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Psalm 133

Closing vv, Jefferson Bible

Faith of Our Founders

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

The Director of the Massachusetts Historical Society smiled conspiratorially as he led us into a locked back room.  We were the only ones in the building, but it still had the feeling of “I hope we don’t get caught.”  After locking the door behind us, he gently opened a long, narrow drawer, and there, encased in protective covering, was a draft of The Declaration of Independence in Thomas Jefferson’s own hand.  It was an early draft written by what was called “The Committee of Five” – John Adams of Massachusetts, Connecticut’s Roger Sherman, Pennsylvania’s Benjamin Franklin, Robert Livingston of New York, and the lone “southerner,” Virginia’s Jefferson.  The Constitutional Convention had not yet met to finalize the Declaration, so what we were looking at represented a work in progress and to me, even cooler than seeing the document in Jefferson’s handwriting was reading the edits and comments he wrote in the margins after the early draft was complete.  It reminded me of the days before word processors when I wrote my sermons out on legal pads, and then revised them with marginal notes, arrows moving sentences and paragraphs around, deleting and adding with large X’s over some paragraphs and new ones appended at the end meant to be inserted into my typed final draft.  Now, it wasn’t the Declaration of Independence I was writing, but to see Jefferson compose in a similar manner offered a glimpse into his thought process.  On this Independence Day weekend, it remains a vivid and welcome memory.

Secretary of State under George Washington, Vice President under John Adams and third President of the United States, Jefferson was a true polymath.  In addition to a career in law, diplomacy and politics, he was a surveyor, mathematician, horticulturist and mechanic, and maintained a lifelong interest in both philosophy and religion.  While he was no fan of organized religion, he was influenced by Christianity, Epicureanism and, like so many of the other founders, deism, which simply means a belief in a supreme being who, having created, does not intervene in the creation.  While Jefferson revered the Creator and admired the life and teachings of Jesus, he could not accept the supernatural, including the miraculous character of Jesus’ life and ministry.

Which brings us to our New Testament lesson this morning, the closing passage of Jefferson’s late work titled The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth Extracted Textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French and English, which the world has since come to know as The Jefferson Bible.  Uncomfortable with the many miraculous and what he considered “supernatural” stories in the gospels, Jefferson set out to present what he believed was a more approachable, a more human, and a more moral picture of Jesus than the New Testament did.  While he was still John Adams’ Vice-President, Jefferson sat at home, with a razor in his hand, and literally cut out all those passages from the gospels which he thought were counterproductive to faith and reason.  Gone were the miracles, gone were the healings, gone were the annunciations and angelic appearances, gone were the exorcisms, gone were the wilderness temptations, and as we heard this morning, gone was the resurrection!  His gospel, which is actually an amalgam of the four gospels, concludes with the words, “There laid they Jesus, and rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed.”  The end.  In fact, Jefferson was so meticulous that he even eliminated references to miracles that did not occur.  He very carefully snipped out the last verse of Matthew 13, a relatively harmless line which reads, “And Jesus did not do many mighty works there, because of their unbelief.”  Like I said, he even deleted references to miracles that did not occur, because the text still suggested that Jesus was a worker of miracles, and Jefferson had no use for them.

Now to be fair, Jefferson did this because he believed that the miracle stories of the New Testament made Jesus too “otherly,” too unapproachable, and that the miracles themselves were corruptions of the original gospel accounts, invented to attract more followers in church’s earliest days.  It took him years to finish, and then to publish his version of the Bible – it was an ambitious publication, to be sure, but I used it this morning not as a point of inspiration, but rather as an example of the nature of the faith of the founders.  The past few weeks have shown a strange and unseemly conflation of Christianity and the US Constitution, as though our forbears meant to establish a government based on Christianity.  But you don’t have to gaze too deeply into the writings of the founders to understand that what they believed about God was very different from what many of us believe about God; the shape and contours of their faith were far closer to Jefferson’s credo, a Jesus who was perhaps a prophet, a sage and a leader of deep compassion and faith.  But there is nothing divine about him in the view of the deism of our nation’s principal founders

Dr. Frank Lambert, Professor of American History at Purdue University,  takes a close look at the faith of our forbears in his book, The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America.  Lambert makes the distinction between what he calls “The Planting Fathers” – those New England Puritans who indeed intended to establish a Christian state – and the Founding Fathers, whose work established the separation between church and state.  To be sure, the founders were religious men and women, but their idea of God was quite different than ours, and their expression of religion was far more unitarian (with a lower-case “u,” if I may), than it was trinitarian.  For them, God was a god who set the world in motion at the beginning of time, and then essentially backed away and has left us on our own ever since.  Deism is the idea of a God who is not immanent, and who does not intervene or become involved in human affairs.  As Stephen Trainor, a professor at Salve Regina wrote in the New Yorker, “Deism… is not a belief system derived from revelation, sacred scripture… or a personal encounter with God, but rather a philosophical position derived from reason and nature.”  And even though this manner of belief was powerful and influential, especially when we’re speaking about each of our first five presidents – Washington, John Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe - they were nonetheless quite leery of the interaction between religion and government. 

It was Washington himself who warned of what he called “the horrors of spiritual tyranny.”  It was John Adams who wrote, “The Government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion,” and it was Madison’s opinion that “Religion and government will both exist in greater purity the less they are mixed together.”

But it is not necessary for us to share the faith of our founders in order for us to honor their singular achievements in the public square, and by the same token it is not necessary that our founders share our own 21st century understanding of our faith within that same square.  The difference in our views and beliefs ought to humble us enough to realize that it is not necessary for everyone else throughout history and around the world to share our own particular expressions of faith either.  I daresay you and I have enough to do in our own striving to be faithful to worry about others conforming to our perceptions.  The founders did not demand we all become deists, and in the spirit of the eligious freedom they bequeathed us all, we celebrate not only our political independence this weekend, but our spiritual independence as well.  So let the last word this morning be the first, which Peg read for us from the book of the Psalms:  “Behold, how good and peasant it is when brothers and sisters dwell in unity!  For there the Lord has commanded the blessing, life for evermore.”

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