November 2020 Church & State Magazine | Books & Ideas

The Jefferson Bible: A Biography by Peter Manseau, Princeton University Press 221 pp.

A few years before his death, Thomas Jefferson began work on a project that had been his obsession for years: editing the Gospels to create a private devotional he called The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.  

Jefferson took a knife and cut out passages from the four Gospels he believed accurately portrayed the life of Jesus and encapsulated his teachings. He pasted them in a book, which he had bound in leather. Today the book is often called “The Jefferson Bible.”  

The Jesus who emerges in the book is a kind of secular moral philosopher who makes no claims to divinity. There’s no virgin birth in Jefferson’s retelling, and Jesus performs no miracles. Anything that smacks of the fantastic, anything that did not fit in the natural world, was left behind on Jefferson’s floor. The story ends with the death of Jesus on the cross and his entombment; there’s no resurrection.  

In his new book, The Jefferson Bible: A Biography, Peter Manseau tells the fascinating story of how a devotional Jefferson created for his personal use became public, and he assesses its powerful effect on America’s religious history.

Manseau, curator of American religious history at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History, is the perfect guide for this journey. He provides important context by explaining how Jefferson, who as Manseau, quoting another scholar, puts it, grew up in Virginia’s “Anglican ambience,” came to embrace famously unorthodox religious opinions.  

The answer in part is that as a young man, Jefferson fell under the sway of the writings of Henry St. John, an English member of Parliament and champion of the Enlightenment whose title was the Viscount Bolingbroke. As Manseau writes, this “somewhat scandalous” thinker “almost singlehandedly planted and cultivated a crisis of faith in the young Virginian.”

At age 22, Jefferson was copying long passages from Bolingbroke’s works. Yet unlike Bolingbroke, who seemed to believe there was little in conventional Christian dogma that could be saved, Jefferson saw value in Jesus’ ethical teachings and wanted to extract what he believed to be Christ’s “sublime” teachings from less valuable material that had been added later.  

 This exercise, Jefferson once told John Adams in a letter, would not be difficult. He likened it to picking out “diamonds in a dunghill.” The job became an on-again, off-again project for Jefferson over many decades. He took it on only after failing to persuade his friend Joseph Priestley, a noted Unitarian scientist, to create such a tome.

Jefferson’s first effort, in 1804, was a 46-page book with an unwieldy title, The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth; extracted from the account of his life and doctrines as given by Matthew, Mark, Luke & John. Being an abridgment of the New Testament for the use of the Indians unembarrassed with matters of fact or faith beyond the level of their comprehension. It did not survive. (The reference to “Indians” is cryptic, but Manseau points to scholarship indicating that Jefferson didn’t mean it literally. His “Indians” were, in fact, Federalist critics and their clerical allies who had inaccurately labeled him an atheist.)

In retirement in 1819, Jefferson had more time to tackle the project anew and create The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. Never intended for public distribution, the 84-page book was the subject of rumors after Jefferson’s death. It came to light only after Cyrus Adler, a curator and librarian at the Smithsonian, dog­­gedly tracked it down and bought it from a Jefferson descendant for $400 in 1892. 

The book was part of an 1895 exhibit in Atlanta, but its public life didn’t take off until 1904. That year, U.S. Rep. John F. Lacey (R-Iowa), who greatly admired Jefferson, successfully pushed legislation through Congress directing the Government Printing Office to produce 9,000 cop­ies of The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth

Manseau recounts the ensuing uproar, mainly from religious leaders. Some argued that it was inappropriate for the government to print material touching on a religious subject, but a much larger cohort asserted that it was an insult to Christianity for the government to disseminate Jefferson’s deistic views so widely. A group of Presbyterian ministers considered a resolution calling the government’s decision to print the book “a direct, public and powerful attack on the Christian religion.” Another minister asserted that printing the volume was offensive since everyone knew America was a Christian nation.

Undeterred by these critics, the feds moved ahead; for the next five decades, new members of Congress were gifted copies of Jefferson’s devotional. Books from the original 1904 run are now collector’s items and sell on eBay for hundreds of dollars. (Jefferson’s original is in the hands of the Smithsonian, which has lovingly restored the book. In 2011, it was put on display at the National Museum of American History. I’m pleased to say I was among the many thousands of visitors who stopped by to take a look.)  

The government’s decision to print The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth had another effect: It made the text available to the public, including other publishers. Since the book was never intended for publication, it resided in the public domain. Any firm could print it, and many did. The market was soon flooded with copies, from cheap paperbacks to lavishly illustrated hardbacks. Anyone could read – and attempt to interpret – Jefferson’s version of the life of Christ. 

Manseau does a masterful job explaining the enduring significance of Jefferson’s book and outlining how the volume has been used over the years to prop up various religious and even political ideologies. Satisfyingly, he also holds Jefferson to account for one of his most disturbing inconsistencies. Early in the book, Manseau raises a question of no small significance: How could Jefferson, a man clearly interested in questions of morals and ethics, reconcile his comfortable life with the fact that it was built on the backs of enslaved people? Jefferson, it seems, admired the morals of Christ, which he often summarized as a simple lesson that we should be decent to one another, but could not fully execute that maxim.

For advocates of church-state separation, another question looms: How does this book relate to Jefferson’s long-held stance in favor of religious freedom and separation of church and state?

The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth is a book that focuses on faith, not politics. But the volume’s existence is a welcome reminder that Jefferson was not an advocate of an officially “Christian nation,” and that, theologically, he shared little or nothing in common with today’s Christian nationalists. Over the years, some Religious Right activists have attempted the impossible: to baptize Jefferson retroactively as one of their own. The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth blocks every effort. 

Jefferson was the author of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, legislation that influenced the wording of the First Amendment. He advocated for all the right to question the claims of revealed religion, a right he took ample opportunity of himself. The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth is proof of that.

Jefferson attempted to add a rationalist sheen to the Christian faith. He was confident that his interpretation would take hold through voluntary choice, and once predicted that a rationalist form of Unitarianism would become the most common faith in America.  

With that prediction Jefferson proved himself no prophet; but his gospel, which puts a very human, very reason-based and very un-fundamentalist Jesus front and center, still speaks to millions today. 

The Jefferson Bible: A Biography is full of fascinating tidbits, solid scholarship and valuable insights. Anyone interested in U.S. religious history or the lives of the founders will want to keep it on a nearby bookshelf.