In the grip of what he considered divine inspiration, King let it rip. His letter is something like 8,000 words — equivalent to about 32 typed pages. But the basic message is simple: All your accomplishments mean nothing if you don’t adopt Christian zeal before you die.
Miraculously, Jefferson responded. His reply is the calm, respectful rebuttal most people only dream of writing to a critic. Jefferson also offered a sincere and moving declaration of freedom of thought. As a slave owner, he may not have lived his ideals. But almost four decades after writing the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson could set out the words of liberty in ways that few can match and that continue to inspire.
With all the correspondence that swamped Jefferson, it must have taken great patience to wade through King’s stream of consciousness, which unfolds in loops of exhortations and references to Scripture.
But buried in there is the hint of a fascinating tale. King says he was “brought up to the Sea,” commanding a trading vessel to Europe from an early age. He spent a couple of years in the Navy during the John Adams administration, then resumed being a prosperous sea captain. He “was much disposed to a luxurious life of debauch and intrigue,” he writes. “I lived a life of pleasure and gaiety, with now and then a hair Breadth escape from death, either by shipwreck or other casualty.” He hosted parties and weekly card games and generally caroused with a bunch of other rich sots.
You’d like to hear more about that guy. But after his second wife died, he married a wealthy widow who eventually prevailed on him to go to church. There, King learned the error of his ways. He renounced his old life and became a Methodist minister.
He viewed the world darkly. The new nation had wandered from God, as evidenced by the latest clash with Great Britain. “Our impiety hath provoked this war upon us,” King wrote. Judgment Day is coming soon, he warned, and the people need pious leaders to show them the path to righteousness.
“It is not sufficient that our rulers & private worthies . . . merely tolerate religion: they must themselves become religious — thier Light must shine to the Glory of God!” he wrote.
King had a high opinion of Jefferson, of course, but other people were saying some troubling things about the great man.
“I had often heard you indignantly called, deist, infidel, illuminati &c &c,” King wrote. Surely, Jefferson did not want to be lumped in with “horrid” figures such as Voltaire and other free thinkers who questioned the value of central religion? Their writings had “poisoned the minds & proved fatally ruinous to many.”
There can be no neutrality on religion, King argued — and he quoted the gospel of Matthew to say that whoever is not for it is against it. “Does this quotation,” he asked Jefferson, “not rub you pretty close Sir?”
With the earthly world soon ending, he beseeched Jefferson not to be satisfied with rational thought and simple faith in the divine — what King called “head religion.” “Never rest untill you feel it in the heart! Influencing all Your words and actions & regulating the thoughts of your heart!” Saying he had heard that Jefferson was reading the prophecy of Isaiah, he quoted another Bible verse to ask, “Understandest thou what thou readest therein?”
He closed with the wish that he would one day meet Jefferson in the “Kingdom of Everlasting Glory.”
Jefferson wrote back a little more than a month later. He thanked King for his letter “because I believe it was written with kind intentions, and a personal concern for my future happiness.”
As for whether King’s revelations were directly from God, “your reason alone is the competent judge.” Human reasoning “is the only oracle which god has given us to determine between what really comes from him, & the phantasms of a disordered or deluded imagination,” Jefferson wrote. (On social media he might have added: “Just sayin’.”)
With lawyerly guile, Jefferson said that if God wanted to give him a direct communication, he would “obey it with the same fidelity with which I would obey his known will in all cases.”
Until then, he wrote, humans may use the power of reason gifted to them by God to figure things out for themselves. Sometimes that means making a mistake, he added. But in that case, he said, “I have trust in him who made us what we are, and knows it was not his plan to make us always unerring.”
God is too far above humans to take pleasure or pain from their actions, he explained. Instead, the purpose of human morality is to guide people in their treatment of others: “by acting honestly towards all, benevolently to those who fall within our way, respecting sacredly their rights bodily and mental, and cherishing especially their freedom of conscience, as we value our own.”
Jefferson’s failure to live by those words on the crucial matter of enslavement is something that history — if not his maker — must judge him for. But his vision of personal rights and intellectual liberty remain central to the country’s founding principles. In this letter, Jefferson put those revolutionary concepts on a personal scale. It’s good advice, and just as provocative today as it must have been 200 years ago.
Religious beliefs, he told King, “are a subject of accountability to our god alone. I enquire after no man’s, and trouble none with mine.”
He argued that humans have no way to know which type of religion is “exactly the right.” In heaven, he said, there are no denominations — “not a quaker or a baptist, a presbyterian or an episcopalian, a catholic or a protestant.”
“Let us not be uneasy then,” he wrote, “about the different roads we may pursue, as believing them the shortest, to that our last abode: but, following the guidance of a good conscience, let us be happy in the hope that, by these different paths, we shall all meet in the end.”
He closed with a salute of “brotherly esteem and respect.”
King apparently didn’t write Jefferson again.
Two years later, King sent a similar — and only slightly shorter — entreaty to another of the founders, James Madison.
Madison’s reply was brief. He thanked King for his concern, but said that letters on religious subjects “have been so numerous and of characters so various, that it has been an established rule to decline all correspondence on them.”
Thank God that Jefferson had a different policy.