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The first presidential candidate to face attack for his religious beliefs was Thomas Jefferson, in the campaign against incumbent John Adams in 1800. Northern clerics branded Jefferson not only a deist, but an “atheist,” a “heretic” and a “Jacobin” of the French Revolution. “The election of any man avowing the principles of Mr. Jefferson would ... destroy religion, introduce immorality, and loosen all the bonds of society,” wrote one. Jefferson himself did little to push back against the rumors or contradict the inaccuracies. From his perspective, religion was purely a matter of personal concern, not the business of the public at large. After all, Americans had overthrown the institution of the monarchy, which proclaimed the head of state to be also the head of an established religion that all the king’s subjects were supposed to follow. By contrast, the American Presidency was a purely secular office. Why should the voters care -- or even know -- about a candidate’s private beliefs?
Today, historians try to piece together Jefferson’s religious beliefs from what little he wrote about it. Some of the best evidence lies in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, in the small volume that is often called “Jefferson’s Bible.” It is a book that Jefferson made himself in the years 1819-1820, when he was retired from public life. Starting with multiple printed copies of the New Testament, Jefferson literally cut and pasted excerpts of the text onto blank pages to create what he called “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.” He selected from the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John in order to compose a single biographical account of Jesus’s life. He included Jesus’s moral teachings, such as the Sermon on the Mount and the many parables recounted in the Gospels. At the same time, Jefferson left parts of the Gospels out of his compilation. Influenced by the Enlightenment, he omitted anything that seemed to him contrary to “Reason,” which included anything miraculous (as the loaves and the fishes) or anything that suggested Jesus himself was divine (the Annunciation and the Resurrection). Jefferson believed that those parts of the New Testament represented misunderstandings or mistakes made by Jesus’s disciples, or inaccuracies added later by authorities of the Christian church.
Jefferson’s experience of public religious controversy was one reason that he kept his book a purely private project. He had no intention of publishing it or even, as far as we know, of showing it to friends or family members. He made it for himself. “I never go to bed without an hour, or half an hour’s previous reading of something moral,” he told one correspondent. His library included many books of philosophy, but the wear on the pages -- he dog-eared his favorites -- suggests that this book was often read.
After Jefferson’s death, the book stayed in the hands of his family. Late in the 19th century, the librarian of the Smithsonian Institution tracked it down and purchased it for the national museum. The book first went on exhibition at the Atlanta Cotton Exposition of 1895. A few years later, the U.S. Congress ordered facsimiles of the book and distributed them to the two chambers. (The Senate supply lasted up into the 1950s.) Meanwhile, the original volume stayed at the museum, but it gradually became more brittle. The museum’s paper and book conservators have now painstakingly rescued it from deterioration. The book is on exhibition, together with the English language Testaments from which Jefferson cut out his excerpts. It is the work of Jefferson’s own hands and the product of his remarkable mind -- a mind that helped to shape the early American republic.
Harry R. Rubenstein
Barbara Clark Smith
Curators of the Smithsonian National Museum Of American History
"Jefferson's Secret Bible" premiers Presidents Day, Monday, Feb. 20 at 8PM ET/PT on the Smithsonian Channel.