Enlightenment and Religious Thought


          Jefferson was fortunate enough to have been brought up with a good education and appreciation for knowledge.  In fact, his entire life seems to be a continuous search for knowledge and truth.  In his studies, the modern thinkers of the Enlightenment especially influenced Jefferson.  He embraced this new way of thinking, delving into the order that Isaac Newton put into the universe with his theories, the philosophies of John Locke, and the writings and findings of Joseph Priestley.  Jefferson rejected Plato, finding him to be nonsense and never missing a chance to express those feelings (Gaustad 18-24).

            Jefferson’s religious beliefs did begin with the notion of God.  Contrary to his friends in France who embraced atheism during their age of religious reform, Jefferson embraced the liberty of free thought for religious reform and confirmed his belief in God (Gaustad 25-6).  He declared that his entire philosophy was based on “The eternal pre-existence of God, and His creation of the world.”  Just by looking at the order and complexity of the universe told him this truth (Boorstin 30-2).  Jefferson believed that God did continue to support the universe; unlike some clockwork Deists who thought God designed it and then just let it run on its own (Gaustad 36). 

With this as his basis, Jefferson’s rational mind began to wonder how we as humans are to know God.  Jefferson saw two pure ways to know God, Reason from within ourselves and Nature from outside ourselves.  When God designed us, he gave us the ability to reason, which sets us apart from the animals.  He would not have given this to us, if he did not intend for us to use it, therefore all things must be tested by it.  Reason is a pure gift from God, one that cannot be corrupted by anyone but oneself.  Jefferson used this illustration when discussing the equality of Reason:  “State a moral case to a ploughman and a professor.  The former will decide it as well, and often better than the latter, because he had not been led astray by artificial rules.”  Because God made the universe, He also speaks to use through nature, His primary Creation.  Again, this is direct communication from God to us, and cannot be corrupted by man.  Jefferson was a close observer and lover of Nature, finding “evident proofs of the necessity of a superintending power to maintain the universe in its course and order.”  We may all observe how the world works, and the order placed in it.  Using reason, Jefferson thought we must maintain these principles (Gaustad 32-7).

            Just as Jefferson placed a high value on Reason and Nature, he also distanced himself from the mystic nature of Judeo-Christian belief.  Jefferson saw the ritual and ceremonial nature of Mosaic Law as manmade and artificial.  As for Christianity, he had a hard time accepting such doctrine as the Resurrection and any of Jesus’ miracles.  He did not accept Biblical revelation because it is contrary to Nature and Reason, which the Enlightenment thinkers held so dear.  Instead, Jefferson would rather turn to his conscience and reason, which were directly instilled from God, than to tradition and sacred texts, which could have been corrupted by the hands of man through the ages.  This also helps to explain Jefferson’s wariness of religious establishment and preference of disestablishment, as shown in his own daily life (Samuelson, par. 7-11).

    Therefore, Jefferson was a diehard materialist, for his entire philosophy depended on it.  He did not believe in some immortal, immaterial soul.  Instead, the entirety of human existence was in material form in the tangible world.  Had there been some immaterial world, his rejection of revelation, miracles, and resurrection of Jesus would be proven false.  This problem frustrated Jefferson for many years in his life.  The year before his death, he finally got a satisfactory explanation for his brand of materialism through the philosophical and scientific studies of Monsieur Cabanis and Monsieur Flourens who thought they found the part of the brain that was the “thinking organ.”  Thus, Jefferson had thought he had won the argument with the spiritualists (Boorstin 112-9).


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Last Updated:  February 16, 2001

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