Faith of the Founders #5: Jefferson, God and Inaugurals
Making Wisdom Popular
The “Faith of the Founders” blog series is a multi-part, multi-year, bite-size, fact-focused attempt to unpack the profound and ubiquitous role of faith in the American Founding. You can read all the individual articles here.
While Thomas Jefferson is often painted as anti-religious, he was anything but. While his beliefs were hardly orthodox by Christian standards, they were nonetheless deeply influenced by Christian thought. His words—both public and private—often reflected a profound reverence for God, and for truths some might characterize as “religious.”
His inaugural addresses are prime examples.
The First Inaugural Address
While the election of 1796 was the first transition of power in American history from one president to another, the election of 1800, sometimes referred to as “the revolution of 1800,” was the first in American history in which power was peacefully transferred from one party to another—in this case, from the Federalists of President John Adams to the Republicans (not the modern Republican Party) of president-elect Thomas Jefferson.
Thus, the new President was eager to encourage national unity. The first inauguration to be held in the new Capitol building in what would later be known as Washington, D.C., he famously proclaimed “We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists.” But his first inaugural address also emphasized the natural endowments of the young nation—blessings which he ascribed to “an overruling Providence” (Jefferson’s reference to God), and described in terms that paralleled the United States with ancient Israel, referring to it as a “chosen country,” and echoing the language of verses like Exodus 20:6 and Deuteronomy 5:10 about future generations:
[P]ossessing a chosen country, with room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and thousandth generation [Ex. 20:6; Deut. 5:10]; entertaining a due sense of our equal right to the use of our own faculties, to the acquisition of our own industry, to honor and confidence from our fellow-citizens, resulting not from birth, but from our actions and their sense of them; enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence, which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter—with all these blessings, what more is necessary to make us a happy and a prosperous people?
The new President concluded his unifying address with an appeal to God:
And may that Infinite Power which rules the destinies of the universe lead our councils to what is best, and give them a favorable issue for your peace and prosperity.
The Second Inaugural Address
In his second inaugural, held after his resounding victory in the 1804 election, Jefferson also made several references to God and religion. He especially emphasized his stance on religious liberty:
In matters of religion, I have considered that its free exercise is placed by the Constitution independent of the powers of the general government. I have therefore undertaken, on no occasion, to prescribe the religious exercises suited to it; but have left them, as the Constitution found them, under the direction and discipline of state or church authorities acknowledged by the several religious societies.
While Jefferson’s beliefs about religious liberty are not the subject of this, it is interesting to briefly observe that here, as elsewhere, Jefferson never denies that the states continue to have authority in religious matters. After all, the first amendment only prohibited Congress from establishing a religion, but left untouched the ability of state governments to do so. Indeed, well into the 1800’s, many American states still have religious establishments.
Likewise, in his second Inaugural, Jefferson drew a parallel between the American narrative and that of ancient Israel coming out of Egypt during the Exodus, with a passing reference to the Apostle Paul’s articulation of the purpose of government in Romans 13:
I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our forefathers, as Israel of old, from their native land, and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life; who has covered our infancy with his providence, and our riper years with his wisdom and power; and to whose goodness I ask you to join with me in supplications, that he will so enlighten the minds of your servants, guide their councils, and prosper their measures, that whatsoever they do, shall result in your good, [Rom. 13:4] and shall secure to you the peace, friendship, and approbation of all nations.
The version of the Bible Jefferson would likely have been most familiar with was the King James Version, which was initially published in 1611. In it, Romans 13:4 is worded “For he [a ruler] is the minister of God to thee for good.” [emphasis added] Interestingly enough, Jefferson’s biblical allusion was also used by John Robinson, the Puritan pastor of the Pilgrims prior to their departure to North America on the Mayflower in 1620, in his farewell to his congregation as they departed for the New World:
[W]hereas you are become a body politic, using amongst yourselves civil government, and are not furnished with any persons of special eminency above the rest, to be chosen by you into office of government; let your wisdom and godliness appear, not only in choosing such persons as do entirely love and will promote the common good, but also in yielding unto them all due honor and obedience in their lawful administrations, not beholding in them the ordinariness of their persons, but God’s ordinance for your good… [emphasis added]
While it is not known if Jefferson had read these words, the parallel is nonetheless striking.
While Thomas Jefferson’s religious beliefs are the subject of ongoing and fierce debate, it is nonetheless surprising how religious his two most public statements as President of the United States were. They acknowledge God; they invoke His aid; they compare the United States with ancient Israel; they appeal to an overruling Providence; and they assert religious liberty, all at the same time.
William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1647 (New York: The Modern Library, 1981), 57.