How Did Thomas Jefferson Come Up with the Idea to Cut Up the Gospels? (UPDATED)

Cover of Getting Jefferson Right, used by permission
Cover of Getting Jefferson Right, used by permission

UPDATE: On the 7/22/16 Eric Metaxas Show, David Barton told this same story. Barton included the part about Jefferson getting the idea to cut up the Gospels due to a sermon from Scottish minister William Bennet. The post below debunks that. I also cite Mark Beliles who told me Barton was wrong in his claim. Beliles was cited in Metaxas’ new book as an authority on Jefferson.

UPDATE 2: July, 2019 and Barton is still telling this story, this time to Ben Shapiro. Even though he soften it for the new edition of The Jefferson Lies, he is telling the same false story when he does interviews.

(original post……………………)

Reading through the new edition of The Jefferson Lies, it is clear that David Barton has changed aspects of the first edition to reflect the fact checking work done by Michael Coulter and me in Getting Jefferson Right. In the new edition of The Jefferson Lies, Barton removed the story of Jefferson’s praise for Virginia preacher James O’Kelly and he eliminated the claim that James Madison announced support for chaplains at the University of Virginia.

Today, I bring you another change in Barton’s new edition. The change is subtle and not one he follows when he speaks in public about The Jefferson Lies. Watch Barton respond to a question from Jesse Peterson about Thomas Jefferson’s abridgement of the Gospels.

This video segment is consistent with what Barton wrote in the first edition (2012) of The Jefferson Lies:

Shortly after signing that act, Edward Dowse, one of Jefferson’s longtime friends, sent him a copy of a sermon preached in Scotland by the evangelical minister Reverend William Bennet in which he addressed the importance of promoting Christian knowledge among Indians of North America. 21 The Reverend Bennet advocated teaching Christianity to Indians by using just the simple teachings of Jesus— that is, using only Jesus’ words and avoiding the many doctrines that caused conflict between groups of Christians.

Barton, David (2013-02-15). The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson (Kindle Locations 1608-1612). WallBuilder Press. Kindle Edition.

In this story, Barton tells us that Thomas Jefferson received a sermon enclosed in a letter from Edward Dowse. According to Barton, the sermon addressed the promotion of Christianity among Indians and advised presenting just the simple words of Jesus to the them. Barton implies that Jefferson did that with his edited Gospels.

In the second edition of The Jefferson Lies, Barton alters the story:

Shortly after signing that act, Edward Dowse, one of Jefferson’s long-time friends, sent him a copy of a sermon preached by the Rev. Reverend William Bennet of Scotland in which Bennet addressed the importance of promoting Christian knowledge, including among the native peoples of North America. 22 He affirmed that the emphasis of many groups was to teach morality, or holiness among Indians, and that no source and no religion, ancient or modern, surpassed the teachings of Jesus on this subject – that both history and reason combined to display “the matchless superiority of the morality of the Gospel.” 23 Concerning that sermon, Dowse, who knew Jefferson well, told him: “[ I] t seemed to me to have a claim to your attention. At any rate, the idea struck me that you will find it of use and perhaps may see fit to cause some copies of it to be reprinted, at your own charge, to distribute among our Indian missionaries.” 24

Barton, David (2015-12-22). The Jefferson Lies: Exposing the Myths You’ve Always Believed About Thomas Jefferson (Kindle Locations 2247-2255). WND Books. Kindle Edition.

In both editions, Barton claims the sermon focuses on Indians, but in the second edition, he left out the claim that Bennet “advocated teaching Christianity to Indians by using just the simple teachings of Jesus— that is, using only Jesus’ words and avoiding the many doctrines that caused conflict between groups of Christians.”

What Really Happened and Why Is It Important?
In 1804 and around 1820, Thomas Jefferson took two copies of the New Testament and cut out verses that he believed truly came from Jesus. In several letters to friends, Jefferson described the process of assembling the philosophy of Jesus as being as simple as plucking diamonds from a dunghill. Jefferson had a lot of confidence that he could tell the difference between Jesus’ actual teaching and teaching added later by his followers.

A copy of the 1804 abridgment of the Gospels has not survived. The Bibles he used as source material, a title page and a list of verses to include in the abridgment have survived. There are many historical puzzles surrounding this version but one which is relevant to this post is the title page. Jefferson titled his 1804 version:

The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted From the Account of His Life and Doctrines as Given by Matthew, Mark, Luke & John; Being an Abridgement of the New Testament for the Use of the Indians Unembarrassed with Matters of Fact or Faith Beyond the Level of Their Comprehensions.

The fact that he said the version was “for the use of the Indians” has given rise to many questions. Barton teaches that Jefferson meant to give his abridgement to Indian missionaries or tribes. However, Jefferson never did this, nor did he anywhere else directly describe any such plan. He described his abridgement in several letters to friends, but to none of them did he say he had constructed the volume for the Indians. If not for the title page, there would be little controversy over Jefferson’s intentions. In Getting Jefferson Right, Michael Coulter and I examine the theories but decide we can’t really know for sure since the evidence is inconclusive.

As is clear from the video, Barton claims that a sermon sent to Jefferson by a friend in April 1803 was the trigger for Jefferson’s interest in cutting up the Gospels. Is that true?

In fact, the sermon by Bennet doesn’t mention native Americans. It does extol the moral teachings of Jesus but does not exhort readers to present only the simple moral teachings of Jesus to native Americans. The main point of the sermon is to claim that the morality of Jesus is superior to all other systems of morals, ancient and modern. While the sermon itself doesn’t mention Indians, the sender of the sermon, Edward Dowse, claims that one of the purposes of the sermon was “to promote the extension of civilization and Christian knowledge among the Aborigines of North America.” Here is the first paragraph in full (the full letter is here):

The extraordinary merit of this little treatise, which I now transmit to you, must be my apology, for the liberty I have taken in sending it. As its design (among other objects) is to promote the extension of civilization and Christian knowledge among the Aborigines of North‐America, it seem’d to me to have a claim to your attention: at any rate, the Idea, hath struck me that you will find it of use; and, perhaps, may see fit, to cause some copies of it to be reprinted, at your own charge, to distribute among our Indian Missionaries. –The gratification you find, in whatever is interesting to philanthropy, renders it unnecessary for me to glance at any advantage, which might result from such a measure, in silencing the voice of a calumniating opposition, on the score of your alleged indifference to the cause of religion.

Dowse closed this paragraph by insinuating to Jefferson that he could burnish his religious reputation by getting the sermon reprinted and given to Indian missionaries. It is hard to tell which motive most animated Dowse — helping Indian missionaries or improving Jefferson’s standing among his religious critics. My impression is that Dowse thought Jefferson could do two good deeds at once.

Bennet delivered his sermon to a meeting of the Society in Scotland for Propagating Christian Knowledge in 1799. The SSPCK supported missionaries to Indians as well as local ministers in Scotland. The group paid for a Bible to be printed in Gaelic among other good religious works. Since the sermon itself does not mention Indians or outreach to Indians, it is not at all clear why Dowse said it did. Perhaps the reason he said it was because the SSPCK funded some missionaries to Indians. Readers are invited to read the sermon to check these facts.

In any case, Jefferson declined to comply with Dowse’s request to reprint the sermon. Jefferson’s April 19, 1803 reply demonstrates his commitment to religious liberty of conscience but makes no mention of his desire to edit the Gospels for any purpose.

DEAR SIR, I now return the Sermon you were so kind as to enclose me, having perused it with attention. The reprinting it by me, as you have proposed, would very readily be ascribed to hypocritical affectation, by those who, when they cannot blame our acts, have recourse to the expedient of imputing them to bad motives. This is a resource which can never fail them, because there is no act, however virtuous, for which ingenuity may not find some bad motive. I must also add that though I concur with the author in considering the moral precepts of Jesus as more pure, correct, and sublime than those of the ancient philosophers, yet I do not concur with him in the mode of proving it. He thinks it necessary to libel and decry the doctrines of the philosophers; but a man must be blinded, indeed, by prejudice, who can deny them a great degree of merit. I give them their just due, and yet maintain that the morality of Jesus, as taught by himself, and freed from the corruptions of latter times, is far superior. Their philosophy went chiefly to the government of our passions, so far as respected ourselves, and the procuring our own tranquillity. In our duties to others they were short and deficient. They extended their cares scarcely beyond our kindred and friends individually, and our country in the abstract. Jesus embraced with charity and philanthropy our neighbors, our countrymen, and the whole family of mankind. They confined themselves to actions; he pressed his sentiments into the region of our thoughts, and called for purity at the fountain head. In a pamphlet lately published in Philadelphia by Dr. Priestley, he has treated, with more justice and skill than Mr. Bennet, a small portion of this subject. His is a comparative view of Socrates only with Jesus. I have urged him to take up the subject on a broader scale.

Despite the fact that Dowse overstated the content of Bennet’s sermon, I have always been puzzled by Barton’s insistence that Bennet’s sermon had anything to do with methods of evangelizing or civilizing Indians. However, the idea is not original with him. Barton has been influenced by Virginia minister Mark Beliles. Beliles is also co-founder of the Providence Foundation where Barton serves as a board member. Beliles makes a very similar claim about the Bennet sermon in his writings. However, Beliles does not say that Bennet directly suggested to hearers that the Gospels should be edited to form an abridgment useful for Indian evangelism.

With that in mind, I wrote to Beliles with hope that he would show me where Bennet mentioned an abridgment of the Gospels for the Indians in his sermon on the morality of Jesus. Consistent with my reading of Bennet’s sermon, Beliles told me that “I have never said [or at least intended to imply] that Dowse or Bennett suggested directly using an abridged version of the gospels for missions to Indians.”

I really appreciate that Beliles cleared that up. However, it appears from the video above that David Barton persists with the faulty story. About that video clip, Beliles told me:

Yes, Barton overstated the case about that sermon itself. But the sermon clearly promoted the importance of getting Jesus’ morals found in the gospel into the hands of missionaries of the society, and they of course were going to Indians as well as other groups. Then that connection of compiling Jesus’ philosophy “for the use of the Indians” is what Jefferson writes. It’s consistent with Bennett’s general concept without directly suggested that Jefferson do an abridgement.

Beliles is too kind. Barton does more than overstate. He makes things up. Barton told Peterson that Bennet’s sermon said, ‘if you want to evangelize the Indians, don’t give them the full Bible because they might read the genealogies,’ etc. Barton calls it a “red letter edition” with miracles. As I have pointed out before many red letters are missing from the extraction, and most significantly, the resurrection and virgin birth are not included. Barton also told Peterson in the clip above that Jefferson presented it to the Indians. Now that is a Jefferson lie.

Jefferson Explained Why He Cut Up the Gospels
After reading the Bennet sermon and reviewing every letter where Jefferson describes his edited version of the Gospels, I conclude that Jefferson was influenced by the work of Unitarian Joseph Priestley and not William Bennet. In none of Jefferson’s writing on the subject does he mention the Bennet sermon or Edward Dowse. Jefferson didn’t cut up the Gospels until 1804, a year after Dowse’s letter was delivered. However, Jefferson discussed the actual topic of abridging the Gospels with Priestley in January 1804, just two months before he did it. If anything, Jefferson believed the abridgment was a necessary addition to Priestley’s work comparing the morality of Jesus with the “ancient philosophers.” Jefferson told Priestley in a January 1804 letter:

I rejoice that you have undertaken the task of comparing the moral doctrines of Jesus with those of the ancient Philosophers. You are so much in possession of the whole subject, that you will do it easier & better than any other person living. I think you cannot avoid giving, as preliminary to the comparison, a digest of his moral doctrines, extracted in his own words from the Evangelists, and leaving out everything relative to his personal history and character. It would be short and precious. With a view to do this for my own satisfaction, I had sent to Philadelphia to get two testaments Greek of the same edition, & two English, with a design to cut out the morsels of morality, and paste them on the leaves of a book, in the manner you describe as having been pursued in forming your Harmony. But I shall now get the thing done by better hands.

Jefferson said the extraction was “for my own satisfaction” with no mention of Indians or missions. He also references Priestley’s work harmonizing the Gospels as the model for his own extraction. It appears he hoped Priestley might do the job (“I shall now get the thing done by better hands”), but just two months later, Jefferson had his extraction bound in leather.

To Beliles in an email, I summarized the three different narratives regarding the William Bennet sermon and Thomas Jefferson’s Gospel abridgment:

Mainly what I want to do is to compare and contrast the different narratives. Barton’s is that Jefferson received a sermon from Dowse, that sermon advised not giving Indians the full Bible but rather only the words of Jesus, and then Jefferson did that.  Yours [Beliles’] is that the letter from Dowse and sermon from Bennet placed in Jefferson’s mind the concept that the Indians should be approached with the superior morality of Jesus. My view is that the letter from Dowse and sermon had no discernible relationship to Jefferson’s abridgement.

Beliles told me that this paragraph is a “good summation of the different views.” Despite our differences, I am grateful to Mark Beliles for confirming that Barton’s story isn’t accurate.

In sum, even though Barton took more of Beliles’ position in his new edition, he regularly promotes a set of facts about William Bennet’s sermon that even one of his ideological mates says is not factual. Neither of them are right about the influence of Edward Dowse’s letter or the Bennet sermon. Jefferson nowhere provides any actual link between the sermon and his Gospel abridgment but he did say on more than one occasion that the extraction from the Gospels was done for his own satisfaction and modeled after the work of Joseph Priestley.

The letters from Dowse to Jefferson and Jefferson to Dowse in 1803 (pdf)