Jefferson Letter to Rush, 1800

“I HAVE SWORN UPON THE ALTAR OF GOD . . .”

Jefferson Letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush, 1800

Apparently, as this letter indicates, a great many of the clergy of the various religious sects had mistaken ideas pertaining to the scope of the new government. Many, especially the Episcopalians and Congregationalists, hoped that they would be able to establish a particular form of Christianity throughout the United States. At the time, as Jefferson implies, these hopes may not have been ill-founded. However, in expressing approval of the Bill of Rights, Jefferson states that the “returning good sense of our country” should destroy any hopes of establishing a religion. Furthermore, President Jefferson pledges his sworn opposition to any attempt to establish a religion, as such would constitute “tyranny over the mind of man.”

Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie Religious Institutions Group

Monticello, Sep. 23, 1800

DEAR SIR,–I have to acknolege (stet) the receipt of your favor of Aug. 22, and to congratulate you on the healthiness of your city.

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I promised you a letter on Christianity, which I have not forgotten. On the contrary, it is because I have reflected on it, that I find much more time necessary for it than I can at present dispose of. I have a view of the subject which ought to displease neither the rational Christian nor Deists, and would reconcile many to a character they have too hastily rejected. I do not know that it would reconcile the genus irritabile vatum who are all in arms against me. Their hostility is on too interesting ground to be softened. The delusion into which the X. Y. Z. plot shewed it possible to push the people; the successful experiment made under the prevalence of that delusion on the clause of the constitution, which, while it secured the freedom of the press, covered also the freedom of religion, had given to the clergy a very favorite hope of obtaining an establishment of a particular form of Christianity thro’ the U. S.; and as every sect believes its own form the true one, every one perhaps hoped for his own, but especially the Episcopalians & Congregationalists. The returning good sense of our country threatens abortion to their hopes, & they believe that any portion of power confided to me, will be exerted in opposition to their schemes. And they believe rightly; for I have sworn upon the altar of god, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man. But this is all they have to fear from me:

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Source: Thomas Jefferson: writings 1080-82 (Merrill D. Peterson ed., 1984).