Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States, vexes modern day American evangelicals, including many Baptists.
Which of the following are many modern day evangelicals attributing to the third president:
A. Thomas Jefferson was an evangelical, orthodox Christian.
B. Thomas Jefferson was neither evangelical nor orthodox, but was clearly a Christian.
C. Thomas Jefferson was a Deist and is to blame for the erroneous concept of separation of church and state, which is nowhere to be found in the U.S. Constitution, but rather is a phrase invented by Thomas Jefferson in 1802 in a letter to Danbury Baptists.
D. Thomas Jefferson was a Christian (at least kinda) but is to blame for the erroneous concept of separation of church and state, which is nowhere to be found in the U.S. Constitution, but rather is a phrase invented by Thomas Jefferson in 1802 in a letter to Danbury Baptists … but he really didn’t mean what he said, because he wanted America to be founded upon evangelical Christian theology.
If you answered “all of the above,” you’ve obviously noticed the modern confusion regarding Jefferson.
In short, Christian Nationalists of the 21st century, in attempting to reconstruct history in order to posit the United States’ founding as a Christian nation, face the slippery task of bathing all of America’s Founding Fathers as orthodox Christians, while at the same time blotting from history the Founding Fathers successful efforts to establish America as a secular nation.
In the midst of this mix is none other than Thomas Jefferson, who must be embraced (as a Christian), dismissed (because of his insistence upon the separtion of church and state), or reminded of what he really meant to say.
Too many modern Baptists have gotten caught up in the fight to tell Jefferson who he is and what he said.
Yet Baptists of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were quite clear as to their understanding of Thomas Jefferson: although not a Christian in any conventional sense, Jefferson was embraced by Baptists of his era as a fellow champion for the separation of church and state, and was beloved by Baptists.
Virginia Baptists enthusiastically sided with Jefferson in the 1780s and 1790s in the fight for separation of church and state. And here’s what one North Carolina Baptist association wrote to Jefferson in 1806 (their words indicative of widespread Baptist views of Jefferson at the time):
“… we have felt the deepest gratitude to be due for the civil and religious liberties we enjoy under the administration of the government over which you, Sir, at present preside: for which liberties our fathers have, in times past, suffered at the stake and have bled and died.
The sense of contrast between the present moment and a late period when we were feelingly alarmed at the threatened invasion upon the general toleration of a free conscience in the worship of the God of our Fathers; we have now great reason to shout with loud acclamations of joy and praise that we now live under our own vine and under our own fig-tree in peace. And while we pray that the sons of liberty may be long held at the helm of government, to rule and govern these United States, we feel the strongest emotions to be thankful that under your patronage and administration, there is none shall make us afraid.
Living under a government of our own choice where the rights of men feel an equal and impartial distribution, how much ought we to rejoice at the envied happiness and freedom of our fellow-citizens throughout these States unrivalled and unequalled by any nation on this terrestrial globe, and in the midst of national wealth, prosperity and peace, added to extent of empire under the wise policy of your administration, we feel no danger of your violating your trust or attempting to endanger the happiness of the people who have chosen you as their Chief and Head. And while our prayers and praises are due to the Sovereign Ruler of the Universe, who has made you an instrument in his hands to give such blessings to such a people, we pray that the God of Battles may be your sun and shield; that he may give you grace and glory; and that he may withhold no good thing from you. And may we devoutly be permitted to add our prayers to the great Disposer of events, if it is His will, that that life devoted to public good from the commencement of our glorious Revolution to the present day, may be prolonged with blessings to yourself and common country.
Many other Christians in the early 19th century, however, were not fans of Jefferson. Many spiritual descendants of the colonial established churches resented Jefferson’s role in separating church from state, and he was commonly derided as a heretic, infidel, and even an atheist. One biographer of Jefferson notes that as late as 1830, the Philadelphia public library refused to carry books about Jefferson because the former president was yet viewed by many as an anti-christ.
Indeed, Jefferson’s handling of the Christian Bible reveals that he was far outside the parameters of what most any Christian of his era would have considered “Christian.”
Thus, while Thomas Jefferson is a stumbling block to many modern evangelicals (Baptists and otherwise), he was an important ally with – and much appreciated by – Baptists of an earlier era.
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Note: Thomas Jefferson did not originate the phrase “wall of separation” to describe the proper relationship between church and state. Rather, American Baptist founder Roger William coined the phrase in the 17th century.