Jon Meacham’s “Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power” (Random House, 2012) is a biography well worth reading. While I would have liked to have read more about Jefferson’s astonishing knowledge and practice of meteorology, archaeology, astronomy, paleontology, architecture, surveying, botany, language and the natural sciences in general, Meacham manages to include intriguing tidbits of Jefferson’s scientific and engineering pursuits while he wasn’t actively engaged in his long political career. Other books cover Jefferson’s science in much more detail.
Of special interest here is that Meacham touches on Jefferson’s view of God. Jefferson was certainly not a conventional Christian, for he rejected the divinity of Christ, the virgin birth and the resurrection. Yet he pronounced himself a Christian in terms of practicing what he enthusiastically described as the superior moral teachings of Jesus. He accepted the existence of an afterlife, judgment and a monotheistic God. While he proclaimed himself a Unitarian, he donated to Christian causes and attended Protestant services together with his Book of Common Prayer, “…served as a vestryman, and invoked the divine in his public statements” (p. 471). In 1825, the year before he died, Jefferson advised a young man to “Adore God. Reverence and cherish your parents. Love your neighbors as yourself, and your country more than yourself. Be just. Be true. Murmur not at the ways of Providence” (p. 486).
In my readings about Jefferson after a recent visit to Monticello, I’ve found many of his references to his Creator and Maker. As Meacham writes, “Jefferson believed in the existence of a creator God and in an afterlife” (p. 471). The skeptic might say that Jefferson would never have referred to God as a creator had he lived long enough to learn about Darwin’s teachings. Maybe so, but I will be the last to presume any unknown changes in the expressed views of a man of Jefferson’s surpassing intellect and curiosity, a man who was totally convinced of the existence of a creator God.