Around 1820 or thereabouts, just a few years before he died, Thomas Jefferson completed a long ongoing project: the creation of a personal Bible, which he called The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, more commonly known today as The Jefferson Bible. Years earlier, Jefferson had discussed the germ of the project with the chemist and radical Unitarian reformer Joseph Priestley. Jefferson explained that because of the demands and pressures of his presidency, it would fall to Priestley to create the Bible the world required: a strictly chronological and fully rationalized document of Christ’s word, stripped—as Jefferson saw it—of every shard of spurious doctrine and supernatural belief. No angels would descend from heaven; no miracles would be performed on Earth; and no prophets would walk the land foretelling of things to come. For Jefferson, Jesus was a good and profound man, simply born, who pursued his moral calling without ever claiming to be the only Son of God; once dead, he did not return, but his teachings remained, inspiring others to seek goodness and truth.
Despite having been tarred as an infidel and atheist when he ran for office in 1800, Jefferson needed the project more than he thought. In the midst of his first term as president, he began cutting and pasting together passages from different editions of the Bible. In 1813, four years after the end of his second term, he still hadn’t put down his scissors. He confessed to John Adams that he was in search of “the very words only of Jesus” in order to restore the wisdom of a man he greatly admired and from whose teachings he had learned much. For the rest of his life, Jefferson continued to revise his master text, excising those parts of the New Testament he considered dubious or filled with superstitious beliefs, and searching for Bibles in various ancient and modern languages whose version of the central message of Christianity he found authentic and reliable. Jefferson never published The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth: the bruising lessons of the 1800 election convinced him to keep his beliefs private, so his great project of faith would not be made public until 1895. The original Jefferson Bible is preserved in the Smithsonian Museum of American History, not far from the Declaration of Independence residing in the National Archives.
Jefferson’s sharp-edged Bible study hardly makes him unique in the annals of skeptical investigations of Christianity or any other religion, for critically engaged belief has always left a deep imprint on the content of religious texts. But was Jefferson’s scissor work a profound act of faith or an assault on the very notion of divinity? This question lies at the heart of Brad Gregory’s passionate and polemical book, The Unintended Reformation. Gregory, a history professor at the University of Notre Dame and a well-known scholar of the European Reformation, seeks to upend longstanding assumptions about the process by which Western secularism, capitalism and individualism have emerged since the Reformation. In his formulation, Jefferson is one of the key architects of what Gregory labels the great “Kingdom of Whatever,” a society indelibly shaped by religious pluralism and scientific naturalism, and ruled more by the demands of the marketplace and individual rights than by communitarian ethics and the search for the common good. The apotheosis of the unintended Reformation is the diverse, indeed hyper-pluralist and anything-goes society of the United States.