My Take: How Thomas Jefferson’s secret Bible might have changed history
A Smithsonian conservator displays the cover page from Thomas Jefferson's Bible.
January 11th, 2012
11:38 AM ET

My Take: How Thomas Jefferson’s secret Bible might have changed history

Editor's note: Mitch Horowitz is editor-in-chief of Tarcher/Penguin and editor of Penguin’s new reissue of The Jefferson Bible.

By Mitch Horowitz, Special to CNN

(CNN) - Imagine the following scenario: A U.S. president is discovered to be spending his spare time taking a razor to the New Testament, cutting up and re-pasting those passages of the Gospels that he considered authentic and morally true and discarding all the rest.

Gone are the virgin birth, divine healings, exorcisms and the resurrection of the dead, all of which the chief executive dismissed as “superstitions, fanaticisms and fabrications.”

Such an episode occurred, although the revised version of Scripture remained unseen for nearly seven decades after its abridger’s death. Thomas Jefferson intended it that way.

During most of his two terms in the White House, from 1801 to 1809, and for more than a decade afterward, Jefferson - the third U.S. president and the principal author of the Declaration of Independence - committed himself to a radical reinterpretation of the Gospels.

With a razor and glue brush at this side, Jefferson lined up English, French, Greek and Latin editions of Scripture and proceeded to cut up and reassemble the four Gospels into an exquisitely well-crafted, multilingual chronology of Christ’s life.

Jefferson lined up different editions of Scripture.

In Jefferson’s view, this revision represented a faithful record of Christ’s moral code, minus the miracles that the Enlightenment-era founder dismissed as historical mythmaking.

The book eventually became known as The Jefferson Bible and is now being rediscovered in new editions, including one published this month by Tarcher/Penguin, and as the focus of a Smithsonian exhibit.

Ask most people today if they have heard of Jefferson’s Bible and you will receive blank stares. Indeed, for much of American history, The Jefferson Bible was entirely unknown. Jefferson intended it as a work of private reflection, not a public statement.

As contemporary readers discover the work, it is tempting to wonder how American history might look different had Jefferson’s radical document come to light closer to its completion.

Jefferson was still working on his Bible during his presidency, so its theoretical publication wouldn’t have compromised his electability. But if the book had been made public after its final completion in 1820, when Jefferson had only six more years to live, it likely would have become one of the most controversial and influential religious works of early American history.

A curator handles a "source" Bible from which Jefferson cut out passages.

That was a scenario Jefferson took pains to avoid. After being called an “infidel” during his 1800 presidential race, Jefferson knew the calumny he could bring on himself if word spread of his “little book.” Although he had his work professionally bound, he mentioned it only to a select group of friends. Its discovery after his death came as a surprise to his family.

Jefferson’s wish for confidentiality held sway until 1895 when the Smithsonian in Washington made public his original pages, purchased from a great-granddaughter. In 1904, Congress issued a photolithograph edition and presented it for decades as a gift to new legislators, a gesture that would likely cause uproar in today’s climate of political piety.

Because of the book’s long dormancy following Jefferson’s death, and its limited availability for generations after - arguably the first truly accessible edition didn’t appear until 1940 - The Jefferson Bible has remained a curio of American history.

So how would the earlier publication of The Jefferson Bible have changed American history? It's impossible to know for sure, but the 1820s inaugurated a period of tremendous spiritual experiment in America: It was the age of Mormonism, Unitarian Universalism and Shakerism, among other new faiths.

There’s little doubt that many Americans, who were already fiercely independent in matters of religion, would have seen The Jefferson Bible as the manifesto of a reformist movement - call it “Jeffersonian Christianity” - focused not on repentance and salvation but on earthly ethics. Such a movement could have swept America, and also have spread to Europe, where Jefferson was esteemed.

A broad awareness of Jefferson’s work would have surely engendered a more complex view of the religious identity of Jefferson and other founders. Indeed, one of Jefferson’s most trusted correspondents while he was producing his Bible was his White House predecessor, John Adams, who in turn confided to Jefferson his distrust of all religious orthodoxy. These men were impossible to pin pat religious labels on.

Because Jefferson published relatively little during his lifetime, the appearance of The Jefferson Bible would have created a different, and more confounding, public image of the statesman as someone struggling deeply with his own religious beliefs. The Jefferson that appears behind his reconstruction of Scripture is someone who brushed aside notions of miraculous intervention and canonical faith.

As The Jefferson Bible conveys, however, Jefferson considered Jesus’ moral philosophy the most finely developed in history, surpassing the ethics of both the ancient Greeks and the Hebrews. He insisted that Christ’s authentic doctrine was marked by a stark, ascetic tone that clashed with the supernatural powers attributed to him.

“In extracting the pure principles which he taught,” Jefferson wrote in 1813, “we should have to strip off the artificial vestments in which they have been muffled by priests, who have travestied them into various forms. ... There will be found remaining the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.”

Jefferson’s minimalist approach to the Gospels reveals an attitude that he disclosed only privately, just months before his death: “I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know."

In that sense, Jefferson the politician wouldn’t have stood a chance in the current presidential race, where faith and piety are on constant display. The political process might be more open today to candidates of varying degrees and types of belief if The Jefferson Bible were more central to the nation’s history.

The Jefferson Bible opens a window on Jefferson’s struggle to find a faith with which he could finally come to terms. It was this kind of intimate, inner search - not the outward pronouncement and establishment of religious doctrine - that the man who helped shape modern religious liberty sought to protect in America.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mitch Horowitz.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: History • Opinion • Politics

soundoff (1,432 Responses)
  1. Chapter 11 attorney Bonita Springs

    Wonderful blog! Do you have any suggestions for aspiring writers? I'm hoping to start my own blog soon but I'm a little lost on everything. Would you advise starting with a free platform like WordPress or go for a paid option? There are so many choices out there that I'm completely overwhelmed .. Any suggestions? Bless you!

    December 16, 2013 at 4:56 pm |
  2. RojabNac

    Looking forward to reading more. Great blog.Thanks Again. Want more.
    The Hillford Condo Review

    December 15, 2013 at 3:23 am |
  3. cheap nfl jerseys america 0289

    nfl jerseys shoes Grey Locarno Soldes.Livraison Free! Buy High Quality Cheap nfl jerseys cheap nfl jerseys for sale.
    cheap nfl jerseys america 0289 http://neocogs.com.au/?p=cheap-nfl-jerseys-america-0289.html

    December 13, 2013 at 4:54 am |
  4. the Hillford location

    We absolutely love your blog and find many of your post's to be just what I'm looking for. can you offer guest writers to write content in your case? I wouldn't mind creating a post or elaborating on many of the subjects you write with regards to here. Again, awesome web log!

    December 12, 2013 at 9:25 am |
  5. http://www.cannes-airport-transfers.com/news/prada1.asp?p=92

    Mrs Ness told the courtroom: "At about 9.15pm, Dr Barnes went outdoors the pub to generate a simply call on his cell phone to his son. He was suddenly surrounded via the defendant plus some other guys. An individual person reported: 'We just want to chat to you', and grabbed his arm.
    http://www.cannes-airport-transfers.com/news/prada1.asp?p=92 http://www.cannes-airport-transfers.com/news/prada1.asp?p=92

    November 25, 2013 at 6:16 am |
  6. laser jammers

    A fascinating discussion is definitely worth comment. I do think that you ought to write more on this issue, it may not be a taboo subject but generally people do not speak about these subjects. To the next! Best wishes!!

    October 18, 2013 at 8:15 pm |
  7. cash for gold

    Good information. Lucky me I came across your site by chance (stumbleupon). I have book marked it for later!

    October 17, 2013 at 11:39 pm |
  8. custom stencil

    Hey there! I just would like to offer you a big thumbs up for your great information you have got right here on this post. I’ll be coming back to your site for more soon.

    October 17, 2013 at 11:22 pm |
  9. Weight Loss

    I have learned some important matters through your site post. One other subject I would like to say is that there are lots of games out there designed in particular for preschool age little ones. They involve pattern recognition, colors, pets, and styles. These usually focus on familiarization as an alternative to memorization. This will keep children and kids engaged without feeling like they are learning. Thanks

    September 21, 2013 at 2:29 am |
  10. poultry business is a great opportunity

    I have a blog about business plans and would love to discuss a collaboration. Thanks poultryfarmingbusinessplan.weebly.com

    September 14, 2013 at 8:48 am |
  11. Darell Parkins

    Hey, you used to write magnificent, but the last few posts have been kinda boring¡K I miss your great writings. Past few posts are just a little out of track! come on!

    August 3, 2013 at 5:53 am |
  12. realtor in indianapolis

    I was amazed that Gene sold my residence so quickly. It was on the market for only two weeks until the new owners decided to purchase.

    July 30, 2013 at 9:54 am |
  13. I will sell your home

    I was delighted that Gene sold my home so quickly. It was for sale for only 2 weeks before the new owners decided to purchase.

    July 30, 2013 at 9:33 am |
  14. baby bassinets

    Basic safety need to be your principal issue, prior to you even
    start off pondering about practical features. You will want to bear in mind that
    the bassinet is made to only final your little one a number of months as they will expand extremely speedily.

    bassinets are used for a relatively short period of time; about 3-6 months, depending on the size of the baby and the

    April 1, 2013 at 2:18 pm |
  15. Wallyq Cottonek

    Hi there, You've done a fantastic job. I’ll definitely digg it and personally recommend to my friends. I'm confident they will be benefited from this website.

    July 11, 2012 at 2:40 am |
  16. Chrome

    Those aren't Marty's hits, White Rabbit & Somebody To Love were brought to The Airplane by Grace Slick & were orgiinally done with her husband & brother-in-law in Great Society. Miracles came in 74 I think when Marty came back to Jefferson Starship. The only tune he ever wrote completely on his own. Where do you find that information? Geez

    May 20, 2012 at 12:36 am |
  17. Ramo

    no one else know such detailed about my perlbom. You are amazing! Thanks! your article about BEST YOUR LIFE ; Change Your Life NOW! How to Get Rich with Energy. Best Regards Agata

    May 19, 2012 at 1:41 pm |
    • Rahul

      about the adaptation, diecitrng, acting, production design and music but what stands out is that the sum of these parts is much greater than the separate elements, as fine as they are. Dare I say this is a work of inspiration? The role of Jesus in world history deserves consideration in the light of the extreme religious fanatacism rampant today from the so-called People of the Book. Who was this person who claimed to be Son of God and Son of man? Factually, the apostle John details only a few points in the life of the Man who conquered death. But John says Believe in the resurrection and you have eternal life now. How radical is that? The Gospel of John does not shy away from a blunt account of the role of the Roman and Jewish powers in the murder of Jesus; however, the movie makes it abundantly clear why the Pharisees saw Jesus as a threat. In today's world He's still a threat to those who seek power alone, For me, what jumped out of the film and still echoes in my mind is the several times Jesus asks, Why do you hate me? That question reverberates in today's headlines. In a politically correct world, we no longer have public conversations about the subjective truth of the life of Jesus. Or the meaning of that solitary life. With advances in quantum physics, we consider the fundamental nature of of matter, time and consciousness. The Gospel of John touches on all these things with sublime power and insight. Like in any other movie, this one richly rewards the suspension of disbelief. Surrender to a remarkable film that will haunt you long after final fade out. Finally I understand why those early followers of Jesus said: We are not as those who have no hope. The original DVD release (quickly out of print) has three discs with detailed extras that cover all the major production elements. A later release has a two hour version of the film, very nicely edited, as well as the original three hour theatrical version. Both versions of the film are beautifully transferred in a widescreen format that fills newer 16:9 screens. I review DVDs for a local paper. I watch a lot of movies and The Gospel of John is among the best films I've seen in the last year. It's actually about something profound and acutely relevant. And it is rendered with style and grace. If you've seen Jesus' crucifixion in Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, see the rest of the story in The Gospel of John. Help other customers find the most helpful reviewsa0Was this review helpful to you?a0 | a0

      October 7, 2012 at 5:38 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18
About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.