A recent visit to the Colorado History Museum led to a fascinating exploration of a recently opened exhibit featuring the original restored Jefferson Bible. This is not a grand exhibit that we have come to expect in major art museums but a small darkened corridor lined with display cases of the original Jefferson Bible and a few of the religious texts, written in English, French, Greek and Latin, that Jefferson had snipped sections from to “cut and paste” into his own book. Two videos explain the history of the bible and the painstaking process of the restoration by the Smithsonian Institution. Reprinting meant that we could purchase our very own copy, which we did.
Jefferson began assembling this book while he served as president, although he did not finish his quest to clarify and distill Jesus’s teachings, which he believed to provide “the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man” until 1820. By removing all references to “superstition and the supernatural,” Jefferson honed in on Jesus as a great teacher and moral philosopher, leaving behind only the “authentic” story of Jesus and reaffirming his belief in the power of reason as the basis for understanding life and the natural world.
Based partly on his experience living abroad, Jefferson came to have a profound belief in religious freedom and later hailed the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom as among his greatest contributions. Jefferson believed God meant to reserve the matter of religious belief to individuals to resolve: “No man can conform his faith to the dictates of another. The life and essence of religion consists in the internal persuasion or belief of the mind.” While kings and bishops might coerce religious fealty from their subjects, history revealed inward conviction as another matter.
Jefferson suffered from “strident, bitter, and very public attacks” on his supposed views on religion. He was charged with being an infidel, atheist and anti-Christian. He argued that neither unorthodoxy nor outright disbelief posed any threat to a society: “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”
The Smithsonian purchased the volume from Jefferson’s great granddaughter in 1895 and in 1904 the Government Printing Office had each page photographed and published 9000 copies to be distributed to the two chambers of Congress. It can be read as a history book or as a thoughtful compendium of the New Testament composed for his own purposes by Jefferson.