The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

We can tear down false idols of history. Thomas Jefferson did it to Jesus Christ.

Jefferson ripped out parts of the Bible. He probably would understand the desire to take down statues.

The Thomas Jefferson statue at the Virginia Capitol in Richmond. (Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)
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When the move to topple monuments to the Confederacy expanded toward taking down other figures in American history like Christopher Columbus, Theodore Roosevelt and Andrew Jackson, the Trump administration spoke out.

“We’re being told that George Washington’s statue needs to come and Thomas Jefferson’s statue needs to come down,” White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany warned in June. “Where do you draw the line?”

But Jefferson understood the desire to undo acts of deification gone awry and might have a surprising answer for our present day. Faced with the question of what one should do when tributes bestowed by tradition were unsupported by history, Jefferson metaphorically toppled the most sacred object of his day, the Bible, when he drew lines with a penknife through a book others believed to be the word of God.

The next Lost Cause?

Exactly 200 years ago, Jefferson completed his “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth,” commonly known as the Jefferson Bible. As a critique of a dominant ideology, the book courted controversy that made razing shrines to racists seem tame. Jefferson specifically removed parts of scripture that most Americans, then and now, viewed as an unvarnished history of Jesus Christ.

Jefferson saw things differently. Although he thought some of the New Testament offered “a system of the most sublime morality which has ever fallen from the lips of man,” he considered much of it a product of “stupidity” and “roguery.” As he wrote to John Adams, “It is as easy to separate those parts as to pick out diamonds from dunghills.”

Scripture to Jefferson was a monument of sorts — one he hoped not to destroy, but simply to cut down to size. The result of his efforts was a handcrafted, condensed version of the Gospels. Completed six years before his death, it is a slim assemblage of about 1,000 verses in English, French, Greek and Latin, each excised by Jefferson’s own hand and pasted on bound blank paper. It is a uniquely American testament shorn of its miraculous and supernatural elements, a Bible the sage of Monticello could believe in without qualifications.

Americans put up statues during the Gilded Age. Today we’re tearing them down.

Extricating passages he found useful and credible from those he did not, Jefferson attacked commonly held assumptions about Christian history with no less zeal than protesters have attacked the legacy of the Confederacy. But the man who had taken up his pen against empire and crown knew that taking a razor to holy writ would fuel suspicions that he was an infidel, a heretic or worse. So he did so quietly.

Though by some accounts he read from his redaction nightly, he hoped few would know it existed, and he almost got his wish. The book remained unknown outside of his family and a few friends until the U.S. National Museum purchased it from Jefferson’s great-granddaughter in 1895.

Today’s iconoclasts should take note, however. Ultimately the meaning of Jefferson’s audacity was not left to him. He intended that his book would never be published, but it has now been reproduced in dozens of printed editions, each framing the work in its own way.

The first official publication, a 1904 production of the U.S. Government Printing Office intended for the use of members of Congress, was met simultaneously with praise from Rep. John Fletcher Lacey of Iowa, the man most responsible for its publication, as “a consolidation of the beautiful, pure teachings of the Saviour” and scorn from the Presbyterian Preachers Association as “a direct, public and powerful attack on the Christian religion” — neither of which was precisely Jefferson’s goal.

By the 1920s, there were five versions in circulation: cheap pocket-size books, collectors’ items and one claiming Jefferson’s rendering of the Gospels should be used for “social engineering.” Two decades later, a popular commercial edition edited and introduced by a self-help writer packaged the book as a simplified telling of “the most exquisite story ever written.” Such rosy readings differed significantly from several later editions that viewed the text through the lens of turbulent times such as the civil rights movement and the Cuban missile crisis. As the introduction to the book’s 1964 publication earnestly summed up its alleged portent: “Jesus and Jefferson knew that … fear and hate explode into war.”

More recently, both liberal Unitarians and conservative evangelicals have produced editions claiming the book as their own, while the American Humanist Association published “A Jefferson Bible for the Twenty-First Century, which proposed that Jefferson would also cut verses from Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist sources were he to undertake his project in an age with many more faiths wanting an editor.

There has been a new Jefferson Bible for every generation since its rediscovery. It is a book whose relevance has been continually remade and renewed, much like the man who made it. Illuminating both the third president’s philosophy and changing public opinion on the place of religion in American life, it is a text that inspires more questions than it answers.

Is the homespun 84-page volume evidence that the Founding Fathers actively engaged with scripture, using its lessons to help birth a Christian nation? Does it prove, on the contrary, that the Framers of the Republic sought to root out faith’s stubborn influence, the better to foster a new secular order? Was it merely the strange retirement project of an idiosyncratic statesman, or did it represent a broader shift in the young United States away from ecclesial authority and toward the ideals of the Enlightenment?

Sally Hemings wasn’t Thomas Jefferson’s mistress. She was his property.

Some claim it is all this and more. With the ideas behind its composition first quickening in Jefferson during the early years of independence, the book has a history parallel to that of the nation. Eight decades after its composition, its popularization in the 20th century made the Jefferson Bible part of American self-understanding in a way that can be claimed for few other books. The stories of its creation, publication and the uses to which it has been put each occur within the context of a country and its people engaged in moments of transformation — much like now.

Considering “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth” anew today, we might begin by asking whether Jefferson’s willingness to challenge convention in his beliefs gives the lie to a justification of his many failings as unavoidable for a man of his time. The text begs the question of how to weigh his search for “sublime morality” against the moral monstrosity of enslaving and abusing captive men, women and children.

What will replace the recently fallen totems to our problematic history remains to be seen. But whether their pedestals stay empty or are recast with heroes more in keeping with the needs of our time, we can be certain that one day these choices, too, will be challenged. It will be up to the future to determine what they mean.

To redact received truths that prove inadequate, offensive or simply incorrect may be inevitable, yet doing so should also inspire humility granted by living through a moment of tremendous change. We can be certain our children or grandchildren will carve their own new identities from the world we make, just as Jefferson wielded his blade.

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