates with personal revelation.
In the preceding post, Jefferson shared his personal religious beliefs, in the form of a Syllabus, with an old friend, Benjamin Rush. In this letter, he shared that same information with two of his Cabinet members, Secretary of War Dearborn and Attorney General Lincoln.

Although Jefferson believed his personal views should remain private, he had no hesitation in sharing them with close friends. Writing the Syllabus for Dr. Rush also gave him the opportunity to send copies to several trusted associates. Jefferson was widely criticized in the opposition press on the subject of religion. He could not change what his opponents thought of him, but he did care what his friends thought. Sharing this very private, personal information would allow his friends “to judge of the truth or falsehood” of what they read in the papers.

Always sensitive to criticism and wary of adding fuel to his opponent’s fire, he insisted Dearborn and Lincoln return their copies of the Syllabus along with this cover letter.

“Your portrayal of Thomas Jefferson was riveting.
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The rest of that stuff is fake news.

to the corruptions of Christianity, I am indeed opposed; but not to 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; ascribing to himself every human excellence, & believing he never claimed any other. .. I am moreover averse to the communication of my religious tenets to the public; because it would countenance [support] the presumption of those who have endeavored to draw them before that tribunal, and to seduce public opinion to erect itself into that Inquisition over the rights of conscience, which the laws have so justly proscribed.
To Benjamin Rush, April 21, 1803

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
All leaders pick and choose what they will believe.
In writing to his old friend and confidante, Jefferson expressed views very similar to those in his letter to Edward Dowse, the source of the preceding four posts. He expressed his devotion to Jesus, asserted his own Christianity, and warned his friend to keep the matter between the two of them and explained why.

As “to the corruptions of Christianity,” these would be everything in the four gospels that Jefferson thought shouldn’t be there (the unprovable, the miraculous and anything divine), ‘fake news’ in 2018 parlance. His version of Christianity was devotion to Jesus the man, only, and his teachings.

Jefferson did not want to share his “religious tenets” with the public. To do so would support the position of those who thought they had a right to know those beliefs. The Constitution and laws were properly limited to people’s actions only, not their thoughts. No individual or public forum had the right to inquire into what the Constitution decreed as private.

If you care to wade through it, Jefferson enclosed this document with his letter, “Doctrines of Jesus Compared with Others.”

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Your religion is NONE of my business!

[This post is the last of four from this one letter.]

… I never will, by any word or act, bow to the shrine of intolerance, or admit a right of enquiry into the religious opinions of others. on the contrary we are bound, you, I, & every one, to make common cause, even with error itself, to maintain the common right of freedom of conscience. we ought with one heart and one hand to hew [cut] down the daring and dangerous efforts of those who would seduce the public opinion to substitute itself into that tyranny over religious faith which the laws have so justly abdicated. for this reason, were my opinions up to the standard of those who arrogate [claim without justification] the right of questioning them, I would not countenance that arrogance by descending to an explanation.
To Edward Dowse, April 19, 1803

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Principled leaders respect the privacy of all moral beliefs.
Concluding a letter in which Jefferson wrote openly about his appreciation for the superiority of Jesus’ teaching while respecting the contribution of others to the moral canon, he took direct aim at those who sought to inquire into this most private realm:
1. He vowed total opposition to religious intolerance or even questioning another’s beliefs.
2. All are bound to support “the common right of freedom of conscience,” even for those they believe to be in error.
3. Since the Constitution guaranteed religious freedom, the efforts of those who sought any form of religious tyranny should be destroyed.
4. He would not dignify with answers the inquiries of those who claimed a right to question his religious beliefs.

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Jesus compared with other moral authorities, Part 3 of 4

[This post is the third of four drawn from this one letter.]

… their philosophy [all ancient moral authorities except Jesus] went chiefly to the government of our passions, so far as respected ourselves, & the procuring our own tranquility. on our duties to others they were short & deficient. they extended their cares scarcely beyond our kindred & friends individually, & our country in the abstract. Jesus embraced, with charity & philanthropy, our neighbors, our countrymen, & the whole family of mankind. they confined themselves to actions: he pressed his scrutinies into the region of our thoughts, & called for purity at the fountain
To Edward Dowse, April 19, 1803

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
How broad is a leader’s compassion? What is its source?
In the preceding post, Jefferson took issue with another who established Jesus’ superior moral standing by criticizing all other philosophers. Here, Jefferson compared and contrasted what each contributed to the moral canon.

All other ancient philosophers:
1. Taught self-control as a means to personal happiness and contentment
2. Were concerned only for family and friends and abstractly for the government
3. Rarely showed concern for those beyond their immediate circle
4. Confined themselves to actions only, not the motivation for those actions

Jesus:
1. Founded his philosophy on love and generosity
2. Embraced all people, near and far, on that basis
3. Was concerned not with action alone but the internal motivation for that action
4. Good behavior was not enough. Purity of motive was essential, too.

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Do not belittle others to make your point. Part 2 of 4

[This post is the second of four drawn from this one letter.]

… I must also add that tho’ I concur with the author in considering the moral precepts of Jesus, as more pure, correct, & sublime than those of the antient philosophers, yet I do not concur with him in the mode of proving it. he thinks it necessary to libel and decry the doctrines of the philosophers. but a man must be blinded indeed by prejudice, who can deny them a great degree of merit. I give them their just due, & yet maintain that the morality of Jesus, as taught by himself & freed from the corruptions of later times, is far superior
To Edward Dowse, April 19, 1803

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders know effective leadership is not a zero-sum game.
Jefferson agreed with the moral status credited to Jesus by the author of a sermon forwarded to him by Edward Dowse. He did not agree with the author’s method of proving it, which was to belittle the beliefs of other ancient philosophers.

To Jefferson, Jesus could remain the most “pure, correct & sublime” of all philosophers while appreciating what others contributed to the moral canon. One who built up one moral authority while belittling all the others “must be blinded indeed by prejudice.”

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Shall we evangelize the Indians? Part 1 of 4

[This post is the first of four from this one letter.]

I now return the sermon you were so kind as to inclose me, having perused it with attention. the reprinting it by me, as you have proposed, would very readily be ascribed to hypocritical affectation [artificial, pretended, offered only to impress], by those who, when they cannot blame our acts, have recourse to the expedient of imputing them to bad motives. this is a resource which can never fail them; because there is no act, however virtuous, for which ingenuity may not find some bad motive.
To Edward Dowse, April 19, 1803

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Bad leaders will always find a way to criticize virtuous acts.
Dowse (1756–1828), a Massachusetts merchant, had forwarded a sermon by William Bennet, The Excellence of Christian Morality, which had been delivered at a meeting in Scotland. Something in the sermon suggested to Dowse its value in evangelizing the Indians in America, and he asked the President to reproduce it for use by American missionaries.

Jefferson read the sermon carefully and returned it, declining Dowse’s suggestion. Why?
1. As President, he avoided any theological favoritism.
2.His opponents would label him a hypocrite if he now championed this worthwhile effort.
3. Some people were so jaded and clever they could find sinister motives in even virtuous acts.

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Jesus trumps all the ancient moral philosophers!

I had promised some day to write … my view of the Christian system … [after taking] a general view of the moral doctrines of the most remarkeable of the antient philosophers … I should proceed to a view of the life, character, & doctrines of Jesus … a pure[r] deism, and juster notions of the attributes of god, to reform their moral doctrines to the standard of reason, justice, & philanthropy, and to inculcate the belief of a future state. this view would purposely omit the question of his divinity & even of his inspiration … [and] shew a master workman, and that his system of morality was the most benevolent & sublime probably that has been ever taught; and eminently more perfect than those of any of the antient philosophers.
To Joseph Priestley, April 9, 1803

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders take pains to assess the morals of even wiser ones.
Priestley (1733-1804) was a renowned English-born scientist, philosopher, theologian, and Jefferson confidante. The work envisioned here was completed in 1804 with the title, “The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth.” Fifteen years later, in 1819, he produced an expanded version called, “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.” That final version, excerpts from the four Gospels was produced in parallel form, with English, Greek, Latin and French translations on each page. Both were produced solely for his personal, private meditation, and made known to only a very few. Some years after his death, it would come be known, however incorrectly, as “The Jefferson Bible.”

Jefferson’s work focused only on Jesus’ words and historical accounts from the Gospels. Omitted were any claims of divinity and all of his miracles. Those, Jefferson believed, had been added by Jesus’ disciples to embellish their teacher. Even so, he found Jesus to be “more perfect” than all ancient philosophers “and that his system of morality was the most benevolent & sublime probably that has been ever taught.”

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Such a level-headed clergyman is rare! And appreciated!

the restoration of the rights of conscience to two thirds of the citizens of Virginia in the beginning of the revolution [the disestablishment of state church in 1786], has merited to those who had agency in it, the everlasting hostility of such of the clergy as have a hankering after the union of church & state. the right of political opinion is as sacred as that of religious, and altho’ a man’s political opinions ought to have influence in confiding political trusts, they should no more affect the state of society than his religious opinions.
To Daniel D’Oyley, August 15, 1802

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders oppose religious control but not religious influence.
South Carolinian D’Oyley forwarded to the President a July 4th address by a Baptist pastor in Charleston. That clergyman supported the revolution a quarter century before and the current administration’s efforts to safeguard the nation’s republican principles, especially the separation of church and state. Such reasoned support from the clergy was rare.

Jefferson harkened back to his successful effort in the 1780s to break the official tie between the Anglican church and Virginia’s government. Those who supported that effort bore the wrath of the clergy whose favored position was eliminated.

Both political and religious rights were sacred and should be acted upon, but one was not superior to the other.

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Why focus on the ONLY area where you disagree?

I consider it a great felicity [happiness], through a long and trying course of life, to have retained the esteem of my early friends unabated. I find in old age that the impressions of youth are the deepest & most indelible. some friends indeed have left me by the way, seeking, by a different political path, the same object, their country’s good, which I pursued, with the crowd, along the common highway. it is a satisfaction to me that I was not the first to leave them. I have never thought that a difference in political, any more than in religious opinions should disturb the friendly intercourse of society. there are so many other topics on which friends may converse & be happy, that it is wonderful [astonishing, in this context] they should select of preference the only one on which they cannot agree.
To David Campbell, January 28, 1810

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders maintain friendships with those who disagree.
Jefferson appreciated friends who stuck with him over the decades. He acknowledged that philosophical differences inspired some to seek the country’s good “by a different political path” than his, and that cost him some friendships. He took satisfaction that any loss of friendship over political differences was not his doing but the choice of others.

Why should political or religious differences separate people? Why pick the one area of disagreement and make that the deciding factor in what could be an otherwise cordial relationship? Such choices astonished Jefferson when there was so much common ground where “friends may converse & be happy.”

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