Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB

555

CHAP. XIV.]

JEFFERSON'S RELIGIOUS VIEWS.

He contributed freely to the erection of Christian churches, gave money to Bible societies and other religious objects, and was a liberal and regular contributor to the support of the clergy. Letters of his are extant which show him urging, with respectful delicacy, the acceptance of extra and unsolicited contributions, on the pastor of his parish, on occasions of extra expense to the latter, such as the building of a house, the meeting of an ecclesiastical convention at Charlottesville, etc. In these letters he assumes that he is only performing a duty, and pleasantly compares it to the discharge of a special service, by a feudal inferior to his liege lord, on those extraordinary occasions when it was required by the feudal law.

He attended church with as much regularity as most of the members of the congregation-sometimes going alone on horseback, when his family remained at home. He generally attended the Episcopal Church, and when he did so, always carried his prayer-book,' and joined in the responses and prayers of the congregation. He was baptized into the Episcopal Church in his infancy; he was married by one of its clergymen; his wife lived and died a member of it; his children were baptized into it, and when married were married according to its rites; its burial services were read over those of them who preceded him to the grave, over his wife, and finally over himself.

No person ever heard him utter a word of profanity, and those who met him most familiarly through periods of acquaintance extending from two or three to twenty or thirty years, declare that they never heard a word of impiety, or any scoff at religion, from his lips. Among his numerous familiar acquaintances, we have not found one whose testimony is different-or who entertained any doubts of the strict justice, sincerity, truthfulness, and exemplariness of his personal character.

A letter from Mr. Jefferson to his oldest daughter, has been given in these pages," in which occurred the following passage:

"A promise made to a friend some years ago, but executed only lately, has placed my religious creed on paper. I have thought it just that my family by possessing this, should be able to estimate the libels published against me on this, as on

1 The well worn copy he carried in his pocket when he rode to church is in the possession of his youngest grandson-the 15th Psalm copied on a blank leaf in his own hand, in a different version from the one we have seen him usually quoting.

See ante, p. 45.

every other possible subject. I have written to Philadelphia for Dr. Priestley's History of the Corruptions of Christianity, which I will send you, and recommend to an attentive perusal, because it establishes the ground-work of my view of this subject."

The "religious creed on paper" here mentioned was the "Syllabus" etc., appended to the following letter to Doctor Rush:

TO DOCTOR BENJAMIN RUSH.

WASHINGTON, April 21, 1808.

DEAR SIR:

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 and reflection, and very different from that antiChristian 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 in which he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; and believing he never claimed any other. At the short intervals since these conversations, when I could justifiably abstract my mind from public affairs, the subject has been under my contemplation. But the more I considered it, the more it expanded beyond the measure of either my time or information. In the moment of my late departure from Monticello, I received from Doctor Priestley, his little treatise of "Socrates and Jesus compared." This being a section of the general view I had taken of the field, it became a subject of reflection while on the road, and unoccupied otherwise. The result was, to arrange in my mind a syllabus, or outline of such an estimate of the comparative merits of Christianity, as I wished to see executed by some one of more leisure and information for the task, than myself. This I now send you, as the only discharge of my promise I can probably ever execute. And 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 and calumnies. I am moreover averse to the communication of my religious tenets to the public; because it would countenance the presumption of those who have endeavored to draw them before that tribunal, and to seduce public opinion to erect itself into that inquisition over the rights of conscience, which the laws have so justly proscribed. It behooves every man who values liberty of conscience for himself, to resist invasions of it in the case of others; or their case may, by change of circumstances, become his own. It behooves him, too, in his own case, to give no example of concession, betraying the common right of independent opinion, by answering questions of faith, which the laws have left between God and himself. Accept my affectionate salutations.

Syllabus of an Estimate of the Merit of the Doctrines of Jesus, compared with those of others.

In a comparative view of the Ethics of the enlightened nations of antiquity, of the Jews and of Jesus, no notice should be taken of the corruptions of reason

CHAP. XIV.]

JEFFERSON'S RELIGIOUS VIEWS.

among the ancients, to wit, the idolatry and superstition of the vulgar, nor of the corruptions of Christianity by the learned among its professors.

Let a just view be taken of the moral principles inculcated by the most esteemed of the sects of ancient philosophy, or of their individuals; particularly Pythagoras, Socrates, Epicurus, Cicero, Epictetus, Seneca, Antoninus.

I. Philosophers. 1. Their precepts related chiefly to ourselves, and the government of those passions which, unrestrained, would disturb our tranquillity of mind.' In this branch of philosophy they were really great.

2. In developing our duties to others, they were short and defective. They embraced, indeed, the circles of kindred and friends, and inculcated patriotism, or the love of our country in the aggregate, as a primary obligation: towards our neighbors and countrymen they taught justice, but scarcely viewed them as within the circle of benevolence. Still less have they inculcated peace, charity, and love to our fellow-men, or embraced with benevolence the whole family of mankind.

557

II. Jews. 1. Their system was Deism; that is, the belief in one only God. But their ideas of him and of his attributes were degrading and injurious.

2. Their Ethics were not only imperfect, but often irreconcilable with the sound' dictates of reason and morality, as they respect intercourse with those around us; and repulsive and anti-social, as respecting other nations. They needed reformation, therefore, in an eminent degree.

III. Jesus. In this state of things among the Jews, Jesus appeared. His parentage was obscure; his condition poor; his education null; his natural endowments great; his life correct and innocent: he was meek, benevolent, patient, firm, disinterested, and of the sublimest eloquence.

The disadvantages under which his doctrines appear are remarkable.

1. Like Socrates and Epictetus, he wrote nothing himself.

2. But he had not, like them, a Xenophon or an Arrian to write for him. I name not Plato, who only used the name of Socrates to cover the whimsies of his own brain. On the contrary, all the learned of his country, entrenched in its power and riches, were opposed to him, lest his labors should undermine their advantages; and the committing to writing of his life and doctrines fell on unlettered and ignorant men; who wrote, too, from memory, and not till long after the transactions had passed.

3. According to the ordinary fate of those who attempt to enlighten and reform mankind, he fell an early victim to the jealousy and combination of the altar and the throne, at about thirty-three years of age, his reason having not yet attained the maximum of its energy, nor the course of his preaching, which was but of three years at most, presented occasions for developing a complete system of morals.

4. Hence the doctrines which he really delivered were defective as a whole, and fragments only of what he did deliver have come to us mutilated, misstated, and often unintelligible.

5. They have been still more disfigured by the corruptions of schismatizing fol

To explain, I will exhibit the heads of Seneca's and Cicero's philosophical works, the most extensive of any we have received from the ancients. Of ten heads in Seneca, seven relate to ourselves, viz. de irâ consolatio, de tranquillitate, de constantià sapientis, de otio sapientis, de vitâ beatâ, de brevitate vita; two relate to others, de clementia, de beneficiis; and one relates to the government of the world, de providentiâ. Of eleven tracts of Cicero, five respect ourselves, viz. de finibus, Tusculana, academica, paradoxa, de senectute; one, de officiis, relates partly to ourselves, partly to others; one, de amicitia, relates to others; and four are on different subjects, to wit, de naturâ deorum, de divinatione, de fato, and somnium Scipionis.

lowers, who have found an interest in sophisticating and perverting the simple doctrines he taught, by engrafting on them the mysticisms of a Grecian sophist, frittering them into subtleties, and obscuring them with jargon, until they have caused good men to reject the whole in disgust, and to view Jesus himself as an impostor.

Notwithstanding these disadvantages, a system of morals is presented to us, which, if filled up in the style and spirit of the rich fragments he left us, would be the most perfect and sublime that has ever been taught by man.

The question of his being a member of the Godhead, or in direct communication with it, claimed for him by some of his followers, and denied by others, is foreign to the present view, which is merely an estimate of the intrinsic merits of his doctrines.

1. He corrected the Deism of the Jews, confirming them in their belief of one only God, and giving them juster notions of his attributes and government.

2. His moral doctrines, relating to kindred and friends, were more pure and perfect than those of the most correct of the philosophers, and greatly more so than those of the Jews; and they went far beyond both in inculcating universal philanthropy not only to kindred and friends, to neighbors and countrymen, but to all mankind, gathering all into one family, under the bonds of love, charity, peace, common wants and common aids. A development of this head will evince the peculiar superiority of the system of Jesus over all others.

3. The precepts of philosophy, and of the Hebrew code, laid hold of actions only. He pushed his scrutinies into the heart of man; erected his tribunal in the region of his thoughts, and purified the waters at the fountain head.

4. He taught, emphatically, the doctrines of a future state, which was either doubted, or disbelieved by the Jews; and wielded it with efficacy, as an important incentive, supplementary to the other motives to moral conduct.

Jefferson did not assent to all of Priestley's leading views. He wrote to John Adams, August 22d, 1813:

"You are right in supposing, in one of yours, that I had not read much of Priestley's Predestination, his no-soul system, or his controversy with Horsley. But I have read his Corruptions of Christianity, and Early Opinions of Jesus, over and over again; and I rest on them, and on Middleton's writings, especially his letters from Rome, and to Waterland, as the basis of my own faith. These writings have never been answered, nor can be answered, by quoting historical proofs, as they have done. For these facts, therefore, I cling to their learning, so much superior to my own."

And to the same, January 24th, 1814:

"I think with you that Priestley, in his comparison of the doctrines of philosophy and revelation, did not do justice to the undertaking. But he felt himself pressed by the hand of death."

He wrote the Rev. Mr. Whittemore, June 5th, 1822, that he had "never permitted himself to meditate a specified creed "— that those "formulas had been the bane and ruin of the Christian

559

CHAP. XIV.]

JEFFERSON'S RELIGIOUS VIEWS.

Church;" but to Dr. Waterhouse, to the Rev. Dr. Sparks, and other Unitarians, he signified a sufficient general concurrence in what he understood to be their system of faith, to feel no antagonism to it; and, on the contrary, a wish to see it spread over the land.1

Mr. Jefferson never published, nor wrote with a view to publication, any attack on the religious faith, or on the character of any sect.

In his correspondence, published after his death, there are letters on religious topics which may be classed under three general heads. The first were in answer to inquiries concerning his religious opinions, or to arguments or publications against his supposed opinions, sent to him by religious people. His replies were always, in substance, that he sought to know no other person's creed-that he preferred to confine his own to his own bosom-that he supposed there were different roads to the same good end-that he accounted that religion good which produced good fruits, etc.

The second class of his answers were to Unitarians.

To

these, as already said, while rejecting any "specified creed," he sometimes expressed a general concurrence in their views. But when his permission was asked to publish any of these replies, he uniformly refused it.

The third class were directed to a very limited number of peculiarly intimate friends-men of mature years and ripened opinions-men invariably, whose views were as wide from the prevailing standards as his own-men fond of this kind of disquisition, and who it is believed in every instance had invited it with him. These individuals were Dr. Rush, John Adams, and William Short; and perhaps Dr. Cooper and one or two other persons are, to some extent, to be included in the number. To these individuals he wrote with the freedom of thought and strength of language habitual to him in confidential epistolary communication. Thus as an anti-Calvinist he spoke of Calvin and his doctrines-as a Unitarian, of the doctrine of the Trinity, as a Humanitarian, of the mission of Christ, etc. etc., in terms which now strike painfully on the ears of those whose views are opposed to his own. His speculations on various subjects take a bold range in thought and language. His denunciations of particular sects, and of the clergy, are severe, and in

1 See letters to Waterhouse, June 26th, and July 19th, 1822.

« AnteriorContinuar »