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There’s a lot to the story of religion in the United States that we’ve forgotten.
Consider the giant metal cross used by the first Catholics to settle in the 13 colonies — it was lost in a university storeroom for decades. Or Thomas Jefferson’s story of Jesus, which he pieced together from the Bible, removing all the miracles. Or the Arabic papers written by slaves who had practiced Islam (some scholars estimate as many as one fifth of African-born slaves had some affiliation with Islam).
This last fact was so long-forgotten that when Hillary Clinton said “we’ve had Muslims in America since George Washington,” it warranted a fact check.
The new Smithsonian exhibit and book “Objects of Devotion” traces America’s faith through the objects believers created. By looking at these items, curator Peter Manseau shows that “freedom of religion is not just an idea, but something to be welded together by the hands, the work and the lives of previous generations.”
- Peter Manseau Curator of American Religious History, Smithsonian National Museum of American History
Read About The Jefferson Bible
The following is from Peter Manseau’s book Objects of Devotion: Religion in Early America. This essay discusses The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, an edit of the story of Jesus done by Thomas Jefferson.
Of the 6,487 of his books that Thomas Jefferson planned to sell to the federal government as the core of a new Library of Congress in the winter of 1815, about three hundred of dealt with religious subjects. Among the volumes selected for shipment from Monticello to Washington, DC, Jefferson included a score of Bibles, a Qur’an, a history of “heathen gods,” and works by deist philosophers. Such heterodox titles reflected his opinion that religion should be a personal affair, guided by curiosity and reason.
As wide-ranging as Jefferson’s religious collection was, it did not contain the book that provides the purest expression of his religious ideas. In fact, he had not yet created it. A labor of love during his long retirement, the eighty-four-page redacted edition of the New Testament that he called The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth was the product of decades of thinking about scripture, religion, and the latter’s role in society. Beginning in 1820, the seventy-seven-year-old Jefferson worked with a penknife and glue to excise sections from the Gospels in English, French, Latin, and Greek and paste them into his own version of the sacred text.
The Jefferson Bible, as the resulting text is also known, makes no mention of turning water into wine or walking on water but reorganizes the words and biography of Jesus to avoid repetition while recounting his life chronologically. To the sage of Monticello, the man from Nazareth was a great teacher and moral exemplar, and that was enough. “Jesus did not mean to impose himself on mankind as the son of God,” he wrote. The miracles and supernatural elements that make up so much of the traditional story of Jesus’s life Jefferson regarded as fictions grafted on to the biography of a historically significant figure. The dogmas that had grown out of these fictions, he believed, were little more than the “Abracadabra” of priests.
Frequently accused of heresy and even atheism, Jefferson knew that his approach to scriptural interpretation would be too much to accept for those with more traditional perspectives. He discussed The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth only with a few friends and never imagined it would be widely distributed.
Among his trusted confidants on matters of faith was the patriot and physician Benjamin Rush. Long before he put penknife to paper to craft his alternate scripture, Jefferson wrote the doctor a letter outlining his thoughts on Christianity, as well as his frustration that they were so often misperceived.
In some of the delightful conversations with you, in the evenings of 1798–99, and which served as an anodyne to the afflictions of the crisis through which our country was then laboring, the Christian religion was sometimes our topic; and I then promised you, that one day or other, I would give you my views of it. They are the result of a life of inquiry & reflection, and very different from that anti-Christian system imputed to me by those who know nothing of my opinions. 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 confiding it to you, I know it will not be exposed to the malignant perversions of those who make every word from me a text for new misrepresentations & calumnies. I am moreover averse to the communication of my religious tenets to the public.
Jefferson was known to say he was “of a sect by myself.” Yet the reception of The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth suggests that many Americans shared his views. Having produced a single copy of the manuscript in his lifetime, he bequeathed the leather-bound volume to his daughter Martha in his will. It passed down through generations of his descendants until his great-granddaughter Carolina Randolph sold it to the Smithsonian’s librarian Cyrus Adler in 1895. Nine years later, an act of Congress decreed that the text be published for the first time. For fifty years, every newly elected senator received a copy of Jefferson’s Bible upon taking the oath of office.
It was fitting that the manuscript was passed down through family, as Jefferson had always made his most personal statements regarding religion to those closest to him. In a letter written in 1787, he had urged a nephew of his to consider all sides when it came to questions of religion. As he said of this process:
If it ends in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort & pleasantness you feel in its exercise, and the love of others which it will procure you. If you find reason to believe there is a God, a consciousness that you are acting under His eye, & that He approves you, will be a vast additional incitement; . . . if that Jesus was also a god, you will be comforted by a belief of his aid and love. In fine, I repeat that you must lay aside all prejudice on both sides, & neither believe nor reject anything because any other persons, or description of persons, have rejected or believed it. Your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven.
Jefferson’s Bible is clear evidence that he not only gave this advice, but also lived by it himself.
Copyright Peter Manseau, 2017, Smithsonian Books