Was the Jefferson Bible just the words of Jesus? Part 2

In the mail Saturday, I received my copy of the Smithsonian edition of the Jefferson Bible. It is a marvelous reproduction of the original on display at the Smithsonian. Here is a picture of one of the pages which is photograph of the original manuscript:

You can’t see the words well but Jefferson cut out the portions of the New Testament he wanted to include in Greek, French, Latin and English. Verses are arranged so that the reader can see how they are translated in each language.

I am interested in the Jefferson Bible because it gives some insight into what Jefferson believed about Jesus. Also, I wanted to inspect the manuscript more closely to address the false claims of David Barton about the Jefferson Bible. In his American Heritage DVD series, Barton said this about Jefferson’s efforts:

What happens is, this little document here is called the Jefferson Bible. We call this the Jefferson Bible and the last 30 years, people have consistently said this is the Scriptures that Jefferson cut out everything with which he disagreed. Well if you go to the front of this work, it doesn’t have the title Jefferson Bible. If you’d used that title with him, he’d have probably punched you out for saying it. The title he gave it is the Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. What he did was he went through and cut out all the red letters of Jesus and pasted them from end to end so he could read the red letters of Jesus without stopping. He’s not what he cut out but what he put in. But why did he do that?

He tells us, he did this twice, he did this in 1804 and he did it again in 1819. He said that he did this to be a missionary tool to evangelize the Indians. Because if we can get them to read the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, it’ll changed their lives. So this was not a work that he turned and cut out everything he disagreed with. It’s a work where he took all the words of Jesus and put them there so you could read the words of Jesus non-stop.

I addressed this claim first in January, and want to expand on that post here. About Jefferson’s effort, Barton said:

What he did was he went through and cut out all the red letters of Jesus and pasted them from end to end so he could read the red letters of Jesus without stopping.

and then, he added:

So this was not a work that he turned and cut out everything he disagreed with. It’s a work where he took all the words of Jesus and put them there so you could read the words of Jesus non-stop.

Barton’s claim that Jefferson “cut out all the red letters of Jesus and pasted them end to end so he could read the red letters of Jesus without stopping” is provably false. There are many red letters which Jefferson omitted. Jefferson wrote in the margin of his work the references to the passages he snipped from the manuscripts. Reviewing my edition, I did not find any references to Jesus’ words in John 14-17. Jefferson included lengthy passages from Mt. 5, and Luke 12 but omitted the lengthy sermons in red letters in the chapters 14-17 of John (see John 14-17 in this online red letter edition of the New Testament). Most of the words in this section of John are words of Jesus. Jefferson omitted them.

Jefferson may have done so because in these passages Jesus speaks of Himself as deity. For instance, in John 14:1-4, Jesus says He is going to prepare a place in heaven and calls God His Father:

14:1-4 – “You must not let yourselves be distressed – you must hold on to your faith in God and to your faith in me. There are many rooms in my Father’s House. If there were not, should I have told you that I am going to prepare a place for you? It is true that I am going away to prepare a place for you, but it is just as true that I am coming again to welcome you into my own home, so that you may be where I am. You know where I am going and you know the road I am going to take.”

And then John 17: 1-3 proved unreliable as an actual teaching of Jesus to Jefferson:

17:1-3 – When Jesus had said these words, he raised his eyes to Heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come. Glorify your Son now so that he may bring glory to you, for you have given him authority over all men to give eternal life for all that you have given to him. And this is eternal life, to know you, the only true God, and him whom you have sent – Jesus Christ.

Given that Jefferson left out long passages of the words of Jesus, it is clear that David Barton is misleading his audiences when he says Jefferson’s book of teachings of Jesus is all the red letters laid out in order. And when one examines what Jefferson left out (what he considered a “dunghill” from which he extracted “diamonds”), it seems clear that Jefferson believed these passages were not original with Jesus. He told John Adams that his work represented the collection of the real teachings of Jesus, saying:

In extracting the pure principles which he [Jesus] taught, we should have to strip off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests, who have travestied them into various forms, as instruments of riches and power to themselves. We must dismiss the Platonists and Plotinists, the Stagyrites and Gamalielites, the Eclectics, the Gnostics and Scholastics, their essences and emanations, their logos and demiurgos, aeons and daemons, male and female, with a long train of … or, shall I say at once, of nonsense. We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus, paring off the amphibologisms into which they have been led, by forgetting often, or not understanding, what had fallen from him, by giving their own misconceptions as his dicta, and expressing unintelligibly for others what they had not understood themselves. There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man. I have performed this operation for my own use, by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and arranging the matter which is evidently his, and which is as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill. The result is an octavo of forty-six pages, of pure and unsophisticated doctrines, such as were professed and acted on by the unlettered Apostles, the Apostolic Fathers, and the Christians of the first century.

If you are interested in seeing for yourself how Jefferson edited the New Testament, I recommend the little manuscript. It is a fascinating piece of history, but it is nowhere near what David Barton says it is.

Related:

Is the Jefferson Bible just the words of Jesus?

In his American Heritage series, David Barton  told Matthew and Laurie Crouch that the Jefferson Bible was Thomas Jefferson’s attempt to construct a Bible to evangelize the Indians. He said that Jefferson put together the “red letters” or the words of Christ (often written in red in King James Bibles) for this Bible so he could get across the moral teachings of Jesus. Listen to Barton’s claims in this video:

Regarding Jefferson and his edited Bible, Barton said:

I have to stop on Jefferson for just a minute because when you say the Jefferson Bible, people say, I’ve heard of the Jefferson Bible, that’s where he cut out everything he disagreed with. He was so anti-Christian, so anti-Bible that he cut it all out. Well, temporary time-out; if he’s so opposed to the Bible, why is he one of the founders of a society that promotes the entire Bible? I mean if the Jefferson Bible charge is right, that he cut out the parts with which he disagreed, then why would he fund and contribute and help run a society that gives out all the Scriptures unedited. That’s inconsistent.

What happens is, this little document here is called the Jefferson Bible. We call this the Jefferson Bible and the last 30 years, people have consistently said this is the Scriptures that Jefferson cut out everything with which he disagreed. Well if you go to the front of this work, it doesn’t have the title Jefferson Bible. If you’d used that title with him, he’d have probably punched you out for saying it. The title he gave it is the Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth. What he did was he went through and cut out all the red letters of Jesus and pasted them from end to end so he could read the red letters of Jesus without stopping. He’s not what he cut out but what he put in. But why did he do that?

He tells us, he did this twice, he did this in 1804 and he did it again in 1819. He said that he did this to be a missionary tool to evangelize the Indians. Because if we can get them to read the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth, it’ll changed their lives. So this was not a work that he turned and cut out everything he disagreed with. It’s a work where he took all the words of Jesus and put them there so you could read the words of Jesus non-stop.

In April, 2011, I addressed Barton’s claim that the Jefferson Bible was an evangelism tool (it wasn’t) and yesterday I examined the claim that Jefferson founded the Bible Society of Virginia (he didn’t).

Today, I want to show that Jefferson did not include all the words of Jesus and that he did cut out miraculous elements, presumably because he disagreed with them. Indeed, he told John Adams in 1813:

We must reduce our volume to the simple evangelists, select, even from them, the very words only of Jesus, paring off the amphibologisms into which they have been led, by forgetting often, or not understanding, what had fallen from him, by giving their own misconceptions as his dicta, and expressing unintelligibly for others what they had not understood themselves. There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man. I have performed this operation for my own use, by cutting verse by verse out of the printed book, and arranging the matter which is evidently his, and which is as easily distinguishable as diamonds in a dunghill.

So Jefferson included the words of Jesus but not all of them because some, he asserted, included the disciples’ “misconceptions as his [Jesus’] dicta.” Just for example, let’s look at a selection from Chapter one of Jefferson’s version. Here is an image from Jefferson’s manuscript. As you can see, this portion combines parts of Matthew 12, and Mark 2. As I will demonstrate, Jefferson omitted many words of Christ and the miracles He performed.

Now look at the Mt 12:10-15.

10And, behold, there was a man which had his hand withered. And they asked him, saying, Is it lawful to heal on the sabbath days? that they might accuse him.

11And he said unto them, What man shall there be among you, that shall have one sheep, and if it fall into a pit on the sabbath day, will he not lay hold on it, and lift it out?

12How much then is a man better than a sheep? Wherefore it is lawful to do well on the sabbath days.

13Then saith he to the man, Stretch forth thine hand. And he stretched it forth; and it was restored whole, like as the other.

14Then the Pharisees went out, and held a council against him, how they might destroy him.

15But when Jesus knew it, he withdrew himself from thence: and great multitudes followed him, and he healed them all;

(non-italicized words designate what was removed by Jefferson and the red letters are words of Jesus that Jefferson removed)

In reading through the Jefferson Bible, many words of Jesus are missing (e.g., Jn 14:6 – “I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me“, Mt 28:19 – “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.“). In fact, there are no post resurrection words of Jesus because Jefferson ended his Bible with the end of Mt 27:60 – “…and he rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed.”

If a modern day President chopped up the New Testament in the way Thomas Jefferson did, that President would be excoriated by Christian leaders. Examining Jefferson’s work, it is clear that the Jefferson Bible is not as Barton described.

To read Jefferson’s edited Bible, go here and/or here.

 

Did Thomas Jefferson found the Virginia Bible Society?

David Barton says he did. Watch this clip from the American Heritage series. Barton is speaking to Matthew and Laurie Crouch.

About the Virginia Bible Society, Barton says

You get back here and you find the Virginia Bible Society. Now what makes that one particularly interesting is Thomas Jefferson was one of the founders of the Virginia Bible Society. Oh no, not Jefferson! He’s secular, he wanted…you see Jefferson founded the Bible Society, he gave large contributions to get the Bible out to every American.

Did Jefferson found the Virginia Bible Society?

According to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Jefferson donated money to the society but was not a founder. The founding managers are listed there:

The Bible Society of Virginia was founded in 1813 in Richmond as … “[a] Society for the distribution of the Holy Scriptures to the poor of our country.” Thirteen men were designated to serve as the inaugural managers in 1813: Reverend John Buchanan (president), Reverend John D. Blair (vice-president), Reverend Jacob Grigg (vice-president), Reverend Jacob H. Rice (corresponding secretary), William Munford (recording secretary), Samuel Greenhow (treasurer), Archibald Blair, William Mayo, Robert Quarles, George Watt, Reverend John Bryce, William Fenwick, and Alexander M’Rae.

Jefferson did not seem to be aware that such a society was needed when he wrote to society treasurer, Samuel Greenhow, providing a gift of $50. In this letter, it seems clear that Jefferson was in the dark about the aims of the society and hoped that the group would not send Bibles to other nations.

TO SAMUEL GREENHOW.

Monticello, January 31, 1814. Sir,—Your letter on the subject of the Bible Society arrived here while I was on a journey to Bedford, which occasioned a long absence from home. Since my return, it has lain, with a mass of others accumulated during my absence, till I could answer them. I presume the views of the society are confined to our own country, for with the religion of other countries my own forbids intermeddling. I had not supposed there was a family in this State not possessing a Bible, and wishing without having the means to procure one. When, in earlier life, I was intimate with every class, I think I never was in a house where that was the case. However, circumstances may have changed, and the society, I presume, have evidence of the fact. I therefore enclose you cheerfully, an order on Messrs. Gibson & Jefferson for fifty dollars, for the purposes of the society, sincerely agreeing with you that there never was a more pure and sublime system of morality delivered to man than is to be found in the four evangelists. Accept the assurance of my esteem and respect.

It seems unlikely that Jefferson was a founder given that he did not know the objectives of the group. His donation was apparently a one-time contribution and which would be worth just over $500.00 today, if this calculator is to be trusted. I can find no evidence that Jefferson founded the Virginia Bible Society. If Barton has evidence that is not generally available, he should produce it. If such evidence is offered, then I will retract this post. I seriously doubt that is going to happen.

On point, Jefferson did not seem to think very highly of bible societies when it came to evangelizing outside the United States. John Adams also had a dim view of them. He wrote to Jefferson on November 4, 1816 and complained:

We have now, it seems a National Bible Society, to propagate King James Bible, through all Nations. Would it not be better, to apply these pious Subscriptions, to purify Christendom from the corruptions of Christianity; than to propagate those Corruptions in Europe, Asia, Africa and America! (p. 493-494)*

Both Adams and Jefferson agreed that the New Testament was riddled with corruptions and falsehoods. Jefferson’s attempt to edit the New Testament was driven by his desire to get back to the basic moral teachings of Jesus, sans miracles.

Jefferson wrote back to Adams in response, complaining about the value of the “bible-societies.” Describing those who took the Bibles to Asia, Jefferson wrote to Adams on November 25, 1816:

These Incendiaries, finding that the days of fire and faggot are over in the Atlantic hemispheres, are now preparing to put the torch to the Asiatic regions. What would they say were the Pope to send annually to this country, colonies of Jesuit priests with cargoes of their Missal and translations of their Vulgate, to be put gratis into the hands of every one who would accept them? and to act thus nationally on us as a nation? (p. 496)*

Whereas Adams dismisses the whole enterprise, Jefferson wonders how the Protestants in America would like it if the Vatican made a special effort to bring in the Vulgate and give it away.

In the video above, Barton discusses the Jefferson Bible and makes the claim that the Bible was designed to evangelize the Indians. He also says that Jefferson just included the red letter parts – i.e., the words of Christ. I addressed the Jefferson Bible as an evangelistic tool here (it wasn’t) and in a future post, I will demonstrate that Jefferson left out many red letters and did indeed seek to purge those aspects of the Gospels with which he disagreed.

*The Adams-Jefferson Letters, Edited by Lester Cappon. Published by The University of North Carolina Press, 1959.

 

Did Thomas Jefferson give the Jefferson Bible to missionaries?

I can’t find the original quote, but Craig Fehrman wrote in the LA Times yesterday that Daivd Barton said Jefferson gave his edited Bible to missionaries to evangelize Indians.

Fehrman says that is a fabrication. I wonder if Barton will answer this charge.

In any case, the LA Times article is worth a read.

As I have written here, if Jefferson meant for his Bible to be an evangelism tool, then he was pushing a different Christianity than the orthodox version.

Here is at least one place that Barton made the claim about Jefferson and the missionaries:

Thomas Jefferson, civil government and religion

David Barton will be coming out with a book called The Jefferson Lies next spring. I noted here that he is skilled at spreading them which will make the book entertaining at the least.

As a service in the effort at offsetting lies about Thomas Jefferson, I thought it might be helpful to point Barton to a letter from Thomas Jefferson to Thomas Cooper. The letter, written on February 10, 1814 sets out Jefferson’s argument that British common law was not influenced by Christianity in any direct manner. Thus, any indirect claim that our law was based on Christianity indirectly via influence from Britain is also suspicious. Barton promotes the notion that American law derives from the Bible. He has also argued that Jefferson did not mean for the state to separate Christianity from the operation of the state.

Jefferson, on the other hand, wrote to Thomas Cooper that Christianity came to Britain after common law was established. Jefferson began his letter,

DEAR SIR, — In my letter of January 16, I promised you a sample from my common-place book, of the pious disposition of the English judges, to connive at the frauds of the clergy, a disposition which has even rendered them faithful allies in practice. When I was a student of the law, now half a century ago, after getting through Coke Littleton, whose matter cannot be abridged, I was in the habit of abridging and common-placing what I read meriting it, and of sometimes mixing my own reflections on the subject. I now enclose you the extract from these entries which I promised. They were written at a time of life when I was bold in the pursuit of knowledge, never fearing to follow truth and reason to whatever results they led, and bearding every authority which stood in their way. This must be the apology, if you find the conclusions bolder than historical facts and principles will warrant. Accept with them the assurances of my great esteem and respect.

Then, Jefferson included a portion of his writings on the subject from a past effort. He notes that the belief in the Christian influence on British law has been assumed by various writers, but not proven. He says they have all quoted each other as authorities.

Thus we find this string of authorities, when examined to the beginning, all hanging on the same hook, a perverted expression of Prisot’s, or on one another, or nobody. Thus Finch quotes Prisot; Wingate also; Sheppard quotes Prisot, Finch and Wingate; Hale cites nobody; the court in Woolston’s case cite Hale; Wood cites Woolston’s case; Blackstone that and Hale; and Lord Mansfield, like Hale, ventures it on his own authority.

The crux of the matter for Jefferson is that Christianity was not adopted by the British as common law. He wrote:

For we know that the common law is that system of law which was introduced by the Saxons on their settlement in England, and altered from time to time by proper legislative authority from that time to the date of Magna Charta, which terminates the period of the common law, or lex non scripta, and commences that of the statute law, or Lex Scripta. This settlement took place about the middle of the fifth century. But Christianity was not introduced till the seventh century; the conversion of the first christian king of the Heptarchy having taken place about the year 598, and that of the last about 686. Here, then, was a space of two hundred years, during which the common law was in existence, and Christianity no part of it. If it ever was adopted, therefore, into the common law, it must have been between the introduction of Christianity and the date of the Magna Charta. But of the laws of this period we have a tolerable collection by Lambard and Wilkins, probably not perfect, but neither very defective; and if any one chooses to build a doctrine on any law of that period, supposed to have been lost, it is incumbent on him to prove it to have existed, and what were its contents. These were so far alterations of the common law, and became themselves a part of it. But none of these adopt Christianity as a part of the common law. If, therefore, from the settlement of the Saxons to the introduction of Christianity among them, that system of religion could not be a part of the common law, because they were not yet Christians, and if, having their laws from that period to the close of the common law, we are all able to find among them no such act of adoption, we may safely affirm (though contradicted by all the judges and writers on earth) that Christianity neither is, nor ever was a part of the common law. Another cogent proof of this truth is drawn from the silence of certain writers on the common law. Bracton gives us a very complete and scientific treatise of the whole body of the common law. He wrote this about the close of the reign of Henry III., a very few years after the date of the Magna Charta. We consider this book as the more valuable, as it was written about fore gives us the former in its ultimate state. Bracton, too, was an ecclesiastic, and would certainly not have failed to inform us of the adoption of Christianity as a part of the common law, had any such adoption ever taken place. (my emphasis)

Then Jefferson ends his argument by noting that Exodus was meant for the Jews and the teachings of Jesus were meant to be followed as conscience dictated not by coercion of the state.

In truth, the alliance between Church and State in England has ever made their judges accomplices in the frauds of the clergy; and even bolder than they are. For instead of being contented with these four surreptitious chapters of Exodus, they have taken the whole leap, and declared at once that the whole Bible and Testament in a lump, make a part of the common law; ante 873: the first judicial declaration of which was by this same Sir Matthew Hale. And thus they incorporate into the English code laws made for the Jews alone, and the precepts of the gospel, intended by their benevolent author as obligatory only in foro concientiae; and they arm the whole with the coercions of municipal law. In doing this, too, they have not even used the Connecticut caution of declaring, as is done in their blue laws, that the laws of God shall be the laws of their land, except where their own contradict them; but they swallow the yea and nay together. Finally, in answer to Fortescue Aland’s question why the ten commandments should not now be a part of the common law of England? we may say they are not because they never were made so by legislative authority, the document which has imposed that doubt on him being a manifest forgery.

Note at the end that he denies that the 10 Commandments were ever a part of the common law of England. As for America, one cannot read this letter and think that Jefferson supported the concept, popular among proponents of a Christian America, that the “laws of God shall be the laws of their land.”

David Barton promotes The Jefferson Lies

In an email to supporters, David Barton discloses the title of his upcoming book on Thomas Jefferson — The Jefferson Lies.

 
Barton is well qualified to speak about distortions of Jefferson’s work and beliefs since he has spread so many of them. I wonder if he will recant any of them in this book. He could start here, here, here, here, here, here, and/or here.
I am actually glad to see this. Publishing a book on Jefferson via a major publisher could provide the trigger for a broad conversation about Barton’s historical revisions. Perhaps, historians, including those that teach at other Christian institutions, will rise up en masse in response. I can imagine that we will see scathing book reviews in various religious publications which might wake up some Christians.
For more on David Barton, see this link.

On David Barton's claim that Unitarians were "a very evangelical Christian denomination"

David Barton told Liberty University students in their September 9 chapel that Unitarians were at one time “a very evangelical Christian denomination.” In his effort to define what he called modernism, he said this about the Unitarians the late 18th and early 19th century:

And the example of that is what happens when you look at Universalist Unitarians; certainly not a denomination that conforms to biblical truth in any way but as it turns out, we have a number of Founding Fathers  who were Unitarians. So we say, oh wait, there’s no way the Founding Fathers could have been Christians; they were Unitarians. Well, unless you know what a Unitarian was in 1784 and what happened to Unitarians in 1819 and 1838 and unless you recognize they used to be a very evangelical Christian denomination, we look at what they are today and say the Founding Fathers were Unitarians, and say, there’s no way they were Christians. That’s modernism; that’s not accurate; that’s not true.

Last week, I briefly examined Barton’s claim that Unitarians were a “very evangelical denomination” with the help of college professor and attorney Jon Rowe. In a 2007 post, Rowe noted that Unitarians during the era of the Founding Fathers denied the Trinity and the deity of Christ. While Unitarians used the Bible to come to their conclusions, one cannot call them evangelical in any meaningful or current sense of the word.
I also asked two Grove City College colleagues with expertise in religious history, Gillis Harp (professor of history) and Paul Kemeny (associate professor of religion and humanities), to react to Barton’s claim about the Unitarians. First, Dr. Kemeny contradicted Barton, saying:

To call nineteenth-century Unitarians a “every evangelical Christian denomination” is like calling a circle a square. While many were deeply pious, Unitarians rejected the deity of Christ and consequently the Trinity. Since the common sense meaning of “evangelical Christian” usually entails an affirmation of Christ’s deity and by implication the Trinity, it strikes me as a rather oddly creative use of the term to suggest Unitarians were “evangelical Christians.”  The Unitarians’ early nineteenth-century critics, such as orthodox Congregationalist theologian Leonard Woods, would likely be surprised to learn the Unitarians were actually “evangelical Christians after all.

As Kemeny notes, the orthodox theologians of the time did not think of Unitarians as orthodox. The Congregationalists of the eighteenth century were in dispute with their fellows who were moving in the Unitarian ways. For instance, President John Adams is often listed as a Congregationalist, but, as I documented previously, his views were decidedly Unitarian.
Dr. Harp also discounted Barton’s theory, saying

It is misleading to refer to early 19th century Unitarians as ‘evangelical.’  If Barton means that they were far more orthodox on many basic doctrinal matters than are Unitarians today – then, sure, one can say that.  But belief in the incarnation and substitutionary atonement are both essential to evangelicalism and these were both firmly repudiated by all Unitarians in this period.  Some Unitarians certainly continued to follow evangelical personal habits (daily prayer, Bible study, promoting evangelism) but that doesn’t make them evangelical doctrinally.

Christian scholars Harp and Kemeny agree that the claim is faulty. What about the original sources? If Unitarians of the era were evangelical in doctrine, perhaps this would show up in their writings. However, even a cursory examination of the leading Unitarian thinkers demonstrates that Barton is incorrect.
Barton cites Jared Sparks as a man who said George Washington was a Christian in the evangelical sense. However, Sparks was a leading Unitarian. Sparks’ ordination to the ministry in 1819 was the occasion for William Ellery Channing to preach a sermon outlining Unitarian beliefs in a break with the more orthodox Congregationalists.
Sparks was also the editor of the Unitarian Miscellany and Christian Monitor. In an 1821 edition, he explained the Unitarian position on Christ.

Unitarians believe, that Jesus Christ was a messenger commissioned from heaven to make a revelation, and communicate the will of God to men. They all agree, that he was not God; that he was a distinct being from the Father, and subordinate to him; and that he received from the Father all his power, wisdom, and knowledge. (p. 13)
Although unitarians do not believe Christ to be God, because they think such a doctrine at variance with reason and scripture, yet they believe him to have been authorized and empowered to make a divine revelation to the world. We believe in the divinity of his mission, but not of his person. We consider all he has taught as coming from God; we receive his commands, and rely on his promises, as the commands and promises of God. In his miracles we see the power of God; in his doctrines and precepts we behold the wisdom of God; and in his life and character we see a bright display of every divine virtue. Our hope of salvation rests on the truths lie has disclosed, and the means he has pointed out. We believe him to be entitled to our implicit faith, obedience, and submission, and we feel towards him all the veneration, love, and gratitude, which the dignity of his mission, the sublime purity ot his character, and his sufferings for the salvation of men, justly demand. But we do not pay him religious homage, because we think this would be derogating from the honour and majesty of the Supreme Being, who, our Saviour himself has told us, is the only proper object of our adoration and worship. (p. 15-16)

Regarding sin, Unitarians denied original sin and consequently the need for Christ’s atonement to pay the penalty for sin. Again in 1821, Sparks wrote:

We have only room to state, that we do not believe “the guilt of Adam’s sin was imputed, and his corrupted nature conveyed to all his posterity;” nor that there is in men any “original corruption, whereby they are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil.” (p. 19)

Disputes between trinitarians and the anti-trinitarians (as unitarians were often called) raged in eighteenth century New England. Historian E. Brooks Holifield wrote in his book Theology in America that the divinity of Christ was in doubt among New England clergy as early as 1735, adding

By 1768, Samuel Hopkins could claim that most of the ministers of Boston disbelieved the doctrine of the divinity of Christ. By 1785, James Freeman succeeded in leading the Episcopal congregation at King’s Chapel in Boston to delete Trinitarian views from their liturgy. (p. 199)

In his speech to Liberty University quoted above, Barton refers to 1784 as a point of reference for what Unitarians were. Perhaps he has this transition at King’s Chapel in mind when the church went from Anglican doctrine to Unitarian beliefs. The minister at the time, James Freeman, considered the church Anglican. However, in another sign that orthodox leaders of the day did not consider Unitarian views to be in line with traditional doctrine, the local Bishop refused to ordain Freeman in the Anglican church.
A question for Mr. Barton: Since the Unitarians at the time took pains to distinguish themselves from orthodoxy and the orthodox leaders of the day did not consider unitarian beliefs to be what we would today call evangelical, why would we dispute them now and call them “very evangelical?”
 

Were Unitarians Evangelical?

David Barton told Liberty University students in their September 9 chapel that Unitarians were at one time “a very evangelical Christian denomination.” In his effort to define what he called modernism, he said this about the Unitarians the late 18th and early 19th century:

And the example of that is what happens when you look at Universalist Unitarians; certainly not a denomination that conforms to biblical truth in any way but as it turns out, we have a number of Founding Fathers  who were Unitarians. So we say, oh wait, there’s no way the Founding Fathers could have been Christians; they were Unitarians. Well, unless you know what a Unitarian was in 1784 and what happened to Unitarians in 1819 and 1838 and unless you recognize they used to be a very evangelical Christian denomination, we look at what they are today and say the Founding Fathers were Unitarians, and say, there’s no way they were Christians. That’s modernism; that’s not accurate; that’s not true.

Barton is correct that one cannot judge Unitarians then by the beliefs of Unitarian Universalists now. I don’t know if any serious historian does that, but if so, it would be misleading. However, Mr. Barton did not stop with that claim. He added that Unitarianism during the Founding era was a “very evangelical Christian denomination.”
Researching this claim, I came across a well-written post by Jon Rowe. Rowe describes himself as “a libertarian lawyer and college professor” who writes on issues relating politics and religion. In 2007, Rowe provided a nice outline of the unitarian thought among the Founders. Here are some snippets:

The term “unitarian” has to be qualified because it is associated with a particular Church of which only John Adams (and his son) were members. And even with Adams’ Church, though it preached unitarianism as of 1750, it didn’t officially become “Unitarian” until the 19th Century. Jefferson, Madison, and Washington were all theological unitarians who were formally members of the Anglican/Episcopal Church, which held to a Trinitarian creed. Besides theological unitarianism, these Founders also believed in theological universalism, syncretism, rationalism. So if we want a common term to describe the religious beliefs of the 5 key founders — the first four presidents and Ben Franklin — “proto-unitarian” might do, as well as some others, for instance “theistic rationalism.”

I like either of those terms. Either way you cut it, however, the Founders in question were not evangelicals, nor was Unitarianism “a very evangelical Christian denomination.” Speaking about key Founders, Rowe writes:

The most common sense explanation for why Washington didn’t commune was that he disbelieved in what it represented: Christ’s Atonement. And logic also dictates if one doesn’t believe in the Atonement, one also doesn’t believe in the Trinity and Incarnation. And one need not be a “strict Deist” to disbelieve in the Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement. Indeed, the other key Founders — Jefferson, Adams, Franklin, and Madison — following Joseph Priestly believed in this system of “pro-unitarianism” that denied the Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement, yet still believed in an active personal God, prayer, the legitimacy of some revelation, and often presented itself under the label of “Christianity,” not “Deism.”

Barton, in his speech to the Liberty students identified Jared Sparks as a contemporary who testified to Washington’s Christianity. But guess what? Sparks was a Unitarian. At that time, one could be a Unitarian and considered a Christian, especially by other Unitarians. However, Unitarians were not orthodox and by any definition of evangelicalism, can’t be considered evangelical. Rowe explains further:

So it was not just the “strict Deists” in the Trinitarian Churches who refused to commune, but also the “unitarians” some of who, like Marshall could be quite “biblical,” believing in the “Christian Revelation,” others like Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams, rationalists who elevated reason over revelation. And because this “unitarianism” often presented itself under the auspices of “Christianity,” key contemporaneous testimony that Washington and other Founders were “Christians” is not inconsistent with the notion that they were such “proto-unitarians.” Indeed, John Marshall himself was one such testifier of Washington’s Christianity as was Jared Sparks. And both were “unitarians” who disbelieved in the Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement, but still understood themselves to be “Christians.” In all likelihood, so was George Washington.

I urge you to read the entire post and check out Rowe’s blog.

David Barton: Did Early Presidents Sign Documents "In the Year of Our Lord Christ?"

On September 9, David Barton spoke to students at Liberty University during their chapel service. Last week I addressed several claims Barton made during the first five minutes of his talk. Today, I want to follow up with more detail about Barton’s claim that Thomas Jefferson and other early Presidents signed official presidential documents with the closing “In the year of our Lord Christ.” Barton points to this phrase as evidence that the early Presidents “had Jesus Christ in the center of what they did.”
Earlier this year, I demonstrated that a document on the Wallbuilders website dated 1807 and signed by Thomas Jefferson is a passport, also called a sea letter, needed by ships at the time to indicate that they were no threat to friend or foe as a combat ship. The wording of the sea letter signed by Jefferson was required by a treaty with Holland. Sea letters were in common use, so much so that Congress authorized the printing of a form for this use with the treaty language preprinted. The language specified in the treaty with Holland included the phrase, “In the year of our Lord Christ” and only required the person completing the form to include information about the ship, the cargo, the destination and the correct date.
This was a perfunctory duty of the President at the time, causing John Adams to lament to his wife Abigail in a letter that his fate was to sign “Thousands of sea letters, Mediterranean passes, and commissions and patents to sign; no company — no society.”
Thomas Jefferson was once asked about the proper use of a sea letter by Secretary of Treasury Albert Gallatin. In his January 26, 1805 reply, it is clear that the document is not something he or the Congress developed, saying

The question arising on Mr. Simons’ letter of January 10th is whether sea-letters shall be given to the vessels of citizens neither born nor residing in the United States. Sea-letters are the creatures of treaties. No act of the ordinary legislature requires them. The only treaties now existing with us, and calling for them, are those with Holland, Spain, Prussia, and France. In the two former we have stipulated that when the other party shall be at war, the vessels belonging to our people shall be furnished with sea-letters; in the two latter that the vessels of the neutral party shall be so furnished. France being now at war, the sea-letter is made necessary for our vessels; and consequently it is our duty to furnish them.  (my emphasis)

If you search through the Annals of Congress (1774-1875), you will find 8 citations with the exact phrase, “in the year of our Lord Christ.” All of them are used in a treaty (Holland, Morocco, Japan). The exact form for the sea letter is specified as required by the treaty with Holland. Here is the text from Annals:

The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, Volume 2
Form of the Passport to be given to Ships or Vessels, conformable to the Thirtieth Article of this Treaty.*

[Note *: * MSS. Dep. of State.]
February 6, 1778.
To all who shall see these presents, greeting:
Be it known that leave and permission are hereby given to A. B., master and commander of the ship or vessel called –, of the (city, town, etc.), of –, burden –, tons or thereabouts, lying at present in the port or haven of –, bound for –, and laden with –, to depart and proceed with his said ship (or vessel) on the said voyage; such ship (or vessel) having been visited and the said master and commander having made oath before the proper officer that the said ship (or vessel) belongs to one (or more) of the subjects, people, or inhabitants of –, and to him (or them) only.
In witness whereof we have subscribed our names to these presents and affixed the seal of our arms thereto, and caused the same to be countersigned by –, at –, this –day of –, in the year of our Lord Christ –.

 
I have found additional sea letters with the phrase “in the year of our Lord Christ” pre-printed. These are similar to the images signed by John Adams and James Madison which Barton presented at Liberty. Click this link to see an entire document with all four languages (Dutch, English, French and Spanish). Then see below for two closer views:

 

Adams, Madison and every other President signed these forms on behalf of countless vessels sailing into foreign waters. That Presidents signed their names to form letters with language required by treaty is simply not an indicator of some special recognition of Christ. Although the Americans were not antagonistic to including this diplomatic language in their treaties, they were not breaking new religious or political ground. As I noted in the prior post, other nations, including France and Holland, used this language long before the United States did as a new nation.
I suppose if you don’t take into account that the various treaties specified the exact language to be used, and you aren’t aware that Jefferson said sea letters are “the creatures of treaties,” then one might believe that Jefferson and early Presidents wanted to bring Christ into the important business of shipping passports.
I should add that I don’t claim to be a historian. Rather, I am taking the suggestion Mr. Barton made to Liberty University students. He told them in his speech not to take things for granted. He said go back to the original documents and explore the facts for yourself. Having done that, I disagree with Mr. Barton. In no reasonable use of the language can it be said that the early presidents signed presidential acts with the designation “in the year of our Lord Christ.”
For other posts examining similar claims, see this link.