The Jefferson Bible

Many people who would like religion taught in public schools often cite the fact that the First Amendment does not actually use the words “separation of church and state.” This is true. It doesn’t. However, on October 7, 1801, the Baptist Association (Church) of Danbury, Connecticut, wrote to newly elected president Thomas Jefferson to ask his views on church and state. The Danbury Church thought church and state should remain separate.

To this Jefferson replied on January 1, 1802, and I quote:

“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”

This letter, in fact, has been cited in two Supreme Court cases which affirmed the separation of church and state: Reynolds vs the United States (1879) and Everson vs. the Board of Education (1947).

Jefferson’s letter concerned the First Amendment. However, for people who bought into the idiotic conspiracy nonsense that Obama was a Muslim (he wasn’t and isn’t), it wouldn’t have mattered if he was, because here’s what the Constitution itself says about federal office holders. It comes in Article VI, clause 3:

“The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

In other words, the government can’t require its leaders to adhere to any (or no) religion as a qualification for office. Constitutionally it’s perfectly acceptable for Muslims, atheists, or any other person of faith or lack thereof to hold office.

But back to Jefferson. My religious friends might also be dismayed that, while a theist, Jefferson wasn’t a Christian in the sense that many people define the term. He admired the teachings and morals of Jesus, but thought all references to the supernatural were nonsense. To this end, twice he cut and pasted sections of the New Testament (KJV) to construct his own little book. It contained the sayings of Jesus, but excluded references to the virgin birth, angels, miracles, the Resurrection, and any passages that portrayed Jesus as divine.

His goal was to clarify the teachings of Jesus, which he believed provided “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.”

Explaining why he edited out the supernatural parts, he said, “In extracting the pure principles which [Jesus] taught, we should have to strip off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests, who have travestied them into various forms, as instruments of riches and power to themselves.”

He constructed the first version of this book in 1804, but that copy has since been lost. He wasn’t satisfied with it anyway, so he made what he considered a better version in 1820. That version still exists in the Smithsonian. Although I don’t normally buy reproductions of old books, I do have a facsimile of this one.

Jefferson never called it a Bible, but rather, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. However, it is now commonly referred to as the Jefferson Bible. (Don’t take my word for it, BTW. You can look it up. A digital version of the entire text is available online, courtesy of the Smithsonian.)

That said, Jefferson never intended it for the public, but rather for his own private use.

So just a gentle reminder: when claiming all the Founding Fathers were Christians, remember that Thomas Jefferson took scissors and a razor and literally cut a Bible apart, then glued the fragments into a book he found more acceptable.

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