Doubting Thomas: On Peter Manseau’s “The Jefferson Bible”

By Ed SimonNovember 6, 2022

Doubting Thomas: On Peter Manseau’s “The Jefferson Bible”

The Jefferson Bible: A Biography by Peter Manseau

WITH A PENKNIFE in his hand, Thomas Jefferson cut out of the gospels every single interesting thing about Jesus Christ. The virgin birth? Cut. Water into wine? Deleted. The raising of Lazarus? Erased. The demoniac? Exorcised. The temptation in the desert? Removed. The resurrection? Canceled. Writing in 1819, a year before he took on this task, Jefferson expressed his desire to eliminate from the Bible the “immaculate conception of Jesus, his deification, the creation of the world by him, his miraculous powers, his resurrection & visible ascension, his corporeal presence in the Eucharist, the Trinity, original sin, atonement, regeneration, election, orders of hierarchy, Etc.” He ignored that several of those concepts aren’t in the New Testament, or that the immaculate conception refers to the Virgin Mary. Applying cold rigor, Jefferson evaluated the gospels, and found them filled with superstitious dross invented by unscrupulous scribes and affirmed by credulous believers. But underneath all that rubbish, he thought, there was a “system of the most sublime morality which has ever fallen from the lips of man.”

The Virginian’s desire to expunge the Bible was a half-century-long obsession, since his years as a student at William & Mary. His methodology was explicated in an 1816 letter to the former secretary of the Continental Congress, Charles Thomson, wherein Jefferson describes how a “paradigma of [Jesus’s] doctrines” could be “made by cutting the texts out of the book, and arranging them on the pages of a blank book, in a certain order of time or subject.” In an 1814 correspondence with his frenemy John Adams, he enthuses that one can find Jesus’s authentic morals “as to pick out diamonds from dunghills.” Always sensitive to the accusations (some of them true) that he was a libertine, an atheist, and an adulterer, Jefferson anticipated his defense, writing that “I am a real Christian […] a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus, very different from the Platonists, who call me infidel” — a clever rhetorical maneuver of redefinition. The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth was only intended for his edification, cognizant that such audacity would condemn him to be “[r]anked with the wild Sophisters of Jacobinism, the Theosophies of Masonry, With […] Swedenborgers, & Rosecrusians, with the … maniacs of Philosophy,” as his friend, the liberal minster Charles Clay, had warned.

The existence of the Jefferson Bible was rumored for nearly a century, until it was discovered by Cyrus Adler, the pioneering director of the religion division at the Smithsonian, and purchased for that institution from Jefferson’s great-granddaughter. Adler made it a priority to find the Bible after he discovered the raw materials from which the original had been made (the mutilated New Testaments that the president cut his verses from) in the collection of a Baltimore physician whose library he had cataloged. First displayed in 1895 at the Cotton States and International Exhibition, this “gem of the collection” was trumpeted by The Atlanta Constitution, with newspapers as far away as Rochester’s Democrat and Chronicle declaring that Adler’s display was singular: “Nothing like it has ever been attempted before.” A decade later, a pious Iowa Representative named John Fletcher Lacey would sponsor legislation that would lead to the Government Printing Office producing 9,000 copies for distribution among members of Congress. The book itself has been continuously in print since 1904. As Peter Manseau asks in his engaging, illuminating, and concise The Jefferson Bible:

Is the homespun 84-page volume evidence that the Founding Fathers actively engaged with scripture, using its lessons to help birth a Christian nation? Or does it prove, on the contrary, that the Framers of the Republic sought to root out the stubborn influence of faith, the better to foster a new secular order?

As the Lilly Endowment Curator of American Religious History at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Manseau is, both temperamentally and bureaucratically, the effective inheritor of Adler’s laurels — and the perfect writer to consider this ambivalent scripture. Author of the gorgeous Rag and Bone: A Journey Among the World’s Holy Dead (2009) and the pathbreaking One Nation Under Gods: A New American History (2015), Manseau’s humane and empathetic writing about faith and history makes him particularly well suited to reconcile American religion’s contradictions. As a curator, Manseau displays concern with the book’s materiality, for the scripture wasn’t just a child of Jefferson’s mind, but also of scissors and glue, binding and leather. Such an interest is in keeping with Adler, who questioned the convention which held that museums should “deal only with the religious practices and ideas of the semi-civilized or barbarous nations.” In the 19th century, that meant that institutions like the Smithsonian made a sharp division between “creed” and “cult,” with the former encompassing Protestantism, and everything else being lumped into the latter. By putting Jefferson’s Bible on display next to Catholic rosaries and Orthodox icons, statues of Shiva and Torah crowns, he underscored the physicality of creed itself, and turned the Protestant gaze inward. Jefferson’s Bible is thus a particularly interesting artifact, the “last monumental work of a monumental life […] an ambivalent scripture that has taken on an outsized significance in a nation for which religious ambivalence is the one enduring creed,” as Manseau writes.

Ambivalence has long dogged our American Pericles, though no figure is as central to our civil confession. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” If the American genesis was textual, the Declaration of Independence is the most canonical of documents — not even the Constitution comes as close. The third president was our Sage of Monticello, the polymath who tripled the country’s size, and who founded American political theory, American geography, American archaeology. We’re even taught that he invented the swivel chair along with macaroni and cheese. This is the secular saint that John F. Kennedy quipped about before an assembled group of Nobel luminaries, claiming that they were the “most extraordinary collection of talent […] that has ever been gathered together at the White House — with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.”

Yet far from the hagiography invented over the past century, Jefferson was viewed with wary eye while alive. When a bill was proposed in 1814 to decide if the government would purchase a debt-strapped Jefferson’s book collection for the Library of Congress, the Federal Republican noted the “plentiful stock of the works of Tom Paine, Rousseau, [and] Voltaire,” and New Hampshire representative Daniel Webster argued that the purchase demonstrated “atheistical, irreligious, and immoral tendency.”

Jefferson was still often seen as a Jacobin and antinomian a century later. When Lacey proposed his 1904 bill to fund the Bible’s printing, he didn’t anticipate the public opprobrium that resulted, not just from committed secularists (ironically, in Jefferson’s stead), outraged that the state would print religious books, but from the faithful themselves. The Catholic Advance of Wichita reported that Jefferson was “imbued with the free-thinking beliefs current in France and America in the beginning of the last century,” while Reverend Kerr Boyce Tupper of the First Baptist Church of Philadelphia preached that it “would be poor policy on the part of our government to lend hand and authority to the publication of a work […] [that] regarded Christ […] without claim to any supernatural character.”

Nor has that ambivalence been satiated in the ensuing centuries. Today it’s impossible to unequivocally celebrate this supposed “partisan of liberty” who owned 600 women, men, and children, including Sally Hemings, the woman with whom he fathered three daughters and three sons — girls and boys that he also owned. To this issue I will return.

And what of his Bible itself? Is it any good? As a project of the Enlightenment, Jefferson echoed the German Deist Hermann Samuel Reimarus’s “The Aims of Jesus and His Disciples,” printed in 1778, while anticipating Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906), Charles Dickens’s The Life of Our Lord (1934), and Leo Tolstoy’s The Gospel in Brief (1892). It could be argued that Jefferson’s revision of the gospels wasn’t just a symptom of Enlightenment but the end result of the Reformation. By cutting the miraculous out of the Bible, Jefferson was smashing statuary and stained glass windows. Atheism as the ultimate form of Protestantism. So though he’d be loath to admit it, Jefferson’s gospel is an unconventional manifestation of the Second Great Awakening. “Truth is great,” writes Jefferson in his visionary 1779 statute, “and will prevail if left to herself.” This laissez-faire approach, later institutionalized in the Bill of Rights, was a catalyst for American piety, even if Jefferson had expected that religion would become more rational. Harold Bloom, in The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation, claims that the national faith “masks itself as Protestant Christianity yet has ceased to be Christian. It has kept the figure of Jesus, a very […] American Jesus,” which he associates with Gnosticism. Jefferson kept Jesus, but it’s just about the only thing he did. “The American finds God in herself or himself,” writes Bloom, though the ancient Gnostics found Him in direct experience. So too did Jefferson rely on his own perspective to discover, or create, his own God.

“In [his Bible’s] execution,” writes Manseau, Jefferson “presented a surprising manifestation of a quintessentially American idea: that existing materials might be reshaped into something new,” a tendency that we share with the Gnostics. Not only that, but Jefferson’s “diamonds from dunghills” rhetoric also manifests the Gnostic faith concerning scriptural secrets. As with ancient wisdom literature, Jefferson’s Bible is a bare-bones assemblage of “aphorisms and precepts of the purest morality & benevolence.” Different as Jefferson is from the author of the Gospel of Thomas, they share an individualistic ethos: “Let him who seeks continue seeking until he finds,” as the ancient Gnostic wrote, a fully Enlightenment sentiment if ever there was one. If the first Thomas’s gospel is of mythos and the second Thomas’s of logos, both are united in individualism. There the similarity ends, for holding the utmost faith in the operations of his own (superior) mind, Jefferson affirmed that he could cut out those passages “which contradict the laws of nature,” that he would “[e]xamine upon what evidence his pretensions are founded, and whether that evidence is so strong as that it’s falshood would be more improbable than a change of the laws of nature in the case he relates.” This, it should be said, rather misses the point of imaginative literature.

This is what’s so unsatisfying about Jefferson’s Bible — he has expunged mystery. And mystery is the gospels’ raison d’être. Jefferson repeatedly claimed that the morality of the New Testament was the most sublime and benevolent — a frequent injunction of liberal mainline Protestantism — but is it true? I’d venture that anything which is demonstrably livable within Christian ethics is anodyne, and that anything which is novel is an impossibility, so that the gospels are only coherent if Christ is God, or at least supernatural. With barely concealed anti-Semitism, many liberal Christians have claimed that Christ’s ethics are a challenge to the stiff-necked obstinacy of the Pharisaic rabbis, with Jefferson himself describing Jesus as a “great reformer of the vicious ethics […] of the Jews.” Yet much of what Jesus preached about the flexibility of the mitzvot was also affirmed by the Pharisees, their mistreatment in the New Testament being more an issue of competitive marketing than accuracy. Meanwhile, the unique stipulations of Christ are ironically often notably more extreme than anything in the Hebrew scriptures.

From the Sermon on the Mount come the transgressive promises of the Beatitudes, but also that “if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee,” and “whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” How much worse are Jefferson’s sins? Christ is just as extreme in describing forgiveness. There is undeniable beauty in trying to “[l]ove your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you,” or in encouraging that “whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also,” but such commandments are impossible. At the very least they’re incredibly hard — fit for mystics and saints — but not the normal congregation. Which is precisely the point — Christ isn’t offering a “benevolent code of morals” — he isn’t suggesting a code of morals at all. Rather, he’s proclaiming our intrinsic fallenness and the necessity for God’s infinite grace. “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect” isn’t a rule — it’s an ideal: one we’re bound to fail. As Jefferson himself did — spectacularly.

Writing in 1820, Jefferson said that his gospels were “sanctioned by a life of humility, innocence, and simplicity of manners, neglect of riches, absence of worldly ambition & honors, with an eloquence and persuasiveness which have not been surpassed.” Did he then emancipate the enslaved? Did he turn Monticello into a common treasury? “It is in our lives and not our words that our religion must be read,” Jefferson wrote in 1816. Now consider James Hemings, who was “whipd … three times in one day” so that he was “not able to raise his hand to his Head,” or Bagwell and Minerva Granger who were tortured by their overseer, or the runaway Jame Hubbard who was captured and brought to the plantation in fetters, then “severely flogged in the presence of his old companions.” Defenders will claim that Jefferson never beat the enslaved himself — which is true. He just sat cutting passages out of his Bible while people in his employ tortured humans for him.

Jefferson explained that Christ had preached the “efficacy of repentance towards forgiveness of sin, [while] I require a counterpoise of good works to redeem it,” but where were those fruits? Rather, we see the results of cold instrumentalism, for reason without works is dead. Manseau writes that the “teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, which Jefferson praised in the highest terms, are ultimately inseparable from the religious traditions upon which Jefferson heaped equal measures of disdain.” A verse he cut was Matthew 10:34 — “I came not to send peace, but a sword.” Jefferson would have done well to keep it, though something flickered in his soul that he would write, “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just.”

Three decades after Jefferson died, a very different sort of Christian ascended a scaffold at Harpers Ferry some 160 miles north of Monticello. Zealot. Martyr. Extremist. Irrational. He had written that the “crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with blood.” Some men describe liberty; some men die for it. Jefferson had only reason, but John Brown had faith, and that made all the difference. We’d do better not with Jefferson’s penknife, but with Brown’s machete.


Ed Simon is the editor of Belt Magazine and a staff writer at The Millions.

LARB Contributor

Ed Simon is the editor of Belt Magazine, a staff writer for Lit Hub, and an emeritus staff writer at The Millions. He is a frequent contributor at several different sites including The Atlantic, The Paris Review Daily, Aeon, Jacobin, The Washington Post, The New York Times, Killing the Buddha, Salon, The Public Domain Review, Atlas Obscura, JSTOR Daily, and Newsweek. He is also the author of several books, including Devil’s Contract: The History of the Faustian Bargain, which will be released in July 2024. He holds a PhD in English from Lehigh University and an MA in literary and cultural studies from Carnegie Mellon University.


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