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Jefferson took a blade to his Bible: Presidents, faith and the new Bible museum

The Jefferson Bible and a bust of Thomas Jefferson, the nation’s third president. (National Museum of American History and Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images)

Thomas Jefferson had a complicated relationship with the Bible.

By the time he was elected the nation’s third president in 1801, the Founding Father had become a champion of separation of church and state. His Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, a precursor to First Amendment safeguards on religious freedom in the Constitution, passed the state’s general assembly in January 1786. When campaigning for president, Jefferson was berated by his opponents for being “anti-Christian” and “an infidel.” Once in office, Jefferson hosted what is believed to be the White House’s first iftar — the sunset meal to break daily fasts during Ramadan — in 1805.

Jefferson kept his own religious views private. But he always wrestled with the veracity of the New Testament. That’s when his penknife came in handy.

Jefferson believed that in order to glean the most from the New Testament, Jesus’s moral teachings needed to be separated from the miracles in the Gospels that he found suspect. He ordered six volumes — in English, French, Latin and Greek — and took a blade to their thin pages, rearranging Jesus’s teachings in chronological order and cutting out what he saw as embellishments that he didn’t believe. He felt those core teachings provided “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.”

Jefferson pasted his preserved passages on blank sheets of paper and sent the scrapbook off to a book binder. In 1820, when Jefferson was 77 years old, the small, red volume of roughly 80 pages was complete.

Titled “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth,” Jefferson leaned on its lessons in the last years of his life. Harry Rubenstein, a curator at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, described the book, known as the “Jefferson Bible,” as well-worn and riddled with dog-eared pages.

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“You have this question of, ‘what is the new moral pinning for this republic?’ ” Rubenstein said. In his last years at Monticello, Jefferson sought to cut and paste an answer together.

Visitors to Washington’s new Museum of the Bible, opening Nov. 18, will have to walk over to the American History Museum to see the Jefferson Bible. But the new museum includes an exhibit on the founder’s views on religion and the Bible, which has long played in the lives of U.S. presidents. Nearly all have taken their oath of office with their hand on a Bible, and many quote passages from it in their inaugural addresses. Here are a few more notable stories about presidents and the Bible:

John Quincy Adams, president of the American Bible Society, took the oath of office without one.

John Quincy Adams was reared in a liberal strand of the Congregational Church. But like his father, President John Adams, he migrated over to a more conservative tradition and toward Unitarianism. Though his views on religion constantly evolved, he wrote of his “veneration” of the Bible. “So strong is my belief, that when duly read and meditated on, it is of all books in the world, that which contributes most to making men good, wise and happy.”

While serving as secretary of state, Adams accepted the presidency of the American Bible Society. Yet upon his inauguration in 1825, Adams chose not to take the oath of office on a Bible, instead placing his hand on a U.S. law tome. He wanted to recognize the nation’s legal distinction between church and state and show that he placed the law above religion. (Theodore Roosevelt also did not swear on a Bible at his first inauguration in 1901.)

Abraham Lincoln grappled with his faith over slavery.

A promotional video for the Bible Museum shows a silhouette of President Lincoln reading the Bible before the camera pans to a Civil War battle scene. During his years as a struggling Illinois politician, Lincoln had been attacked as a nonbeliever, which Lincoln disputed, saying he couldn’t support a politician, “I knew to be an open enemy of, and scoffer at, religion.”

At his inauguration in March 1861, Lincoln’s family Bible was still en route from Springfield, Ill., along with the rest of his belongings. So he borrowed a copy provided by a Supreme Court clerk. Upon giving the oath of office, Lincoln spoke of the nation’s reliance on God, a theme he would reference again when the United States splintered during the Civil War. In one private writing known as the “Meditation on the Divine Will,” Lincoln did not claim that God favored the Union cause but instead “wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet.”

The new Museum of the Bible confronts the challenge of presenting slavery and the Confederacy

Just days after the Union victory at Antietam, Lincoln gathered his Cabinet to share that he had been debating with God over the issue of slavery and had made a vow that if the Confederates were driven back, “I would crown the result with the declaration of freedom for the slaves.” The Emancipation Proclamation soon followed.

The Lincoln Bible survives as one of the most tangible examples of Lincoln’s faith. Used at his first inaugural in 1861, the Lincoln Bible was not used by a president again until Barack Obama in 2009 and 2013. It was also used by President Trump and is housed at the Library of Congress.

Jimmy Carter, the first born-again president, used the Bible to inform his political agenda.

On his first day in office, Jimmy Carter met with his vice president, Walter Mondale. As Mondale would later tell the story, Carter surprised him by saying that one of his priorities would be to bring peace to the Middle East. The issue had not played a major role in Carter or Mondale’s campaign, says Randall Balmer, a professor of religion at Dartmouth and the author of “God in the White House: How Faith Shaped the Presidency From John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush.” Carter’s reason for doing so, Balmer, said, “was quite clearly to bring peace to a land that was part of the Bible, the Holy Land.”

Balmer described Carter as a president who uniquely “fashioned his life in accordance with biblical principles.” While other presidents invoked Bible verses in speeches or “used the Bible as a prop,” Balmer said, Carter’s born-again, evangelical faith fully informed his presidential agenda. The timing of Carter’s election was no coincidence either, he says. Rather, in the wake of Watergate and Nixon’s resignation, voters urgently looked to their leaders as moral examples and keepers of biblical literacy.

“Before Nixon, those questions were simply not part of the political conversation,” Balmer said. “Then we were faced with Nixon, and all of a sudden voters said, we need to have a moral compass, so let’s begin asking those questions.”

Read more Retropolis:

Jefferson fled Monticello to avoid being captured by the British. And he was mocked for it.

Neo-Nazis rallied around Jefferson’s statue. But it was a Jewish family that saved Monticello.

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The day President Reagan comforted a black family who had a KKK cross burned on its lawn

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