Tag Archives: Jesus

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.
What a wonderful thing to be learning history and at the same time be so entertained.”
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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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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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to be refreshingly different and innovative.”
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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.”

“They [OSBA members] were particularly enthralled
by your ability to answer their many questions …”
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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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I continue to hear compliments …”
Secretary/Treasurer, Virginia Association of Surveyors
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What made Jesus different? 5 of 5

The precepts of philosophy, and of the Hebrew code, laid hold of actions only. He [Jesus] pushed his scrutinies into the heart of man; erected his tribunal in the region of his thoughts, and purified the waters at the fountain head.
To Doctor Benjamin Rush, April 21, 1803
From Koch & Peden’s Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson, P. 519 – 522

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
The moral codes of the Jews and the philosophers, which Jefferson compared with Jesus’ doctrines, dealt with “actions only,” how people should or should not behave. Jesus went beyond that. He looked into the human heart, where thoughts and behaviors arise, and sought to make a difference there. Where others dealt with actions, Jesus dealt with what motivated those actions. Rather than police the actions, he sought to change the motivation so policing would no longer be necessary.

This post is part of a series of five, all taken from the same letter:
1. Why I don’t talk about religion publicly
2. Why you shouldn’t talk about religion publicly
3. Although I don’t talk about religion publicly
4. Jesus did talk about religion publicly
5. What made Jesus different?

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Jesus did talk about religion publicly – 4 of 5

His moral doctrines, relating to kindred [family] and friends were more pure and perfect than those of the most correct of the philosophers, and greatly more so than those of the Jews; and they went far beyond both in inculcating universal philanthropy [Webster’s 7th New Collegiate: “good will to fellow men; esp: active effort to promote human welfare”], not only to kindred and friends, to neighbors and countrymen, but to all mankind, gathering all into one family, under the bonds of love, charity, peace, common wants and common aids. A development of this head will evince [ibid, “display clearly: reveal] the peculiar superiority of the system of Jesus over all the others.
To Doctor Benjamin Rush, April 21, 1803
Koch & Peden’s Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson
P. 519 – 522

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Jefferson had received from another friend, Dr. Joseph Priestly, “his little treatise of “Socrates and Jesus Compared”.” That prompted Jefferson to consider the comparison more broadly, and he wrote a “Syllabus of an Estimate of the Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus, compared with those of others.” He included that summary with this letter to Dr. Rush. It compared Jesus’ views with those of seven ancient philosophers (Socrates, Epicurus and Cicero among the better known ones) and with those of the Jews.

He examined only the moral principles taught by the Jews, the philosophers  and Jesus (without any consideration of his divinity). He put Jesus’ doctrine ahead of the philosophers and way ahead of the Jews, for two reasons:
1. How one should treat family and friends was “more pure and perfect.”
2. Beyond that, Jesus’ promotion of “universal philanthropy,” not just to some but to “all mankind,” creating a common family united in love, kindness and service.

The title of Jefferson’s study began with the word “syllabus.” It was a summary only. Pursuing the subject in depth, which he was not prepared to do, would prove Jesus’ moral code to be unquestionably superior.

Jefferson could not have known any of this had Jesus not spoken very publicly about religion.

This post is part of a series of five, all taken from the same letter:
1. Why I don’t talk about religion publicly
2. Why you shouldn’t talk about religion publicly
3. Although I don’t talk about religion publicly
4. Jesus did talk about religion publicly
5. What made Jesus different

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Although I don’t talk about religion publicly, 3 of 5

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 him every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other.
To Doctor Benjamin Rush, April 21, 1803
Koch & Peden’s Life and Selected Writings of Thomas Jefferson
P. 519 – 522

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Leaders need friends who can be trusted completely.
Although Jefferson would not talk about religion publicly, and urged the same upon Dr. Rush, he had no difficulty sharing his very personal religious views in this letter. Why? Because Rush was a trusted friend, a man he’d known for a quarter century, since the time both had signed the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson knew Rush would keep his confidence.
These two sentences contain the essence of Jefferson’s views on Christianity. He believed:
1. Himself a Christian by virtue of his devotion to Jesus’ teaching “in preference to all others”;
2. Jesus was a man of “every human excellence.” (“Human” is italicized in K&P’s transcription, probably meaning it was underlined for emphasis in the author’s original version.)
3. Jesus was not divine and did not claim that status;
4. Anything beyond Jesus’ words and teaching constituted “corruptions of Christianity,” which he opposed.

This post is part of a series of five, all taken from the same letter:
1. Why I don’t talk about religion publicly
2. Why you shouldn’t talk about religion publicly
3. Although I don’t talk about religion publicly
4. Jesus did talk about religion publicly
5. What made Jesus different

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[you] then delivered above my expectations.”
Boone County National Bank
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Diamonds in the poop!

We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus … There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.
I have performed this operation for my own use, by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and arranging, the matter which is evidently his, and which is as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill. The result is an 8 vo. [octavo, a book 8-10” tall] of 46. pages of pure and unsophisticated doctrines, such as were professed and acted on by the unlettered apostles, the Apostolic fathers, and the Christians of the 1st. century.
To John Adams, October 13, 1813

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Discerning leaders know what’s important and what’s not.
Jefferson wrote a lengthy letter to his old friend, mostly an analysis of the Old and New Testaments. He took issue with portions of them but never with the words of Jesus. He thought Jesus, the man, was the greatest moral teacher who ever lived. Jefferson had no patience with those he felt had padded or added on to the prophet’s simple teaching. He wanted to reduce that voluminous work to its simplest basis.

With a razor blade and glue, he cut from the New Testament the words of Jesus and the empirical history of his lifetime found in the four Gospels and arranged them in one chronological account. He even created his own version of what would be called a “parallel Bible” today, with each verse rendered side-by-side in English, French, Latin and Greek.
He called it “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.” Later generations have dubbed it the “Jefferson Bible.” The Smithsonian Institute has recently refurbished the original work.

This project was for Jefferson’s personal and private use. He shared a copy with one or two trusted friends and the idea with several more, like Adams. Except for these few, its existence in Jefferson’s lifetime was unknown.

Your interpretation of Jefferson was inspiring
and was very appropriate for our audience of leaders …”
Executive Director, Missouri School Boards Association

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