THE MORALS OF JESUS
(To Dr. Benjamin Rush, with a Syllabus, Washington, Apr. 21, 1803)
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 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...
SYLLABUS OF AN ESTIMATE OF THE MERIT OF THE DOCTRINES OF JESUS COMPARED WITH THOSE OF OTHERS: April, 1803
In a comparative view of the Ethics of the enlightened nations
of antiquity, of the Jews and of Jesus, no notice should be taken of
the corruptions of reason among the ancients, to wit, the idolatry &
superstition of the vulgar, nor of the corruptions of Christianity by
the learned among its professors.
Let a just view be taken of the moral principles inculcated by
the most esteemed of the sects of ancient philosophy, or of their
individuals; particularly Pythagoras, Socrates, Epicurus, Cicero,
Epictetus, Seneca, Antoninus.
1. Their precepts related chiefly to ourselves, and the government
of those passions which, unrestrained, would disturb our tranquility
of mind. In this branch of philosophy they were really great.
2. In developing our duties to others, they were short and
defective. They embraced, indeed, the circles of kindred & friends,
and inculcated patriotism, or the love of our country in the
aggregate, as a primary obligation: toward our neighbors & countrymen
they taught justice, but scarcely viewed them as within the circle of
benevolence. Still less have they inculcated peace, charity & love
to our fellow men, or embraced with benevolence the whole family of
1. Their system was Deism; that is, the belief of one
only God. But their ideas of him & of his attributes were degrading
2. Their Ethics were not only imperfect, but often
irreconcilable with the sound dictates of reason & morality, as they
respect intercourse with those around us; & repulsive & anti-social,
as respecting other nations. They needed reformation, therefore, in
an eminent degree.
In this state of things among the Jews, Jesus appeared.
His parentage was obscure; his condition poor; his
education null; his natural endowments great; his life correct and
innocent: he was meek, benevolent, patient, firm, disinterested, & of
the sublimest eloquence. The disadvantages under which his doctrines appear are remarkable.
1. Like Socrates & Epictetus, he wrote nothing himself.
2. But he had not, like them, a Xenophon or an Arrian to write
for him. On the contrary, all the learned of his country, entrenched
in its power and riches, were opposed to him, lest his labors should
undermine their advantages; and the committing to writing his life &
doctrines fell on the most unlettered ignorant men; who wrote, too,
from memory, & not till long after the transactions had passed.
3. According to the ordinary fate of those who attempt to
enlighten and reform mankind, he fell an early victim to the jealousy
& combination of the altar and the throne, at about 33. years of age,
his reason having not yet attained the maximum of its energy, nor
the course of his preaching, which was but of 3. years at most,
presented occasions for developing a complete system of morals.
4. Hence the doctrines which he really delivered were defective
as a whole, and fragments only of what he did deliver have come to us
mutilated, misstated, & often unintelligible.
5. They have been still more disfigured by the corruptions of
schismatising followers, who have found an interest in sophisticating
& perverting the simple doctrines he taught by engrafting on them the
mysticisms of a Grecian sophist, frittering them into subtleties, &
obscuring them with jargon, until they have caused good men to reject
the whole in disgust, & to view Jesus himself as an impostor.
Notwithstanding these disadvantages, a system of morals is
presented to us, which, if filled up in the true style and spirit of
the rich fragments he left us, would be the most perfect and sublime
that has ever been taught by man. The question of his being a member
of the Godhead, or in direct communication with it, claimed for him
by some of his followers, and denied by others, is foreign to the present view,
which is merely an estimate of the intrinsic merit of his doctrines.
1. He corrected the Deism of the Jews, confirming them in their
belief of one only God, and giving them juster notions of his
attributes and government.
2. His moral doctrines, relating to kindred & friends, were
more pure & 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, 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 the peculiar superiority of the system of Jesus over
3. The precepts of philosophy, & of the Hebrew code, laid hold
of actions only. He 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.
4. He taught, emphatically, the doctrines of a future state,
which was either doubted, or disbelieved by the Jews; and wielded it
with efficacy, as an important incentive, supplementary to the other
motives to moral conduct.
"I HAVE SWORN UPON THE ALTAR OF GOD . . . "
(To Dr. Benjamin Rush_Monticello, Sept. 23, 1800)
The clergy have a very favorite hope of obtaining an establishment of a particular form of Christianity thro' the U. S.; and as every sect believes its own form the true one, every one perhaps hoped for his own, but especially the Episcopalians & Congregationalists. The returning good sense of our country threatens abortion to their hopes, & they believe that any portion of power confided to me, will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly; for I have sworn upon the altar of god, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.
JESUS, SOCRATES, AND OTHERS
(to Dr. Joseph Priestley_ Washington, Apr. 9, 1803)
DEAR SIR, -- While on a short visit lately to Monticello, I
received from you a copy of your comparative view of Socrates &
Jesus, and I avail myself of the first moment of leisure after my
return to acknowlege the pleasure I had in the perusal of it, and the
desire it excited to see you take up the subject on a more extensive
scale. In consequence of some conversation with Dr. Rush, in the
year 1798-99, I had promised some day to write him a letter giving
him my view of the Christian system. I have reflected often on it
since, & even sketched the outlines in my own mind. I should first
take a general view of the moral doctrines of the most remarkable of
the ancient philosophers, of whose ethics we have sufficient
information to make an estimate, say of Pythagoras, Epicurus,
Epictetus, Socrates, Cicero, Seneca, Antoninus. I should do justice
to the branches of morality they have treated well; but point out the
importance of those in which they are deficient. I should then take
a view of the deism and ethics of the Jews, and show in what a
degraded state they were, and the necessity they presented of a
reformation. I should proceed to a view of the life, character, &
doctrines of Jesus, who sensible of incorrectness of their ideas of
the Deity, and of morality, endeavored to bring them to the
principles of a pure 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 his inspiration. To do him justice, it would be necessary to
remark the disadvantages his doctrines have to encounter, not having
been committed to writing by himself, but by the most unlettered of
men, by memory, long after they had heard them from him; when much
was forgotten, much misunderstood, & presented in very paradoxical
shapes. Yet such are the fragments remaining as to show a master
workman, and that his system of morality was the most benevolent &
sublime probably that has been ever taught, and consequently more
perfect than those of any of the ancient philosophers. His character
& doctrines have received still greater injury from those who pretend
to be his special disciples, and who have disfigured and
sophisticated his actions & precepts, from views of personal
interest, so as to induce the unthinking part of mankind to throw off
the whole system in disgust, and to pass sentence as an impostor on
the most innocent, the most benevolent, the most eloquent and sublime
character that ever has been exhibited to man. This is the outline;
but I have not the time, & still less the information which the