Annette Gordon-Reed vs. Sam Haselby: Was Jefferson a Christian?Historians in the News
Recently on Twitter, a debate broke out between Annette Gordon-Reed, Sam Haselby, and John Fea on the nature of Thomas Jefferson's religious beliefs. The debate centered on the questions of whether or not Thomas Jefferson could be described as a Christian and wanted the United States to be a Christian nation. Ultimately, the debate could not overcome the 140 character limitations of Twitter. Fortunately, Michael Hattem preserved that debate at Jefferson, Christianity, and Twitter.
Instead of recreating the debate, it made more sense to contact one of the participants, Sam Haselby, whose recent book The Origins of American Religious Nationalism (published by Oxford University Press) examines how a conflict with Protestantism, in the decades following US independence transformed American national identity. Gordon Wood described his book in the New York Review of Books as an "impressive and powerfully argued book - that ....it was American Protestantism and not any sort of classical republicanism that was most important in shaping the development of American nationalism." The Origins of American Religious Nationalism was published in 2015 and will be republished in paperback by OUP in December 2016. It made sense to get his perspective on the concept of American Religious Nationalism, the broad issues that underpinned the recent Twitter debate, and his understanding of early American Christianity.
Sam Haselby is a visiting scholar at the Institute for Religion, Culture and Public Life at Columbia University and the editor of Aeon magazine. He recently published an article for Aeon entitled American Secular explaining why the secular movement failed soon after the founding of the United States.
QUESTION: In your twitter debate with Annette Gordon-Reed, you two disagreed over whether Jefferson could be defined as a Christian. You both seemed to approach this question from different angles. Her research shows that Jefferson sincerely believed that he was a Christian but you clearly don’t think that Jefferson’s religious beliefs make him a Christian unless you redefine the term. Essentially, Professor Gordon-Reed stated that she was “not comfortable with judging other people’s faith.” Is that something historians should do? When is it appropriate to judge the nature and character of someone's religious faith?
SAM HASELBY: Annette Gordon-Reed maintained that Jefferson was a Christian because he once referred to himself as “a primitive Christian.” Any questioning of that self-description, she suggested, was an arrogating impropriety. That’s a strange position for a historian to take. Jefferson also said--twice that I know of--that God was against slavery. Does she think he was an abolitionist?
It’s not a matter of judging other people’s faith. It’s a matter of understanding. For sure, in history many people’s ideas and actions in regard to religion remain at best opaque to scholars. That’s not the case with Thomas Jefferson. There are a number of ways to look at the question of if Thomas Jefferson was a Christian. First, let’s look at it politically. In the few instances in which he supported particular religious groups, the Danbury, Connecticut Baptists, for example, it was out of a combination of secular principle and opportunity to hurt political opponents. He spent a long life trying to reduce the role of Christianity in government, in education, in intellectual and social life.
Second, let’s look at it intellectually. Intellectually, his affinity was with philosophy, anti-Christian Enlightenment philosophy, not theology. He rejected core tenets of Christian theology, and composed a book to take everything supernatural out of religion. As a rule, I don’t think historians should use theological criteria for understanding if someone was a Christian, because then once you start making theological judgments you sort of leave history. That said, if a historian were to use a theological measure, rejecting the divinity of Jesus and all supernatural elements of the religion would not be bad grounds for exclusion.
Finally, let’s look at the matter historically. Historically, Christianity is just what Christians say and do. Nothing more, nothing less. Historically, it’s really up to one’s contemporaries, to what Christians of that time did and said, and they were sure Jefferson was not one of them. Whether by historical, intellectual, or political criteria, Jefferson cannot be called a Christian.
Incidentally, the term Gordon-Reed used to support her case--“primitive Christian”--is kind of interesting. She said he was a Christian because he once referred to himself as a “primitive Christian.” Early modern intellectuals, particularly those from a Protestant tradition, sometimes used that term to refer to the time before the Council of Nicea in the 4th century. In their idealized view, that is when Christianity was corrupted. “Primitive Christian” was a way of laying claim to the purported heart or spirit of the Christian message, while distancing oneself from actual churches, first the Vatican but others too. It was all based on what we now know was a very inaccurate view of early Christianity. Late antique or early Christianity was actually a tumultuous, wild thing but Jefferson and his generation didn’t think that. They thought “primitive Christianity” was pure and harmonious and simple.
In any event, by using the term “primitive Christian” in 1819, Jefferson is taking a weapon that Protestant intellectuals forged to delegitimize Catholicism and turning it against the Protestants. It’s in a way typical Jefferson. Give up nothing. But it is close to the opposite of the simple, definitive statement of devotion or identification that Gordon-Reed claimed. In citing that term, she and Onuf are like prosecuting attorneys unwittingly introducing exculpatory evidence.
John Fea calls Jefferson not a Christian, but a follower of Jesus. There’s an old saying that sometimes the truth is a long road from the facts. It’s a fact that Jefferson was a follower of Jesus. But it’s misleading to call him that precisely because of what happened when Fea did. Gordon-Reed said “Yes, Jesus the Redeemer!” And, if we’re to believe the Christians, there’s two whole words of difference between that and “Yes, Jesus the secular ethicist!”
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