Jefferson Letter to Stiles, 1819

Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Ezra Stiles, President of Yale, of June 25, 1819.

This letter is a rare example of Thomas Jefferson’s introspection. In his words to Ezra Stiles, he discusses his beliefs regarding religion and God, and attempts to categorize himself as best as possible among the religions that were present in that day. His conclusion, after such attempts, begins this correspondence. He states that he is of a sect by himself as far as he knows. This letter, like so many of Jefferson’s writings, expresses his interest in religion. Often, students of Jefferson’s writings merely focus on his emphasis for religious freedom. However, this and other works indicate his great interest in religion as well. Jefferson did not like religious dissensions, and often criticized various churches for their dogmatic attitude. It seems as though Jefferson wanted people to return to the simple teachings of Jesus Christ.

Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie Religious Institutions Group

. . . I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know. I am not a Jew, and therefore do not adopt their theology, which supposes the God of infinite justice to punish the sins of the fathers upon their children, unto the third and fourth generation; and the benevolent and sublime Reformer of that religion has told us only that God is good and perfect, but has not defined Him. I am, therefore, of His theology, believing that we have neither words nor ideas adequate to that definition. And if we could all, after this example, leave the subject as undefinable, we should all be of one sect, doers of good, and eschewers of evil. No doctrines of His lead to schism. It is the speculations of crazy theologists which have made a Babel of a religion the most moral and sublime ever preached to man, and calculated to heal, and not to create differences.

Letter from Thomas Jefferson to Ezra Stiles (June 25, 1819), in 15 Writings of Thomas Jefferson, at 203-4 (Monticello ed.).