More on the Real Thomas Jefferson
Chris Rodda printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Sat Dec 08, 2007 at 04:03:40 PM EST
I haven't posted anything here for a few weeks due to a broken foot (the price of adopting a completely untrained 100 pound pit-bull who doesn't know his own strength), and being completely overwhelmed with work for the Military Religious Freedom Foundation (MRFF). But, before getting back to Thomas Jefferson, as the title of this post indicates I'm going to do, I'd like to take a minute to ask the readers here at Talk2Action to please support MRFF. We've made tremendous progress this year -- stopping the Pentagon from allowing the shipment of the Tim LaHaye video game to our troops in Iraq; filing the first in what will be a series of federal lawsuits; exposing the infiltration of the military by Campus Crusade for Christ, whose goal it is to use our armed forces to create "government-paid missionaries for Christ" -- but, needless to say, there is still much, much more to be done. So, please make a donation if you can, or let others know about MRFF by slapping a MRFF bumper sticker on your car (my personal favorite is "The Rapture Is Not An Exit Strategy"). To read some of the latest articles about MRFF, find out how to make a donation, or to order a bumper sticker or other MRFF merchandise, check out MRFF's December newsletter.

That said, I am now taking off my MRFF hat and putting on my historian hat to debunk another lie from the D. James Kennedy / Mark Beliles list of Thomas Jefferson claims.

For those who missed the previous installments of this series, it is an item by item debunking of a list of claims from D. James Kennedy's sermon on "The Real Thomas Jefferson," a sermon repeated by Kennedy on a number of occasions between 2002 and 2007. (Watch the Coral Ridge Hour video from March 2006 here.) I refer to this list as the D. James Kennedy / Mark Beliles list because, while popularized by Kennedy, it was was not invented by Kennedy, but borrowed from the introduction to Mark Beliles's version of the Jefferson Bible.

The following is the "Real Thomas Jefferson" list, as it appears in Kennedy's 2003 book What If America Were A Christian Nation Again? (The items that are struck out are the ones I've already addressed in previous installments of this series, or other posts here, and the links next to each will take you to the particular installment or other post that addressed that item.)

...even as a nominal Christian, what Thomas Jefferson did is totally antithetical to everything the ACLU and others have told the American people. For example, summing up, author Mark A. Beliles has assembled an impressive list of some of Jefferson's actions as president:
  • Promoted legislative and military chaplains (see here)
  • Established a national seal using a biblical symbol (see here)
  • Included the word God in our national motto (see here)
  • Established official days of fasting and prayer -- at least on the state level (see here)
  • Punished Sabbath breakers (see here)
  • Punished marriages contrary to biblical law (see here)
  • Punished irreverent soldiers
  • Protected the property of churches
  • Required that oaths be phrased by the words "So help me God" and be sworn on the Bible
  • Granted land to Christian churches to reach the Indians
  • Granted land to Christian schools
  • Allowed government property and facilities to be used for worship
  • Used the Bible and nondenominational religious instruction in the public schools. He was involved in three different school districts, and the plan in each required that the Bible be taught in our public schools (see here)
  • Allowed and encouraged clergymen to hold public office
  • Funded religious books for public libraries (see here)
  • Funded salaries for missionaries
  • Exempted churches from taxation (see here)
  • Established professional schools of theology. He wanted to bring the entire faculty of Calvin's theological seminary over from Geneva, Switzerland, and establish them at the University of Virginia (see here)
  • Wrote treaties requiring other nations to guarantee religious freedom, including religious speeches and prayer in official ceremonies

No, my friends, the real Thomas Jefferson is the ACLU's worst nightmare!

This installment is on the claim that Jefferson "allowed and encouraged clergymen to hold public office," a claim that not only appears in the list, but was also written about in more detail by Mark Beliles in his Jefferson Bible introduction. And, like the list, the rest of what Beliles wrote on the subject was copied by D. James Kennedy in What If America Were A Christian Nation Again?

Since I've already debunked this particular claim in the "More Lies About Thomas Jefferson" chapter of my book, Liars For Jesus: The Religious Right's Alternate Version of American History, what follows is an excerpt from that chapter.


In an effort to back up a claim that only a few clergymen disliked Jefferson, and that the clergy's attacks on him during the election of 1800 were "isolated cases," Beliles makes up a list of clergymen who ran for office as "overt Jeffersonians."

According to Mark Beliles:

Eight clergymen ran for public office as overt Jeffersonians (All lived in central Virginia), and some did so as a result of his overt support and urging (Charles Clay, Charles Wingfield, William Woods, John Waller, Henry Fry, John Goss, Peter Muhlenberg, and John Leland).

There are a number of things wrong with Beliles's claim, one or more of which applies to seven out of the eight clergymen listed. First of all, only four of the eight even ran for public office. Second, out of the four who did run for office, only two could have run as "overt Jeffersonians." The other two ran before Jefferson himself could be called an overt Jeffersonian -- one of them before Jefferson even entered politics. And, third, although all eight "lived in central Virginia" at some time, only six were Virginians.

Of the four who actually did run for office, only one did so at the urging of Jefferson. This was William Woods, also known as "Baptist Billy." What Beliles fails to mention is that Virginia's 1776 constitution prohibited clergymen from running for the state Assembly. In other words, what Jefferson suggested to Woods was that he make himself eligible to run by surrendering his credentials as a minister. Woods did leave the ministry, and was elected to the Virginia Assembly.

Charles Clay unsuccessfully ran for Congress in both 1790 and 1792, but, as already mentioned,(1) had already left the ministry by this time. It is very clear from their correspondence that Jefferson, although friends with Clay, had nothing to do with his decision to run. In fact, Jefferson wasn't even aware that Clay was a candidate in 1790 until he heard about it in New York, as he wrote on January 27 of that year.

...I understand you are a candidate for the representation of your district in Congress. I cannot be with you to give you my vote; nor do I know who are to be the Competitors: but I am sure I shall be contented with such a representative as you will make, because I know you are too honest a patriot not to wish to see our country prosper by any means, tho' they be not exactly those you would have preferred; and that you are too well informed a politician, too good a judge of men, not to know, that the ground of liberty is to be gained by inches, that we must be contented to secure what we can get from time to time, and eternally press forward for what is yet to get. It takes time to persuade men to do even what is for their own good. Wishing you every prosperity in this & in all your other undertakings (for I am sure, from my knowlege of you they will always be just).(2)

When Clay ran again in 1792, he asked Jefferson to write to certain influential men in his district, which he listed by name. Clay had indiscriminately shown Jefferson's letter of January 27 to people in his district during the campaign of 1790, but this had backfired. Patrick Henry, who had supported Clay at first, began to fight against him as soon as he found out that he was friends with Jefferson.(3) Jefferson, who had a policy of not endorsing candidates, denied Clay's 1792 request. The following are excerpts from Jefferson's September 11, 1792 letter to Clay.

Your favor of Aug. 8, came duly to hand, and I should with pleasure have done what you therein desired, as I ever should what would serve or oblige you; but from a very early period of my life I determined never to intermeddle with elections of the people, and have invariably adhered to this determination....

...In writing the letter to you on the former occasion, I went further than I had ever before done, but that was addressed to yourself to whom I had a right to write, and not to persons either unknown to me or very capable of judging for themselves.(4)

The other four Virginians listed by Beliles -- Charles Wingfield, John Waller, Henry Fry, John Goss -- were just ministers that Jefferson happened to know, or know of. Only one of these four, Henry Fry, ever ran for public office.

Henry Fry was a Methodist minister in Charlottesville, and a member of the Virginia House of Burgesses. Jefferson, however, had nothing to do with Fry's political career. Fry, who was five years older than Jefferson, was a member of the House of Burgesses from 1761 to 1765. Jefferson was an eighteen year old college student when Fry was elected, and wasn't elected to the House of Burgesses himself until 1769.

Charles Wingfield, a Presbyterian minister in Charlottesville, never ran for any public office. He was a justice of the peace in Albemarle County for a number of years, but this was an appointed, not an elected, position.

John Waller was a Baptist minister from Virginia who moved to South Carolina in 1793, and died there in 1802. Waller never ran for any public office. His only connection to anything political was his selection by the Baptist General Assembly to petition the Virginia legislature during the fight for religious liberty in the 1780s. If Jefferson knew, or even knew of, Waller, it would most likely have been through James Madison.

John Goss was a Baptist minister who spent at least part of his time in Charlottesville. He was one of two Baptist ministers who took turns holding the monthly Baptist services during the period when the Charlottesville courthouse was shared by four different sects. Goss wasn't born until 1775, so he would obviously have been too young to run for office in Virginia when ministers were still eligible, and there is no evidence that he ran for any public office later.

The other two ministers listed by Beliles -- John Leland and Peter Muhlenberg -- were not Virginians, although both spent time in Virginia.

John Leland was a Baptist minister from Massachusetts who lived in Virginia from 1776 to 1791. Leland's big connection to Jefferson is that he delivered the famous "mammoth cheese," a gift to the president from the people of Cheshire, Massachusetts. Leland never ran for any public office.(5)

Peter Muhlenberg was a Lutheran minister from Pennsylvania who was sent to Virginia in 1771 to serve a German speaking congregation. Prior to this, Muhlenberg had been sent to Germany to study for the ministry, but had left school and joined the Royal Dragoons. When he returned to Philadelphia in 1766, his father, also a Lutheran minister, had a friend pull some strings to get him released from the army. Muhlenberg continued his theological studies with his father and became an ordained minister in 1768.

When the Revolutionary War began, Muhlenberg, who had already led protests against the British, served on the Committee of Safety and Correspondence, represented his county at Williamsburg, and formed a German regiment in Virginia. After the war, Muhlenberg, who had risen from the rank of Colonel to Major General, did not return to the ministry. He moved back to Pennsylvania, and, throughout the 1780s, held various offices in that state. He was elected to the first Congress as a Representative from Pennsylvania, and served a total three terms. He was also elected to the Senate in 1801, but resigned after a only few months. After leaving the Senate, he was appointed supervisor of revenue and then customs collector for the state of Pennsylvania by Thomas Jefferson.

Muhlenberg is also the subject of a very popular myth that appears not only in religious right American history books, but a number of other books about the Revolutionary War. The story is that, on January 21, 1776, Muhlenberg preached his last sermon, at the end of which he dramatically ripped off his clerical robes, revealing an army uniform underneath, and issued a call to arms. Not a single contemporary source supports this story. It was created by Muhlenberg's grandnephew, Henry Augustus Muhlenberg, in his 1849 book The Life of Major-General Peter Muhlenberg of the Revolutionary Army, and is based on nothing more than a figurative statement in Samuel Kercheval's 1833 book A History of the Valley of Virginia, which said that Muhlenberg "laid off his gown and took up the sword." In spite of the fact that the story isn't true, there is a statue of Muhlenberg in the United States Capitol building, donated by the State of Pennsylvania in 1889, that depicts him taking off his clerical robes to reveal his uniform.(6)

D. James Kennedy, in his book What If America Were A Christian Nation Again?, copies Beliles's claim about ministers running for office as Jeffersonians, but miscounts the number of names, making it nine.

According to Kennedy:

Now someone may point out to you that several ministers wrote letters highly critical of Jefferson. Yes, there were five of them. But on the other hand, Jefferson had 110 personal friends who were clergymen. In fact he encouraged nine of them to run for public office....

Kennedy apparently arrives at his claim that "Jefferson had 110 personal friends who were clergymen" from Beliles's claim that Jefferson "admired, supported, commended, and worked in partnership with well over 100 different Christian clergymen." Where he gets the number five for the number of ministers who wrote letters highly critical of Jefferson is a complete mystery.


1. Because this is an excerpt from a chapter of my book, there is an "as already mentioned" reference to Rev. Clay having left the ministry prior to his runs for Congress. This refers to a previous section of the chapter in which I address another lie involving Clay. This lie will be covered when I get to the item on the list about Jefferson protecting the property of churches. All that needs to be known about Clay for now is that he was a lifelong friend of Jefferson, proved himself to be a patriot during the Revolutionary War, and was only a minister for about fifteen years, leaving that profession for politics.
2. Thomas Jefferson to Charles Clay, January 27, 1790, The Thomas Jefferson Papers, Series 1, General Correspondence, 1651-1827, Library of Congress Manuscript Division, #9078.
3. Charles Clay to Thomas Jefferson, August 8, 1792, ibid., #13301.
4. Thomas Jefferson to Charles Clay, September 11, 1792, ibid., #13371.
5. Since the writing of my book, I have come across an obscure account of John Leland challenging James Madison to a debate during the election for their district's representative to the Virginia ratifying convention. This account cannot be verified, and appears to be more local legend than historical fact. My assessment, based on what information I was able to dig up on this, is that there may have some sort of show by the Baptists to ensure that Madison was going to address their concerns at the convention, but that nobody but Madison was ever really seriously considered, by John Leland, the Baptists, or anyone else, to represent the district. Jefferson, of course, would have had nothing to do with this. For one thing, he was out of the country, and, for another, he obviously would never have supported anyone but Madison for a seat at the ratifying convention. So, this story of John Leland's challenge, even if true, would not support Mark Beliles's claim about Jefferson.
6. The complete story of the Peter Muhlenberg myth can be found in my post, PBS Show Gets it Right with the Story of Peter Muhlenberg's Robe.




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by Alice H on Sun Feb 24, 2008 at 06:55:51 AM EST


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