History, Department of

 

Date of this Version

1963

Citation

Fred C. Luebke, "The Origins of Thomas Jefferson's Anti-clericalism," Church History 32 (Sept. 1963): 344-56.

Comments

Copyright (c) 1963 Frederick C. Luebke.

Abstract

Cannibals - mountebanks - charlatans - pious and whining hypocrites - necromancers - pseudo-Christians - mystery mongers. These are among the epithets which Thomas Jefferson applied to the clergy of the Protestant denominations and of the Roman Catholic Church as well. It was they who "perverted" the principles of Jesus "into an engine for enslaving mankind"; it was the Christian "priesthood" who had turned organized religion into a "mere contrivance to filch wealth and power" for themselves; they were the ones who throughout history had persecuted rational men for refusing to swallow "their impious heresies." This attitude of Jefferson, with its sweeping condemnation of all clergymen everywhere, has been largely ignored by historians, even though, as Merrill Peterson has pointed out, Jefferson's religion has been the subject of more articles in the twentieth century than any other topic about him except politics. Most of these have been in response to a growing appreciation of Jefferson's importance in the development of religious and political freedom in America; the majority of them have sought to show that Jefferson was no atheist or infidel, not even a deist, but rather some kind of Christian.1 Hence it is not surprising that studies of his religious ideas usually have glossed over his anti-clericalism and that none of them have given it systematic investigation. It will be the purpose of this paper to show that Jefferson's attitude toward the clergy had its origin in his campaign for the Presidency of the United States in 1800 and that it was a reaction to the slanderous attacks of Federalist clergymen on his personal character and religion.