04/13/2015 06:05 pm ET | Updated Apr 13, 2016

5 Facts About Thomas Jefferson's Faith


Thomas Jefferson was a staunch supporter of religious liberty, but his quest to make sure church and state stayed separate in American politics earned him plenty of enemies.

The mudslinging came to a head during the bitter presidential campaign of 1800. Jefferson’s Federalist opponents accused him of being an atheist and a libertine -- a philanderer without morals or sense of responsibility. Jefferson won the election.

Although Jefferson was reluctant to talk about his personal beliefs in public, his private letters reveal that he was a deeply spiritual man who spent a considerable amount of time thinking about God.

In honor of Jefferson's 272nd birthday, here are five facts about this Founding Father’s faith.

1. 'Of A Sect By Myself.'
In a letter dated June 25, 1819, Jefferson summarized his religious beliefs this way: "I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know."

It was an honest reflection on his unique sense of spirituality. Jefferson was raised as an Anglican, but like other Founding Fathers, was influenced by deism. This school of thought believed in the presence of a supreme being, but prioritized reason and rationality over religious dogma and tradition. Jefferson may have supported orthodox Christianity in his public life, but he privately rejected traditional Christian teachings -- including the virgin birth, the concept of original sin, and the resurrection.

But unlike others deists of his time, Jefferson was enamored by the example set by Jesus Christ. While he may not have accepted Jesus’ divinity, he admired his teachings on morality. In a letter written in 1819, Jefferson told a friend that the teachings of Jesus were the "outlines of a system of the most sublime morality which has ever fallen from the lips of man."

In another letter, he wrote, “I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.”

2. Jefferson Wrote His Own Bible.
Jefferson blamed the Gospel writers, the apostle Paul, and other church leaders for corrupting Jesus’ message over the centuries. In an effort to get rid of what he believed to be excess, Jefferson used a knife to cut away portions of the Gospels that talked about Jesus’ miracles -- like the feeding of 5,000 with two fish and five loaves of bread. He then pasted together the remaining verses, which contained Jesus’ ethical teachings and parables. The resulting book The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth, was organized by topic.

In 1820, Jefferson made another attempt to recreate the Bible. He pasted Greek, Latin, French, and English versions of the New Testament together, to present a comprehensive view of the text. His book, officially titled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, eventually came to be called the Jefferson Bible.

3. Jefferson Was An Avid Churchgoer.
Jefferson was involved in local churches throughout his life, offering donations and staking out seats in the pews for him and his private secretary. Henry S. Randall, a Jefferson biographer, wrote that Jefferson “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."

4. Jefferson Partnered With Dissident Preachers.
In his fight for the separation of church and state, Jefferson befriended Baptist minister John Leland. As a Baptist in predominantly Anglican New England, Leland had often witnessed the persecution of his fellow clergymen. Like Jefferson, Leland was vehemently opposed to any state support of religion.

In 1802, Leland presented Jefferson with a pungent gift -- a giant wheel of cheese. The minister placed Jefferson’s favorite quote on its red crust: “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”

Jefferson must have liked the outlandish gift. On Jan. 1, 1802, Jefferson -- then the president -- invited Leland and his wheel of “mammoth cheese” to the White House.

5. Jefferson Held The First White House Iftar.
The iftar is the evening meal eaten by Muslims to break the fast during the holy month of Ramadan. On Dec. 9, 1805, Jefferson invited Sidi Soliman Mellimelli, a Tunisian representative, to the White House. Meal time was usually set at 3:30 p.m., but Jefferson moved it back to “precisely at sunset,” to accommodate the religious beliefs of his guest.

According to the State Department, Jefferson's knowledge about Islam “likely came from his legal studies of natural law.” The State Department continued:

In 1765, Jefferson purchased a two-volume English translation of the Quran for his personal library, a collection that became, in 1815, the basis of the modern Library of Congress.

  • 1 Washington's Teeth Weren't Wooden
    Contrary to popular belief, the country's first president had dentures made of gold, ivory, lead, and animal teeth.
  • 2 Adams Used To Skip School
    As a young boy, John Adams would often skip school, choosing instead to spend his time hunting and fishing.
  • 3 Thomas Jefferson Founded The University Of Virginia
    Jefferson founded the university in 1819 on land that once belonged to eventual President James Monroe. Jefferson is the only president to have ever founded an institution of higher learning.
  • 4 Madison Was Princeton's First Grad Student
    After finishing his undergraduate degree in 2 years, James Madison stayed at the university for an additional year, making him the Ivy League institution's first graduate student.
  • 5 The Capital Of Liberia Was Named After Monroe
    Because of his prominent support for the colonization of Liberia, the country decided to name their capital city, Monrovia, after James Monroe.
  • 6 John Quincy Adams Regularly Skinny-Dipped In The Potomac
    Adams was known for his early morning dips in D.C.'s main waterway, always in the nude.
  • 7 Andrew Jackson Taught His Parrot To Curse
    The parrot had to be removed from President Jackson's funeral because it wouldn't stop swearing.
  • 8 Martin Van Buren Popularized The Phrase "OK"
    Supposedly, President Van Buren popularized one of the most commonly used phrases to date: "OK", or "Okay". Van Buren was from Kinderhook, NY which was also called "Old Kinderhook". His support groups came to be known as "O.K. Clubs" and the term OK came to mean "all right".
  • 9 William Henry Harrison Had A Pet Goat
    During his brief tenure as President, Harrison had a pet billy goat with him at the White House.
  • 10 John Tyler Was An Awesome Violinist
    During his presidency, Tyler often played violin at parties to entertain guests at the White House, and he actually aspired to be a concert violinist.
  • 11 James Polk Promised Not To Seek A Second Term If Elected
    Polk, probably aware that many other politicians desired to run for the office, made an explicit campaign promise that if he was elected president, he would leave after 4 years, a promise that he kept.
  • 12 Taylor Had A Really Cool Nickname
    Zachary Taylor's nickname was "Old Rough And Ready", which he acquired from admiring soldiers while he was fighting in the Seminole War.
  • 13 Millard Fillmore Married His Teacher
    Though she was only about 2 years older than him, Millard Fillmore's first wife Abigail was actually his teacher while he was a 19-year-old student at the New Hope Academy.
  • 14 Franklin Pierce Didn't Swear His Oath Of Office
    He instead affirmed it, placing his hand on a law book rather than the Bible.
  • 15 Buchanan Was A Bachelor
    James Buchanan was the only president to never marry, instead remaining a bachelor his entire life.
  • 16 Lincoln Was A Great Wrestler
    When Abe Lincoln moved to New Salem, Illinois in 1831, he ran into a local bully named Jack Armstrong. Armstrong challenged Lincoln to a wrestling match outside of Denton Offutt's store, where Lincoln was a clerk, and townspeople gathered to watch and wager on it. Lincoln won.
  • 17 Andrew Johnson Was Drunk During His Inauguration
    He reportedly put back a significant amount of whiskey beforehand and was noticeably drunk during his speech.
  • 18 Ulysses S. Grant Got A Speeding Ticket On A Horse
    The 18th President Of The United States was given a $20 speeding ticket for riding his horse too fast down a Washington street.
  • 19 Hayes Banned Alcohol From The White House
    During his presidency, Rutherford B. Hayes banned alcohol from the White House, allegedly for political reasons as he tried to gain support from anti-alcohol Prohibitionists.
  • 20 James A. Garfield Was Ambidextrous
    Not only was he the first president to be both righty and lefty, but it was said he could write a sentence in Latin with one hand and write it in Greek with the other hand.
  • 21 Chester A. Arthur Was A Sharp Dresser, Night Owl
    Not only was Chester A. Arthur a very sharp dresser (he owned over 80 pairs of pants) but he often took late night strolls around D.C. with friends, not returning home until 3 or 4 in the morning.
  • 22 Grover Cleveland Was Legal Guardian To The Girl He Later Married
    When Grover Cleveland's law partner Oscar Folsom died, Cleveland became the girl's legal guardian. Frances Folsom was 11 years old at the time. Oddly enough, ten years later, they got married at the White House. She remains the youngest First Lady in the history of the United States, having been just 21 when they married.
  • 23 Benjamin Harrison Was Afraid Of Electricity
    Benjamin Harrison was the sitting president when electricity was first installed in the White House. However, he was scared of being electrocuted and refused to touch the light switches.
  • 24 Grover Cleveland Had An Artificial Jaw
    Since Cleveland is the only president to ever serve two non-consecutive terms, he warrants two slides. While he was president, doctors discovered that Cleveland had a cancerous lesion in his mouth, and they had to remove most of his upper-left jaw as a result. A prosthodontist then installed an artificial jaw made of vulcanized rubber. Cleveland kept the surgery a secret, fearing public concerns over his health, and the entire operation took place on his friend's yacht.
  • 25 McKinley Was Tech-Savvy
    William McKinley was the first presidential candidate to campaign using the telephone.
  • 26 Theodore Roosevelt Had Really Bad Asthma
    In his early childhood, Teddy Roosevelt suffered from very severe asthma. Because there were no inhalers or special treatments for asthma at the time, he was often sick as a young boy. However, he began to regularly exercise in order to combat the illness and, aside from the occasional asthma attack, he eventually overcame it.
  • 27 Taft Swore In Later Presidents
    After leaving office, William Taft became the only ex-president to serve as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, effectively becoming the only person to serve as the head of two branches of government. In doing so, he swore in both Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover to the presidency. (On an unrelated note, he also lost 150 pounds after leaving office.)
  • 28 Woodrow Wilson Had A Ph.D.
    To date, he's the only president to hold a doctorate degree, making him the highest educated president in the history of the United States. He was awarded the degree in Political Science and History from Johns Hopkins University. He also passed the Georgia Bar Exam despite not finishing law school.
  • 29 Warren Harding Lost The White House China In A Poker Game
    Harding really like to gamble, although it seems he wasn't very good at it. In one poker game, he bet the White House china collection and lost it all in one hand.
  • 30 Calvin Coolidge Had A Really Weird Morning Ritual
    Calvin Coolidge had a morning ritual in which someone rubbed Vaseline on his head while he ate breakfast in bed.