Thomas Jefferson is a founding father of the United States of America, and is revered as a statesman and politician by many. And for those who tend to confuse being an American with being a Christian, intermixing the two concepts, Thomas Jefferson is heralded as one of our “Christian founding fathers.”
Those who have spent any time looking at Jefferson’s life and perspectives understand that he didn’t quite represent the Christianity that they may have in mind. He was clearly a deist, believing in a supreme god, but essentially one who kickstarted the events of mankind and then sat back and folded his arms, disengaged from being anything but a bystander.
This is all, of course, interpreting the past from a modern perspective, and once again, it gets complicated when nationalism and religion are mixed together as one righteous campaign. What would happen then, if we were to look at Jefferson from an ancient perspective—one that predated the United States itself? Let’s assess him from the vantage point of the early Christian church during the second century.
Thomas Jefferson, late in life, produced a chopped up and reassembled version of the Bible. He did not intend for it to be published, rather, it was for his own personal devotion. And in his own words, he cut out lots of narrative, concepts, and theology that simply didn’t fit his sensibility. In it, he cut and pasted statements made by Jesus that Jefferson approved of and found wisdom in. This book has come to be known as “Jefferson’s Bible.”
Two of the actual bibles that Jefferson cut from
From an early church perspective, there was another man who did something similar: Marcion of Sinope. Marcion didn’t like what he read in certain sections of Scripture, so he also cut and pasted what he personally approved of. Marcion, like Jefferson, tried to persuade others that, though believing in an incredibly different version of the Gospel, he too was a Christian.
Here we see just a quick snapshot of the similarities between Marcion and Jefferson:
Marcion denied that Jesus was the promised Messiah; Jefferson also denied that Jesus was the Messiah. Marcion believed that Jesus was not really human; Jefferson believed that Jesus was not really divine.
In 144 AD, the church in Rome deemed Marcion a heretic and excommunicated him. It was early enough in the infancy of the church that they were transitioning from a burgeoning movement to an organization, and part of that process involved safeguarding the central truths of the movement. Anything that began to deviate from center was identified, and if correction was not an option, excommunication was implemented.
With all the similarities between Marcion and Jefferson, I believe the early church fathers would have had no choice but to brand Jefferson a heretic and excommunicate him as well. This does not make him any less of a patriot, nor does it diminish his ability or influence as a founding father. Nor does it deny the fact that he believed in and frequently alluded to his belief in “God.” It simply means that he would not have been considered a Christian by those early believers who were dying at the hands of second-century Roman government, all to protect and preserve the integrity of the precious truth they held dear.
I love Jesus, I love history, and I love the USA. But my experience within the Evangelical church is that we are too often very poor students of history, and we try to continually merge our church culture with societal culture. Sometimes they can occupy the same space, and sometimes they cannot.
I think our collective voice would really benefit from understanding our history a little better—and I have to believe we would gain more credibility with the world we are trying to reach out to if we held some perspectives that were true to history.