I asked my son last night what I should write about for today’s blog post, and he said that I should write something about the founding fathers, so that’s exactly what I am going to do.
One of the most contentious books about the founding fathers of late has been David Barton’s book The Jefferson Lies. In that book, Barton makes many claims that I agree with and a few with which I disagree, but I’m not going to discuss Barton’s book in this article. What I would like to discuss is one of the responses that was given to that book by a particular Christian historian named Gregg Frazer.
You may have heard of Gregg before. He published a book in 2012 entitled The Religious Beliefs of America’s Founders in which he claimed that the most important founders were not Christians but rather what he calls Theistic Rationalists. I’ve had the privilege of discussing this idea with Gregg on a couple of occasions, and on one such occasion, we were able to discuss Gregg’s criticism of Barton’s book on Jefferson.
In that discussion Gregg made the claim that “Jefferson NEVER expressed respect or admiration for ‘Jesus CHRIST’ -- only for simply ‘Jesus’ or ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’” Here is the answer which I provided to this particular claim about Thomas Jefferson:
The flaw in your claim can actually be proven by the very letter from Jefferson to Peter Carr which you presented in your article. In that letter, Jefferson first referred to Jesus as simply Jesus, but then just a short while later referred to Him as Christ. Here are Jefferson’s exact words:
You will next read the New Testament. It is the history of a personage called Jesus ... I forgot to observe, when speaking of the New Testament, that you should read all the histories of Christ, as well of those whom a council of ecclesiastics have decided for us, to be Psuedo-evangelists, as those they named Evangelists.
This clearly disproves your claim and agrees with my position that Jefferson sincerely thought himself to be a Christian and had no objection to the use of the title of Christ in reference to Jesus. But perhaps you would argue that Jefferson did not express any respect for Jesus as Christ in this letter. This objection is easily overcome by recalling another of Jefferson’s references to Christ. In an 1814 letter to John Adams, Jefferson wrote:
The Christian priesthood, finding the doctrines of Christ leveled to every understanding, and too plain to need explanation, saw in the mysticisms of Plato materials, with which they might build up an artificial system, which might, from its indistinctness, admit everlasting controversy, give employment for their order, and introduce it to profit, power and pre-eminence. The doctrines which flowed from the lips of Jesus himself are within the comprehension of a child; but thousands of volumes have not yet explained the Platonisms engrafted on them: and for this obvious reason, that nonsense can never be explained.
Here we find Jefferson equating “the doctrines of Christ” with “the doctrines which flowed from the lips of Jesus himself,” and as you have yourself noted on several occasions, Jefferson had so much respect for these doctrines that he referred to them as diamonds. Thus it is clear that, even at as late of a date as 1814, Jefferson had no qualms about expressing respect and admiration for Jesus as the Christ. Of course, this does not make him a Christian, but it does show that your claims about Jefferson’s beliefs are very seriously flawed.
Gregg’s only response to this was: “But to be fair and open to proper criticism, I have to acknowledge that you are right about Jefferson using the word ‘Christ’ a couple of times.”
If you would like to read my full rebuttal of Gregg’s thesis on Theistic Rationalism, you can purchase the ebook The Founders and the Myth of Theistic Rationalism on Amazon.
Bill Fortenberry is a Christian philosopher and historian in Birmingham, AL. Bill's work has been cited in several legal journals, and he has appeared as a guest on shows including The Dr. Gina Show, The Michael Hart Show, and Real Science Radio.
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"Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be yet wiser: teach a just man, and he will increase in learning." (Proverbs 9:9)