An Icon of History: Thomas Jefferson’s Bible

Transcript From a Lecture Series Produced in Partnership With Smithsonian

Jefferson’s bible is an amazing artifact. It provides insight into Jefferson’s views and his handiwork — an amazing illustration of how this founding father himself practiced the freedom of religion so avidly sought for all Americans.

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Experiencing America: A Smithsonian Tour through American History
Dive into a rich, visual history of the United States of America, as told using the Smithsonian’s one-of-a-kind collection of iconic and symbolic American artifacts.

 

Jefferson’s Legacy

The nation’s founders were well aware of the importance of establishing freedom of religion as a bedrock principle of the United States. None was probably more focused on the issue than Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was an unusually accomplished man, even among his many remarkable peers.

photo of Jefferson's tombstone
Thomas Jefferson’s grave site at Monticello

But, of his many accomplishments, he wanted to be remembered for three deeds: authoring the Declaration of Independence, founding the University of Virginia, and writing religious freedom into the Statute of Virginia. By his own request, those are the only three accomplishments that appear on his tombstone. Jefferson typically avoided discussing his religious beliefs publicly. As a result, he was sometimes accused of being anti-Christian and antireligious. The truth is far more nuanced than that. Jefferson believed profoundly that the relationship between man and God was a matter of individual belief and that the government had no business being involved in such an intimate activity.

“I am a sect by myself, as far as I know.”

Jefferson, nonetheless, thought of himself as a Christian, though he wrote that “I am a sect by myself, as far as I know.” In broad terms, Jefferson was a Deist; he believed in God as the creator, even the endower of human and natural gifts, but believed that God did not interfere with human actions or the laws of nature.

photo of painting of Thomas Jefferson
This portrait of Thomas Jefferson was painted by Rembrandt Peale in 1800

During his presidency, Jefferson composed a text on the doctrines of Jesus that he distributed only to very close friends. He would also cut out selected passages from the Four Gospels and paste them down on blank sheets of paper. The result was the 46-page volume The Philosophy of Jesus of Nazareth extracted from the account of his life and doctrines as given by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Jefferson would read passages from this volume before sleep to gain inspiration.

Jefferson’s Methodology

When he retired, Jefferson resumed his passion and meticulously cut up passages from New Testament Bibles in four different languages—English, French, Latin, and Greek. And he had rearranged them and pasted them onto blank pages. Having studied these languages since his youth, Jefferson was well equipped to make comparisons. He needed two Bibles of each language so that he could use both the front and back sides of their pages. He would line up the extracted verses in each column, so that when he put two pages side by side, he could read and compare, from left to right, the Greek version in the first column, the Latin in the second column, the French in the third, and the English in the fourth.

By about 1820, Jefferson was finished. The document now extended to 84 double-page spreads. His title page read, “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, Extracted textually from the Gospels in Greek, Latin, French, & English.” He then sent the pages to Frederick Mayo, a bookbinder in Richmond, who stitched the pages together and covered the book in a red leather binding adorned with gold lettering. The short title, Morals of Jesus, was tooled in gold on the spine. Jefferson handwrote “A Table of the Texts from the Evangelists employed in this narrative and of the order of their arrangement” to provide a table of contents of sorts.

Jefferson’s Religious Beliefs

photo showing red and gold binding of Thomas Jefferson's bible
Front cover of Jefferson’s bible with red leather and gold binding

The book is noteworthy for what it reveals about Jefferson’s beliefs. He thought that the Gospels had been tainted by Jesus’s followers; that the main teachings of Jesus’ life had suffered from misunderstandings, historical accretions,  elaborations, supposition, and even superstition. Jefferson purged the material he judged “contrary to reason.” He was convinced that Christ was a great teacher of universal moral truths. It was unnecessary to clothe those truths in the miraculous, especially when, in Jefferson’s view, Jesus never claimed to be divine. Jefferson’s arrangement of the extracts provides a chronological narrative of Christ’s life, from his birth on this very first page to his death on the  last. Jefferson did not include the resurrection.

photo of Monticello

Jefferson kept this book at his Monticello home, read it before bed, and drew lessons and wisdom from it. He had no plans to publish it or distribute it broadly, knowing that many would take exception to his approach. Various clergymen had previously declared that Jefferson would bring down God’s wrath on the New  Republic; revealing this work would only fan such sentiments. After Jefferson died, the book stayed in his family and remained a private document. It came to the Smithsonian in the late 1890s through the efforts of the Smithsonian’s librarian, Cyrus Adler.

Conservation Efforts at the Smithsonian

photo of conservator working on Jefferson's bible
Janice Ellis, conservator at the National Museum of American History working on Jefferson’s bible

Jefferson’s Bible had already suffered some damage. Over the next century, the book became increasingly fragile. Extensive conservation treatment would be needed. The National Museum of American History’s paper conservator, Janice Ellis, and curator, Harry Rubenstein, tested, analyzed, and photographed the book, painstakingly documenting every page. Conservation involved taking the volume apart page by page, cleaning and repairing each leaf, replacing the stubs forming the spine, and re-sewing the book into its original covers using as much original material as possible, while keeping the methods and materials sympathetic to the original. The result was a marvelous success, and the Jefferson Bible went back on display in 2011 in the museum’s Albert H. Small Documents Gallery. A fully digitized version and two new print editions, including a leatherbound facsimile of the original, were also produced.

A fully digitized version and two new print editions, including a leatherbound facsimile of the original, were also produced.

The book begins with the Gospel of Luke, chapter 2; that’s “the decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.” And you can see all the cut edges and the glue marks from each individual passage that was cut out and pasted down on the page. The page numbers in the upper corner are in  Jefferson’s handwriting. And the book even reproduces little smudges of mold and decay.

A page, toward the end of the book, shows a bit of Jefferson’s decision making process. It’s Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane, and it’s been edited together from Mathew, Mark, and John, with annotations in the margin. And lower down in the margin we have two extra verses that Jefferson went back and inserted after his first edit. So, you can really see and get a sense of how this was an ongoing process, something that Jefferson painstakingly mulled over, reread, and revised. When scholars study primary sources, in other words, an original work of art or scholarship, nothing really compares to getting your hands on the authentic manuscript. While that’s not possible with books as fragile as Jefferson’s original Bible, reproductions like this can get us very, very close.

Jefferson’s bible is an amazing artifact. It provides insight into Jefferson’s views and his handiwork, an amazing illustration of how this founding father himself practiced the freedom of religion so avidly sought for all Americans.

From the Lecture Series Experiencing America: A Smithsonian Tour through American History
Taught by Professor Richard Kurin, Ph.D.
Thomas Jefferson-Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, Thomas Jefferson, ca. 1820, United States, Leather (overall material), paper (overall material), 8 3/8 X 5 1/8 X 1 in (21.2725 X 13.0175 X 2.54 cm), National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. Cat. No.158231, Accession: 147182. © Billy Hathorn/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0. Rembrandt Peale [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons; Jefferson Bible restoration, National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center, Smithsonian Institution; By Martin Falbisoner (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons; National Museum of American History’s paper conservator Janice Ellis with Jefferson Bible, National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center, Smithsonian Institution.

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