Later in his life, Thomas Jefferson became more candid about his religious beliefs in his correspondence. During the presidential years, Jefferson’s view were similar to those expressed in this letter but he was reluctant to give his opponents material to use to criticize him. Thus, it was not uncommon for him to ask his friends not to publicly disclose his views. In this June 26, 1822 letter to Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, Jefferson goes full Unitarian and leaves little doubt about his views. The entire letter is reproduced below:
I have received and read with thankfulness and pleasure your denunciation of the abuses of tobacco and wine. Yet, however sound in its principles, I expect it will be but a sermon to the wind. You will find it as difficult to inculcate these sanative precepts on the sensualities of the present day, as to convince an Athanasian that there is but one God. I wish success to both attempts, and am happy to learn from you that the latter, at least, is making progress, and the more rapidly in proportion as our Platonizing Christians make more stir and noise about it. The doctrines of Jesus are simple, and tend all to the happiness of man.
- That there is one only God, and he all perfect.
- That there is a future state of rewards and punishments.
- That to love God with all thy heart and thy neighbor as thyself, is the sum of religion.
These are the great points on which he endeavored to reform the religion of the Jews. But compare with these the demoralizing dogmas of Calvin.
- That there are three Gods.
- That good works, or the love of our neighbor, are nothing.
- That faith is every thing, and the more incomprehensible the proposition, the more merit in its faith.
- That reason in religion is of unlawful use.
- That God, from the beginning, elected certain individuals to be saved, and certain others to be damned; and that no crimes of the former can damn them; no virtues of the latter save.
Now, which of these is the true and charitable Christian? He who believes and acts on the simple doctrines of Jesus? Or the impious dogmatists, as Athanasius and Calvin? Verily I say these are the false shepherds foretold as to enter not by the door into the sheepfold, but to climb up some other way. They are mere usurpers of the Christian name, teaching a counter-religion made up of the deliria of crazy imaginations, as foreign from Christianity as is that of Mahomet. Their blasphemies have driven thinking men into infidelity, who have too hastily rejected the supposed author himself, with the horrors so falsely imputed to him. Had the doctrines of Jesus been preached always as pure as they came from his lips, the whole civilized world would now have been Christian. I rejoice that in this blessed country of free inquiry and belief, which has surrendered its creed and conscience to neither kings nor priests, the genuine doctrine of one only God is reviving, and I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die an Unitarian.
But much I fear, that when this great truth shall be re-established, its votaries will fall into the fatal error of fabricating formulas of creed and confessions of faith, the engines which so soon destroyed the religion of Jesus, and made of Christendom a mere Aceldama; that they will give up morals for mysteries, and Jesus for Plato. How much wiser are the Quakers, who, agreeing in the fundamental doctrines of the gospel, schismatize about no mysteries, and, keeping within the pale of common sense, suffer no speculative differences of opinion, any more than of feature, to impair the love of their brethren. Be this the wisdom of Unitarians, this the holy mantle which shall cover within its charitable circumference all who believe in one God, and who love their neighbor!
I conclude my sermon with sincere assurances of my friendly esteem and respect.
Jefferson’s optimism about the expansion of Unitarianism was off but his opposition to trinitarian Christianity is obvious.
Waterhouse was a physician who developed the smallpox vaccine. He was born into a Quaker family which I suspect Jefferson knew (note the reference to Quakers at the end of the letter).