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.


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.