Spirit of Thomas Jefferson: letters on 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...


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

& injurious.

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

all others.

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.


(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.


(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

subject needs.