Sworn on the Altar of God: A Religious Biography of Thomas Jefferson

By Edwin S. Gaustad.
Eerdmans. 1996. 246 pp. Pb. $18.00 ISBN 0-8028-0156-0

—reviewed by Herbert Meza Jacksonville, Fla.

No one, with the possible exception of James Madison, had a greater influence on the founding of the United States than Thomas Jefferson. Unlike many of the founding fathers, Jefferson’s name has not faded. The Declaration of Independence stands as an enduring witness to Jefferson’s religious, moral and political views.

Jefferson’s life-long struggle to keep church and state separated still goes on. But his enlightened ideas were fundamental to the nation’s foundation. In this very valuable book, Edwin Gaustad gives us a wonderful and exciting pilgrimage through the mind of Jefferson. His religious faith is carefully examined and Gaustad reveals how Jefferson’s religious concerns were central to many of his preoccupations, like education and politics. At the same time, the author reveals Jefferson’s conflicts with many of the doctrines, attitudes and strategies of the traditional Christian church.

Presbyterians are not portrayed in a favorable light in Jefferson’s struggle against the establishment of religion. He “swore on the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”

It is clear that Jefferson relied on his two sources of inspiration: nature and reason. His unshakable confidence in reason was the central article of his faith. Though Jefferson received much criticism for his book, The Life and Morals of Jesus (a book that he kept very confidential), he had a profound respect for the life and teachings of Christ, whom he considered “quite likely the greatest of all moral teachers.” He wrote to a friend, “I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.”

What is often overlooked today is Jefferson’s emphasis on morality. He believed that democracy could not function without morals, and he felt that religion was a great aid to morality. However, he did not want any religious establishment to interfere with the rights of humankind to exercise their God-given minds. While Madison wanted to make government work, Jefferson wanted to make it safe.
By the way, we get interesting glimpses of John Adams and Madison through their voluminous correspondence with Jefferson.

The last two chapters, and particularly the last chapter, should be read by all ministers. Because our struggle today with the role of government in religious affairs seems to many to be ill advised, Jefferson requires renewed attention on this matter. Anyone who wants to understand how and why separation of church and state is so important should read this book. Modern evangelicals have as much reason to learn from Jefferson as they have to scorn him.

Jefferson would “neither seek nor deserve canonization or fawning worship.” However, as an early biographer of the Virginia statesman wrote, “If Jefferson was wrong, America is wrong.”