“No man can conform his faith to the dictates of another. The life and essence of religion consists in the internal persuasion or belief of the mind.”
- Thomas Jefferson, 1776
A Private Endeavor
Jefferson insisted that religious
beliefs were purely of personal
and private concern. He grew up
in a world where political rulers
routinely established a single
faith as the official orthodoxy.
He promoted religious freedom
in order to secure the rights of
dissenting denominations and to
protect individuals who belonged to
no sect at all.
In accordance with this view of religion, Jefferson kept silent about his own beliefs in most public writings. When he ran for the presidency, he refused to reply to opponents who attacked him as "anti-Christian" and "an infidel." Yet he did discuss Christianity, the Bible, and moral philosophy with a small circle of friends. From the 1790s he conversed and corresponded with Revolutionary Era colleagues, including Dr. Benjamin Rush and John Adams, and with English scientist and theologian Joseph Priestley. These men shared Jefferson's desire to secure tolerance for religious dissent as well as to forge a moral compass for the new American republic. Out of such conversations emerged the project of extracting Jesus's teachings from the New Testament to create this private volume.