Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Meeting Jefferson's Bible

I would like to quote from one of Thomas Jefferson's letters-----------
“It is in our lives and not our words that our religion must be read.”
I was 22 years old and living in Georgia when my friend Bailey Jones first told me about the Jefferson Bible. He was a retired history teacher and he loved Thomas Jefferson. He would go on and on about Jefferson and his bible. Bailey Jones was a highly respected Baptist and a wonderful story teller. But Bailey Jones was also a flaming alcoholic and I took everything he said with with great reservation. We had many long talks about many subjects. Bailey had a wonderful mind.
Bailey had a stroke 6 months later and died. His wife ask me to paint a scene of the River Jordan in the baptistery of the new baptist church in his memory. I submitted a canvas for approval with three other artists and mine was accepted. I spent the next 3 months painting the scene of the River Jordan working in the Bailey’s beloved baptistery.
When our Chosen Faith class mentioned the Jefferson Bible---I was all for it. I hadn’t thought of Bailey Jones and his Jefferson Bible in years. I would finally after 50 some years get to read it.
When I was asked to think about what we would like to report on from our Chosen Faith Class, I chose Jefferson Bible. I was very interested in studying and discussing this book. But when we began reading I found that I was much more interested in the history of the”why and wherefore” of its origination.
As a young man Jefferson had been greatly influenced by the philosophical writings of Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbrook. His religious skepticism was engaging to Jefferson and it prompted him to record passages from Bolingbrook's writings into Jefferson’ s “ Literary Bible”,which was composed during the 1760’s and1770’s.
In 1798-1799 Jefferson wrote of of “several delightful conversations” with Dr. Benjamin Rush, a well respected scientist and outspoken Universalist. Their conversations were often of Christianity and Jefferson told Rush he would write down his views on the subject. Dr. Rush over the years continued to remind Jefferson of his promise.
In 1800 politics was rearing its ugly head. Jefferson was then standing as a candidate for the presidency. There were those who were already reviling him as an infidel too impious to be president.
The following spring a triumphant Jefferson wrote,”Our countrymen have recovered from the alarm which art and industry had thrown them;science and honesty are replaced on their high ground and you,my dear Sir, as their great apostle, are on its pinnacle.” This”great apostle” was Dr. Joseph Priestley, prominent scientist and Unitarian theologian.
Dr. Benjamin Rush and Dr. Joseph Priestly, helped reestablish Christianity for the reasonable and enlightened such as Jefferson. Rush was an ardent champion of theological openness. Priestly had determined that much of Christian doctrine was either defiant of or unnecessary to the Christian message and therefore not only obscured, but distance from the lives of many persons who had neither the time nor the means to investigate it.
Thomas Jefferson thought of Jesus as eloquent,benevolent,innocent, a victim first of the Roman state and then of the Christian Church.
In a statement of his faith,Jefferson wrote to Rush, I quote “I am a Christian,in the only sense he wished anyone to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others;ascribing to himself every human excellence : and believing he never claimed any other”.
Jefferson’s quest-- I would call it began with passion in 1798. He finish the Gospels in 1820 at the age of 77. They had been sitting on his shelf for a decade and a half.
So this was the why and the wherefore. I feel that Jefferson believed he was creating a concise book that would be for Christian and non-Christian and would reach those seeking a good and moral life. He wanted to create and a real human Jesus. A reader’s digest version.
Do I think he did that? Yes, but I believe he looked upon it as something he must finish. But after all this was Jefferson and I am happy he did give us the Jefferson Bible at age 77!
For me studying the Jefferson Bible was something else. I will cherish it because it reminded me of an old storyteller that walked into my young life in a strange and wonderful way and returned again when I was an old woman.